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Creating a dynamic pipeline to increase First Nations board diversity

Charles Prouse, FGIAThe pathway First Nations board members take to our boards is not the same as the pathway non-Indigenous people take to the Boards of ASX300 companies. While corporate boards are viewed (I would suggest incorrectly) that they exist to deal solely with matters of business; our boards focus on matters of education, health, economic opportunity, justice. These are broad categorisations. If you scratch the surface of the functions these boards perform, you’ll see they are similar in so many ways.

Hundreds of First Nations people hold board positions on Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations that demand good governance. Examples of exceptional governance can be found in the candidates and winners of the Indigenous Governance Awards. Directors must address matters of compliance, manage risk, and financial sustainability. We’re dealing with complex systemic problems; working with CEOs that have an eye to the future and drawing on our vast local and national networks.

In terms of qualifications, we have degrees, post-grads and we’re increasing our numbers at Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Stanford and a whole slew of other international ‘Ivy League’ universities. Are all these qualifications important in relation to what an ASX300 Board considers for the sustainability, brand and profitability of a company? How can we get more First Nations people on corporate boards? How can we close this particular gap? Must First Nations board members be business experts? Corporate boards must ask themselves the questions of what they are really looking for when they consider diversity and how to find it.

How you find First Nations board members is not going to be the same as how you find the current board member. You’re looking in the wrong place. You’re not understanding our challenges. We are fewer than you. In sheer number, there’s a smaller pool to draw from. We’re not half the population like women. We have different issues and networks to many of the LGBTQ+ sector. They too must have their own approach and understanding.

When ASX boards are looking, they are often looking for someone with “lived experience” – lived experience in the business community. This must be mirrored in the First Nations Director recruitment process and recruitment companies need to understand what that means – how to look for it, check for it and get references for it. You want the First Nations board member who has lived experience in their own community. You don’t want to just have “the shiny blackfulla”.

Board members and their recruiting companies need to understand the community. Do recruitment companies have a Reconciliation Action Plan? Are they doing their own work to understand First Nations issues, opportunities and challenges? Doing a RAP and being held publicly accountable in the process means they’ll meet more First Nations people and increase their own chances of spotting the talent their clients are looking for.

But still, there are roadblocks. It’s not perfect. Rarely is that the case for anything. Perfection is the enemy of the good. But boards and management put strategies in place and build pipelines all the time to deal with roadblocks.

So, what are the strategies that can work to ensure people are tested and prepared before they’re placed on boards?

RAP Advisory committees are one, and I’m sure once you start thinking about other committees, you can map out a range of entry points that have the potential to lead to a board position – ambassadors, supplier awards, community partnerships just to name a few. Consider retiring Government C-Suite Executives, Health, Education, Research, Administration professionals. Nearly all would have Board experience and their governance credentials are amazing.

And for all of this, boards might still have hesitations and reservations. So perhaps speak to non-Indigenous people who’ve interacted with First Nations board members. No doubt the board of the ABC could name a few of Indigenous people not known to the corporate world that might fit the bill.

There are non-Indigenous board members that sit on Indigenous boards that might have some knowledge of where to find great candidates. Non-Profit boards like The Benevolent Society could probably give some insight. They can also tell you what First Nations board members bring to the table and how to soften what might be considered a hard entry to an intimidating environment.

It can be scary for us to enter your world. But I would encourage my First Nations kin to push through because, like any new situation, it takes time to settle. There will be some dumb comments, people feeling like they look stupid and out of their depth. But so what? Eventually people gain confidence, earn trust and learn on the job. The key to meaningful and robust diversity is to stay true to who you are, standby your values, your integrity and demonstrate that your responsibility is to your shareholders and your community. These are the traits that will stand you in good stead for a rewarding boardroom career. And these traits are what all boards need.

Charles Prouse is a Fellow of the Governance Institute of Australia and Chair, Aurora Education Foundation, Managing Director, Nyikbar. Charles has over 20 years’ experience in Indigenous affairs across Australia and holds a Master of Public Administration from the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University (USA) and a Bachelor of Science, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) from the University of Western Australia (UWA).

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