Part 2 | Recruiting good bosses and getting smart about what you do at home are keys to career success, according to non-executive director Fiona Balfour

by Liz Benson

Fiona Balfour is a professional non-executive director who sits on the boards of Land Services South Australia, Western Sydney Airport Co., and Airservices Australia. She is also the managing director of Allard McRae, providing strategic advisory services to boards and CEOs, and coaching and mentoring services to technology and female executives.

We see a lack of women on boards in Australia. Why do you think this is? Do you think quotas should be introduced?

It’s a lack of executive experience. When women leave executive life to become a board director, I’m not sure it does either them or the companies much good. Moving into a board director role is not a natural career progression and it can be very difficult.

I don’t think quotas are the answer and would likely only lead to unnecessary complexity. I think the answer is to improve the levels of executive experience that women can attain. Women need to make a commitment to professionalism.

This can be hard because some women see it in conflict with their roles at home. But it doesn’t have to be! You need to get smart about what you do at home.

What makes someone good at being a board member?

I believe I’ve been a better board member when I’ve been emotionally connected to the subject matter. In some cases, I’ve done a great job when I’ve been completely unemotional, but I haven’t necessarily enjoyed the experience. And I’ve been very successful when I’ve been deeply emotionally committed but that comes at a higher personal cost. That’s life!

As a director, you’re not really keeping office hours. People see being a director as a soft life but it’s not. If you want to do the job properly, you need to really invest in it.

For me, the very best days in the office are as an executive. For example, cutting over a real-time new commercial reservation system for the airline where 500 people have been working on it for three years, there’s a big-bang go-live, and working through a massive checklist, then seeing everything work perfectly is amazing. There’s no better feeling than that!

And your worst days in life are as a director. When you have to sack a CEO or make other hard decisions, it’s not fun. Directors tend to have to do the worst things like deal with regulatory issues and sack senior executives. And, even when the company has good days, it’s because the management has done the work, not the board members. It’s not your glory; you’re in the background.

What sort of support did you have when your children were young?

We always got in a nanny. That can sound like a luxury but I ran the maths on it. At the time, there was no tax deductibility or government support. Putting my child into childcare wasn’t really a great option in terms of travel time and costs. So, we hired a nanny and, after paying all our costs, I ended up with about $60 a week to myself. But my husband and I agreed that it was just the cost of doing business. It was an investment in my future.

Lots of people won’t do that trade off. They think if their job only nets them a small amount after childcare and other expenses, then it’s not worth it. But it absolutely is worth it if you treat it as an investment in yourself.

We were very careful to make sure we treated our in-home help properly. I wrote a job description which I still give to people who are hiring nannies. We had home workers compensation insurance and paid their superannuation and gave them a car allowance.

I didn’t expect the nanny to clean my house. I had a cleaner. We did the washing of a night because that’s not hard, and then we asked the nanny to hang it out and bring it in. She also ironed the children’s clothes and cooked for the children. My husband and I did our own ironing and I liked to cook a meal after work for us.

Being smart about your help means deciding what you can do for yourself and what you want your cleaner or nanny to do so that you can have some more time on the weekend. We used to play tennis on Thursday nights and we used to bring in an ironing babysitter.

You need to be practical about things like shopping and meal preparation, too. I saw my mother buy huge cuts of meat and portion it out into the freezer so she always had meal-sized portions of meat she could defrost for each night’s meal. I do the same today.

It’s about deploying whatever resources you can to sensibly take the logistic pressure out of home life.

What effect did your career have on your children?

At one point I was travelling to London every month and I was exhausted but the kids were proud. My daughter would say to her friends, “My mother’s going to London today, where’s your mother going?” The children would ask their friends, “What do you mean your mother doesn’t work?”

My experience was much the same as my mother was a teacher. Normal for kids is what they grow up with and they learn a lot from watching their parents. We set the example and they see their parents do what’s necessary. They follow the example that you set.

Some people say they’re investing in their children by being a stay-at-home parent. I’m not sure I would have been as successful as a parent had I been there 24 hours a day. There’s a lot of talk about quality time but I think the magic happens in the dead time with your children. It’s the 5am drives to water polo practice or netball practice where you can get the really intimate conversations happening. It’s about being available to your children regardless of the circumstances.

I also went to all the concerts and did tuckshop duty at my children’s schools. My son would come and ask me to buy morning tea for all his friends and, although I was only there four times a year, if you ask him today my son would tell you that I was always there on tuckshop duty.

Looking back, what piece of career advice do you wish someone had given you early on?

I had been promoted rapidly early in my career and there was a part of me that put it down to luck. There was no such thing as a useful performance appraisal because no one knew how to have the conversations. If I’d understood my own capability earlier, I may have made a few different judgements along the way.

I knew I needed to recruit good bosses early on and that was very important. And I tend to engage emotionally; that’s just the way I am. You can be effective without doing that but I never learned how. I show emotion and that’s been my biggest flaw. But I just embrace it.

When it comes to the next generation, what do you look for in hiring and how do you recognise talent?

The biggest skills I look for are around problem-solving and dealing with ambiguity. It doesn’t matter what someone has studied at university as long as they learn to problem-solve and learn to write. Being inquisitive and being ready to work hard are essential.

Hard work is underrated but it’s essential. In my experience, the difference between mediocre strategy and great strategy is that the great strategy has just been executed better.

I look for young people who work hard and are dedicated and truthful. These values are crucial. Intellect and values can’t be taught, but skills can be.

I want to know this: will someone work hard, be dedicated and professional, and go the extra mile? When I ring them, will they say “Hi Fi, how can I help?” or would they be more distant? An emotional bond is important to get great work done together.

Read part one of Fiona’s interview where she shares the keys to a successful career, and insights into what it’s like being a senior executive while raising a family here.