Board games: Why problem solving comes naturally to Tegan Smith

The right role for you exists, and is waiting for you: put yourself out there and go find it. Once you're there, throw yourself into it. That’s the advice from strategic communications specialist Tegan Smith. With a background in science research and a PhD in Earth Science, Tegan is a ‘do-er’, bringing a logical and evidence-based approach to problem solving and decision-making in everything she does - whether designing board games or collaborating with board members. She is on the board of Australian Science Innovations (ASI), a not-for-profit organisation that runs the Australian Science Olympiads and Science development programs for high school students,inspiring bright minds to undertake STEM careers. 

When and why did you decide to pursue board roles?

In 2019, when I was on the Geoscience Australia Advisory board, I applied for the Audrey Fagan Board Directorship Program, to increase my board skillset. The program is a partnership between the ACT Government and AICD,  providing training to help women develop board directorship skills. I was successful in gaining a place on the program and this was the experience that really piqued my interest in developing a more expansive board career. 

What attracted you to the ASI board? 

This role feels like a perfect board role for me. They were looking for communications skills and familiarity with government. Not only am I able to provide these, but I also have a genuine passion for science communication and STEM outreach.

What other boards have you been on?

While ASI feels like my first ‘proper’ board role, I've also been a representative member on a couple of boards: Geoscience Australia's Advisory Board and The Australian National University's University Council. I've been on committees of professional associations, including the Canberra Archaeological Society and the Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia, where I was secretary of the Canberra chapter. I also sat on a number of university committees in my Uni days, when I was President of ANU's Postgraduate and Research Student's Association.  

What areas of expertise do you bring to the boardroom?

I have a background in science research, including a PhD in Earth Science. This provides technical expertise as well as a general understanding of scientific principles and critical thinking, but more importantly for board roles, it means I tend to approach problem solving through logic and evidence-based decision making. 

I now specialise in strategic communications, with a focus on ensuring strategies are aligned with and deliver on organisational objectives. This has obvious benefits for board roles, including understanding what makes an effective strategy, plus ensuring outcomes are routinely evaluated against objectives.

My communications work has also involved a lot of stakeholder engagement. This means I bring strong relationship management skills to my board roles. Having worked many years in academia and over a decade in government, I also bring knowledge of these important stakeholder landscapes.

What challenges and hurdles have you had to overcome in your board journey?

COVID restrictions and lockdowns hit shortly after I first decided to pursue board roles and joined WOB. This has made networking a lot harder! Most of the WOB connections I've made have been purely virtual. My interview for the ASI board role was conducted online and most of the board meetings I've attended have been virtual. We've thankfully now had a couple of board meetings in-person, where we've been able to dine and chatter and get to know one another a little better!

What do you most like about being a board member?

I enjoy governance and getting the opportunity to flex my strategic thinking muscles at that organisational level. I also enjoy the social aspect of meeting and working with other people outside my normal day-to-day work. The ASI board role is also particularly rewarding, as I'm delighted to apply my skillset to help provide pathways for young people to pursue STEM careers.

Have you had mentors and/or sponsors and if so, how have they helped you? 

Yes, in particular a woman from my workplace who'd been on a number of board roles herself. She gave me great advice for my ASI board interview - which was to be sure to convey my genuine passion and interest in the cause of the organisation, and to be clear about having time to dedicate to the board, demonstrating that I've already considered how I'll fit it in around my day-to-day life, and thus have the time to give them. 

How has WOB helped you on your board journey?

WOB training (formal courses as well as the more informal WOB-chats), really helped me identify my unique selling proposition, refine my pitch and put together a compelling board CV. Also, the ASI board role was advertised through the WOB Board Positions. I never would have known about it (nor had the skills to put together a successful application) without WOB.

What skills have helped in your board career?

Skills like strategic thinking, critical thinking and relationship management have all been critical to the contributions I've made on the boards and committees I've been on. Other behaviours are important too though. Some examples include being generous with time, engaging in active listening and perhaps most importantly, being willing to speak-up and question the consensus opinion at the table when I feel it's the right thing to do.

What advice would you like to give to others on their board journey?

  • Take advantage of the network and resources WOB has to offer.
  • Learn the difference between an executive CV and a board CV.
  • Understand your selling points and get feedback on your elevator pitch.
  • The right role for you exists, waiting for you: put yourself out there and go find it. Once you're there, throw yourself into it.

Can you tell us something other people might not know about you

I am a hobby board game designer. I tend to lend science-based themes to my designs, with one about building an economy on Jupiter's moons, one where players are 19th century beetle naturalists, and another where players cooperate as a local government managing bushfire season in a small town.

You can find Tegan on LinkedIn HERE