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Interview with Judith McLean

Microphone purple 311There were many thoughtful and informative interviews which could not be included in the latest edition of The Book of the Board (published by The Federation Press).  But interviewees have been happy to approve their separate publication.  Judith McLean reflects on her experience gained as a board member and Chair of arts and tourism organisations. 

Interview with Dr Judith McLean by David Fishel

Dr Judith McLean
Dr Judith McLean is currently Scholar-in-Residence at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) and Adjunct Professor, Queensland University of Technology (Creative Industries). She is also a company Director: Tourism and Events Queensland (2009-); Asia Pacific Screen Awards (2009-); Chair, Southern Cross Soloists (2009-) and previously, Inaugural Chair of Major Brisbane Festivals Pty Ltd (2003 - 2007), and Chair and Board Member Queensland Theatre Company (1995-2004).

Judith has extensive experience in the performing arts, events and education areas working as an educator, director, and company director. Over the past 12 years she has led management and leadership programs in corporate settings, including the health, defence, financial and media sectors. Her work is distinguished by an experiential learning approach underpinned by a passionate belief in the power of the arts to enhance peoples’ lives.

How do you see the leadership role of the Chair?
My approach has been learned on the job through trial and error, and through having a thirst to be better. It is context-specific really.  The sort of Chair you can be for a statutory body or a major organisation within the State is quite different from chairing a small nonprofit. I’m currently a board member of Tourism and Events Queensland and I have watched that Chair and found it very interesting. I think the main question you have to ask yourself as a Chair is “How interventionist will I be?”  That’s where the difference comes because with a small company you have to be highly interventionist, because they really need your person power to be able to cover the number of roles and responsibilities in supporting the CEO, in making sure governance is being met, and guiding the rest of the board. The kind of leader I am with the small, independent music ensemble Southern Cross Soloists is quite different from when I had a secretariat with Brisbane Festival.  There you were looked after, you had people to assist you to do things.

How do you manage the linkage between Chair and CEO?
The big thing is to be able to hold yourself emotionally, Emotional intelligence in this instance is absolutely critical. I have had CEOs be so intense - even rude – and I am very proud that I haven’t ended up on the front page because you see people who chair organisations who get into terrible muddles because they are too reactive, because they can’t hold themselves emotionally.  You have to be a grown up to be a good Chair. If necessary, you can find a board member who you can talk to, who you know will understand that you really are just venting and managing it. Chairing boards is for grownups, there’s no doubt about that. The Chair is the ultimate adult.  They must always take the higher ground, not escalate things and try to be non-reactive. Chairs needs to work very hard to keep your own ego out of it. It is not about me.

What do you regard as good practice in CEO appraisal?
It’s a really interesting one and it’s troubling me at the moment. Sometimes I think that a Chair may not have sufficient experience to actually work as an appropriate mentor for a CEO and I think that is a very honest conversation that directors need to have with the Chair if they feel that is so. In terms of board audits or reviews it’s a key question to say “Has the Chair got the requisite skills to take the CEO of the organisation where we want it to go?”   And in one organisation I’m witnessing a situation where that is not the case.  So I had to find the courage to say to the Chair, “I don’t believe at the moment that this CEO has all the skills that we need him to have.  I know you’re working really hard with him but I think he needs extra help”.

Some Chairs are incredibly uncomfortable with honest and direct feedback and feel like they are in it together with the CEO, so criticism of that person is criticism of them.  The appraisal has to come from the board.  Whether or not the Chair is the most appropriate person to do that depends on how symbiotic the relationship is between Chair and CEO.  Sometimes they’ve been working so hard together to get to a particular point that they are too meshed in that particular relationship.  Depending on the situation, if I Chaired a big organisation again, I would always ensure that I had outside assistance in giving that feedback.

What is the role of the board in fundraising?
My view has changed over time and it goes hand in hand with the reduction in state and national funds for arts organisations occurring around the country. I look at many of the large organisations and their boards are good boards, but I think that is enough these days.  Philanthropic networks and the ability to bring money and other resources that can be translated into assets for the organisation are now part of the job. I don’t think you should take on board membership unless you are well networked, you know how to go about getting those resources, and you are not frightened to go out and ask.  That is a skill that can be taught and learned - and that’s what we should be doing more work around in the arts.

It’s not embarrassing to ask for money for a fantastic project that is going to build a civilized and more communitarian place to live in. I’m not embarrassed by that, and I think if you are, you’re not in the right place. That is the responsibility of every board member.  f we’re dealing with nonprofits, usually they have very good value propositions and if you genuinely buy into the value proposition it is not hard at all. Fundraising is a key area in the arts and nonprofit sector that needs a lot of attention and focus.

What do you look for in a new or potential board member?
I haven’t had a lot of experience of board recruitment because some of the boards I’ve been on have been government appointed boards.  However, passion is the one thing I want, and a level of expertise that they’re willing to share. It is fantastic when you have people who really speak their mind - though it is sometimes really hard to take. I’d always want somebody who knew about fundraising.  Keep the board size manageable, more is not necessarily better. I think it happens naturally that you get most of the different personality profiles on a board. I’ve never experienced where you didn’t have your devil’s advocate, peacemaker and so on.

How have things been changing for boards?
First, accountability.  It has always been there, but now it is more important and it is absolutely a good thing. Secondly, the professionalization of nonprofits and arts organisations, their ability to really perform on so many platforms. I am in awe of small to medium companies and the way in which they have matured over the past15 years. Their discourse is much more sophisticated, many of them understand their value proposition and know how to roll that out to actions and monitoring through KPIs, so they can say “We said we would do this and we have done it”.

Some things stay the same.  In terms of government appointed boards you’re at the whim of the prevailing political party. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the appointments I’ve had because they certainly fulfill that lifelong goal of reaching your potential, because you are stretched and exercised in ways that you wouldn’t otherwise really have a chance to do. With the responsibility come enormous rewards.
I’m in favour of board remuneration - for the basic reason that if you’re not getting paid you cannot claim related things as a business expense. Nonprofit board members should be paid a modest amount, even $50 or $500. It would help enormously to be paid.

Finally, regarding board audits or reviews.  In the same way that you sometimes have in camera sessions without executive staff, I think it’s a good idea to occasionally have an in camera without your Chair so that board directors can speak freely.  That takes a lot of courage for you as Chair to stand outside but I think it’s a good idea. A lot of Chairs have dominant personalities and that’s one reason why they’re Chairs.  So you have to ensure that everyone is having a say.

Chairs should not stay for any longer than five years. I think that it becomes their own organisation, their own club and it’s unhealthy. If someone has overstayed their useful role on a board, one should not be fearful about talking to them and moving them on.

Click here to download this interview as a PDF.


TBOTB3he Book of the Board has become Australia’s standard reference book for board and committee members of non-profit organisations. It provides clear guidance on the role of the board, formal and legal responsibilities, and the ways in which the board can maximise its effectiveness for the organisation.

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About the Author
David Fishel 2014 - compressedDavid Fishel is a Director of Positive Solutions, a consulting firm specialising in the cultural and non-profit sectors. He has been a board or Council member of several cultural and educational organisations, including Circa, Creative Enterprise Australia, QUT, and the Brisbane Writers Festival. He has been involved in the development of national training programs for board members in the UK and Australia. He is the founding Director of BoardConnect, a non-profit organisation established to provide advice and support for the board members and CEOs of non-profit organisations throughout Australia. David has facilitated strategic planning and organisational development for cultural, health, Aboriginal, sports, educational and other organisations.