what ive learned

Cherrell Hirst AO FAICDLife

Based: Brisbane, Queensland

Roles: Chair Factor Therapeutics; director Gold Coast Health and Hospital Service, Bolton Clarke, John Villiers Trust.

Studied: University of Queensland (medicine/surgery, education); honorary doctorates QUT, Southern Cross University, Griffith University, University of the Sunshine Coast.

Worked: Chancellor QUT; chair Brisbane Girls Grammar School; director Wesley Breast Clinic, Medibank, Suncorp; chair/director of various biotech startups; CEO of QIC BioVentures.

I studied medicine on a Commonwealth Scholarship back in the 1960s. Twenty years later, I studied education to understand how knowledge influences adult behaviour. I’ve been passionate about the benefits of education at every stage of life and that saw me involved in that sector alongside my role in health services during my executive career.

I was in the leadership of the Wesley Breast Clinic (1982–2001) from its outset and a director for 17 years. It was at the forefront of mammographic screening in Australia and I developed a high community profile. In 1990, that led to an invitation to join the council of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). I was flattered, but unnerved, because it would be a steep learning curve. I knew about health, but I had a lot to learn about the university sector and governance. I was elected to the board of Brisbane Girls Grammar that same year.

Influencing change

In a couple of my board roles, I’ve felt I haven’t been listened to. I might have asked a question or made a point and it got a quick, maybe even dismissive response. Quite often, later in the board meeting, another director would pick up that same point and it would turn into a big discussion. I thought, ‘That’s the point I made half an hour ago and nobody took any notice. Why?’

This highlighted to me the importance of the way you talk around the board table. Not just asking questions or seeking explanations, which often doesn’t lead anywhere or generate change. How a topic is approached or a matter raised is as important as the content. Most boards now recognise the importance of seeking diversity, but getting more women, younger people, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, or those from non-English-speaking backgrounds may not make any difference if the boardroom culture isn’t respectful. The challenge is not only to have those people around the table, but to have their views listened to. It’s every director’s responsibility to cultivate a culture of respect and trust. The chair can make a big difference to the way conversations happen.

Discussion and debate often lead to improved solutions and build a sense of teamwork around the table. No director should be afraid to participate or disagree. Discussion can be closed down prematurely by even one confident or dominating director, and it may be necessary to intervene by disagreeing. Deep content knowledge is important, but it’s not enough. Directors who aren’t expert in the sector may feel too intimidated to ask a question, yet just having a different perspective expressed might shed useful light on the detail.

I’ve learned to be mindful of the end game or strategic impact, even when discussing detail. There are times when it is important to dig into the detail, but it is important not to get bogged down or distracted by it. The board must have a comprehensive understanding of the policies, processes and systems — and there needs to be a thorough monitoring process to know policies and processes are being executed as required. This allows the board to focus on the broader strategic issues and the end-game.

Group learning

Being a director is a lonely business. You can’t talk to your family or friends — no-one can help you except someone who understands the situation. That’s why I’m part of a small group with three other directors. We meet intermittently to share experiences and develop our understanding of changing aspects of governance, risk, strategy and technology. The group evolved naturally. We became friends, then realised that as we trusted each other absolutely, we could talk confidentially about managing board situations. It boosts confidence, generates ideas and may support the conviction to stand up if things are tough around the boardroom table.

When I was invited to join the Bolton Clarke board seven years ago, I hesitated because of my age. I talked it through with the group and they encouraged me not to decline on that basis alone. A board should reflect the constituency of the business — which perhaps means that older age is acceptable in an aged care board! My work with Bolton Clarke is challenging, but rewarding — the sector has been through the Royal Commission and COVID-19, but the CEO and executive team have managed those difficult times well.

One of the first tips I’d give to aspiring directors is to consider whether a non-executive career is truly for you. As a CEO or executive, you’re calling the shots — and some people are much better suited to hands-on doing.

My 32 years of board experience has been enormously rewarding overall. I have learned through success and failure to work with my fellow directors to make the best decisions at the time. I’ve always seen it as incredibly important to identify and encourage the most capable and fit-for-purpose directors and executives to join the team, knowing that the strength of the collective is fundamental. As I come to the end of my board career, my one desire is to know that at some times, in some ways and for some people, I have made a difference.