elizabeth proust john atkin

Recently retired AICD chairman Elizabeth Proust AO FAICD became known over her three years in the role as a forceful advocate for directors and good governance on a range of issues. In television interviews, in public forums, on op-ed pages, in conversation with politicians and community leaders, her precise and direct manner demanded attention and changed minds. Proust led the governance community with conviction, intelligence and nuance.

As Proust steps away from the role, her advice to her successor, John Atkin FAICD, is to draw on the diversity of the membership as he oversees the AICD’s vision to strengthen society through world-class governance.

“The AICD has a very broad membership, 43,000 and growing, across ASX, private, government and not-for-profit boards,” Proust says.

“We are a very broad church, if you like, of members who have a wide range of views, which they express in many ways. In what’s becoming a difficult environment for directors, John will find his own voice and his own issues.”

It is work that Atkin has already begun. A measured thinker on governance who has been a member of the AICD for nearly 30 years, Atkin sees this as an important time of reflection for the director community in light of recent Royal Commissions.

“The better question to be asking is: ‘Looking back, what could I have done differently that might have led to a better outcome?’” John Atkin FAICD

“We need to take a bit of time out to reflect on what we could have all been doing differently that might have led to better outcomes.” Atkin says. “The natural tendency is to become defensive and explain why I didn’t know this or didn’t do that — or that I didn’t realise it was that bad. The better question to be asking is: ‘Looking back, what could I have done differently that might have led to a better outcome?’

“That starts with the board and works the whole way down. A way of making accountability live is to ask that question and be prepared to have that discussion, which, as a former lawyer, I know is not necessarily easy to do, especially with the pressure of the media.”

Atkin spent 19 years as a corporate mergers and acquisitions partner at Mallesons Stephen Jaques (now King & Wood Mallesons), then six as national managing partner at Blake Dawson (now Ashurst). He then became CEO of listed fiduciary services business The Trust Company.

Former Trust Company chair Bruce Corlett AM said of Atkin’s tenure there that he led a major business transformation, strengthening the company’s market position in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

As a professional non-executive director, Atkin currently sits on the boards of intellectual property services company IPH, radiology provider Integral Diagnostics and the Commonwealth Bank Officers Group Super. He is also chair of Outward Bound Australia and has just completed a five-year term on the State Library of NSW Foundation Board.

In his long involvement with the AICD, Atkin has pursued his professional development as a director and governance leader. “I’ve always seen the institute as my professional college,” he says. “I’m humbled and delighted to be asked to join as a chair.”

The size of the membership allows the AICD, through its education programs, to have an impact at scale, according to Atkin. “Education of good governance and governance practice, with 43,000 members, allows the AICD to be a participant in the governance of the country.”

As she leaves, Proust sees furthering director education as the biggest challenge and opportunity for the AICD.

“In light of the successive Royal Commissions with another to come, the AICD has to ensure that governance education is the best it can be and extend it to a wider group. We already educate 5000 people a year through the Company Directors Course and thousands more through our other programs. But even that is probably not sufficient. We need to do more.”

She also believes it’s important to continue to advance the AICD’s advocacy agenda with a federal election and state elections in Victoria and New South Wales due next year.

“The most recent Director Sentiment Index identified a number of key issues that are important for our members: climate change, energy policy, taxation, infrastructure. We need to continue and extend our advocacy of sensible policy outside partisan politics.” Proust sees it as her proudest achievement that she developed the voice of the AICD on a range of policy issues.

“There are people who think we should just stick with so called black-letter law and leave other issues alone, but there are a range of issues that are of concern to the whole director community,” she says. “The AICD is now in a position to be — and be seen to be — a powerful voice for the broad director community of our members.”

The issue with which Proust is perhaps most closely identified, board diversity, has seen major progress in her time at the top of the AICD. When she started as chairman, the ASX 200 only had 20.6 per cent female representation on its boards. That number has now risen to 28.5 per cent as of 31 August this year.

Proust may have exhorted Atkin to find his own path, but this is also an issue in which he firmly believes, although his framing is different.

“We should really be talking about equality of genders and then about diversity,” he says. “Diversity is slightly euphemistic. If what you’re talking about is equality of gender, that’s what we should call it — and I’m very supportive of it. I’ve been on all-male boards; equally, I’ve been on boards that have had a much healthier composition of females. I applaud the work Elizabeth and others such as Nicola Wakefield-Evans FAICD, Kevin McCann AM FAICDLife and David Gonski AC FAICDLife, have done in championing change. I see an opportunity to continue that and help male directors adjust and embrace and be part of that change.”