Board Level
5 - Melanie Willis on finding the right board
Dec 3, 2019 · 31 min
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Melanie Willis is a non-executive director of Challenger Limited, Southern Cross Austereo, PayPal Australia and Chief Executive Women. Previously, she was CEO of NRMA Investments  and a director of Deutsche Bank.

Here Melanie talks about finding the right board, how to have your voice heard at the board table, the importance of listening and making the transition from your executive career to the boardroom.

Valuable Discussion Points 

[01:22] How does a director position themselves effectively to make their voices heard amongst a board?

Melanie believes that there are three key ways in which a director can effectively position themselves within a board. These include; make sure you’re picking the right board considering your skills, expertise and future outlook or vision for the company. It also looks at your ability to understand the competitive economic environment and source perspectives from outside of the industry. And lastly, the consideration of timing and knowing that it's not always about raising the point but also supporting others. 

[02:52] What are some useful tactics in creating a healthy dynamic within a board?

Melanie believes that in order to promote a healthy flow of discussion and decision making amongst a board, as a director, timing is everything. You must know when to say something and it needs to be substantial and effective within the brief of the meeting. Melanie also states that leaning in to your point and ensuring that you’re forthcoming in your deliverance and nothing is lost in translation.

[03:33] How do you know you’re on the right board?

It’s all about fit when it comes to feeling good about being on a board. Ensure that you are passionate about the industry aspects and have performed all the research you possibly can on your relevant board, as this will allow you to more comfortably promote discussion and debate. Melanie also insists that the Chair plays an instrumental role in allowing this discussion and promoting a level of engagement throughout all levels of a board and organisation.

[04:58] How do you find the balance of when to speak up on a board and when to listen?

While Melanie acknowledges that like many aspects of business, you can be as prepared as anyone but you will always learn your most on the job, she also posits that there’s a level of personal liability on a director to know when to ask the right question. Not only is it about finding a cut through, amongst all the discussions and decisions, but you must always remember who you’re representing. Melanie says that when she’s in a board meeting she considers the perspectives of everyone of her stakeholders; regulators, customers, investors and employees.

[08:20] How important do you think diversity is within a board?

Melanie believes that diversity within a board promotes better business values and allows for you to operate optimally as it forces you to consider the IQ and EQ of the room, as well as reduce the dominance of one individual as there’s more diverse voices, experiences and values. Melanie also believes that by promoting diversity within boards, this also allows members to learn and navigate different social cues, which is an instrumental aspect of any good operation within a board room.

[10:51] How do you manage the dynamics of a boardroom table?

A board amongst other things aims to handle conflict and dissension and this can only be managed if all members maintain good values and business principles. Melanie believes the Chair sustains this dynamic by ensuring that all individuals are heard and listened to, and ultimately they lead to an acknowledgement of long term sustainability.

 [12:39] How do you deal with creative abrasion as a director?

It's important to understand how to manage conflict and provide resolutions that lead to growth and improvement both for the individuals involved and the business. Melanie believes that as a director you can not be scared of creative abrasion rather you should welcome the idea of generating discussion. The combination of directors with a wealth of ASX experience with non-ASX directors that do have the preferred skills in handling creative abrasion and disruption can be a healthy dynamic if managed effectively by the Chair and other board members.

[15:18] Outside of meetings how do you communicate ‘informally’ with other board members?

Melanie believes that the skills you develop on a board can be taught and learnt in various aspects of business life. Melanie promotes the following of passions as it relates to board involvement, even sacrificing professional gain to learn more about the way these directors and boards operate. She also insists that it all comes down to seeking people and thought leaders you find interesting, sitting down, having a cup of coffee and picking their brain.

[17:00] How do you manage a career as a Non-Executive Director?

Deciding over 15 years ago, Melanie has navigated life as a NED and director with the intent to understand the minds of other directors and learning that while she may know the right questions to ask, it's how you can answer that question that’s important for a director. A 24/7 job, Melanie insists that maintaining success as NED is in preparation, research and trusting your ability to deliver and discuss issues and opportunities. Melanie also believes she’s constantly learning and evolving, ensuring that she tries to give back to emerging directors as a mentor whenever she can.

[19:44] What are some of the essential skills you choose to inform emerging women directors?

While Melanie believes it’s important to fulfil the criteria of a brief in regards to relevant skills and expertise, she highlights that new directors need to be able to instil confidence in themselves so they can take risks and continue to move laterally as a person and as a director.

[21:18] How do you know when it’s the right time to transition into a board role?

Melanie believes that if you maintain an executive role and continue to grow you profit and loss (P&L) skills then this will increase your opportunity and confidence in transitioning at any time. Melanie also insists that if you’re thinking about making the transition, ensure you’re being a leader within your current role, as the characteristics of a leader translate effectively, incorporating aspects of understanding, listening and conflict resolution.

[25:15] What are some challenges Melanie faced as a growing director and what does she believe she’s learnt from them?

Melanie believes that in any position she’s had as a director there’s been dissension conflict, however she believes that throughout her career these moments have provided her the ability to self-reflect and learn from with resilience. She also believes that she’s learnt to look at every company she’s involved in as a ‘day one’ company, which forces her to remind herself the reasons she took the position in the first place.

[27:25] What perspective do you have on the progression of women around board tables?

Deeply involved in the progression of women’s involvement around boards and Executive positions in Australian businesses and industries, Melanie understands the disparities of women’s involvement in Chief Executive roles. While acknowledging the growth of the industry standard with groups such as Chief Executive Women (CEW) and the Male Champions of Change, she insists there needs to be a better understanding of why these disparities exist and create a more fluid progression of equality within these positions to make it a permanent characteristic of boards.

Key Learnings

  • Don’t be afraid to invite someone to get a cup of coffee, that’s where the best conversations are had.
  • If you’re not finding you’re receiving the opportunity you want at your current workplace or organisation, be brave and look somewhere else.
  • While there are 60% of women graduates there are only 2% of women CEO’s.
  • Creative abrasion refers to the conflict that arises between people or groups in regards to business decisions, tactics and strategies. Understanding and managing these differing interpretations is an important part of being a director.
  • Understand the importance of profit and loss skills and strategies relevant to each industry and sector.

 Quotable Quotes 

 “It’s having lots of coffees with people not to say ‘how do I get on a board?’, but to understand how they think as directors” – Melanie Willis

“in certain areas like the CFO role we’re going forward, [however] CEO we’re going backwards” – Melanie Willis

“I think we have a lot of amazing supporters. We’ve got the Male Champions of Change and we have 600 CW women, but clearly progress is still glacial, and we need to work harder and we need to be more focused in how we drive that” – Melanie Willis

“I would just encourage women to be brave, to take risks, and to not take no for an answer” – Melanie Willis.

Important Resources and Links 

 If you would like to gain knowledge in governance, and develop as a director in your industry or field, visit https://aicd.companydirectors.com.au/.

If you would like to learn more about how CommBank is ensuring women are advancing their growth in business, visit https://www.commbank.com.au/women-in-focus.html.

Host of the Board Level podcast, Catherina Fox is one of Australia’s leading commentators on women and the workforce. If you’re interested in learning more about Catherine and the issues she’s currently discussing, visit https://www.abc.net.au/news/catherine-fox/5244818.

If you’re interested in connecting with Melanie or viewing her professional portfolio and achievements, visit her LinkedIn via https://www.linkedin.com/in/melanie-w-2997197/?originalSubdomain=au.

The Board Level podcast is produced by Nicole Hatherly, recorded at RadioHub Studios with post production by Cooper SilkIain Wilson and Matthew Lane.

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