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Future-proofing the ABC board

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

Ita Buttrose will chair the ABC board. Here are five verbs to help futureproof it

News that Ita Buttrose will take the reins as the new chair of the ABC has brought months of uncertainty at the public broadcaster to an end.

It also caps what author and board advisor Marc Stigter calls an "extraordinary" and "unprecedented" level of turmoil at the top.

Former chairman Justin Milne resigned at the height of that turmoil, following allegations he interfered with editorial decisions and demanded senior journalists be sacked — charges he strongly denied.

Stigter has some advice — in the form of five simple verbs — for the board going forward.

These verbs, he told RN's Richard Aedy, will help the board futureproof itself, so history doesn't repeat.

1. Boards that can

It's a simple but important question: can the board actually get the job done?

Stigter says the people sitting around the table must work as a "unified entity" — because at the end of the day, everyone is on the same team.

Bringing that team together will be an important first step for Ms Buttrose.

"[The chair has to] unify the board and the public, and co-create with those parties a distinctive path forward," Stigter explained.

Then, attention can be turned to whether the board members have the right mix of skills — and the boldness — to steer the company in the right direction.

2. Boards that know

When scandals like the Volkswagen emissions fraud saga unfold, or a company goes bust, we all ask ourselves: where was the board?

The board's response, Stigter is often: "Sorry, we didn't know."

Stigter says "not knowing" — or not wanting to know — is quite common when it comes to boards.

And that's a problem. As Stigter puts it: information is knowledge, and applied knowledge is power.

"I think boards should take control of their own information needs," Stigter said.

"Boards are too often dependent on the managing director or CEO and the executive team for the flow of information.

"They are all too often information blockages to the board."

3. Boards that want

Being on a board is a complex and demanding job, so members need to really be invested in their role, Stigter says.

"We need people on boards that have the desire and the commitment," he said.

Without that desire, boards can wind up paralysed.

"You've got this whole problem of over-boarding, people being on too many boards," said Stigter, author of Boards that Dare.

"I think people don't understand that time and energy that it takes to really add value to any board nowadays with all the complexities."

4. Boards that are

This point, Stigter says, goes straight to "the being of the board".

There is a future-proofing opportunity for boards to increase their integrity and moral compass; the buck has to stop with the board.

"We want our boards constructed about people with a moral compass, with good values and behaviours who are acting with a certain conscience," Stigter said.

"That is incredibly critical I think, one of the most important virtues."

5. Boards that dare

Last but not least, Stigter says, boards need to be courageous.

"I think courage within a boardroom is a fantastic virtue," he said.

"All the other virtues depend on courage, you could argue."

Boards that are brave can "start seeing and thinking and feeling a little bit differently", Stigter says.

That helps an organisation to grow in new directions, make calculated risks, confront immoral practices, and bounce back from setbacks.

It's also about the courage to have "independence of mind, to follow your own heart, and to challenge the board's own shortcomings".

That can include voicing disagreements with other board members — even if it's the chair.

"Typically the board will be looking to see consistency in its beliefs and opinions, and boards find psychologically it's not comfortable to disagree with each other," Stigter said.

"And boards as a group, as a team of people, try to behave similarly, unfortunately, and conform, and often think similarly as well.

"This is when the groupthink comes in. And this is indeed a disadvantage of not having the diversity of thought."

The ABC started the recruitment process for a new managing director earlier this month.

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