architect back to the drawing board

  • Date:01 Sep 2005
  • Type:CompanyDirectorMagazine

Architect back to the drawing board

The International Company Directors Course has lured even some of our more experienced directors back to the classroom, says education director Pamela Murray-Jones, who interviewed Penny Morris, a participant on the April 2005 program

Penny Morris has a formidable reputation in the business world.
Since 1989 she has been on the boards of a host of companies including Australia Post, Country Road, Colonial State Bank, Jupiters, Howard Smith, Indigenous Land Corporation, Aristocrat and Landcom.
     In 2002 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the property and construction industry.
Perhaps what is less well known is that she began her career in architecture, the first woman to graduate with honours in that field from the University of Melbourne. And if designing buildings was not enough, she was also one of the architects of the Company Directors Course as we know it now.
“I first did the course in the early 90s when it was run by the universities,” says Morris. “Having finished the exam half an hour early, I spent the rest of the time writing a letter to AICD on what I thought about the program. The next thing I knew, I was invited onto a committee to review the course and restructure it into something that addressed the needs of practising directors.”
There was little Morris did not know about what it took to be a director.
If resourcefulness, resilience, a lateral approach to problem solving and toughness of mind are some of the core skills for the boardroom, then Morris’s training began early.
Brought up on the land in the dairy district of Korumburra, Victoria, an only girl between two brothers, Morris says, “I wasn’t allowed to be a girl. Dolls were out of the question, though sometimes I’d dress up the cat.”
Instead she spent her early years riding horses and helping on the farm her mother ran while her father worked as a dairy industry executive. Often she was the “extra” to make up the team for her brothers to play cricket and football matches.
It was an excellent grounding, giving her the fighting spirit to cope with the realities of life for a senior female executive in the 70s and 80s.
For example there was the time she joined Australia’s largest property company as a senior executive and her engineering colleagues took bets on how long she’d last. (“Sixty days was the best bet... I stayed six years.”)
Then there was the deputy CEO whose opening greeting was to tell her he saw only two roles for women: in the kitchen and in the bedroom. (Morris asked him which room he’d like to start in.)
“It was a somewhat intellectually narrowing experience after the work I’d been doing with the Commonwealth Government,” she says.
Morris had been Director of Commonwealth Property in the Department of Administrative Services and had overseen many challenging projects such as the rationalisation of Commonwealth Government-owned property in Tokyo, a project that had meant some tight government-to-government negotiations and stretched her diplomatic skills. She loved the job and it was only because her husband was transferred to Sydney that Morris decided to leave Canberra. (“Commuting between cities puts too much of a strain on family life.”)
It was the longing for the same intellectual stimulation that her work in government had given her that eventually led Morris into directorship, her first role being on the board of Australia Post at the time it was corporatised.
By 1991 she had decided that corporate governance was what she wanted to do. In 1994 she quit her job as group executive, Lend Lease Property Services to concentrate on her directorships. Three years later she was on 10 boards and became a corporate governance pioneer, developing papers for AICD in an attempt to define better what governance means.
So is there anything that someone with this kind of experience has left to learn about directorship?
“Well, one of the guest speakers on the April International Company Directors Course did ask me what I was doing there,” says Morris.
“But I make sure that all the boards I’m on have some sort of budget for ongoing director education and development. It’s a challenge to continue striving for leading edge corporate governance, and it’s important to recognise it is on-going. There’s no blueprint. You can’t become complacent. There’s always something to learn.”
While Morris is passionate about her work, it is not her only passion. Throughout her life she has pursued a variety of sports. “Though all your sports passions manifest themselves in your body as you get older,” she says ruefully, listing some of the injuries she’s suffered over the years.
And then there’s the land – and architecture.
Morris and her husband are building a home, on their property at Jamberoo – a project that is taking a considerable amount of her time.
So would she ever consider retiring and moving to the country permanently?
“Heavens, I don’t think I’ll ever give up working,” she says. “I’ll always keep two or three directorships. But it is great to get back to my roots.”
AICD runs a number of programs for experienced directors including the International Company Directors Course, The Board and Reporting and Mastering the Boardroom. Contact your state division for more information or visit