Naseema Sparks AM FAICD describes herself as a maximalist. “I’m a maximalist, not a minimalist,” she says. “My house is a maximalist house – maximalist colour, maximalist art.”
While Sparks is talking about her home on Pearl Beach on the NSW Central Coast (she also has a home in Sydney’s Barangaroo) and her passion for collecting works by Australian glass artists, she could also be talking about her career.
“Throughout my life, I’ve been a great believer that you put your hand up for things and volunteer where you can. When opportunities float past you, you’ve got an option. You can let them go or you say: ‘I’ll give that a go’. More often than not, that opportunity leads to others,and it adds to the rich tapestry of your experience,” she says.
“I’ve always rolled up my sleeves and done things outside of my executive career, particularly in the arts and sciences, or for the furtherment or betterment of other people. I’m a great believer in giving back and paying forward.”
After a career in marketing and advertising, Sparks is now a full-time non-executive director at wine maker Australian Vintage, printer PMP, cloud consulting business Melbourne IT, and at video tech company Genero.
She also serves on the NSW Council of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), is a director of the Biennale of Sydney and is a member of the board of trustees of Sydney Living Museums. Her willingness to put her hand up for opportunities means she is also a member of the advisory board for Sport at the Service of Humanity for the Vatican, despite not being a Catholic.
Sparks’ father was an executive at Shell, so while she was born in Australia she grew up in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and was schooled in the UK before coming back to Australia to finish high school and go to university.
She studied pharmacy and pharmacology but only worked briefly as a pharmacist. While working at what was then Glaxo she decided she was more interested in strategy and marketing.
“I started working in the technical side and then I realised that the marketing people had a lot more fun, so I did a marketing degree and moved to be a product manager,” she says.
After moving to what is now Sanofi as marketing director, she wanted a new challenge and did an MBA at Melbourne Business School and joined what was to become PwC as a strategy consultant.
One particular consulting assignment involved an in-depth assessment of a client’s marketing and advertising expenditure and return on investment. Sparks was reviewing the advertising agency involved and thought she may be able to add value to an agency business with her background in marketing and strategy. “It was at this time that I understood that I had a creative streak, and enjoyed being in creative and innovative environments,” she says.
Sparks worked in various senior roles in the advertising industry in both Australia and in London, and joined M&C Saatchi in 1997. In 2000, she became managing director of the Sydney business and a global partner.
While managing director of M&C Saatchi, Sparks acquired her first commercial board role at vitamin and health supplement company, Blackmores, thanks to her combined background in pharmaceuticals and marketing.
She now describes herself as “a business strategist who just happens to understand marketing, brands, digital and technology.”
Many boards are now seeking out directors with marketing expertise, particularly as the marketing and media landscape has become more complex with the rise of digital technologies and social platforms, Sparks says.
“Any company with a business-to-consumer aspect needs a perspective on their customers, product development and product marketing. I call myself a top-line growth director,” Sparks says. “There are directors who manage for the bottom-line, manage for cost control. I am fortunate enough to have a skill set that manages for top-line growth. I understand where the investments are being made, and how to assess a suitable return on those investments.”
Marketing is a major investment for many consumer-facing companies, but has traditionally been seen as a cost line rather than an investment. Boards need to understand the medium-term returns on marketing investments and the impact of withdrawing marketing allocations for short-term reasons.
“If you are directing a significant amount of your expenditure to marketing, you actually need someone at board level who understands it because there’s no point in throwing all that money into these areas unless there is a return on investment for you somehow, through either customer loyalty, customer increased basket size, customer spend, or customer advocacy,” she says.
Sparks believes senior executives should be able to have one listed board director role if they wish as it allows them to see into a business and culture that might differ from the one they are managing, and gives them variety in what is otherwise an all-consuming work life.
For those aspiring to a board career, Sparks says networking is key and doing the Company Directors Course™ is also a good start. Aspiring directors also need to be patient and selective about the board appointments they take.
A board career
Indeed, while it is Spark’s general inclination to say “yes” to things, she is selective about the board roles she agrees to take on. One major issue is capacity and Sparks says directors need to be mindful of being “over-boarded”. Directors must also be interested in the business and the company and be prepared to devote time to the board for the medium-to-long term. “Being a director is a long-term commitment,” she says.
“A key consideration for me is board and company culture,” says Sparks “I always ask the chair, ‘how would you describe the culture of your company and its values?’
“Until very recently, many of them couldn’t answer me. They would say things like: ‘that’s an interesting question. No one’s ever asked that before,’ which is telling in itself. Now, thanks to increased focus from the community and regulators, everyone can answer it.”
A strong and cohesive culture can add “percentage points” to the profit line, because it creates loyalty, teamwork and trust among people who are passionate about the company. “Of course we must work towards profitable outcomes and increasing return to shareholders. But, there’s nothing wrong with having fun at the same time. It is a very powerful thing.” she says.
Sparks has been involved with several scale-ups – technology companies that have moved beyond the start-up phase and are starting to increase their revenues and are trying to increase their scale.
She chaired online general merchandiser, Deals Direct, before it was sold to auction site GraysOnline and has been a director on the board of taxi booking app, Ingogo. Last year she joined the board of video platform Genero as it plans to expand overseas.
As a “top-line director”, Sparks says she understands what is needed for rapid revenue growth and the required metrics around conversion and growth. “In the start-up or scale-up world, management thinks if you put a branding campaign into the market that it will start to pay back immediately. It doesn’t. Building a new brand takes longer than you think and patience is needed. In many cases, it is better to use marketing funds in social or digital channels where you know immediately whether you’re getting a sale,” she says.
In some cases, working with a scale-up board also entails working closely with CEOs and founders to assist them with strategy and marketing, and helping the team understand the customer perspective. “The board is often like an advisory board as well as a governance board,” says Sparks.
“Founders of small companies and start-ups are entrepreneurs. They strongly believe in themselves and can sometimes find it hard to take advice on board. It’s unusual for a founder or group of founders to successfully scale their company, where execution becomes more important than the idea itself. Many founding CEOs don’t make the transition from entrepreneur to manager and leader – these are learned behaviours.”
Of course, there are risks for directors in getting involved in a scale-up and ending up with a business failure on their hands. “I think you have to genuinely understand the area, like the people that you’re working with and of course like the product,” Sparks says.
One of the key focus points is what tech investors call the ‘runway’, or in other words, how long the cash lasts. If a company with good revenues is skating close to the wind on cash, many professional directors bail out because they can’t risk being a director of a company that is trading while insolvent or is at risk of doing so.
“Australian insolvency laws are among the toughest in the world. In many cases, a scale-up company can successfully trade out of a tight cash situation. I am a proponent of stronger safe harbour rules for directors in these situations, because we are not going to encourage an innovative society in Australia if we don’t loosen the rules around insolvency for innovative businesses,” Sparks says.
Sparks is also on the board of Australian Vintage, which produces McGuigan wines, Tempus Two and Nepenthe among other brands. She says it is an interesting mixture of an agricultural business and a high-end branded business.
Sparks is also on the PMP board and says despite the rise of digital media, the printing business has a bright future. “Hard-copy books are now growing, catalogues have never stopped growing – albeit slowly,” she says. “Printing has always been an interesting game, it’s a consolidation play at the moment as you can see with recent mergers and acquisitions. It’s going to be an interesting era.”
Variety of roles
Along with her corporate boards, Sparks is a Trustee of Sydney Living Museums, formerly the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales and recently joined the board of the Biennale of Sydney. She was also on the Sydney Dance Company board for seven years.
“The arts is my balance. It’s good for the soul and I genuinely love it. I love the performing arts, I love the visual arts; I love all forms of human creative expression. That’s why I do it,” she says.
A particular passion of Sparks is collecting glass artworks. She likes “big follies” such as large, old pieces of Murano glass as well as pieces by contemporary Australian designers such as Nicki Harley.
In August 2015, Sparks was asked to join the advisory board for Sport at the Service of Humanity to the Vatican. This is a pan-faith initiative of Pope Francis to combine the best values of faith and the best values of sport to the benefit of dislocated and disadvantaged communities around the globe. It is based on the belief that sport can be a unifier across faiths and a genuine source of enjoyment in difficult circumstances, such as extreme poverty or in the experiences of refugees.
The appointment came about when she sat next to Professor Bernie Mullin, an international sports marketing specialist, at a sport conference in Brisbane in 2015 at which Mullin was a keynote speaker.
“After a few minutes of casual conversation, Mullin said: ‘Would you be on an advisory board I’m putting together?’ I laughed and said I would, depending on the time commitment, not having any idea of what the advisory board was about or for whom.
“Then lo and behold a few months later, I found myself in the Vatican City with a group of fifteen people from all around the world. Sport at the Service of Humanity is a wonderful concept, a very, very big idea of the current Pope,” she says.
The diversity debate
Sparks is a strong believer in diversity in Australia’s boardrooms and at senior levels of organisations, and she doesn’t mean purely gender diversity. “To me, diversity means diversity of thought. I know people focus on gender diversity, but to properly embrace diversity, you must consider ethnicity, age, gender, religion, and thought. You can have a gender-diverse board which can still lead to groupthink,” she says.
Diversity of thought is harder to achieve on a board than the more measureable forms of diversity, but it’s incumbent on the chair or the head of the nominations committee to consider board candidates who might not always come from the same well-trodden background, and may have alternative perspectives to the majority.
It also takes a leap of faith for a board to choose an ‘unknown’ director, though it can pay big dividends. “It actually requires a degree of courage to appoint someone outside the box – to try someone new. It’s a bit of a risk in a way,” she says.
“The thing about diversity of thought is that there will always be a person that won’t always have the same perspective as others around a table. The important thing is to ensure that the directors listen to an alternative view. It takes time to learn to listen to another perspective, though I think the best chairs always understand and acknowledge this.”
Also, directors from more unusual backgrounds and with different points of view need to understand that a process operates around a board table, and that patience is required. People won’t listen to them just because they are on the board. It can take time for people to recognise and understand a different point of view.
In terms of gender diversity, Sparks says two or more women are required on a board to have a true impact. “It goes back to being heard,” she explains. “Often, a single female with a slightly different perspective in a group isn’t heard. It’s only when there are two or more women that men, being the dominant culture, will say, ‘Actually, if all of you believe this, maybe there is a point.’”
Sparks says she has sometimes seen boards “get carried away down a burrow by failing to look outside when they become a bit narrow-minded and tunnel-visioned.
“Sometimes, when there’s a major event happening there’s a tendency for people to just execute rather than discuss around the board table and seek opinions or look at different ways of looking at the issue,” she says.
All in all, however, Sparks says she enjoys her work as a non-executive director. “I really like the people around the table that I work with. I like the variety of work that you get,” she says. “I tend to work in the scale-up space and the mid-cap space, and you see an awful lot of variety in those spaces. It’s not only a governance job. I really genuinely enjoy it.”