The changing dynamic in the boardroom

Vanessa is currently an Independent Director for NZ Refinery, Paymark and The Warehouse Group.  She was previously Group General Manager of Technical Operations and People at Air New Zealand.

Vanessa Stoddart talks to Henri Eliot about the next generation of directors and the changing dynamic in the boardroom.

What is the role of a board from your perspective?

The Board’s role is to represent and promote the interests of shareholders with a view to increasing the long term value of the entity.  This involves the appointment of the CEO and overseeing the management of the business by the CEO and executive team to ensure the strategies are implemented, the financial position of the entity is protected and all appropriate legal requirements are adhered to.  It’s important for a board to understand the issues concerning shareholders and stakeholders and address these as appropriate.

Looking forward 5 years, do you think the board dynamic will change?

Although the role of the board is not likely to change – the understanding of what that entails and its execution may.  We operate in an ever changing, more complex business environment with a heightened sense of responsibilities and expectations.  The pace of technological change continues to create threats for traditional products and services but also opportunities.  It has broken down many geographic boundaries making markets more accessible but also more competitive.  These dynamics I believe will see recognition for even greater diversity of skills at the board table – not just the need for diversity of thought and experience but skills for today’s market environments – technology, social media and communications, operating in global markets, innovation and marketing.  In addition, the increasing risk and compliance requirements will potentially see a greater time commitment from boards – possibly separating time spent on strategy and performance from compliance.  This could mean more board meetings or sub-committee meetings but should not detract from the overall focus of a company on increasing value for shareholders.

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

Every board member will still need to be highly professional and ethical and have the skills to contribute to the company and the board.  This will include board members with strong financial, legal and operational experience and wisdom.  But I believe the next generation of board members joining boards will have current specialised skills in marketing, IT, global markets and new markets – representing the next generation of customers and consumers.  Boards will then truly embody diversity of thought, experience and expertise.

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

Encouraging younger executives and professionals with the skills and experience of value to boards, to participate earlier is important.  This enables them to spend time with more seasoned board members and be mentored and coached on board room “operations” and legalities.  At the same time, encouraging new board members to have the confidence to speak up and contribute is key – as is encouraging existing board members to make new members feel welcomed and that their contribution is valued.  New “younger” board members should not be constrained by lack of time at the board table.  Shareholders expect them to represent them – good board members know when to question and challenge, when to provide advice and when to accept and support recommendations.

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

Contribution that leads to improving the value of the business!  And the best way to contribute to add value to a business is to ensure one is prepared; having read all the material in advance and thought about where the questions need to be asked, where suggestions can be made, where new ideas and thoughts can be suggested and where support for recommendations is appropriate.  Ensuring one is across market conditions affecting the industry is also important to ensure informed contribution.  For me, given my background I get enormous sense of achievement from contributing in the people, culture, customer, health and safety, business transformation and integrating acquisitions space.

Turning Back the Clock would you do anything different?

No – I’ve had a superb education and career.  From my early legal days working with some superb partners in New Zealand’s top law firms, to working for some of New Zealand’s top CEO’s – Chris Liddell, Ralph Norris and Rob Fyfe in tough industries – manufacturing and airlines – both in New Zealand and Australia and studying here and offshore.  The opportunity to contribute to various advisory boards in the public and private sector and also through Global Women to coach and support other women with their careers has been hugely satisfying.  I now look forward to a long and successful career in governance here and offshore and am working hard to continue my personal and professional development here and in Australia to ensure I remain relevant and current.  The only thing I would say is having been part of executive teams in companies that have lost loved ones in work place safety accidents – we can all do more to ensure we have best practice health and safety systems in place to protect our people in our workplaces.  We can all learn from each other and there are always areas we can improve on.

Henri Eliot is CEO of Board Dynamics