In sync

Teresa Engelhard GAICD describes herself as a Silicon Valley transplant. She arrived in Australia in 2006 and has worked for 20 years as a venture capitalist, operating as an executive and board member with start-ups and growth-stage technology companies ranging from complete write-offs to billion dollar IPOs.

Her skills, and initial uncertainty about her future in Australia, led her to keep a foot in each country.

“If I had four feet, it would be three in the US and one here in terms of my networks and relationships,” she says. “All of my board roles in Australia have focused on innovation, international market access and, in particular, liaising with and expanding into the US. Over the past 10 years I’ve made 50 trips back to California and have attended more board meetings there than here.”

She would like that geographic balance to shift and has been building an impressive Australian resume. She is currently on the board of RedBubble, a creative online marketplace for made-to-order products, which listed on the ASX in May; Planet Innovation, a global leader in the development of medical devices, connected health and the Internet of Things (IoT); and StartupAUS, a not-for-profit organisation which promotes technology entrepreneurship. Earlier this year, after Daintree Networks, a developer of IoT-based energy management and smart building systems, had been sold successfully to GE, Engelhard concluded her 10-year role as a partner at Jolimont Capital to focus on building her career as an independent director.

Now her sights are set on the ASX 200. “I’d like to help large companies navigate rapidly-changing technology environments,” she says. “I decided to apply for the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) Chair’s Mentoring Program because I recognised that I could benefit from having a mentor who was very familiar with the listed-company environment and large company boards.”

The AICD program was designed to introduce emerging female directors to chairs and experienced directors, with the aim of achieving greater representation of women on boards. Engelhard was paired with Russell Higgins AO FAICD, a director of Telstra whose current and previous board positions include listed companies, private companies, government business enterprises and international organisations.

“I could see from Teresa’s CV that she was working in areas that were of great interest to me,” he says. “Telstra is a large technology company and it has a venture capital business of its own based in Silicon Valley. I’m also on the board of an investment company, so keeping up with emerging trends in technology is very important to me.” Higgins also sees great value in the skills Engelhard can take to the boardroom. “Digital enablement and digital disruption are affecting all industries and their impact will continue to grow,” he says. “I think boards in general could benefit from including people like Teresa who have first-hand knowledge of what both of these can do.”

Building rapport

It was only after they met that Higgins discovered they also share an interest in public policy. He has held very senior government positions including chairman of the then Prime Minister’s Energy Task Force and Secretary of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. Engelhard is currently working with the federal government on various innovation programs as a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Programme Committee and through her work with StartupAUS.

“All of these areas of common interest helped us to establish a good rapport very quickly,” says Higgins.

It was also a happy coincidence that they both live in Canberra. “The relationship wouldn’t be impossible if we lived in different cities because we both travel a great deal for business, but it does make it easier to meet in a relaxed way,” says Engelhard. “I think it’s important to spend time together in person, particularly as Russell and I hadn’t met each other before the AICD program.”

Higgins agrees that this helped them to get to know each other. “I believe that a close rapport it vital,” he says. “I wanted Teresa to leave our first meeting feeling comfortable that I was available to her – not just in terms of time but also in the sense that she could ask me absolutely anything in order to draw out whatever would be most helpful to her.”

They continued to catch up in the same coffee shop every six weeks or so. “I have a short Word document titled ‘mentoring scratch pad’ which I update to keep track of the evolving goals and actions that Russell and I develop,” says Engelhard. “I bring a copy to each meeting, but we don’t always refer to it. I also follow up by email to update Russell on progress and to get his input on timely issues that emerge and are moving more quickly than our meeting cycle.”

As they got to know each other their conversations became more efficient and focused, though they still find time to talk on broader topics. “The conversation doesn’t have to be directly related to “mentoring issues” to help both of us to become better directors,” says Higgins.

Both agree that good mentors must be well equipped to provide relevant advice. They must be willing to share their contacts and networks, and they must also genuinely care about their mentees’ careers.

“I definitely get all of these things from Russell,” says Engelhard. “When I signed up for the program I was expecting advice on developing my career as a director but I wasn’t expecting a mentor who would be so generous in sharing his network. All of the individuals Russell has reached out to on my behalf have also been incredibly generous with their time and very helpful. I have received advice, views and information from very senior people around Australia – people I would have found it very difficult to access without Russell’s help.”

A structured approach

Each cycle of the Chair’s Mentoring Program runs for a year so, as Higgins and Engelhard first met in August 2015, their commitment has officially come to an end. “I don’t think a time limit is essential for a good mentoring relationship but it can be helpful for focusing efforts,” says Engelhard.

“It creates a structure for working together and setting a few goals. And it makes sense for this particular program because, along with one-on-one mentoring, the AICD arranges events for each year’s cohort, which includes about 20 mentees in each major city. Of course, I’m also very conscious and appreciative of Russell’s generosity in volunteering a significant amount of time and effort. Although the official year is up, I will certainly continue to seek Russell’s advice and would like to continue our discussions on industry happenings.”

“I will be very happy to keep on working with Teresa if she finds that valuable,” says Higgins. “It would certainly be valuable to me. I have been mentoring for over 20 years in more work-based situations and, while every relationship is different, there is always something for me to learn.” Some of those relationships have lasted for many years. “I’m still in touch with people who are now in extremely senior positions in the country – these days more of a confidant than a mentor – but this is what drives me,” Higgins continues. “I really do like helping people and seeing them become successful in their careers.”


Teresa Engelhard will be speaking on the panel 'Planning for a disrupted future' at the 2017 Australian Governance Summit.

Want to find out more about the Australian Governance Summit? View the 2017 program here.