20 board tips to take on board in 2020

‘Hello and welcome to the Take on Board podcast, where we talk about all things boards and governance. I’m your host – Helga Svendsen.’

Greetings Take on Board peeps, and welcome to 2020.

In December, I asked the Take on Board Facebook group what I should do with the pod over the Christmas/New Year period. You very kindly encouraged me to take a break for two weeks, and then to come back with some top tips from the podcast so far. So, today, I bring you 20 board tips to take in to 2020.

In doing so, I acknowledge my good friend Jackie Cooper who helped me bring this together – there’s no way I would have been able to pull out all the key themes and my favourite bits as it would be a bit like having to choose your favourite child. I love all of it! So Jackie was key in pulling this together.

So let’s go back to the start. The first Take on Board episode aired Wednesday 2 July 2019 with the fabulous Sandra Loader. Over six months 23 very different women passed on what they’d learnt about getting on a board and being an effective board member.

There were some standout themes across all 26 episodes.

There’s a loose order to this list: starting with getting on board, to good things to do when on a board. And #1 is without a doubt the most important theme – relationships.

So let’s start with number 20.

#20 Organisations and their boards will continue to change

Episode 12: After the Royal Commission, Christina Liosis

Ep 5: Getting attention in the boardroom with Julie Bignall

“The role of boards has changed a lot in the last few decades. Back then (in the 1980s), there was an acceptance that management ran an organisation and a board was ticking off things from a compliance perspective.”

Key tips?

  • Increased visibility: there’s so much scrutiny of boards these days

  • More pressure: boards can unravel very quickly today

  • Active, not passive: members are increasingly expected to know more and be informed

  • Strategy timelines: have shortened over the years

#19 Get board-ready

Episode 9: Getting board ready, Anita Roper

“For most of my career I’ve been involved in committees and boards one way or another – either on an executive committee or reporting to a board. … I got to the point that I wanted to take the next step, to build a directors career and develop the skillset for that. So I completed the company of directors (Australian Institute of Company Directors) course in 2011 and I was accepted into the chairman’s mentoring program.”


  • Step 1: observe a board, volunteer, be on an executive committee or report to a board

  • Step 2: try my Board KickStarter or Board Accelerator program

  • Step 3: do some training – it might be Australian Institute of Company Directors or others. There are often scholarships for these programs too.

#18 Get your board CV ready

Episode 6, The CV, Dominique Hes

“I changed ‘I believe I will be a great addition to the board’ to ‘I will be a great addition to the board’. It is such a habit to soften and not be warrior-like in these situations.”


  • Helga’s tip no.1: keep the CV to 2-3 pages, keep it scannable, prepare it like a shopping list

  • Helga’s tip no.2: focus on governance

  • Helga’s tip no.3: the application letter doesn’t need to answer all the questions

  • Helga’s tip no. 4: Remove any ‘softeners’ (e.g. ‘I believe…’, ‘I just want to say …; ‘I think …’)

#17 Networks matter

Episode 22: Using your networks, Clare McCartin

“You want (to appoint) a well-network individual, because the more connected someone is, generally the more able they are to generate ideas and access knowledge that the organisation might benefit from.”


  • For opportunities: most board roles are sourced and filled through existing networks

  • For information: tap into networks to get an understanding where you have a gap

  • For diversity: diverse networks broaden thinking

#16 Leverage workplace roles into governance roles

Episode 8: More women in decision-making roles, Leonie Morgan

“When I was working at Industrial Relations Victoria (IRV) – I worked part-time there – I also worked for the Australian Film Commission on a project to get more women into senior levels of television. So, I had networks there.”


  • Know what’s going on: observe the organisation’s board and get to know the members

  • The advisory committee: is a good way to get to know your board

  • Volunteer your time: you may end up co-opted (non-voting member)

#15 Follow passions and interests

Episode 11: Following passions and interests, Sandy Bell

“Young Sandy was pretty green and naïve, really didn’t know what was going on – a world away from neurosurgery at The Alfred. … It (the first board role) came about because I was following a passion and an interest, I mean I was looking for opportunities that allowed me to translate what I was learning academically … into the practical realities of feminist politics and advocacy for women and women’s leadership.”


  • Passion peer network: surround yourself with others with the same passions

  • Find the right fit: research the board and organisation, look at the financials

  • Be authentic: reflect your passions in your CV, application and interview

#14 Understand your values

Episode 12: After the Royal Commission, Christina Liosis

“It’s important to stay true to who you are around your ethics. Sometimes as a director you need to put the wellbeing of the organisation before your own ... there can be personal conflicts of interest.”


  • Your two key values: Brene Brown says to pick two key values (e.g. ‘equity’ and ‘courage’)

  • Values match: do your values align with the organisation and the board?

  • Adapt values: how does the board reflect and respond to the organisation’s values

#13 Welcome and acknowledge the traditional owners

Episode 10: Rethinking the meaning of ‘country’, Amber Roberts

“It’s really important to have the welcome (to country) and acknowledgement (of country) right at the start (of the meeting). And then significant meetings like AGMs, it is good to have a traditional owner welcome you to country.”


  • Starting out: try a script if you’re new

  • And, learn about indigenous governance: try the Indigenous Governance Institute Toolkit

  • Then, personalise: the more genuine the better (e.g. refer to the river you walk by to work)

#12 The board is a team

Episode 4: Courageous questions, Llewellyn Prain

“Less high performing boards can be passive and reactive. They wait for management to tell them what’s happening. Passivity can be a real trap. … With a high performing board, the energy is high. Collegiality makes a high performing board. The higher the trust, the more likely people will say what they’re thinking.”


  • Group decisions: individuals do not make the decisions in the boardroom

  • Allyship: support each other, be an ally, work together

  • Disfunction signs: if there are ‘passengers’, it’s a sign that the board is dysfunctional

#10 Embrace diversity

Episode 18: The importance of regional boards, Fiona Williams

“We tend to think of just lawyers and accountants, but boards are really effective if you have a diverse range of skills, backgrounds and experiences. So I really encourage people to apply for boards, and think about, finally, regional boards.”


  • Fresh ideas: diversity reduces endemic group think on boards

  • Better decisions: diversity in ideas and experience leads to better solutions

  • Come with a generosity of spirit: listen and give other’s a change to speak

#9 Align with management

Episode 7: Making problems easy to solve, Dr Sue Keay

“I think you can waste a lot of time in board meetings if the alignment (with management) isn’t there. There are two things that can happen if you don’t have alignment. One, management bristles at any board directives, but two, the board can waste a lot of time working out where the resistance is and what’s going on.”


  • Out-of-alignment signs: the topics that keep appearing on the agenda

  • To get aligned no.1: go back to the basics and look at the organisation’s values and purpose

  • To get aligned no.2: build relationships with the management team

#8 Put in the time + read the papers

Episode 2: Getting clear about intentions, Rachel Lowry

“If people can't give a little bit more time outside of board meetings, you're probably not equipped to step onto a board. … You need to be able to give your executive team at least some extra time.


  • Helga says: “My rule of thumb is that it is 15-20 hours per month.”

  • Time estimates: put aside 3-4 hours per each meeting, plus 5-6 hours of reading/prep time

  • Know that: a lot of research and prep gets done outside of board meetings

#7 Put the consumer first

Episode 20: Putting the consumer first, Kellie O’Callaghan

“It's an engagement platform now that so many members of our community are using. If you're not out there engaging and you're still relying on paper-based surveys and talking the people who walk through your front door, then 80 per cent of your audience have just been lifted out of any of the community engagement and consultation.

“So getting boards to a space where they can engage proactively, whether it is by webcasting, whether it is by having an open board meeting right now, … it's just it's essential.”


  • Listen: ask consumers to speak at the board meeting (e.g. hospital patients)

  • Customer returns vs stakeholder returns: there’s a post-Royal Commission shift

#6 The art of asking the good question

Episode 13: Finding the right fit, Jo Plummer

“It’s about getting comfortable about what you have to offer. It’s about accepting that you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. You don’t need to be the specialist in every part of what is required as a director. But you do need to ask the right questions and get help where you need to.”


  • Be courageous: speak up, voice those questions – ask for help

  • New to a board: ask a question during the meeting’s first quarter

  • Prepare a list: tick off the questions on your list as they get asked

#5 Find your voice

Episode 19: Breaking down preconceptions, Sheena Watt

“I often felt like I was called on to be the voice of that particular group through all of those (boards), whether that was to be the voice of the young people, or the women, or Victorian, or whatever it was. … I felt like I’d reached the end of the road in terms of my identity in the boardroom. It wasn’t until I’d joined the board of the Queen Elizabeth Centre … that I found how to make my voice heard on issues that aren’t me.”


  • Your voice: “I had to develop my voice.” Michelle Shepherd

  • Loud and proud: “You need to be loud and proud if you’re on a board.” Sandra Loader

  • Bravery: “Having the courage and the bravery to open your mouth and ask those questions.” Julie Bignell

#4 Have a succession plan

Episode 15: An appetite for risk, Zora Artis

“We start the process (onboarding) a few months before the director joins the board, so we already know who they’re going to be. They’ve gone through the HM etc, so it has been approved. So we will go through that process of introducing them to what we expect of them as directors – all the usual things in regards to board papers, how they need to be prepared so many days in advance… that sort of stuff.”


  • Put aside a year: it takes a year to find and recruit the right board replacement

  • Succession plan sub-committee: to facilitate the planning and transition

  • Internships: look for potential up-and-coming directors within the organisation

  • Be mindful that observers are not shadow directors:

#3 Ongoing knowledge and skills development

Episode 21: The joining gene, Linda White

“I think that you’re never too old to learn things. … I don’t think that I know everything just because I’ve been on other things (other boards) before – every experience is different. The challenges can be different. … You can constantly learn.”


  • Get a mentor: for an introduction or to boost board knowledge

  • Fresh ideas: try reverse-mentoring – bring in young employees to talk

  • Embrace sub-committees: improves governance, knowledge and health of the board

  • Bring in speakers from different areas: not related to board agenda item, to expand thinking and knowledge development

#2 Respond deliberately

Episode 14: Gaining influence and using it for good, Michelle Gibbings

“What you want to do is slow yourself down so you’re conscious of how you’re reacting to what’s going on around you – so you can respond deliberately. And that deliberate response piece is then understanding the people around the table, understanding their agendas, understanding how you relate and interact with them.”


  • Know that: sometimes influence happens outside of the boardroom

  • Dealing with contentious issues: try a ‘pre-meeting’

  • But… make sure that decisions are made by the group inside the boardroom

#1 Build good relationships

Episode 17: Empowering young changemakers, Jane Kennedy

“I think that that's one of the things that we're really good at balancing is being professional and getting the work done that we need to get done, but also having time and space for a bit of banter, a bit of fun, a bit of relationship building. And I think that the fact that we have those connections with each other means that there is that trust.”


  • Everybody matters: not just the chair…

  • It’s a slow burn: relationships take a while to build

  • Where to start: start with one-on-ones

  • Things to do: calls, coffees, catch-ups… a ride home from the meeting

  • Informal chitchat: hang around before and after a meeting

  • Difficult relationships: deal with difficult relationships sooner rather than later

So that’s a wrap. 20 tips to take into 2020! I hope you find this list useful and it powers you and your board roles in 2020!

Featured Posts