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Mentors get on board

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Elizabeth Marx

28 June 2013


Kirstin Ferguson has not looked back since she smashed through the glass ceiling to became Queensland Rugby Union’s first female board member.

With a little nudge from her mentor, she is one of a new generation of businesswomen adding diversity to Australian boardrooms.

Ferguson and her colleague, Leeanne Bond, are among the lucky few who have benefited greatly from a business mentoring initiative to breach the once-sacred hold of men.

The ASX 200 Chairmen’s Mentoring Program, launched by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) in 2010, provided vital advice and direction the women needed.

The initiative pairs experienced current and former ASX 200 board members with already-successful women to mentor them to blaze a boardroom path.

The plan includes increasing the mentee’s exposure to how boards work and receiving ongoing advice on the processes of appointing directors.

Competition to get involved has been fierce, with eight of 63 applicants chosen the first year. All have completed the year-long mentoring program and been appointed to board positions.

Women make up 15.7 per cent of ASX200 company boards, according to the AICD. While that percentage has crept up over the past few years, there is still a clear need for greater female representation.

Ferguson, who chairs the Thiess Advisory Board and serves as a non-executive director of SunWater, is “passionate about seeing more women on boards”.

But Ferguson and Bond see the issue more about range, rather than gender.

“I don’t see myself as a female director, I see myself as a director. Gender is the least interesting part about us in our minds,” Ferguson says.

Bond’s mentor, Martin Kriewaldt, who is a non-executive director of Hyne Timber and ImpediMed, claims he has never appointed anyone because of gender.

“What you’re after is diversity and you will get that if you fish in a pond of women. What you want on a board is a different approach and you’ll get it from different backgrounds, different industries.”

Kriewaldt believes that, when a woman joins a board, the “dynamic of discussion” changes. “Men behave differently in the presence of women and, in most cases, that’s a good thing,” he says.

Getting a woman already successful in the corporate world on to a board in the first place seems to be the tricky part. Part of the issue is that women often have a disrupted career because of family choices, but most of the problem is sheer visibility, according to Keith De Lacy, mentor to Bond.

“These days discrimination against women hardly exists (but) there are still many males who don’t think of women when they’re considering board positions,” he says. Part of his objective in mentoring is to urge women to network better.

Bond says De Lacy “really encouraged me to get involved in networking, which I did, and had, but he encouraged me to connect with opportunities”.

Ferguson says: “There’s a relatively small directorship network in Brisbane and you need to be aware of the network. I don’t see it is a boys’ network, you will see a good mix of men and women.”

Kriewaldt also focused on introducing his mentee to the available pool of board candidates. “This is a great way to provide those connections in a formal way.”

Ferguson, he says, was already immensely talented but he “helped her to get to know a whole lot of people and that’s the major push of the mentoring program”.

While both mentors agree their role did not include appointing their mentees to any boards but instead readying them for that role, they agree that getting to know the qualities of these women increased their chances enormously.

“Once you know someone socially, or in a semi-business environment, they’re more likely to put you on the list and take a risk (to) choose them,” Kriewaldt says. “My reputation is at stake putting people forward. I’d never get over it if someone is bad, everyone will know that I’ve done it.”

Both De Lacy and Kriewaldt agree that a good part of the mentoring process is about being available to talk over issues in a collegiate and confidential atmosphere and confirming to the women that they are capable of taking over the board roles.

“One of the things with younger people is that they have immense talent (but) they keep questioning themselves,” says Kriewaldt, who himself has more than three decades of board experience. “As Kirstin and I talked about issues (I told her) her inherent analysis is by and large right and now she is confident in that.”

Ferguson says: “Martin allowed me to ask questions that I might not have otherwise felt able to ask in a boardroom. I was able to ask questions without any fear or favour and ask questions you would be afraid to ask in a different environment.”

Bond says: “Keith gave me directing advice, which is what you want.”

She explains the two met as often as she needed to. “It’s quite good to get validated.”

The benefits Bond and Ferguson received from the AICD program have reinforced their interest in being mentors to other women, drawing on their own business and boardroom success and experience.

Ferguson is part of an informal group of female directors in Brisbane who meet regularly to discuss issues and network.

Bond is a mentor for Women on Boards, a Melbourne group that supports, educates and lobbies for women board members.

“Even though I have a great portfolio, it’s something you keep working on, it’s a progression,” says Bond, whose goal is to expand her role with good mix of established and emerging businesses.

Ferguson hopes to increase her involvement in a mix of boards. “That’s one of the things I love because I learn something new. You can apply your skills across any industry by and large.”

–  Kirstin Ferguson is the Thiess Advisory Board chairwoman and a non-executive director of SunWater Ltd and the Queensland Theatre Company. She was previously the non-executive director of Dart Energy, Queensland Rugby Union and an independent member of the Queensland Workplace Health and Safety Board. She is the former CEO of Sentis, chief operating officer of Deacons (now Norton Rose) and an administration officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.

– Martin Kriewaldt is Hyne Timber, Interior Co and ImpediMed chairman and a member of the AICD Corporate Governance Committee. He is a former BrisConnections and Suncorp director and has served on the board of Campbell Brothers, Oil Search, Macarthur Coal, GWA and QDL.

– Leeanne Kay Bond is the non-executive director of Coffey International Ltd and Liquefied Natural Gas Ltd. She was a non-executive director of Seqwater, Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence Ltd, Gem and Jewellery Institute of Australasia Ltd and Tarong Energy Corporation. She chaired the Brisbane Water Advisory Board in 2007. Bond is a registered professional chemical engineer.

– Keith De Lacy is Cubbie Group chairman, The Reef Hotel Casino director, Nimrod Resources Ltd chairman, Queensland Energy Resources director and Hynes Lawyers Australia chairman. He is former chairman of Macarthur Coal, Queensland Sugar and the Global Sugar Alliance. He was Queensland treasurer from 1989 to 1996. His book, Blood Stains the Wattle, was published in 2002.

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