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What I’ve Learnt – Kirstin Ferguson

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Dr Kirstin Ferguson FAICD discusses how she applies her specialist skills as an independent director in the boardroom and across diverse industries.

AICD: What have you learnt as a director about how to apply your skills in the boardroom, irrespective of their industry context?

Kirstin Ferguson (KF): I currently sit on boards across a diverse range of industries, including construction and mining, property, media and manufacturing. Some of my previous boards have operated in the oil and gas, utilities, sports and arts industries. As most directors would experience when working across different industries, while the context of particular issues may vary from industry to industry, the underlying questions to be asked or the challenges to be overcome are often remarkably similar. One of the aspects of being a director I enjoy the most is the diversity of industry contexts I am able to work in and contribute to. For example, digital disruption is an issue that is confronting every industry that I am involved with in quite different ways. Yet questions around the talent that needs to be recruited, the strategies to be developed and the vision required to leverage opportunities for the future are, in many ways, consistent across each company regardless of industry.

In this respect I think board directors offer a unique perspective for organisations through learning from the experiences gained from one industry approach, assessing the same challenge through a different lens and enabling management to apply that solution elsewhere.

AICD: At the recent Australian Governance Summit in Melbourne, David Gonski AC FAICDLife spoke about the best directors being business generalists, with a specialisation on top of that. As an expert in the field of workplace health and safety (WHS), how do you apply your specialisation in the boardroom?

KF: While I do have a deep knowledge and expertise in the field of WHS, I am also very conscious that it is only one skill that I need to apply as a director to add value in the boardroom. First and foremost, I contribute to board discussions based on my general corporate and commercial knowledge, and my experience as a former CEO. For example, I am chairman of an ASX 100 board committee that includes health and safety within the charter, but also requires a deep knowledge of ethics and whistle-blower provisions, general compliance issues as well as sustainability.

I am also chairman of an ASX 200 remuneration committee, which again includes health and safety in the charter, but requires detailed technical knowledge of remuneration issues for listed companies. I find that when issues of health and safety are being discussed, I am able to provide specialised knowledge to those discussions but having such a specialisation would not – on its own – be sufficient to be on the board. I think Gonski summarises the desired position perfectly in that the best boards will have a number of business generalists around the room, of which there will be a diverse range of specialisations that can be drawn upon as needed.

AICD: You have an active presence on social media, with a large cohort of followers on Twitter and LinkedIn. Why is social media important for directors?

KF: Social media is simply another tool by which we can gain a deeper understanding of the world in which the businesses we govern compete in. As we know, social media impacts every organisation in some way. This impact can be felt through views being shared on social media by customers, employees or other stakeholders. Or, the impact may be through observing the activity of competitors, or through missing out on participating in discussions shaping the industry in which the organisation operates.

While a director should only be active on social media if they feel comfortable to do so, it does help if directors have some personal experience in understanding what social media is all about and how it works. Ultimately, this will assist directors to be able to ask the right questions of management, particularly with respect to how their organisations are developing and implementing the most appropriate social media strategies for their business.

It should be remembered that if a director does decide to be active on social media, it is important to have a very clear idea of how you plan to use it and are disciplined in doing so. I find social media incredibly rewarding but I do use it with a great deal of care, consideration and caution.

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