How to talk at the top

Finding a balance between the governance and management of an organisation is not always an easy task. Clashing personalities, differing views and poor communication often create ructions between boards and senior executives.

But at UNICEF Australia, mutual respect and a solid business approach have helped cement a partnership between President John Stewart FAICD and CEO Dr Norman Gillespie.

The organisation is "extremely well run by Norman and his team", says Stewart.

"Management have everything under control so my job is about reviewing the agreed strategy to ensure we stay on track, reporting back against our agreed measures and encouraging interaction between board members and management. It’s about allowing management to continue doing what they’re doing, and they are doing it extremely well at the moment."

Gillespie says his and Stewart’s experience in both business and boardrooms has also helped.

"Being a chair of other not-for-profit organisations allows me to appreciate the issues and pressures of managing a board while also running a high-powered team," Gillespie says. "And because John is a businessman as well [Managing Director of a large business outsourcing company], that knowledge between us means we speak the same language very quickly," he adds.

The key to success

Gillespie says balancing the needs of the board and senior management is a juggling act that is the key to a successful organisation.

"If you have highly skilled people on your board, you want to utilise that, but then again, you don’t want them second-guessing our highly skilled management team. We are always looking to balance that between us," he says.

Running a large NFP organisation is no mean feat, and both Gillespie and Stewart acknowledge the shifting demands in the sector. It is no longer enough to be enthusiastic or passionate about a cause. Today, NFP organisations also need to be commercially minded – skills that Stewart admires in his CEO.

"Norman brings a very deep business knowledge and experience to UNICEF," says Stewart. "When he first started reporting to the board, I was impressed with the clarity of reporting, the depth of reporting and his way of thinking. I have actually been able to take some of those learnings back into my own corporate roles."

He adds that under Gillespie’s reign, UNICEF Australia has greatly increased corporate governance control while simultaneously opening up the interaction between the board and management. "It’s been very successful in terms of the sense of control I have as a director, as well as the freedom we have to interact with the organisation and the other individual directors. It’s quite progressive," he says.

Similarly, Stewart’s corporate experience means he is fully aware of the importance of efficiency in meetings and respect for best governance standards – a trait greatly admired by Gillespie.

"It can be really frustrating if a meeting is taken off track or if someone has a bee in their bonnet about something that is not on the agenda, but John is excellent at closing that down pretty quickly. He understands the importance of getting through certain pieces of business when decisions need to be made," Gillespie says.

This is an edited extract of an article that first appeared in Company Director magazine.


In other words…

  • A good relationship between management and a board starts with mutual respect
  • Understanding the requirements of both governance and operations helps to avoid stepping on others’ toes
  • Experience in other organisations and other roles can also help

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