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International Governance Leadership Conference 2023 day one: Key takeaways, ideas and tips from our experts

Collage of Conference speakers

The first day of the International Governance Leadership Conference kicked off in earnest with around 300 attending the event at The Hilton Sydney, and more than 200 online attendees also tuning in.

The culture matrix – shaping future-fit governance, has been sponsored by a range of leading organisations including Nasdaq, Diligent, LexisNexis, Archer and PKF.

We report on some of the key matters highlighted by speakers as critical conversations drive the future of governance, leadership and risk management.

Jump to session:

National keynote: The culture lever — transforming leadership, purpose and performance

Culture is no longer an optional extra, but a strategic lever for future fit organisations. We need a robust culture grounded in trust and built on a solid ethical foundation.

That’s the message from Genevieve Overell, chair, G20 Global Infrastructure Hub Audit Compliance and Risk Committee, State Revenue Office Victoria Audit Committee and Victorian Opera.

Overell set the tone of the Governance Institute of Australia’s International Governance Leadership Conference as the national keynote speaker on the opening morning.

She led off by highlighting the misconduct exposed in the Hayne Report into the banking, super and financial services industry, which sent shockwaves through boardrooms across the country.

‘Above all else, the findings of the report outlined a problematic culture that put profit ahead of the interest of customers, and rewarded sales and profitability,’ she said.

‘Each entity should look at its culture and governance to determine its approach to risk management and in delivering outcomes for customers that meet community standards and expectations.’

Hayne’s report was a call to action for everyone involved in governance that ultimately urged institutions to review, reshape and take responsibility for their culture to prevent misconduct, she said.

That moment in time put a company’s culture at the forefront. It also highlighted the best corporate cultures for others to look up to.

‘Google and Netflix don’t just thrive due to great products, but also because of their culture that fosters innovation, agility and resilience,’ Overell told conference participants.

Ultimately culture is how your company performs when no one is watching. It’s the values shared, the ways conflicts are resolved and how risks are taken.

‘Those qualities and behaviours translate into a culture that underpins a strong business,’ she said.

When culture is neglected, companies can find themselves putting out an endless stream of spot fires that are behavioural, reputational or legal.

However, deep cultural change takes a long time, persistent effort and engagement across the entire team. Being pushed to work faster, longer and harder can be a limiting environment, whereas a transformational business might introduce flexible work practices.

One benefit of the pandemic lockdowns has been our ability to reflect on the type of culture in our workplaces to understand what matters to us, she said.

While some companies undertook their own research on their own employees to measure productivity, count logins, keystrokes, calls made and so forth during the pandemic, many found little if any loss of productivity from anywhere.

She urged companies to ensure that employees are able to voice their concerns, and that there are clear repercussions for unethical behaviour in the workplace. Managers should embody the values of an organisation, and model expected behaviours.

A lot of this comes down to trust, which isn’t merely about believing that someone will complete a task. It’s also about understanding and respecting mutual vulnerabilities. Open channels of communication are paramount and feedback mechanisms are top down and bottom up, Overell said.

‘Boards and management need to ensure that people feel trusted to communicate openly both good and bad news, so that information will flow quickly and accurately in the right direction.’

Q&A: Intergenerational leadership and culture — from debate to collaboration

With five generations actively partaking in the work environment, the pressure is on leadership to find a balanced understanding of values, preferences and motivators to build a culture that transcends generational differences.

Navigating the inflection points between generations could make or break an organisation.

It raises the question of how leaders can find a balanced understanding of values, preferences and motivators to build a culture that transcends generational differences.

It’s something that all leaders have to grapple with. Attendees of the conference were able to question Fiona Bones, Vice President, Finance, International Controller at Google to better understand how she tackles this. She spoke alongside young entrepreneur Dan Jovevski, founder and CEO, WeMoney.

While it’s a big topic, bear in mind that regardless of age, people are people wherever, they want to be respected, motivated and rewarded, Bones said.

As the working landscape evolves post-Covid and hybrid work looks here to stay, organisations are becoming increasingly sophisticated about how they lead.

Jovevski agreed. He recalled his frustration at putting forward valid suggestions for improvement in his first banking round amid the Global Financial Crisis, which always fell on deaf ears. Being ignored in this way ultimately prompted him to leave banking to launch his first business.

A question about whether young people being elevated into senior roles could be driving greater cultural change prompted a quick reaction from Bones.

‘Businesses are being held to account whether they want to or not. ESG regulation, the attachment of gender equity reporting, human rights, climate change and the push to see carbon emissions attached to the financial statements of a company is a move we have to be prepared for and that’s happening in different jurisdictions,’ she told in-person and virtual conference attendees.

Organisations can learn from people of all ages and roles says Bones, who points out that Google hosts sessions at lunchtime that provides learning opportunities for all.

Her best advice on navigating the corporate world came from her father, who ran his own business. ‘Maybe you are your own business, so perhaps think about work from that perspective. Ultimately, everything is a choice. You always have the choice and the ability to take a different path,’ she said

Jovevski’s best advice has been around making sure that you always listen to your people.

‘When you listen to people about issues, concerns or the direction they want to go to, then the outcome you achieve is far more powerful because your people have been listened to, have been consulted and are part of the solution,’ he said.

Another conference participant raised the question around how AI might impact leadership.

Bones admitted she’s already using AI, which has been particularly useful when she isn’t sure how to tackle a piece of writing to enhance creativity. She utilises Google’s AI tool, Bard, which has enhanced her productivity.

‘It’s been super useful for spotting trends, such as in the medical field right now. The potential here is enormous,’ she said.

‘At Google we’re very dedicated to responsible use of AI, which is still taking shape. It will take all eyes to ensure that we use this technology,’ Bones said.

Dan is also using ChatGPT to write reports and says his teams use it also. ‘We use AI to help us focus on productivity, rather than focus on competency gaps, which is an exciting prospect.’

Fireside chat — Re-imagining administrative culture

Underpinning everything is the integrity of people. That was the clear takeaway from the fireside chat on re-imaging of administrative culture. Hosted by Governance Institute fellow Prof. Michael Adams, this session explored culture, administration and community engagement with a strong emphasis on the Australian Public Service (APS).

‘If we don’t have integrity, we don’t have the proper system working,’ said Hon Anthony Whealy KC when talking about the behaviour of people in a work environment. Gordon de Brouwer, Australian Public Service Commissioner, shared this view and emphasised the importance of workplace culture.

Mr de Brouwer posed the question, ‘culture and behaviour are really everything, so how do we embed those behaviours in our workplaces?’

It became clear that with over 400,000 people employed in the public service, it’s important to understand how integrity is carried amongst employees.

‘There is a complexity to the public service, it’s large – it has become hierarchical,’ said Hon Gabrielle Upton, former NSW minister and Attorney-General.

The panellists agreed on the importance of efforts by the government to instil integrity, such as the implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission this year.

Differences in opinion between two of the panellists arose when discussing the recent review of the APS by David Thodey AO.

‘Ministerial advisors distorted the process of procurement and grant on a very valuable contract,’ said Mr Whealey before advising the need of a code of conduct for ministerial advisors.

Mr Whealey made note that the Thodey review was to legislate grounds for termination.

Ms Upton disagreed with some of the recommendations of the Thodey review and believes a minister needs to be able to dismiss some of their senior public servants.

Later in the session, when asked how to get transformation on a large scale, Mr de Bouwer spoke of the importance of ensuring there is help and support to make sure employees can ‘be the best that they can be.’

He mentioned the need to ‘ground transformation in purpose’ – making sure people have an idea of the role of public services is making a difference in people’s lives.

‘You have to know the public and you have to be out there to understand what the community needs and interests are.’

Attendees were left with an optimistic quote from Hon Anthony Whealey, ‘as Charles Dickens said in one of his great novels, we are going through the best of times, and the worst of times – we’ve been through the worst of times I believe, and I think the best of times await us.’

Keynote address: Climate change and future-fit governance

Australia’s leading financial institutions play a critical role in the nation’s transition to net zero, NAB chair Phil Chronican told conference attendees.

‘Overseas, advanced economies have ambitious decarbonisation plans propelled by government policy settings, while we continue to see signs of accelerating climate change unleashing devastating human and environmental harm,’ Chronican said.

He’s conscious of the fact that investors are looking deeply into the governance of their investment portfolios. They want to know what companies are doing to prepare for a net zero carbon world and equally the opportunities in financing the transition, he told attendees.

‘There’s no question that a redirection of capital has to happen, and this is where a bank like NAB is helping,’ he said.

‘We need to transform and replace industries that have been at the centre of our historic economic growth and create a new green industrial base for export.’

NAB published its first standalone climate report last year as part of its goal to align its operational financed emissions with pathways to net zero emissions by 2050, which details NAB’s climate governance, strategy, risk management, metrics and targets.

The report highlights the scale of the challenge and opportunity for Australia in the climate transition and what we stand to lose. It reveals that Australia needs 10,000kms of new transmission, 44 gigawatts of new renewables and 15 gigawatts of firming capacity this decade.

Climate change is also a meaningful issue for the current generation of workers who want meaning and purpose for their work. In an already tight labour market, there’s a global sense of urgency to decarbonise economies faster, which is driving up global competition to attract the resources needed – technology, capital and talent.

Australia needs to act quickly to ensure we’re equipped with the people, finance and technology our country needs to successfully meet our decarbonisation targets and maximise the economic benefits available to us.

The transition to a low carbon economy is at a critical stage. If we get that right from now to 2030, the opportunities are immense in both protecting our environment and growing our economy.

‘As of March this year, 70 per cent of NAB’s financing for power generation goes toward renewables – solar, wind and hydro. The bank continues to be the number one Australian bank for global renewables transactions, and we are progressed to source 100 per cent of our own electricity sources by 2025,’ he said.

Phil Chronican called for government to take an active role in ensuring that legislative framework enables investment decisions to be made quickly so we can get Australia’s transition moving forward with a sense of urgency.

Concurrent 1: Hypothetical — Leading through a crisis

When a crisis happens, things move quickly. It comes as a surprise – an escalating flow of events, phone lines ringing and an urgent need to find out more information.

These are just a number of characteristics that define a crisis, which attendees learnt in the first of the concurrent sessions, sponsored by PKF and hosted by John Connelly from John Connelly and Partners & James Lee, PKF.

John Connelly said that as the crisis escalates, someone in the organisation must ask the question, ‘where do we want this to end up?’

Having decades of crisis management experience, John provided valuable insight into what to do and most importantly, what not to do in a crisis.

John also proposed questions such as what is the best result and what is done to get there? He made it clear that there must be a circuit breaker, a response that dictates the direction of the organisation in a crisis situation to get to a better place.

Running through interactive scenarios, session attendees could see how an example organisation might navigate a crisis, with helpful tips from John and James along the way.

‘The reason corporations and organisations get into trouble is because people think they’re arrogant and don’t give a damn. They treat us like a number and don’t care about us,’ John said.

‘Whatever you do, you behave, and you write, whatever you say, with conserve and humility.’

Attendees learnt that communication is shared meaning and shared understanding – if you can get past the barriers of the organisation and really talk to the media, it will only make things better in a crisis situation. John recommended putting yourself in your stakeholders’ shoes to try and get to shared meaning. When an organisation doesn’t have that, it looks arrogant.

‘No longer can leaders get away with ‘no comment.’ It’s important for spokespeople to address media enquiries transparently and openly.’

It became clear throughout the session that every organisation must have a crisis plan on hand – it could be as simple as searching for an example plan on Google. The session then highlighted the need for everyone in the organisation to know their role in the event of a crisis.

Another takeaway of the session was the importance of keeping stakeholders and staff informed, with John proposing that management should ‘start tiering stakeholders.’

‘It’s important that you communicate, particularly with a Tier 1 stakeholder, so most important people, you communicate with them yourself very quickly,’ he said.

John emphasised the importance of reaching stakeholders first to inform them of what had happened before news of the crisis reached them. He also recommended emailing staff about what has occurred and noted that the news will travel amongst friends and families of those working at the organisation.

Attendees also received an insight into the modern landscape in which a crisis can occur. It’s an environment where news travels quickly with social media and online content. It’s an environment where risks are constantly changing, such as growing cyber-attacks on businesses.

‘If you’re not planning for a cyber-attack, there’s something wrong with you. If you’re not planning for some form of harassment these days, there’s something wrong with you,’ John said.

Lastly, the concurrent session left attendees with the notion that employees and stakeholders judge you in times of crisis. This made it clear that it’s crucial that organisational leaders must take care in the way they approach and handle such situations as their behaviour is under a microscope.

Concurrent 2: Hypothetical — Risk culture

Managing risk and building an organisation that can move at speed amid a significant situation at work has never been more challenging.

Given risk has boiled over into the public arena for so many high-profile Australian organisations, it’s a topic that attracted significant discussion during the conference. This session was sponsored by Archer.

A concurrent session on leading through a crisis was run in a nearby room, sponsored by Archer Technologies.

The speed of technological change and changes to risk and compliance has changed the goalposts, pushing for much quicker reaction times when managing risks to an organisation.

Attendees heard from Sam O’Brien, vice president of sales, and go to market, Archer Technologies, Jason Brown, Principal Advisor to the Board, Risk and Security, Thales and Catherine Chaumont, Head of Safety, University of Technology Sydney. Also in attendance was Kumar Srinivasan, Director of Risk and Insurance, University of Technology Sydney.

‘University of Technology Sydney has been much more reactive to incidents post-Covid, with people feeling much more anxious about coming to work, or not coming to work. The way that people view risk isn’t just physical anymore,’ Chaumont said.

Brown says Thales is also grappling with geopolitical issues from a cybersecurity perspective. Inaccurate media reports amid significant contractual negotiations could have a significant impact on an organisation, he pointed out.

In a bid to build better risk response rates, this session included a workshop that enabled participants to respond to a hypothetical incident.

In this scenario, a well-meaning employee of a company had taken some initiative and had been using Artificial Intelligence (AI), inputting private company data to help inform his recommendations that he intended to share with management.

However, sharing this private data presented a significant risk breach, which had been exposed. Private information about employees had found its way into the wrong hands.

Participants workshopped the best approach to dealing with such a situation and agreed that communication responses needed to be instantaneous given the speed at which this sort of a breach could spread both internally and externally.

Other steps identified included:

  • Own the problem, and make sure you have the systems in place that enables senior managers to respond quickly.
  • Inform relevant employees about the situation and make sure that anyone feeling anxious about the contents of the data knows where they can go to get help.
  • Identify anyone in the team who may have been exposed to data breaches in the past and communicate directly with them to make sur they feel safe.
  • Decide whether to respond to media or other stakeholders and issue a statement if appropriate.
  • Once the risks have been dealt with, review the situation and look for improvement opportunities.
  • Retrain staff, if necessary, consider cybersecurity risks and update the organisation’s data breach response plans.

The tech tale — digital and physical worlds

We live in a digital world which is experiencing a rapid growth in emerging technologies such as AI.

Toby Walsh, Chief Scientist at the UNSW AI Institute, highlighted this growth in the panel session titled ‘The tech tale – digital and physical worlds’, stating, ‘I’ve been working 40 years for this overnight success.

Professor Walsh said growth, specific to AI, doubled every two years in terms of algorithm performance, data and money. Billions of dollars of investment in AI technology significantly contributed to the growth in this area.

When the panelists were asked why it has become so popular, Eileen Doyle from NextDC, Santos & Airservices News put it down to the ‘accessible’ nature of the technology. Mr Walsh also emphasied, ‘you don’t need a PHD to use it.’

Professor Walsh highlighted how the outlook isn’t always positive, with the belief that the rapid nature of technological growth will amplify the digital divide, with many Aussie kids still not having computers. He also expressed concerns that such technologies run the risk of ‘dumbing us down.’

Ms Doyle also disagreed with the notion and expressed how we must find ways to merge technologies with skills in particular areas.

‘There will be new roles that don’t exist today that come out of this technology.’

Professor Walsh expressed the ability of AI to summarise and synthesise information as its most powerful purpose. He noted the risk of perpetuating biases further, for the technology uses content that may be generated by people’s biases. He does, however, contrast this risk of using people for similar tasks.

‘You should consider what the alternative is, human decision making, and human decision-making is quite terrible. We’re full of bias and sub-conscious bias.’

Ms Doyle believes you ‘need a healthy ecosystem for something to work.’ In the case of AI, this encompasses key elements such as Infrastructure (processing power for AI, data and information that’s accurate and methods of storing it), implementation governance and risk management and privacy and IP rules, to name a few.

A burning question of attendees was simply to hear what are the panelists’ opinions on AI, simply good or bad?

Ms Doyle states she has ‘a balance of excitement and fear.’

Noting there is division amongst organisation leaders on this issue, Ms Doyle believes that businesses should ‘take a measured approach, somewhere in the middle and do what’s right for their organisation and needs.’

‘From a business perspective, you want to always take advantage of any wonderful opportunity that exists, but you want to have a risk management framework that takes some of that fear away,’ she said.

Fireside chat: Maturation of ESG thinking

Two decades after the United Nations first mentioned ESG in the early 2000s, the term has become a necessity for organisations in the way that they conduct business and consider implications on the environment.

Jessica Cairns, Head of ESG and Sustainability, Alphinity Investment Management, tells session attendees how no longer ESG (and CSR before that) is just simply, ‘ticking a box’ for organisations.

Jessica Cairns joins Maj Gen (Retd) Jake Ellwood, Chief Executive Officer, Queensland Recovery Authority & chair of the session, Megan Motto FGIA, Chief Executive Officer, Governance Institute of Australia, to discuss the maturation of ESG thinking.

Chair Megan Motto highlighted the importance of ESG from a governance perspective and encouraged the audience to think about the value to shareholders and the broader community.

‘The concept of Good Governance is not necessarily related directly to short-term profit, but it’s definitely related to long-term sustainability in organisations.’

Ms Motto highlighted the uniqueness of this panel which included Jessica Cairns, who very much focused on the theoretical discussion around climate events and ESG policy implications and Jake Ellwood, who is at the forefront of environmental disasters.

Together, they provided valuable insight across the broad spectrum of organisational ESG and climate approaches and the impact climate changes are having on the ground.

Jessica provided an extensive look at the way industries address ESG and how shareholders and stakeholders manage risks around environmental issues. Notably, Jessica spoke of the movement of investors to start investing in the whole economy instead of individual companies. With there being a lot of environmental risk, if a single company is affected, it doesn’t really matter as much to an investor’s wider portfolio.

Ms Cairns detailed where Australia is at with regard to policies and frameworks on ESG, with not too much ‘coming down the pipeline yet.’ She mentioned that Australia still lags behind when it comes to transitioning to renewables and emphasised the need to work together to make this happen.

‘Working together kind of helps everyone’s cause around the economy,’ she said.

Mr Elwood provided an insight into his work in disaster assistance, notably around the Black Summar bushfires and last year’s floods in Queensland and northern NSW (with specific involvement in the Queensland efforts.

Mr Elwood emphaised that ‘events are going to become more frequent and more impactful.’

Finally, he left audiences with a plethora of inspirational quotes:

  • ‘Planning is everything, and the plan is nothing.’
  • ‘If we tried to do everything, we’ll end up doing nothing.’
  • ‘Think very carefully about policy – inaction is not the answer.’
  • ‘The very best leaders are the ones who don’t worry about themselves.’
  • ‘You can’t strengthen everything all the time.’

International keynote: Building a culture of resilience

Cases of corporate fraud and executive misconduct continue to come along all the time, from Dieselgate to Theranos to Cambridge Analytics and the Opioid scandal.

It raises the need for better governance structures and the need to build a culture of resilience that enables individuals at all levels to understand and internalise the long-term goals of the business.

It was chaired by Simon Berglund, senior vice president and general manager, APAC, Diligent, who sponsored the session.

The session, which followed on from a fireside chat that explored that maturation of ESG thinking chaired by Megan Motto, Chief Executive Officer, Governance Institute of Australia.

Attendees heard that corporate wrongdoing has been around for a long time, often undertaken by chief executives and middle management. Professor Julian Birkinshaw, Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital, London Business School, says research shows that these cases are often driven by greed and fear.

But it’s actually more complicated than that, he said. Other drivers include genuine ignorance, intentional ignorance of the big picture, and moral compasses not fully functioning. In many cases, people find themselves complicit in a corporate fraud without realising.

‘The challenge for senior people on Boards is to work on building good governance, but there will always be a few rotten apples who actively seek to cheat the system, and it will be impossible to stop every single case of malpractice,’ Professor Birkinshaw told attendees.

He said the key is to build a culture of resilience within companies, because fear and greed will never disappear.

‘We need to build a way of working for individuals at all levels whereby we are maximising the need for our first obligation is to do the best thing for the organisations.’

He pointed out highly reliable organisations have a preoccupation with failure and hunt out small lapses and learn from them.

They also take time to understand context and complexity, and get the people around their table, regardless of their rank to make sure people are comfortable discussing problems.

Professor Birkinshaw spoke about the importance of building strategic resilience by taking a long-term view of an organisation. Understanding how to steer a course through rough seas is crucial and being tolerant of unorthodox views. ‘This means essentially building diversity and inclusion into everything we do,’ he said.

He concluded that we need good policies and procedures, but all of this is ultimately about building a culture of resilience by getting people to do the right thing all through the organisation. ‘Doing that is an exercise in constant vigilance and effort,’ Professor Birkinshaw said.

Read day two wrap up

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