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Freehills to fast-track execs to boardroom

Freehills to fast-track execs to boardroom

Freehills is partnering with the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) in a corporate leadership program which aims to fast-track senior executives into directorship.

Senior managers from Insurance Australia Group (IAG), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the Westpac Group are also participating in the 2012 Board Ready program – a six-month, scenario-based education initiative which trains participants in the application of boardroom behaviours and practices. The program commenced late last month.

“The structure of the program allows participants to take in lecture material more profoundly because they have [mentors] critiquing the discussion of their mock board meetings, making observations and helping them think about some other ways of tackling issues,” said Fiona Balfour, non-executive director of ASX-listed Metcash Limited, Salmat Limited, and the recently delisted Tower Australia Limited.

Balfour is joined by Beth Laughton – a non-executive director of ASX-listed JB Hi Fi and a member of its audit and risk committee – as a mentor in the program.

The Board Ready program aims to build board-level capability amongst senior-level executives and assist in developing individuals who are on, or have been identified for placement on, subsidiary boards, joint ventures, advisory boards and company-affiliated boards.

Theoretical lectures are run in parallel to practical workshops in which participants learn in simulated board environments. There is also the opportunity for a mock annual general meeting.

IAG, PwC, Westpac and Freehills have incorporated the Board Ready program as a complement to existing in-house programs designed to attract, retain and advance a diverse executive group.

“For us it’s about client empathy,” said Freehills Sydney-based M&A partner and chairman of Freehills’ board, Mark Crean, who has been closely involved with the firm’s partnership with the AICD.

“One of the key things we see in this program is having our senior partners better understand some of the needs and challenges of our clients. It enables us to partner with some of our clients [Westpac, IAG and PwC] involved in this pilot program and help develop some board-ready skills for some of our partners,” Crean told Lawyers Weekly.

Sydney-based Freehills corporate partner Louise Capon is participating in the current program, along with Melbourne-based Freehills corporate consultant Selina Lightfoot. 

Heads up on director challenges

One of the major challenges for directors, and particularly the new and inexperienced directors, is to understand that a non-executive director has a different role to a director or adviser, according to Crean.

Another challenge is to understand the “complex issue” of diversity on boards.

“The composition and mix of board members is one big issue in the market generally so there’s been a separate program [that] the AICD has been involved in around increasing the proportion of women on boards,” said Crean, adding that a number of Freehills’ female partners are interested in taking on executive and director roles at some point in their career.

According to Balfour, the partnership with Freehills will help deliver the six-month program in terms of the “intellectual input into the content”.

“The program is clearly targeted at those who have had appropriate executive experience and are at least at the mid-point of their career,” said Balfour.

“The trick is the more experience you have and the more senior executive you are, the more effective you are in the board room.”

Balfour said there “probably isn’t a board in the country” that isn’t being challenged with its remuneration policies at the moment, as policies must now be “much more open” and published than they ever have been before.

“I think it’s a much tougher market for anyone to be successful in. The compliance component of directorship is taking up a greater and greater percentage of time and I think that the challenge is how to get the right balance so that you are administering compliance issues appropriately and you’ve got the time for far more weighty issues like strategies, capital allocation and which projects and initiatives do you need to fund.”

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