Hard work, diversity and deep residual passion: How to build a portfolio board career with Tanya Cox

@ November 2020

“There is nothing more personally satisfying and exciting than working with really committed, energetic and enthusiastic people… They’re the industry disrupters. They’re the people that are actually making a difference.” These are the words of Tanya Cox, a highly experienced Chair and Non-Executive Director of both listed and unlisted high growth boards in the property, technology and sustainability sectors. She was also a finalist in the 2005 NSW Telstra Business Woman of the Year Awards. 

Talking from her 150acre farm in the Southern Highlands of NSW, Tanya shared with WOB how she has been fortunate to develop an extensively diverse portfolio career expanding more than 19 years of dedication to business, leadership and advancing strategy for local and global companies.

In 2014, Tanya left her full time role as Chief Operating Officer for Dexus Property Group — an Australian Real Estate Investment Trust and ASX50 company managing a property portfolio valued at $32 billion — in order to pursue a portfolio board career. Today she serves on five vastly different, yet deeply fulfilling boards that bring her much joy, challenge and an opportunity to be creative in the way she advises and counsels.

“It’s always different. There’s a diversity that I couldn’t have had in my day job… I absolutely love it.”

From the beginning

Tanya’s journey to the boardroom however, began in 2001 when WOB informed her of an opportunity with Disability Sports Australia where she became Director and not long after, was appointed to Chair for the next 10 years. Her entry into the world of boards was influenced by a philanthropic motivation, she explained: “I knew I had a lot of business knowledge, understood the distribution of resources and always had the view that if professional people like myself weren’t prepared to make a contribution, then who do we think is?”

This first board role led Tanya to an associated group, Wheelchair Sports Australia and then onto the board of the Australian Para Olympic Committee, which saw her attend the 2008 Games in Beijing.

“It took me nine years to get my first commercial paying board position with Low Carbon Australia in 2010, which was set up with the Australian Government. It was a 100 million dollar fund to invest in low carbon technology and allowed me to build my ultimate board portfolio,” Tanya said.

Tanya serves on the following five boards today: 

  • Non-Executive Director for Cromwell Property Group, a real estate investor and manager with operations in three continents and a global investor base that is included in the ASX200
  • Chair for Equiem Holdings Ltd, a software and services business that allows managers to engage, connect and communicate with their tenants
  • Advisory Board Member for John Sample Group, a 100-year-old manufacturer and distributer of industrial lubricants and engineered systems operating in Australia, South Africa, Indonesia, Singapore and New Zealand
  • Chair for the World Green Building Council, which is the largest network of national green councils in more than 70 countries and is championing the green building marketplace for a sustainable future
  • Non-Executive Director for Green Building Council of Australia, which aims to accelerate the transformation of Australia’s built environment into one that is healthy, livable, productive, resilient and sustainable
 Tanya’s top secrets
  1. Hard work and dedication 

The secret to Tanya’s success was a combination of hard work and dedication, gaining vast experience in business and on boards, and ensuring her technical expertise remained current and relevant. “I think to be a successful, effective and in-demand Non-Executive Director, you really need to know a lot about running businesses,” Tanya confided. Tanya’s expertise lies in the many areas of property, funds and investment management, corporate governance and corporate actions, credit and operational risk, energy efficiency and sustainability, information technology and operations.

“Through my Executive career, I was a General Manager or Chief Executive Officer for institutions like the Bank of New Zealand, Rothschild and Dexus Property Group, which gave me extensive experience and then I went on to get qualified as a Director and did a Diploma in Applied Corporate Governance with the Government Institute of Australia. It took me two and a half years part-time — it’s quite a serious law course — and after completing that, I knew absolutely everything I needed to know about the technical aspects of being a Non-Executive.” She also has a Master of Business Management from the Australia Graduate School of Management and stressed the importance of taking a board position seriously. “A lawyer can’t do her job if she hasn’t studied law. The same goes with an accountant; they have to study accountancy. If you want to join a board, then get properly qualified.”

With a smile on her face, Tanya shared: “I’m a half glass full kind of person… When I look back, I don’t feel like there were a lot of challenges to overcome… Landing my first board role, like it is for most people, was hard though. It’s a new system and a new process and you don’t actually understand it until you have done it for some years.”

Her quintessential advice for all women seeking to pursue a board career is to get started now. “Your board career needs a number of years to build and every year you deliberate is a year that you are wasting,” Tanya emphasised. “Choose an organisation that is doing work that you’re passionate about. It’s really important to believe in the cause.” 

  1. Building a package

Having many years experience on different boards meant Tanya was able to build an impressive resume that heralded not only rich business knowledge and proficiency but also technical expertise and of course, board involvement. “It meant I had a package to offer.”

“It took me a while to understand that your specific executive functional expertise is only relevant in terms of how it applies to a company as a whole. No two boards are the same, just like no two businesses are the same, and depending on their specific needs, that’s where your expertise lies.”

In not-for-profit boards and earlier stage boards, Tanya explained that they need their board members to help them function in the strategic space. “The CEO and Executive don’t have time for that. They are much more operationally focused so when you join this type of board, you need to keep the conversation ahead. You need to offer that lens.” 

  1. Finding a mentor

Tanya never had a mentor as such, but she wished she had been more open to it in her formative years. “My attitude was work hard and opportunities will present themselves, and they did. It wasn’t until I got to Dexus and met the amazing Elizabeth Alexander and several other directors that I benefited from informal relationships. They would reach out to me for advice and I would use them as a sounding board and seek their counsel. But to be honest, I should have looked harder for a mentor. I’m sure there were others happy to help me, but I wasn’t open to it. I didn’t recognise its value.”

“Don’t make the same mistake I did. Be open, be aware and seek a mentor,” Tanya added.

And then of course there is WOB. “WOB launched my board career. I hold them completely responsible for where I am,” she attested.

Working in the early hours of the morning and then late into the evenings to meet online with her colleagues in the USA and Europe, Tanya is literally working around the clock. “Boards and committees are meeting twice and sometimes three times as often as connectively and advice has stepped up in this time of COVID. Change for all businesses, particularly the smaller ones, has been massive and it will continue to be unforeseeable.”

“The challenge however, is a driver of mine. These companies have outrageous ambition and the job of the board is to help them achieve it. It’s very creative trying to find ways to do things that haven’t been done before…  I love it! I wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

Find out more about Tanya Cox on LinkedIn