by Suzy Cairney, Partner Holding Redlich
As a construction and infrastructure partner at law firm Holding Redlich and a member of three boards - Infrastructure Association of Queensland, Professional Engineers Queensland and Redkite, Suzy Cairney has learned a thing or two about boards. Here she discusses the five key qualities that she deems important for successful board members to have.
I'm lucky enough to serve on three boards, in addition to my day job as a partner in a law firm. I 've been deputy chair of an industry association for the last five years, served on a statutory board for the last two years and recently joined the Queensland committee of a children’s cancer charity, which I love because I finally get to give back.
Based on my experience working with boards, I've determined what I think are the important qualities for board members to have. Boards who have more members with these qualities are generally more productive and successful.
Leadership is an ability that is talked and written about so much, but the one we often struggle to grasp in practice. Every team needs a good leader, but what that constitutes a good leader varies depending on the team (the board), the industry and other factors.
There are many qualities that a good leader might need, including having confidence in his or her own ideas, being a good communicator, listening to others, setting examples, not giving up, emotional intelligence, vision, the ability to motivate and inspire people, enthusiasm, integrity and decisiveness (especially having the courage to make hard choices). The list goes on because this is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer.
Great leaders adapt to their surrounding environments and empower the team to succeed together. The point is not that boards need good leaders (although they clearly do), but that each board member needs to understand leadership in order to perform at their best.
Board members who understand leadership are better able to support the board and the Chair when determining and implementing strategy. This is because they understand the role each person plays on the board; they understand the value of integrity, emotional intelligence and decisiveness; and can use these qualities when implementing and communicating the board’s strategy for the business. Leadership is not about individual success, it's about success as part of a team.
I'm lucky enough to serve on boards where we have great leaders and excellent teams. It makes going to board meetings so much more of a learning experience.
Keeping a sense of curiosity and enthusiasm are vital so you keep learning and continually add value
In my experience, good boards are those where questions are encouraged, especially by an active and engaged chair, including the hard questions. Hard questions may result in answers the board does't want to hear, but they provide opportunities to address issues before they become problems and approach things in an innovative way.
At one board meeting I attended, someone asked about what insurance the organisation had for a particular event. No one knew, and someone was commissioned to go and find out. That led to a wholesale review of the organisation’s insurances, which turned out to be almost entirely inappropriate, as they had not been reviewed for several years.
Leaving aside the potential liability issues, if a board is blind to problems, curiosity in a board member shows that the board member is invested in the business, takes the role seriously and has the courage and confidence to ask questions. That sets the example that the rest of the business needs to see.
3. Lean in
Sheryl Sandberg applied this concept to us women, but I think it applies to all board members. What I mean here is that just getting a seat at the table is not enough.
Each board member has to lean in, to get to know other members of the board, each member of the executive team and as many members of staff as possible. Business is about relationships, and some of the most important relationships are within your own business.
There has been a great deal written about women holding themselves back due to a lack of confidence or a fear of success.
While we're often our own worst enemies, these issues can hold both male and female board members back, albeit in different ways.
A lack of confidence or feeling threatened can result in a reluctance to lean in, join in and get fully engaged in a board.
So banish fear of failure; of your fellow board members; of that scarily intelligent CEO you know; and just be you. Maybe American author Marianne Williamson is right: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…”
If you are praised as a board / board member, lean in to it and simply say “thank you.” Any other response risks devaluing you, your contribution and your organisation.
4.Understand the business
In order to operate at your peak as a board member and part of a board, understanding the business you are operating in is crucial.
As board members it's critical that we understand a range of things about the organisation, including:
- it's structure
- the governance arrangements
- the strategy
- our legal duties as directors
- the legislative environment (which arguably gets more complex each year, e.g. the Commonwealth Modern Slavery legislation will need renewed focus once everyone comes out of “hibernation”); and
- all business finances
We also need to understand the operations of the business, including:
- revenue streams
- the tax position
- who our customers are
- who our competitors are and how they operate
- where pinch points exist in our products or services and how to resolve them, etc.
Without this knowledge, boards cannot make fully informed decisions and may even damage the business.
I once had a client who was looking to buy some stationery products for his business from a particular company. My client and the CEO of the stationery company were in the same city waiting for flights, so they met up to discuss the potential deal. In the end my client walked away from the deal. His only comment was that he wasn't sure that the CEO understood what his own company did.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that comes our way every day; by the unrealistic expectations we have of ourselves and others; and the legal burden we face as directors, especially in this post-COVID world.
Like any other team, a productive board needs to be able to see the upside - the silverlining. In my experience, board members perform better when they are positively enthusiastic about their roles; positive about the business and its team members; positively seeking improved processes, procedures and relationships; and positively dealing with the hard issues.
It's trite to say every problem is an opportunity, but many of them really are! From what I can see, organisations with board members who actively engage with positivity are more likely to recognise and grasp those opportunities.
In this new post-COVID world, maybe these qualities might be the difference between success and failure for some.
About Suzy Cairney
Suzy is a Partner at Holding Redlich and is based in Brisbane, specialising in Corporate and Commercial Law, Construction and Infrastructure, Transport, Shipping and logistics.
Her current board roles include:
Deputy Chair - Infrastructure Association of Queensland
Board Member - Board of Professional Engineers Queensland
Queensland committee member - Redkite
More info about Suzy here