Banker, businesswoman and academic powerhouse, Helen Nugent talks about career planning, change management and being on boards. By Georgina Jerums.
She is Bond University Chancellor, a non-executive director of Macquarie Bank, Origin Energy and Freehills, chair of Funds SA and Swiss Re Australia and director of the National Portrait Gallery. And in the late 1990s, as strategy chief, she helped bring about a $2.8 billion revival for Westpac.
Yes, Helen Nugent is your chronic overachiever.
But achieving a high profile in academia, business and the arts was not down to chance. Nugent is proof that stage managing your career and sticking to a 20-year plan – rather than merely accepting promotions as they come your way – can help you realise your potential while avoiding career drift.
Revealingly, Nugent wasn’t always such a master strategist. It wasn’t until the age of 28 that she got her career on track.
“At school, I lacked direction,” the 60-year-old confesses between hasty sips of a cappuccino in Macquarie Bank’s Sydney meeting room. “And at university, because my mates were doing it, I decided to do a history/honours degree and a PhD in history. I became a historian, and, frankly, it wasn’t until my late twenties that I decided what I really wanted to do with my life: to become a non-executive director.
“It was a real career challenge to ask myself, ‘How could I achieve that?’. It forced me to seriously think about what I wanted to do. Otherwise, I suspect I would have drifted.”
Plan articulated, it took 20 years to bear fruit. First, Nugent realised she needed number-crunching experience. So she did a Harvard MBA and then landed a job with McKinsey & Company to open executive director doors. Eventually, she became a partner at McKinsey and Professor in Management and Director of the MBA Program at the then Australian Graduate School of Management in New South Wales. The company director offers flowed in and Nugent received an Order of Australia for services to business, the arts and community.
At Westpac in the 90s, Nugent sharpened her change-management armoury by working with then-CEO Bob Joss to develop a clear strategic plan and create a desire for change in the floundering organisation.
In any change scenario, employees need to really want to be part of the renewal; that’s the hard bit, Nugent comments.
“It often requires cajoling, charming, the whole gamut, to get people on board,” she says. “Initially, the bank faced so many challenges that it had no time to engage. It was very much in command and control mode and the challenge was to transform that into a far more engaging process… of course, today, Gail Kelly has taken that to a whole new level.”
Change management was also the focus in 1999 when Nugent chaired a groundbreaking Federal Government inquiry to rejuvenate the performing arts. The Nugent Report managed to get 27 companies, all the State Governments and the Federal Government to agree on a course of action that would ensure the sector survived, both artistically and financially, which Nugent found “immensely challenging but immensely rewarding”. The report was the first of its kind to set a national funding plan for the major performing arts.
To help any company move with the times, drawing on different sectors for management insight is crucial for a director. Nugent, for example, sits on the ASX Corporate Governance Council where she has gained insights into the corporate and governance troubles of James Hardie and Centro Properties Group. As president of Cranbrook School in Sydney (the first female to become president of a private boys’ school in eastern Australia) Nugent gains perspectives that may inform her recommendations for staff training in corporates. Likewise, her role as National Portrait Gallery Director provides ideas that can play out in community projects.
Board members, uppermost, need really cracker interpersonal skills, and no one should underestimate the challenge of sitting around a boardroom table.
If you can’t stand your ground, and if you don’t know and have a passion for the industry or have the time to read the briefing papers, don’t expect a board nomination. “In tough situations, like a takeover battle, you want the absolute best around the table,” says Nugent.
“They could be female or male. For my money, I just want the best people. Hopefully, we’ll find a lot more women with consulting or accounting skills coming through executive ranks to get experience.”
Tough situations arise if you have a view contrary to other board members and you must present your case in a balanced way to persuade your colleagues.
That’s when you must be able to debate, Nugent believes. And don’t get too cocky. “Rarely,” she says, “will you find a situation in a boardroom where people are strident. It doesn’t mean they’re not firm, but they’re certainly not strident.”
A good skill mix
Nugent is not conscious of her gender in the boardroom because people treat her as a colleague rather than as a woman. Nevertheless, females comprise only 8.3 per cent of board members in Australia’s ASX200 companies.
Compare this to the US, where females make up 15 per cent of board members of Fortune 500 companies, and Norway, which now requires at least 40 per cent of its 1500 municipal-owned company boards to be female. Nugent finds it “profoundly concerning that there’s no leeway” in the female representation on boards in Australia.
She feels it’s an issue that must be continually talked about by senior management to ensure greater diversity and a good skill mix. Yet, it can be a catch 22 situation: how can women get the experience they need when they don’t get board invites in the first place?
“It’s complicated,” Nugent says. “Certainly, the boards I’ve been involved with that are going through succession planning are relatively gender blind. But it’s sometimes like, ‘Can you find a woman with skills in liquefied natural gas?’. It’s tough.”