How to manage a feisty CEO


Alison Monroe MAICD might be considered a feisty CEO, having founded her own business, selling it to a new owner and then becoming its group CEO. But she also has sound advice for boards on how to deal with spirited leaders or founders.

Monroe founded Sageco, an ageing workforce specialist back in 2004 with two partners after seeing how hard it was for older Sydney 2000 Olympic Games volunteers to get back into the workforce. In June 2013, her company was acquired by The Donington Group, which last month made her its group CEO. She is also the only female director on the board of its parent company, HREXL.

Of her experience, she says: “I have had to very quickly learn how to wear the different hats of shareholder, director and employee and, of course, try to take off the hat of original founder. That hat can sometimes get in the way of good business sense when you have an emotional connection.”

She concedes that it has been challenging to go from being an entrepreneur, with all the flexibility and speed that comes with the role, to being governed by a very traditionally-run board of a company that also has a franchise network of partners and licensees across Australia and New Zealand.

“There are many stakeholder groups with many different agendas and one of the things that resonates in my mind most nights is that you can’t please everybody all the time. But I will die trying. It is about balancing the internal relationships with the need for me to stay externally focused.”

Speaking at last week’s Company Directors conference on Hamilton Island, Monroe provided some tips on how directors could best work with and optimise the skills of a feisty CEO.

“Give them oxygen and space,” she said. “Time is a highly perishable asset and, frankly, I only have time for so many coffees in a week. I have asked the chairman to consider moving the board meetings from monthly to bi-monthly just to give me some oxygen to make some of the changes needed and to report back on the outcomes.

“My predecessor was spending two full days a month preparing the board report. I want to spend those two days out with customers, bringing in new business and transforming the organisation.”

She also believed the board should allow the CEO to take measured and calculated risks. “Of course there needs to be a solid business case and an articulated return on investment, but if we don’t take risks we won’t move forward,” she said.

In addition, she cautioned the board against “sandbagging”. “You end up just draining the energy out of the CEO in terms of the agenda. If you sign off on the strategy and everyone is lined up on this, then there has to be a trust there to empower the CEO and leadership team to execute on that and not deep dive. There will have already been so much conversation before this stage.”

Asked whether she believed the board helped or hindered a company’s growth, Monroe said: “It’s about finding the balance. As an entrepreneur you can be quite impatient, but when you are surrounded by a wealth of experience in the room that has navigated change and storms, you need to stop and listen to that. It’s really about ‘hurry up and slow down’ and that is something I have tried to do.” 

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