CHAIR’S SEAT | In this Q&A with Investment Magazine, Anne Ward, speaking in her capacity as the longstanding chair of $7 billion corporate superannuation fund Qantas Super, shares her views on bringing out the best in colleagues, engaging with management, and why the fractured sector must stop squabbling and build trust.
Investment Magazine: Thirteen years as chair of Qantas Super is a long tenure. How do you stay enthused? Do you have a succession plan in place?
Anne Ward: Clearly, I am nearing the end of my term and our succession planning is well advanced. However, I find it easy to remain highly engaged and excited about the future for Qantas Super and its members.
IM: How have your views about what makes a good chair changed over your time in the role?
AW: I have learnt that as chair you can be more effective by speaking last on an issue, not first. It’s always best to reserve judgement and listen carefully as colleagues share their views, as starting with your own view tends to shut down debate. I like to think of the role as similar to that of an orchestral conductor: striving for harmony. The goal is to bring out the best from each director, allowing for some solo performances but not letting those overshadow the accomplishment of the group as a whole.
IM: What is your top piece of advice for how to chair a constructive board meeting?
AW: The most important thing is to foster a culture of openness and respect amongst directors, which allows for robust debate and a constructive challenging of views.
With that in place, it comes down to planning the agenda and sequence of items carefully to allow for appropriate attention on the right matters. I like to begin every meeting with a private ‘directors only’ session, which allows for concerns or issues to be aired in a completely open way and can reduce friction during the meeting itself.
IM: Who have been your most important mentors? Whom do you turn to for advice now?
AW: I have been fortunate to benefit from the advice of many mentors over my career. When I was starting out as a lawyer, I learnt a great deal working with Neil Forsyth QC, who always told me there is no such thing as a dumb question and to keep asking. More recently, I have valued the wisdom of senior directors such as [former Qantas chairman] Margaret Jackson and [former NAB chairman] Graham Kraehe who have taught me much about resilience and pushing on when things get tough.
IM: What is your view of the current debate around governance and the value of independent directors for super fund trustees?
AW: As a professional company director [other roles include Chair of Zoos Victoria and Colonial First State] I have no doubt that independence of mind is a vital trait. I am a believer in the enormous value that truly independent, skilled and well-chosen directors can add to a trustee board. Whilst I respect the attachment some have to the equal representation model, I believe that moving to a model of one-third independent directors, one-third employer-appointed directors and one-third employee-appointed directors would be a significant enhancement.
IM: What is the most valuable professional development or training you have done to assist you in becoming a better chair?
AW: In terms of formal training, the best course I have attended was the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ Mastering the Boardroom. It included a realistic simulation of a board and a company in crisis. Participants were thrown in the deep end and had to figure out how to work effectively with a bunch of strangers to handle a corporate meltdown. However, the best teacher is experience. I have learnt more about being a good chair from observing great chairs in action and from chairing a board through a real crisis than from any training program.
IM: How do you keep your finger on the pulse of what is happening within the fund?
AW: Like any good board, we take care not to step over the line into management territory. The relationship between the chair and the CEO is critical to ensure that both sides respect the importance of that ‘line in the sand’. However, the board must, of course, monitor management’s performance and, increasingly, the culture of the organisation. At Qantas Super, we create formal and informal opportunities for directors to engage with management to ensure that the board has a multi-dimensional understanding of how things are going.
IM: Qantas Super is one of only a handful of significant corporate funds left in the market; how does the board assess the long-term business case for the fund?
AW: As one of Australia’s oldest super funds, Qantas Super has a proud history of protecting and creating value for its members. The board regularly assesses the value proposition of the fund – both to members and to the sponsor, Qantas. Unlike a public offer fund, our business case is not built on growth, but rather a strategy to continue delivering value to members.
IM: What interesting projects is the Qantas Super board working on at the moment?
AW: In terms of member services, we are developing new online education modules, and an immersive virtual reality project to illustrate the potential future benefits of contributing to super now. In product development, we are building enhanced investment options for retirement. On the investments front, we recently secured some excellent timberland assets, and made a strategic private-equity investment in a premium Australian agricultural venture.
IM: In your view, what is the biggest challenge for the superannuation industry today?
AW: The super industry is facing a challenge to its social licence to operate. Amid constant reviews, changes to regulation and unrelenting squabbling between different sectors of the industry, Australians are rightly asking whether the current system is delivering for them and the nation. In Canberra, the cost and inefficiencies of the system are being highlighted, whilst the seemingly simple task of agreeing on a legislative definition for the objective of superannuation cannot seem to be achieved. Trust in superannuation is being eroded, and funds must all work harder to build trust and confidence in the system.