Board Level
4 - Robin Low on finding your feet on a board
Nov 26, 2019 · 28 min
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Robin Low is one of the busiest directors in Australia. She sits on the boards of Appen, AUB Group Limited, CSG Limited, IPH Limited and she is the deputy chairman of the Auditing and Assurance Standards Board. She is also a director of not-for-profits Public Education Foundation and Primary Ethics. Prior to this, Robin was a partner at PwC for more than 17 years.

Here Robin talks about finding your feet on a board, preparing for a director career, interpersonal dynamics and managing your workload as a director on multiple boards.

Valuable Discussion Points

[01:25] How long did it take Robin to get the lay of the land on a board in regard to participation and discussions?

Robin believes that the approach you have to a board depends entirely on the skills you offer and the culture in which it fosters. Having a background in auditing committees, she was given the skills and knowledge on how to effectively navigate a board room that promotes different communication styles and dynamics. Robin observes as a director, admitting that it took time to build the confidence to contribute, but recognises her contributions as reflective and well-timed.

[04:33] Are there any traps in entering a board as a beginner or the new person?

Naturally, people will enter a new board wanting to change the fabric of it, however, Robin believes that your value will be most recognised if you begin by observing and reflecting on the conversations and decisions made. This will allow you to receive and disseminate feedback whilst honing your skills and expertise to most accurately understand where and when to contribute. Robin also recognises the importance of a good chairman in regard to setting expectations for new board members and their ability and capacity to contribute to the flow of the meetings and organisation.

[07:07] What are the expectations from fellow directors and the chair when you join a new board?

A chair isn’t bringing you onto a board expecting anything other than what they believe you are capable of. Establishing these expectations early and understanding your value proposition within the organisation allows for clarity and accountability.

[09:41] What are some observations Robin has made surrounding the dynamics of decision making within a board?

Heavily influenced by the ability the chairman has to maintain a constant tone within meetings, they must understand the dynamics of situations and their risks as well as the individuals within the board. Healthy risk assessment, however, takes time, and the importance of this in regards to influential decision making is constantly evaluated throughout boards and their meetings.

[14:08] What’s the nature of chairing committees and would Robin suggest it to an emerging Director?

An effective tool, Robin believes that her experience in chairing audit and risk committees has consolidated her ability to observe, discuss and deliberate in formal and dynamic settings. Focused more on risk evaluation and more ‘concrete’ discussions, this position promotes your leadership and ability to maintain a committee.

[15:55] Once Robin received her first listed board, did she find this led to further opportunities within the space?

Robin believes that like many formal employment opportunities the necessity for ‘prior experience’ is always lingering, however, she recognises that this narrative must change in order to gain more dynamic boards. Acknowledging that there must be a brief for all positions as a director, Robin also believes that she’s noticed a shifting focus towards finding directors that have experience, knowledge and skills in the requisite field rather than solely prior listed board experience.

[16:47] Did Robin plan for herself to have a career on boards, and what was this transitionary period like for her? 

Robin completed the company directors course with the Australian Institute of Company Directors 5 years prior to departing PWC ensuring that she would be both prepared and informed as she made this transition. Robin’s skills and preparation were highly influential in making this transition; however, she believes the self-managed nature and sporadic interactions amongst board groups were the key learning curves for her.

[19:28] Does Robin have colleagues or peers that she can chat to in order to consolidate ideas?

The ability a director has to interact and develop meaningful relationships with both board members and other directors heavily influences their navigation of ideas and opportunities. While Robin recognises that attending events as a NED is important, she believes her involvement in auditing standards boards and relationships with fellow directors assists her most in developing her skills and ideas.

[20:51] What does a full slate look like for Robin and how does she handle this?

Currently sitting on 4 listed boards, Robin believes the ability an individual has to navigate these are dependent on the schedules of each. Robin also posits that each board, depending on the nature of the industry, the level of regulation and the dynamic of the meetings is the key determinant in her deciding whether or not she can join.

[22:02] What advice does Robin give to aspiring women Directors on when it’s the right time to transition into a board career?

Robin insists that age isn’t the determinant for this transition, rather it’s the level of experience you’ve accumulated both as a professional and as a person. Highlighting ‘timing’ as an important aspect of the process, an individual must be equipped for the role in regard to their skills and experience but also personally ready for the style of self-managed work being a part of a board requires.

[24:44] Is there an appetite for board roles amongst emerging women directors and would Robin like to see the involvement of more women in key decision making within boards?

Robin has noticed an increased monitoring of boards by regulators within recent years, leading to a potential disengagement with the position. However, she also insists that it’s a rich and fulfilling position that allows any individual to highlight their skills and specialise within a specific field or industry that aligns with their value proposition. Robin recognises the importance of promoting diversity within boards in establishing a healthy board dynamic of differing skills, experiences and values. This promotion of a diverse board dynamic ultimately comes down to the capability of the chair in recognising where an individual with a particular set of skills and expertise can provide affective input.

Key Learnings

  • Every board has its own culture, it’s up to you to learn how to navigate it.
  • Don’t get trapped when you enter a board by trying to change too much, begin by being reflective and observant.
  • A chair isn’t bringing you onto a board expecting anything from you that they don’t think you’re capable of.
  • While there’s still stigma surrounding the notion of ‘prior listed board experience’, directors are also looking for individuals who have effective skills, knowledge and experience that’s relevant to the industry or organisation of the respective board.
  • Procuring experience within company director settings, including the company directors course with AICD allowed Robin the opportunity to effectively transition into a board career.

 Quotable Quotes 

 “We’d love to have you, but you don’t have listed experience. Oh you have listed experience, join us!” – Robin Low on the ‘catch 22’ nature of listed board positions.

“Make sure you’re getting enough… interaction with enough people and enough networks, because in fact it’s actually quite an isolating role in many respects.” – Robin Low

 Importance 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 Robin or viewing her professional portfolio and achievements, visit her LinkedIn via https://www.linkedin.com/in/robin-low-b4b4164/?originalSubdomain=au.

For more information regarding Robin’s various contributions as a Director and as a member of the Auditing and Assurance Standards Board, please view her biography via

https://www.auasb.gov.au/About-the-AUASB/Current-Board-members/Robin-Low.aspx.

 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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