Alan McKelvey

Why are Sparke Helmore and Hunter Young Professionals (hyp) presenting the Board Ready Masterclass on September 24?

Sparke Helmore is a major commercial law firm with over 900 staff, a significant number of them being successful and commercially aware young professionals. Hyp is the peak young professional organisation in the Hunter and hosting this masterclass is an opportunity for the firm, and in particular our younger staff, to engage with other ambitious young professionals from the area. We will pass on some of our experiences about what works, and what doesn’t, in the board environment.

What experience do you bring to the table?

Being a partner at Sparke Helmore has exposed me to three different perspectives on the role of a board. The first is being part of the implementation of board-approved strategies as a leader in our Newcastle business. The second perspective is as a legal advisor to board-governed businesses ranging from ASX-listed companies to SMEs and not for profits. The final perspective is as a member of the Board of Newcastle Golf Club, where I participate in a dynamic board focused on delivering for our membership.

A survey by hyp found its members in management or senior leadership roles are looking to progress. How hard is it to reach the board room?

There is a significant difference between management and being on a board. While management is ultimately answerable to the board I believe management and the board are part of the same team and must work together – I don’t see it as a hierarchy. The board has responsibility for setting strategy but that strategy should be one that management believes in. People who have senior management experience often make good board members because they have the perspective of understanding what is involved in implementing strategy. The hardest part about getting a board position is making sure you can demonstrate you bring a valuable but unique perspective to the issues that need to be dealt with. For that reason it is, and should be, difficult to reach the board room.

What advice will you give on how to make the first steps toward the board room?

To make sure you are good at something that is of value to the board you want to be on. You need to have an understanding of the industry but also a long term view of where the participants in the industry should be heading. I also think that people skills are incredibly important and enable young professionals to gain the confidence of those make board appointments.

What steps are crucial in being “board ready”?

The most crucial skill is being the best you can be in your chosen discipline and looking for broad commercial experience that allows you to see the big picture. I also think having a clear plan for your own career is good preparation.

How complex is corporate governance today?

It can be difficult to navigate especially where the board you are on is voluntary or where there has been a lack of a governance framework. In my experience corporate governance is often able to be simplified by reducing the requirements to writing. It is much easier to work out what is required if you are able to put your hands on a resource that says what the requirements are.

How competitive is it to become a board member?

Paid board positions are particularly competitive. There are a significant number of senior people who are using board positions as part of winding out of the workforce. Some of these people are very well credentialed but, in my observation, don’t always bring the diversity of thinking that can be productive in the board room.

Is it important to have a mentor on a board?

As young person, yes. There are a number of people with a range of skillsets who I rely on.

How important are personal values and interests at board level?

Very. Unless you are deeply interested and passionate about the work the board does you are unlikely to make a valuable contribution. On the issue of personal values – if there are things you are uncomfortable with in the board room it is better to resign than white ant decisions you don’t agree with. The best board members I have seen recognise the importance of the whole board supporting decisions even when you may not personally agree with it.

What reward is gained from being on a board?

It can broaden your experience and give you a different perspective. My involvement on the Newcastle Golf Club board gives me something to focus on outside of Sparke Helmore. While it takes up a significant amount of time, I think it makes me a better lawyer and a better manager. It has also expanded my business network and lifted my profile in the Newcastle business community.

What special considerations should be given to not-for-profit board roles?

The first is make sure you understand the rules that regulate your not-for-profit. The second is that you always need to remember that your duties as a director are the same even though the entity doesn’t have a profit motive.

This article was originally published in Newcastle Herald.