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Board Lady: Sam Mostyn

04 February 2013

Sam Mostyn is one of Australia’s ‘prolific’ business leaders. 

A company director, diversity and sustainability adviser, her extensive involvement in Australian business life at senior levels is indicative of her expertise and reflective of personal preoccupations. 

Before serving on the senior executive teams at Optus, Cable & Wireless, and Insurance Australia Group, she worked for a number of years in Federal Government policy advisory roles. 

She describes her work now as a “portfolio of corporate, not-for-profit and government advisory work, some paid, some unpaid”. 

A flexible fulltime job with lots of “gear changing and travel”, the stop/start nature of her work existence has its own challenges but allows her to be an active, involved and engaged parent, a top priority now her daughter is in high school.

Sam is on the boards of Virgin Australia, Transurban and Citibank Australia; is a Commissioner of the Australian Football League; on the National Mental Health Commission, and National Sustainability Council. She chairs the Stakeholder Advisory Council of CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship, serves on the board of Climateworks Australia, Australian Volunteers International, the Sydney Theatre Company, the Australia Council and is a member of the NSW Climate Change Council.

Recently, she served as a member of the Review of the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force. She has been the President of the Australian Museum Trust, a board member of Reconciliation Australia and was on the Crawford Review of Sports Funding in Australia.

Board bits to ponder

Firstly, the differences between a management and board role are profound. So, asks Sam, are you sure you want to leave the management, the operational ‘doing’, behind? At board level, you remain accountable to shareholders, stakeholders and the wider community, especially in areas such as reputation, profitability, etc, but you are not in there pulling the levers. You choose the executive team to ensure the strategy can be delivered. You’re the pivot between the provider of capital and the people operating the business and you must remain vigilant around what is happening and what your management team is doing at all times.

This ‘once-removed’ life is very different – challenging, interesting, engaging – it can be difficult if what you really want to do is run and be part of a business. 

For Sam, the school council analogy gives some idea about the distinctions: “You’re not the Principal, you’re not the teachers, but your governance and choice/support of the executive team has to take into account the long-term good of that team’s strategy for the school, for the whole community. You must also build a risk control framework that takes a much wider view of the situation than the operational to ensure nothing can go terribly wrong.”

Board tips

  1. Increase your networks and cultivate them at work, socially, wherever and when ever.
  2. Tell your networks and the people in them what you are after.
    Never assume people know or remember what it is you want to do. Your name won’t come up unless you speak up and get the word out there that you’re looking to get on boards.
  3. Think about getting involved in areas outside what you might normally do or be found.
    Sam sees this in the context of broad engagement with sectors and areas of interest where broader skills and relationships can form – sport, for example, is one area where women are often absent, so it is an example of where skills can be gained.
  4. Once your intentions have been announced, back up your offer by showing how you and your skills can best be used at board level.

In position, the next steps

Make sure the role is what you wish for and make sure you know about the boards with which you want an association.

“You have to believe in the board and what it’s about,” explains Sam, without hesitation. “You have to have faith in the company and the executive and you must want to govern it for the good of the shareholders, the stakeholders and the community as a whole.”

It is also important to have pinpointed what your skills are and why they complement those already on the board. Ask yourself: Does the board need your skills because the board has no one with those skills, or, those skills are not being exercised by any other member on the board at present? 

All that done and dusted, you are on the way to a career as a NED (non-executive director).

[Sam is an inaugural Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee.]


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