Theresa Gattung From the Executive Suite to the Boardroom – A new life

Theresa Gattung is a former CEO of Telecom NZ.  Theresa is chair of AIA Australia and Telco Technology Services Limited.  She is also co-founder, alongside Cecilia Robinson and Nadia Lim, of My Food Bag.

Named in Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 most powerful women in international business several times since 2002, she was also included in Forbes’ list of the world’s 50 most powerful women across any sphere in 2006.

Theresa talks to Henri Eliot about her perspectives on corporate governance in New Zealand and Australia.

What is the role of a board from your perspective?

It’s about optimizing what the organization is capable of achieving.  Another critical role is appointing the right CEO.  The board also discusses short/long term issues and guides the CEO.  Boards from my perspective need to always look further out at emerging trends or issues that may impact the company.

I often reference the “Black Swan Theory”, where Google is seen as good and September 11th as bad.  Boards must leverage their experience in managing risk but also see “black swan opportunities”.  In the end, positive ways a company can transform itself.

(Note to reader: The black swan theory is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight).

The Chair also can’t be best friends with the CEO but challenge them.  An effective Chair also needs technical/industry specific competencies.  I bring such skills as Chair of AIA Australia from my previous experience in insurance prior to BNZ and Telecom NZ.

Looking forward five years, do you think the board dynamic will change?

Yes. Everything is becoming more personalized.  We now live in a digital community where we can choose between human face-face interaction or online interaction.  The key changes are caused by increased self-employment and a number of former executives who have a portfolio of jobs versus one role in the past.

Boards are also becoming more diverse because communities are becoming more diverse.

How will the next generation of board members differ and operate?

We will continue to see shrinking relevance of traditional board meetings where boards must meet together at a specific place and time.

The internet is creating a paradigm shift where one persons point of view can be broadcast in an instant.  For young people today, life is constantly evolving.  Boundaries have changed.  The board of the future will be a mix of skill sets and combination of face-face/online interaction.  I know of several boards with global membership, for example based in New Zealand, Australia and Asia.  They do not always meet in person but communicate effectively.  This will be a growing trend for most boards.  Not only is it cost effective, it reflects the changing workforce.

How are we preparing the next generation board member for the future?

From my own perspective, I consider a lot of mentoring is taking place through Global Women, Woman on Boards and the Institute of Directors.  This is really a solid starting point to best prepare the next generation of board members.  I must also add that I believe life experiences are also critical to prepare the next generation for the boardroom.

What gives you the most sense of achievement on a board?

AIA Australia winning the Australian & New Zealand Insurance & Finance (ANZIIF) Life Insurance Company of the Year in 2012 and 2013, and the Australian Financial Review Smart Investor Life Company of the Year 2012.   In addition, the company doubled turnover in value in the past 3 years.  A very satisfying achievement and working with a great board also helps.

My role as Chair of the Wellington Board of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) has also been personal achievement in taking a money losing society ($1M annual loss) to being financially strong.  We are opening an animal center this December through fundraising.

Finally, Chairing the board of a start-up like My Food Bag brings a sense of achievement because it involves a creating something and watching it grow.  It’s very real without the bullshit!

 Turning back the clock, would you do anything different?

“Life is a marathon not a sprint”.  My corporate life was full on!

What do you read?

Dominion Post online and in print.  Sunday Star Times.

Various magazines from Fortune to Fashion Quarterly.

I’m currently reading Burial Rights by Hannah Kent.  A great read.

Final Word or comment? 

“Life is an adventure.  We must be awake enough to see it”.

Henri Eliot is chief executive of Board Dynamics, a consultancy company which provides strategic advice to directors and boards throughout New Zealand and Australia.