Welcome to Rooster Radio. I’m Andrew Montesi with James Begley and today we’ve got another top performer sharing her insights from decades in business leadership. Donny Walford is the founder of Behind Closed Doors, a members-only organisation supporting women in business.
For Donny, this is a personal passion. She climbed the ranks in banking, despite a corporate culture that, at the time, openly blocked career progression for women. Such attitudes only made Donny more determined and resilient. She became more of a pain in the ass for those who were trying to stop her, and paved the way for many other women who were also dreaming big.
She’s a sought after advisor and sits on numerous boards, including a high profile position at the ABC, Key Invest, the Australian Associated Advisors, Heart Foundation and many more. But still she doesn’t believe in quotas for female appointments.
We talk about the evolution for women in business and the barriers that still exist today. We also talk about the board of directors from all angles, lessons learned in business, and much more.
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Doing some research, words like director, managing director, founder, chairman C.E.O, general manager, senior manager, executive all ring through your career to this point. I want to start, though, when you were at the bottom. When you were just starting out. When you were just scratching out your career. What was your first job?
First job, State Bank. Well, Savings Bank it was called, so I think almost every South Australian somewhere within their life had a start in a bank. But we had 4000 people in State Bank. It was the largest employer outside of Government, so that was that was the start of my career, and, seriously, it was at the bottom. Licking stamps. There were the days that you had to lick stamps.
They weren’t self-adhesive at that point?
So where, and which branch?
Glenelg. First branch.
What were some of your other duties in that role?
Customer service, which really wasn’t customer service at the time, but it was serving at the counter and the really weird thing is that you were the most junior and you were customer facing, but you didn’t know anything. It was really weird and then the more senior you got, the more you went into the back office and away from customers. Sort of all around the wrong way.
And now, today, customer service is having your best people face you customers.
Finance and money has been, I guess, a theme through your career in terms of, you know, the early days, the banking side of things.
Well, twenty years in banking, it was my trade. Yeah.
Did you always have a passion for banking, you came out of high school and?
No, you did hairdressing, nursing or banking. That was what you did back then, and, as I said, they were the largest employers. So, more about get a job and then work the rest out. In fact, I wanted to be – I don’t know why – but I wanted to be a dental nurse.
Not a dentist? But a dental nurse?
Well, this is it.
Because when I was growing up girls were going to get married and have kids and look after the house. So, you would never be encouraged in a career. So that’s why hairdressing, nursing and banking were – acceptable? Weeeelll… believe me. I joined- and this is going to sound really old, but I joined banking in the late 70’s, where only two years earlier if you got married you had to leave the bank, only two years before I joined. But when you did get pregnant you had to leave. So I was in that era. It wasn’t career stuff – women never got to branch manager of a bank.
So what were your aspirations then when you arrived at State Bank? What were you thinking about your future?
To have a good time. And this is what we talked about earlier. I then went overseas when I was 21 and lived in the UK for two and a half years – no friends, no family and no support and you had to make it and you had to go out and look for work.
It was all exciting, but it was also hard. You had to sort out your own problems, it was a long way to come home. And after two and a half years, returning to Adelaide and it was really only to come home, see my family and go back again. And, I just thought, oh my god, look at what we’ve got here in Adelaide and look how hard it was.
I mean, the most amount of money I earned in the UK was 45 thousand pounds.
45 thousand? That’s not bad.
Yeah, 45 thousand, but I started at 33 thousand. But I came off making a lot more than that. Double. So I went over to the UK when everything was double the price, but only had half that amount of money, so I was living day to day and I’d never lived day to day for my first 21 years. Yes. So that was really hard and I came back to Adelaide and interestingly enough all of my friends hadn’t changed, and yet, I changed dramatically.
And it was then that the bank had lost a lot of five-to-ten year people. So that was about it. When people joined from school, they went either back into university and full time work or they went on to other careers. Other industry sectors. So the Banks were losing all of their IP at five-to-ten years.
So I heard they were recalling any male that had left the bank between five-and-ten years of service. But they weren’t ringing females. So I rang up and I said you can’t discriminate between male and female coming back into the bank.
And did they say ‘yes we can?
You have to bring me back and the reason being is.
Unfortunately – my father was electrocuted and I didn’t go back overseas and I stayed with mum.
So that’s when, within that couple of months that I was home, I decided to stay and rejoin the bank. Because I’d had four years and that was party time really for four years and then I was bored because all I was allowed to do was lick stamps and serve customers.
We were only allowed to go on the cash, which was being a teller, after two years of being in the bank. I mean, seriously? You know it was mind-numbing stuff. So anyway, I went back into the bank, rejoined at Parkside branch and I just worked like a woman possessed, and I learned as much as possible. I just wanted to climb the ladder.
But there were no mentors, no sponsors, no coaches, back in those days. Those words weren’t even talked about. And there were no role models for me either. I just knew that I could do what the guys could do and wanted all the opportunities that they had.
Can you describe the feeling when you say you just knew what you wanted to achieve?
I can. So, I grew up a tomboy. And my brother was one year older than me, but six foot three and quite a big bloke and all of his friends were big blokes and I wasn’t. But I played football and cricket. I didn’t do the girl thing, I did the boy thing. And so I could do anything that they could do and it was only when I was in high school that I realized there was a difference between boys and girls, because the girls at 13, 14, 15 didn’t want you playing footy or cricket with their boyfriends.
So I got ostracised by both sides. The women didn’t want to know me because I wasn’t like them and the men weren’t allowed to know me.
So that’s when I realised there was a difference. So when I went into the workforce, I’m still thinking I’m the tomboy that I could do anything a man can do. If they’re allowed to go into residential lending and commercial lending, well why can’t I? I can learn what they can learn, so why can’t I get the same opportunities?
So it wasn’t sort of a planned goal structure at that time. It was more about ‘well, I can do what they can do’.
On a practical level, what was that like, trying to fight and scrap your way up that ladder?
So what I did was I never got the opportunity. I never got the promotions. I never got promoted. In actual fact, I have to really take you back to the history of the bank. You only ever got promoted on how many years you were in the bank. So, basically, the older you were, you got promoted. And if you got a degree you jumped a year. If you were 25 and you got a degree you could jump to 26. Even though you were still 25. Bizarre, isn’t it?
But that’s the only way you got promoted. So as a young person, you’re not going to get promoted any time quickly. So, what I used to do was play. I wasn’t allowed on the cash because I was a female, so I used to play on the cash. So I’ll do all the work but not get paid for it in whatever bit, but I’d be faster, better than anyone else and that’s the competitive nature of Donny Walford.
And then with lending, you as a female couldn’t go into even doing personal lending for a car or whatever. So I used to play at that as well. So I learned it all by doing rather than by being put on a course.
Anyway, the world did change. A guy called Tim Marcus Clarke came into the bank in 1984 and we merged what was State Bank, but it was a regional bank with the savings bank, became State Bank.
And his first question of the exec team and then in one of the exec HR director meetings, he asked – “where are all the women in management and where are all the young people,” and back then – 84 – I ticked both boxes and so he said – “you need to develop a fast-tracking program to get talented bankers on to these two year accelerated development program. We want more into management, more into senior management and exec.” Women and young people, and, at the same time, it was the first time outsiders could come into the bank.
So we were recruiting at different levels for the first time. And we could also bring in graduates, which we’ve never done. Never.
So beyond just the specific sort of fast-tracking was there also an exciting time within the bank? Were there other things happening? Was there a vibrancy, or was it sort of sidelined to just this kind of strategy?
That was exciting. That fast tracking program was exciting for me because, every six months I could move around the bank in any area that I wanted, do a project, which had to be a written report as well as facing up to the executive to present it, and at the same time you work in this particular area for six months and at the end of the two year period you might want to go back to where you were.
I only did one stint and just happened to say the right thing at the right time to go on to what we called the branch evolution team, which meant we turned the bank on its head and it was a team of three, a PA, a manager and me. And I was just a part – all of the things that I thought were boring in the bank in which we were duplicating or doing too much manual or whatever.
So it was a real evolution and I think they probably call it process re-engineering in today’s terms. And so I just led this, I piloted with five branches in the southern area, that ended up being fifty branches until the whole bank took it on and we saved a million dollars in its first year of operation ongoing. I guess people noticed what I was doing, and then long story short, I got six promotions in a couple of years and ended up- like – whilst I never got any promotions in the first ten years of my career, I got multiple promotions, but that’s when I realised there was a different game.
Every time I got promoted – won the gig – I got appealed. This is in the days you could get appealed. I got appealed by the men in the bank. And that wasn’t fair. And it was weird, and it was – ‘well how did she jump so many levels?’ in some ways, I guess.
The really weird thing was when they asked if I actually went for the job, they were appealing my promotion because they just didn’t want me to have it. Even though every one of those same sort of people would say, ‘you know it’s not fair you’re not getting paid, it’s not fair you don’t have the title, it’s not fair, it’s not fair’. They were the ones who appealed against me when I finally went for the position. But I went too fast at it for them.
As you were doing this fast growth in this period, what was happening to the other women at the bank? Were they talking to you and asking you what you were doing? Were you inspiring other people?
I was certainly inspiring some, but not all and a lot of people called me a bulldozer because I was bulldozing a way for them, because there were no real promotions going for women. But in that time that I was getting promoted there was the first branch manager appointed, a manager of another area was appointed, some senior managers were being brought in for specific areas of treasury, or we had females being appointed to the board for the first time.
So there were other areas, but as someone from a retail banking perspective, there were very few. So yeah. It was trailblazing, but the interesting thing is – once I finally got into a senior management role, that’s when I realised that some females didn’t want you there either, and in some cases I’d say they were worse than men as far as how they treated you.
I don’t know, I don’t know. But, people tell me now – so in hindsight – people tell me now, ‘you know that some women are called queen bees that like being the only ones there and don’t want the competition?’
A lot of men have said to me that women are more competitive with each other than they are with competing with men. And now, because I run Behind Closed Doors, which is all about business women, I hear it. I hear it all the time, but this is the first time I’d experienced it.
So asking the question, why? I think maybe there is some truth in the competitive side. I don’t know. A lot of women have said, and I’ve seen evidence that, you know, it was hard for me, so it should be hard for you and I’m not going to help and support you.
Now I don’t get that, because Behind Closed Doors is all about women supporting other women and encouraging them, but there are women who don’t support – and Madeline Albright has that beautiful quote – “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women”.
And that’s from America, so it obviously happens, not just here in Australia.
How do you reflect now on the situation where, very possibly, we will have a female president of the United States – let’s hope so anyway, and a female prime minister in the UK. We’ve got a deputy prime minister, well, Julie Bishop here in Australia who was playing the role of deputy prime minister. I think, is it Christine Lagarde that is president of the IMF?
So you’ve got the chancellor in Germany- and Angela Merkel in Germany. When you’re in the middle of something, does it feel like it’s never changing, but it’s not until you look back and you realize ‘wow the things have changed a little bit?”
I think they’re changing, but just not fast enough for women I mean, have a look at women on boards – it’s still low. They’ve got a target now. There’s some men around Australia who are in the 30 Club and they’re chairs of boards and they’ve signed up to get 30% of women onto their boards within the next few years.
Carolyn Hewson is trying to get 40%, so what, why 30? Let’s make 40, still not 50, but. So, the change has been there, but it’s slow. And then these boards and organisations that have had women on their boards and had women in their executive teams – they’ve gone back to none.
And that’s why you need not just one or two, you need more. On merit, of course, but there are women with merit who are just not on the radar. I was still here, still today, and I read even yesterday that a lot of men are still saying that there are no women with the qualifications to put on my board.
So there’s a two prong here. More women have to get on the radar, let people know they exist, and, on the other side, men have to start realising that there are women, and they just have to try harder to get them on a shortlist.
So that’s what I was going to ask. You’ve lived this evolution for women in business. That’s obviously a major barrier. What other barriers still exist today?
There’s so many ways you can answer this. That’s a great question. I’m going to take it on as women- we put our- I don’t believe in a glass ceiling. You know I don’t believe in quotas, we talked about that. First of all I think we limit ourselves. Like you’ve probably heard this a dozen times, if not more, that a woman thinks she needs ten out of ten ticking all the boxes before they go for a gig. Even if they are tapped on the shoulder. They’ll say, no I’m not ready.
Now a male might only tick six out of ten of those boxes and say ‘I’m going to give it a crack’, and they’ll learn on the job, where as the woman thinks she has to know it all and be able to perform the task before they go for the gig and I don’t get that.
So to me that’s a barrier that they put on themselves. So, on the other side, I think there’s still a lot of unconscious bias. There’s a conscious bias, but you know what? Let’s not even go there because that you can’t change. But on the unconscious bias, I think it’s men picking each other up on – “do you realise what you just said? Do you realise how you’re behaving?”
I’ll give you a really good example. Young women who are really bright, really well-educated, doing really well decide to have a family, they might come back to work beginning at three days a week or a four day a week, or whatever. When they have their day away from work and they’re usually looking after one or two more children, the male always said – “did you enjoy a day off yesterday?”
I can tell you most women who are juggling a career and young children will say ‘I’d rather be at work. Looking after these young kids and trying to throw everything into that one or two days.
My wife says that to me every evening when I get home from work – ‘I wish I was at work’.
We were on another podcast and we got onto this topic. It was one of the members of the other podcast who was a bit of an expert in the way that parents treat boys and girls differently at incredibly young ages, and he boiled it down to even the fact the average distance the parents let a boy travel from them.
In the early stages of life, like something double what they would let their daughter travel. And it’s kind of incredible to think that unconscious bias might begin with, not bad intentions, but right from the beginning.
Yeah I agree. And particularly fathers are going to be a lot more protective of their daughters, even when they’re in their teens, they’re a lot more protective.
I think of it in my context. I’ve got a two-year-old daughter and a boy almost four and I already start thinking differently about my daughter, you know, it happens.
Even though now there’s so much evidence seen in this crazy world where young boys are at risk just like young girls anywhere in the world.
Donny, who would pin up as some women who you really respect doing some great things in Australia that have messages that really resonate?
Carolyn Hewson is my role model and I’ve told her a number of times. She is outstanding. She gives a lot – and I’ve told her this recently, but when you’re speaking to Carolyn, you think you’re the only woman, or person – men say this too about her – the only person in her life and in that moment she gives you her full attention and she’s so gracious with her time.
She’s so into what you’re doing. But she’s also into the greater good of what’s happening in business and happening with women and she, I don’t know. She’s just a very special person.
And what about in business itself? Broaden it out. I mean, men and women. Who do you believe are sort of doing some really cool things in the country at this point in time?
I think Julie Bishop is – absolutely. Michaelia Cash, women like that. Tanya Pilbersek, Penny Wong I think is amazing. So they’re the political women. Michelle Guthrie who has just taken over as managing director of ABC – She is just a pocket rocket, amazing. Watch this space with Michelle at the helm.
Women leading major organisations, women who have set up their own businesses here in South Australia, the Sheree Sullivans of the world, Kylie Bishop. You caught me on the spot, I wish I had a list.
Yes we’ve had plenty of guests who don’t come up with anyone so. On boards, you’re on a whole heap. Is that a technical term, Andrew? We’ve got ABC, Key Invest, Australian Associate Advisors, there’s many. But you don’t believe in quotas.
Can you tell us a bit more about that?
It’s as simple as, if you are quota appointed to a board, other people around the board would think you only got there because of the quota, not because it was on merit. So targets I believe in. Targets are different. If you want to have 40 percent of women on your boards and 40 percent of women in your executive team, and you work towards a target – it’s a goal. It’s a target.
Fine with that, but if you set it that you have to, it’s regulated and – like the government has in this state. A lot of governments around the country have taken example from the South Australian Government – 50 percent of women on boards. So, if a woman leaves a board, another women has to be appointed in their place.
So that’s fine, but if you weren’t the right person for the job, and either of you two were, you couldn’t go on that board because it has to be a woman. I don’t think that’s good for women and I don’t think it’s good for the board. I still think it needs to be on merit.
But merit based appointments haven’t worked either. That’s why I think targets need to be there. But it’s purely because you will be tarnished, even though you would be a ‘maybe’ the right person for the board.
I think everyone around the table would go “the only reason she is on the board is because we have to have her, because she’s a female”. But I think this creates some of those false perceptions, because when a woman is appointed you know it’s because she’s a woman, sort of thing.
I’ve noticed with your appointment to the ABC board that gender is referenced.
How does that make you feel? Do you feel that it takes a bit of that merit off of it, I guess?
No, it didn’t because I know how hard I’ve worked to get to where I got and I also can tell you – after the appointment, I had a number of people tell me that they -other men, all men spoke on my behalf and so they were my sponsors and I believe mentors and sponsors are the reason for career success, particularly now.
And if you just look around, you know athletes, footy teams. They all have coaches. So why do we think we don’t need a coach to be successful? You know, and achieve the most we can achieve. So I think I’ve just lost my train of thought. Yeah that’s right. It was more of a comment on the fact that in the article it just references gender.
So I’ve worked really hard to be there and I’ve done my yards in the boards to be there, but from a national perspective, how do they know that?
Donny Walford existed in South Australia and I had a number of male sponsors speak on my behalf and every time they asked about who from South Australia with these sorts of qualifications blah blah blah blah blah and my name kept coming up, so then when it went to minister, there were people even, in politics who spoke on my behalf. So my name was mentioned a number of times. So when other people had a problem with that, I didn’t care because that’s their problem not mine.
I thought that was a great appointment and then a woman in Queensland was also appointed at the same time and she’s amazing. But we all bring some real strengths to the board who have been appointed recently and in the past, but I just think it’s fantastic for South Australia because we haven’t had a South Australian representative on this board since Peter Hurley.
So it’s great to have someone represent South Australia. And look, I’m really keen to go into this world of boards because it’s kind of this mysterious layer I think that a lot of people see and hear in movies and on T.V.
So I’m keen to get some reality in a second, but also I would like to know just the mechanics of Behind Closed Doors and how you formed that and in practice, and what does it do, I guess, champion all the work that we’ve been talking about.
So, I told you a little bit about the banking career, so being the only female out of 150 males in the last three of my banking career was tough and I didn’t realize how tough it was and why I left in some ways because I just didn’t know why I was hitting my head against a brick wall.
And when you say tough?
Because, I mean, I was pretty quick on my feet as far as thinking, you had to be because if I didn’t get out quickly what I wanted to say, or ideas, I’d never be heard. There were 150 men.
Were there days where you’d leave work just completely flat going why do I bother?
Never never never. No I had this mantra that I was with this time. I had this mantra and never let the bastards beat me, you know it’s that competitive stuff. But I was never going to let them beat me.
It almost seems to me from the way you’re talking like it energises you.
It was a negative motivator. Yeah it was big because it was tough but, god, I learned a lot. I mean, resilience. How my mouth got me into trouble. I remember my mum saying, “do you – did you ever think that no one wants to hear your honesty?” And I went, “no, I didn’t. Don’t they?”
She told me, “well I don’t actually want your honesty.” And so by hitting against a brick wall, often enough you think that’s not how you win and as someone who likes to win, particularly as a woman who just loves sport and competing, I was coming second all the time and I knew I had talent I knew I could do whatever I thought I could do.
But I was coming second and I wasn’t winning awards, I wasn’t being nominated, I wasn’t winning and I kept thinking “what am I doing wrong?”
It was my mouth. But because you have coaches or sponsors or mentors to slap me across the face and say – ‘If you just said this here, smartened up here and watched your behaviuor here’. I wore my heart on my sleeve. If I thought you were a dickhead I’d show you through my face, my eyes and my body.
And so then when I started a new career I thought, well you know this I can change. I mean I was always changing in the bank, but, unfortunately, I’ve been in the bank for you know 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 years. They always saw me as the woman I was, not the woman I’ve become, I am, and who I was learning you know that- of course I was growing up as well as maturing so what you could get away with as a young woman, you certainly didn’t get away with – but that also taught me about small politics, big politics.
When you get into senior management it’s a different game. It’s no longer about your technical ability, it’s is no longer about qualifications, you know that – it’s about you working in this team. Now you’re working in a different team. And you should be spending more time in that vein that you’re in and the team that you’re reporting to and not the team that you’re leading.
So Behind Closed Doors was all about my idea of giving back to women – don’t do my mistakes, it’s too hard. There’s already a cost to success. When you work around the clock and you don’t see friends and family to squeeze everything in, it’s your job. You’re juggling this all of the time. So I want to be as easy of a path as possible. So I wanted to give back to women all the things that I made mistakes in and could help them.
I also wanted – I had worked my whole career in male dominated industry sectors and watched men and saw why they were successful and thought well how could women and men do business differently, we networked differently. How could I take a leaf out of their book about why they were successful in building their networks, maintaining their networks, positioning themselves, profiling themselves, asking for promotions, asking for board gigs, asking for pay rises. How could I do it, but in our way?
And then Behind Closed Doors just morphed into a giving back program really. And then I looked at the models that were in male dominated giving back CO, tech type circles. And though, well I don’t like the model where you recruit someone into your group and that’s the group you’re in, even if you don’t fit into that group and I thought this has to be just like going into any organisation and getting the culture right.
Putting the people in the right – where they’re going to get the right amount of development and with the right amount of challenges, with the right facilitator and having a program director who was also a high profile business woman. So all these women with rich pasts and experiences giving back to each other.
We’re 8 years old this month.
Thank you. It’s just growing and growing and you know I get my – I’ve got lots of measures of success about how many get promoted, how many get awards. You know the biggest buzz I get is when a woman, who may be in their 50’s, says to the rest of the group: “This is the most comfortable I have ever felt in my own skin”, and I get goose bumps.
And the support that women give it. You know when the GFC hit and some businesses were doing as tough as almost closing the doors and people were coming in. The support with cash, sometimes but with the outside of those normal forms in helping and assisting in offering their own expertise because they couldn’t afford to put on any- it was just mind blowingly amazing the support women can give other women.
Yes you’re addressing that earlier point. The queen bee issue as well.
Queen Bees wouldn’t be attracted to Behind Closed Doors and we wouldn’t invite a queen bee because this is a supportive encouraging network and you’re really opening up your soul sometimes about things that you are not doing well, and you’re putting your business out there in a confidential setting and you’re putting how you’re feeling in a confidential setting and what’s holding you back and you know there’s a whole lot of tough love conversations that happen around that room.
Hence why women only will probably only when- never open up if there’s a male in the room because you feel like you’re being judged, you know there’s a different agenda. So when it’s this supportive, safe environment to open up and be really honest, you’re going to get the best out of the conversation and the discussion, and because you’re opening yourself up then you’re also opening yourself up to the women giving the tough love.
‘Do you think you just being a bit precious about this?’ ‘I think ,you know, you’re making up stories now.’ Or ‘I don’t think that’s actually the scenario at all and maybe you’re just overplaying this or you’re being precious or you’re being too sensitive’.
Now some of those conversations you might not at all go into when there is a male in the room. So, it’s only three hours once a month where you can think on the business, not in it and where you can also receive really candid open feedback on what you’re putting onto the table and the issue and the challenges.
Sometimes, it’s all about strategy, so you don’t want to share that when there’s a competitor or a supplier in the room so that matching process is really important to me and I think the reason for the success of Behind Closed Doors.
Now boards. ABC, one of the most important things in my life, the ABC, with the app or everything that’s on for a day. Can you explain, I guess, the mechanics of what being on the ABC board means?
To me or?
Yeah, to you.
Look, I’m still pinching myself. I’ve been on the board since November last year and it’s exciting, it’s complex, it’s leading edge. It’s, you know, five thousand employees and it’s still like going into a major family.
They are so passionate about what they do and believe in what they do. And it’s for Australians, it’s for us. So they’re really careful about their content and what they put on – I mean, we get a lot of comments – you probably read it and hear yourself about it being lefty. But I haven’t found it that way. I mean some of the announcers, reporters, maybe. But then I can tell you a number of announcers and reporters that aren’t, so…
So In terms of being on the board, do you have portfolios?
No,no you know, and that’s probably the hardest thing you’ve got to get your head around the whole organisation.
Okay, so it’s such a challenging time in media generally and probably even more so for the ABC, given funding and all of that. Some would argue that, well, some people have said the ABC gets a head start because of the funding. Either way, it’s a critical issue, so what are some of the challenges and main issues that are discussed at board level?
I can’t tell you that!
You’re having business discussion. I mean a lot of the time is just I mean it’s just such a large organisation, you are doing the numbers. I just spent an hour with our CFO, who’s visiting Adelaide today, David Pendleton on the numbers.
Like he gave me this amazing two-hour induction back in December.
Why was it amazing?
Because they give you so much time, and it’s better for me, I guess and for them, to understand it. You know, he does it so patiently and goes over these numbers, and I’m a finance chick, as you know. But it’s so complex, the different areas rolling up, and it is about funding cuts too, I mean how that rolls out in and how fast you have to find efficiencies to keep, because you wanted to keep on investing back into digital and technology.
Today’s technology is out of date tomorrow. The technology they invested millions in five years ago is out of date. We have to invest, we’re investing again. There’s content. There’s people. There’s 5000 people, you can imagine what that’s like to manage and lead.
For those out there, again just trying to break down this idea of what boards are, how do you describe what a board is and why they’re important?
So a board is a group of people who are directing the company for growth, for sustainability. It’s a board of people who are responsible mainly for that strategic direction, the viability of the organisation and to hire and fire the CEO. They are the main three functions of a board.
But then as you would know through just GFC and post-GFC and now we’re in in the new norm, anything – disruptors. Have a look at what’s disrupting every single industry sector now. You almost have to be a futurist and a trend expert on a board.
Because, as a board member, the first thing you tend to get is board papers that take you back a month, so you’re looking in hindsight, but what you really need to be doing is not know the next month, but what’s happening in the next six months or…
So the AICD, a couple of years ago at a conference – their annual conference, said, “we can no longer look at three and five year horizons, we now need to look six in six. So six months out and six years out. So far enough out to think ‘what will we look like in six years and what do we have to do to track it back to now’. But in six months, so much can change and what does that look like?
So, really, your board agenda is more set in the beginning of your agenda, and is all about strategy and decision-making, and the smaller part of your agenda is to be on the operations and looking back.
And so you will receive a pack how far out from the board meeting… within a week, so generally four days to five days. And I knew, back in my Perth days, that one of the mining companies, they literally had iPads with all the content on them and the ipad would be, you know, given or they had an app which was specifically just for those board papers.
How do you receive the information?
So different boards do things differently. The ABC, we’ve got a board app and it’s fabulous. Because the board papers are this thick, so you can take it around anywhere on your iPad or whatever. My Heart Foundation Board is on an app. My Key Invest, my financials are paper and I’m the only one besides an executive member who are banging on about “let’s get this on an app”, and we’re trying to make it happen.
I tell you, so you save the board paper, so you can be really honest. Realistically, how much of that would you digest and pick through in a fair bit of data?
Everything. Every word. Everything because, if you do AICD company directors, and this is what scares probably 50 % of every course participant – you’re liable for -and, you know, I’m on a couple of not-for-profits, but I’m just as liable on the Heart Foundation and the S. Y.C. board as I am on the ABC and the Key Invest boards.
So don’t think this is a sexy thing to do just to have it on your C.V. I could lose my house. I could lose everything I’ve worked so hard for and when you realize that, you take those papers seriously. I’ve walked off of a couple of not-for-profit boards because I couldn’t sign off on the financials. I did not have a level of comfort of the governance of the organisation.
So if you’re – if anyone’s on a board and don’t think this is serious, they should get off that board. So that’s my next point is for people weighing up board positions.
OK, let’s use an example, want to offer you a board position on Rooster Radio. Congratulations. Thank you. What are you going to be looking for at Rooster Radio in terms of weighing up the offer?
I do a due diligence. So I’d want to see the financials. So you’ve got a board already are you looking at a start board? Because I’d want to see past minutes, past agendas. I’d want to see what decisions you’ve been making, I want to know where you’re going, I want to see where your board chatter is, I want to see what your constitution is if you’ve got one. If you haven’t got one, let’s get one.
I want to see what the rules and regulations are about your business. And I want to know about the people who are running it. What are your credentials to run it. So it’s much about people in the due diligence process as it is looking at the documentation.
I could flip that around. What would, what should I be looking for in a board member?
That’s good. Probably the reverse of all of that. How much experience have they had in business? How much experience have they had in doable metrics, you need someone who understands finance. Someone who understands marketing, business development, someone who understands marketing, meaning all the social side of marketing now, you know, the distribution channels to a customer basically.
You need someone who understood governance, you need someone. You don’t necessarily have to have a high level accountant, a high level lawyer because you can outsource that information to someone who understood broad governance definitely and better that it’s not just one person.
Understand that- you know, general managers are good board directors because they understand and you know they are a little bit about the sales and marketing and a little bit about operations and, you know, finance and whatever. So someone who’s broad is always good on the board – HR, you know, understands the people in industrialisations- you know those sort.
So general managers – general management schools are always good to have on the board, but the diversity around having young people on the board as well as the experienced head around the board, I think is so important. So we can talk about lack of women on boards, today we’ve got a lack of young people on boards and we certainly have a lack of people with technology understanding.
I don’t mean geek. I mean really understanding how technology plays out in the strategic direction of an organisation. And we’ve seen that in media over the past fifteen years. To a degree, you know some of the other larger organisations were slower to react to the technologies to organise.
They’re still slow. Why do we have 10 % of businesses in Australia doing business in China or in India, and not one Asian or Indian on their board? I don’t get it. And yet they’re dealing with a culture that they don’t know. They’re doing business very differently to us here in Australia, why wouldn’t you have – and that’s why you hear women, Chinese women say there’s a bamboo ceiling.
So not only can they not get on a board because they’re a woman, they can’t get on because they’re Asian. They’ve got a double whammy and they reckon we’ve got it easier.
I guess one of the things which stands out to me here is you talk very strongly about a board needs to have a representative skillset and you need to have a mixture on your board and you need to have high level operators.
There is a strong perception that there is a very closed club of board members in the country who get some premium positions and it becomes their career and they sit on boards and yes they take it seriously but it’s a fairly small world. Is that a fair comment, that there’s this little club that governs a lot of Australia’s biggest country companies?
Look, it’s only because they are on the radar. So there are just as many women now on eight or ten boards as men, so we’re doing the same thing with females.
Because they’ve got their credentials now being on these exec boards. What I’m saying is – there are women who are board ready, board experienced, who can go on these boards and they just have to get on your radar.
So how do you get on the radar?
I mean, look, there’s a number of ways. Where do the chairs and the directors who are choosing the next director – where do they hang out? Yeah, you know. Find out and make sure you hang out with them. Sponsors, like I said, with the ABC board. Who influences them? Try to get on their radar. So you’ve got to do a lot of networking and relationship building and don’t think that you’re going to get on the board today because you want to be on, and you know because you planned it yesterday.
You could be two and five years away from getting on your ideal board. My ideal board, I want to be on the Crows board. Oh, I am an absolute footy tragic. I love my Crows and anything I can do to help that club –
You’ve come to the right podcast because James was maybe a mediocre player and I was a shit kicker of the club. In all seriousness, what would be one of the things you’d love to take up if you were on the Crows board, what would you love to push if you were there?
Look, I’ve got the women’s network. This is a cruel twist of nature, isn’t it? I wanted to be Graham Cornes – the female, right – because I was a bay supporter and I could not believe I couldn’t play footy, I just couldn’t play because I knew I’d be as good as him. I could fly like he could fly, get those marks, kick those goals and now they’ve come out with this women’s team, now what couldn’t I do for that women’s team? I could be a great coach.
No, but anything for them. I mean I want to put them through Behind Closed Doors and I want to help them with leadership skills. They’ve got to assimilate into Adelaide, they won’t know anyone, I’ve got a network that I can get them introduced to, they’ve got to have a career after footy and I don’t think they last as long as men are going to last out there on the footy field so they’ve got to have a career, anything I could do to help them with their professional development life after footy or even have something while there because I don’t know if they’re going to earn the sort of money that men are going to earn, so anything to help in that way.
But, you know 50% of women watch footy or are members of footy clubs, wouldn’t I have the ideal network around the country for growing membership among women?
I think we can broker a bit of a deal here as long as there’s a bit of a clip for Rooster Radio, and I have got to say I did a couple of crows gigs in school. So I got talking to Donny, and she wants a spot on the board and done.
Donny, we talked to one of our guests and recently they talked about having a board of advisors or some sponsors or you know, who would be in your inner sanctum that you open up and be vulnerable to?
So my foundation group, so my very first group that I started in Adelaide.
I would love some names.
Terry Sheer, Kate Costello. They would be my – so those two, and the boys – Tim Sarah from Sarah Group. And Kishen, who is one of the equity partners in BDO.
And how much- how vulnerable are you with those guys and in terms of when you when you’re struggling or when you’re flat?
I trust them. You know, with boards, when we talk about whether you want to be on a board or not, you can plan for it and you can do all the sponsorship. If the person who is choosing you to be around, the one thing they look for is – can I trust this person? Can I trust them to be around my board because I trust them.
And the ABC, that’s probably where it’s really come to the floor – there is so much even with the managing director that I was very privileged to be a part of. That was so important to keep who was applying and who was going through the process and whatever – and leaking – was just – we were freaked about it.
It’s a fascinating point, I’ve been on a couple of boards and on one board there wasn’t that trust and in the end we were spending a lot of time on safe operational things and weren’t addressing the underlying issues of what was needed to be talked about because there was a fear that if that was discussed, it would then be leaked, you know, in a wider sense and so in the end the board was a bit of a lame duck and actually wasn’t addressing the things that it needed to.
And I think you need to have the same zero tolerance that I have in Behind Closed Doors. It would ruin my brand and it would ruin the whole concept of Behind Closed Doors, if one woman stepped out of that room and talked about what was discussed in that room, and so we have a zero tolerance.
If we hear, then there’s no second chance. You’re no longer a member of Behind Closed Doors. It’s so important. I think the boards should adopt the same thing. Zero tolerance. We know it’s your leak? You’re out of this board.
Just taking this one step further, the relationship between a managing director or C.E.O. or general manager and a board – how much should boards trust the operational person to make the right decisions versus at what point does a board need to take the reins or override what an operational person wants to do?
So our role is through the CEO toward the exec. The critical relationship between the chairman and the CEO. That’s the most critical of the relationships and obviously the board has to be behind its CEO/ managing director. If that relationship falls down, that’s exactly what happens – it falls down and one has to go on. It’s never usually the chair and so that’s a critical relationship.
The same with the rest of the exec team. If the board doesn’t trust a particular executive, through the CEO, you need to direct about the CEO taking steps to address whatever the board has an issue with, with the executive. So, the same on the way up though, the executive needs to trust the board and you can agree with the board inside of the boardroom and then walk out and say “oh, the board this” and “the board that” and that just doesn’t work, and that’s a poor culture.
So if the executive and the CEO don’t agree with the board, it needs to be said openly and honestly in that room – so the same thing. It’s all about trust. Luckily I haven’t had too many experiences over almost twenty years on boards but the organisation hums when there’s a good relationship with the executives in the board.
Just to change tact. What are your views on where Adelaide is at perhaps in a context of – compared to other states, in terms of business. You’ve been overseas, you’ve been back, you’re at a high level, you’re doing stuff nationally – where are we at?
I don’t know if you read yesterday that our unemployment just went up to 7%. That’s pathetic. We can’t do that. We’re an entrepreneurial state. Why should we have unemployment? And look – every State’s doing it tough. Western Australia is doing it tougher than us, Tasmania was doing it tougher than us – they’re just rocking it and they’re rocking it on the back of agriculture and tourism.
We can too. We are an agricultural entrepreneurial state. And I think too many people in South Australia are waiting for, now they are the waiting for government to change, or there are others waiting for a different government, I mean why don’t we just get off our backsides and just make it happen? I think both sides of politics sit in, you know, their role is to set the environment, it’s our role to employ it.
I think the latest incentives that the government has just put out to business about employing and there’s an incentive, and I always thought years ago we had that – I don’t know if you were around at the time – one % of your payroll had to be spent on training and that really improved the amount of professional development and training and skills development that employees got which was fantastic.
In some ways this is an equal incentive that you employ someone, we’ll pay you if you employ some more, we’ll pay you and if that’s going to get people back employed and jobs and growth, then great, but you know we’re just going to come off a bit of a housing bubble, in particular the eastern states there’s a glut of apartments and more are being built. God knows why. But economically Australia is doing it tougher.
For South Australia we aren’t growing at the same rates. We’re growing, but very slowly. That’s not sustainable. But I think like these engine rooms, you know that we talked about earlier, more of that investment in venture capital, angel capital investment and more of that to help – and applaud people who try – they might fail, but pull them back up.
A lot need mentoring, a lot need confidence building. We do more of that and I think we’ll see a different South Australia, but I think we need to be very proud of what we’ve got and develop and nurture and encourage all these entrepreneurs, whether they’re young or older and help them if they’re struggling because they probably got great models but they’re probably just don’t have the business sense or they don’t have – some they’ll grow too fast or they’re not sort of watching all the indicators that show they could get into trouble, but rather than you know the tall poppy syndrome why don’t we help pick them up and help mentor them and make sure they don’t fail.
When you meet someone who’s young- he hit you up for a coffee or wants to talk to you about, you know, his career. What attributes will you notice in an hour? What sparks you to go “oh I’d like to invest a bit more time in this person?”
You know, I mentor a lot of people pro bono because I just love their energy, I love their passion. They’ve got great ideas and they don’t have limitations, only limitations placed on them by others generally. So they’ve usually got great ideas and they just want to soak up all your experience, you know, it’s wanted- and they’re so grateful. I don’t know why they just they’re refreshing and I guess they keep you young.
They keep you thinking differently and they challenge your thinking and I don’t know, they just – I guess – I love the Behind Closed Doors women because they give so much back because they are so appreciative. But they change. Everything you say, ‘do this, do this, do this’, ‘have you considered that’, they just go ‘yeah’, and they do it and you think oh my god, and how refreshing.
So you haven’t invested time or been hit up for a coffee, you just have imparted knowledge, you’ve given some ideas, you’ve given some encouragement and they do it and you think oh my god, wouldn’t that be great for South Australia if everybody did that? And young people as I said – no limitations so they just do it.
So we have a very poorly organised rapid fire question sort of segment at the end of our interview. Actually already thought about a couple. Yes. This the first time I’ve actually been organising thought of my rapid fire questions, but I have a few in the bank.
Best investment you’ve made?
It would definitely be in two properties that we’ve just built and are on the market as we speak.
Buying a block of land two months prior to it losing all its water. We lost badly.
Can you remember a specific day that you would identify as one of the most exhilarating days in your business life where you’re consciously euphoric about what’s going on?
It has to be State Bank when I got that gig to turn the bank on its head and I did and I ran and I worked 120 hours a week. Seriously, no joke. And I could have loved to work more. That was exhilarating, that was change.
This is a little bit of a loaded question because I saw you answered this in another article that I read.
This is not very rapid fire, Andrew.
I’m just I’m trying to pre-empt you.
But I probably won’t remember what I said.
Your thoughts on budgeting – personal budgeting.
OK, All right. I set budgets for my company and I’m strict on it. Personally – I don’t and it just does my husband’s head in because he says ‘you’ve got to budget, got to budget’. I don’t have to. I budgeted all of my life and saved for everything, I paid cash for everything and I budgeted and then my husband left me and I lost everything and I thought, stuff that. I’m not letting that happen to me again.
Any money I earned, I spent and then unfortunately lost a brother and a father in separate accidents – I thought Jesus Christ how short is life? Maybe I just need to have a bit of money for tomorrow but spend what I’ve got today. So budgets went out. So now I budget in my head about what I want. But there’s no writing it down on spread sheets or anything but in my business.
I’m so the opposite on all my boards, I am the worst for sticking to budget. So it’s really weird that in my personal life I don’t do that anymore.
And it was tragedy in some way that actually perhaps inspired that outlook on life?
Absolutely. It was the defining moment for me. I just thought bloody hell. Why would I leave all my money to someone else after working this hard and not enjoy it? Because my father couldn’t and he died too. He was early 50’s, my brother died just before he turned 30, so no, I wasn’t going to do that.
This is unfortunately a technical question on the back of that series. I don’t think it’s rapid fire anymore, they’re just back to normal questions.
If someone came to you with a P & L, or a balance sheet or a cash flow and said ‘oh shit, my business is going down the gurgler – help me’, what is one of the first one or two sort of areas of those reports that you just look at?
Top line, middle line, gross profit, bottom line. Go what the hell is going on, and then see what the cost of goods are- where are the direct costs? What are all the expenses, how can I cut it out. I’m great at trending, then I ask a thousand questions.
How many podcasts have you been on?
This is my first, I’m a virgin.
Have you listened to any podcasts?
This one! Rooster Radio.
I can see the script now – it will be Donny Walford, director, board member and Rooster Radio fan.
Yeah, but in all seriousness why is that this type of content, this type of forum is interesting to you?
Because it’s fun. And you do what everyone should be thinking of in doing pitches for their business, pitches for their life. Public Speaking. You get the story out of us and you do it in a way that’s really relaxing and fun.
That’s lovely feedback.
Behind Closed Doors. If we’ve got people who want to connect with you and get on board or at least know more about it, how do they find you and where do I find it?
They go to our website – behindcloseddoors.com. They can register their interest and then one of my team – usually Tiffany will follow them up or me and really look after them. But they register their interest because it’s an invite only – so we need to basically interview them, make sure that the program is right for them and that they are right for us, and then we think about that matching process about which group do we think that they would be most suited to with the right facilitator and program director.
Thanks for asking.
What is next for you to achieve? What are the things that you are striving for?
Apart from being on the Crows board?
Absolutely. Well maybe that’s it.
That is – I tell you that is my goal.
OK, I want to build my business to a point of sale. And it would be – there’s a horizon of about three years. And then there’s always an earn out clause – you know [working] a week in the business, another one or two years, and I think then I’d like to be a professional board director and just do something… I mean I always wanted to do some mentoring and sponsorship of people – men and women.
And business coaching, but it would be more… well rather working the 24/7 I do now, it would be on a basis that I would have more time to spend with my husband and my grandchildren.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, feelings, your story, for coming on, and giving us a flavour of what it’s been like to fight and scrap and achieve in a world that wasn’t always easy to you.