‘Hello Mr Westlake,’ said the voice on the phone. ‘I know you don’t have the time to be a director … but we were wondering whether you’d consider being the chairman.’
Some weeks earlier, I’d received a call asking whether I’d be interested in being appointed to the Establishment Board of the Meteorological Service state owned enterprise, being set up as a part of the government’s structural reforms. I had never been on a board, but I had always had an interest in the weather and, as a former pilot, I understood how heavily you relied on accurate weather reports and forecasts, and this opportunity excited me.
I replied that I’d have a strong interest in becoming a director, but needed to check first with my employer, the New Zealand CEO of an overseas owned bank. He wasn’t known for supporting his people’s career development and scoffed at this idea, telling me I couldn’t possibly have the time to take on this new role. It was late 1991 and merchant banking in New Zealand was almost moribund, so I didn’t agree with him, but regretfully I declined the approach.
So it was quite a surprise to receive that second call some weeks later. International banks have many faults, but one area in which they were sometimes quite skilled was in reading the mood of the times. When I relayed this further approach to my boss, he must have thought twice about whether to decline the evident wish of the government, and he told me I should accept.
So began my board career: Establishment Chair of the MetService SOE Establishment Board, chairing a board tasked with setting up the first national weather service in the world to be turned into a commercial company. I’d barely been inside a boardroom and had no training for the role, but I was keen to learn and take on the challenge … and I’ve been learning ever since.
Establishment boards of SOEs had no legal status, and we had no legal standing as a board, but, as I was advised by some government officials: ‘They’ll never work on paper, but they’re fine in practice.’ I might say the same about my early governance career.
28 years on, and I’ve been privileged to chair many boards since then and to work with some excellent – and a few not so excellent – chairs on other boards.
In my advisory business, I work with many newer chairs and chairs facing complex challenges and conflicts. They often ask where they can find reference material to guide them. Much of what I’ve found seems more relevant to experienced chairs of publicly listed companies, something that many (most?) chairs aren’t.
Apart from some initial training courses and generic best practice papers, I haven’t found much for the rest of us, chairing private companies, family businesses, co-operatives, government bodies, sports organisations, charities, other not-for-profits, or any of the thousands of other organisations that need someone to chair their board.
That’s why I’ve called this blog, ‘Chairing – for the rest of us’, or ‘CHAFTROU’ for short. Over coming weeks I’ll talk about the role of the chair as I’ve learned it, with some highlights, lessons, tips, and some of my biggest mistakes. I may add a few incidental comments too.
I hope this will help to fill some of the gaps, and that it’ll be useful – and entertaining – and, most of all, that you’ll enjoy this journey with me. Welcome a-board!