Paul McClintock

5 Minutes with Paul McClintock

We spend 5 minutes with Paul McClintock, the Chair of I-Med Network, Broadspectrum, Laser Clinics Australia, the Committee for Economic Development of Ausrtalia and NSW Ports.

What was your first job out of University and how did it shape your career?

I studied Arts and Law at University, so I was looking at a career in Commercial Law to start with and I joined one of the big city firms. I ended up doing everything from licensing laws right through to trade practices.  After my short period as a solicitor, I was hired by former Prime Minister John Howard as his Senior Private Secretary (now known as Chief of Staff) when he was Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs. He knew me partly through student politics and partly because my law degree covered the areas of his portfolio. So with those two things coming together, he offered me the job. I worked for him for around 3 years as it covered all the areas of law that I was interested in.

You previously worked as Head of the Cabinet Policy Unit reporting to former Prime Minister John Howard. What was that experience like?

20 years later, Mr Howard approached me and asked me to be Head of the Cabinet Policy Unit. It was an extraordinary experience to be at the centre of government, yet effectively a business person. It was an unusual chance to do that.

What are the benefits of working in a board position?

I think one of the benefits is the breadth of the experience.  If you’re a full-time director as I have been since I came back from the Cabinet job and it’s what I do for a living, you tend to be involved at the highest level across several organisations. If you’re fortunate enough to select a good portfolio which I have been able to do, then you get to see a range of business and activity. There are very few careers you can follow where you have influence and authority, and have the extraordinary breadth of something different every day.

Can you name some of the challenges working on a board?

One of the main challenges is that the community has higher and higher expectations of what directors should do. Without interfering with management, it is sometimes very difficult to meet those expectations. All board members are focused on identifying community expectations and then seeing whether it is realistic to deliver them.  Every board is also different. I work on boards that report to infrastructure funds, to overseas multinationals, to private equity firms and the Catholic Church. Every one of those owners has a different set of objectives and requires a different set of reporting lines.

You work across a variety of industries.  Do you think there are key differences in board management across different sectors?

The role of boards is very different. If you are on a listed company board, the board is the final authority, short of a revolt of the shareholders at an AGM. If you chair a company for a subsidiary of a large global player, as I do with Broadspectrum, you share the authority with the global group and it is a different role as you are part of a much bigger system. I look at each one of my boards and the expectations of the board are quite distinct.

What has been your favourite job to date?

I have no favourite. However, the one that has stretched me the most and given me the broadest sense of the community is the Cabinet Secretary job. It would be very difficult to sensibly compare a normal board position to that opportunity. I wouldn’t call it my favourite, but it is certainly the most demanding and interesting job I have had.

Diversity is becoming a prominent issue.  How have you seen the companies and boards that you are working with evolve and manage these issues?

There are a number of features.

One of them is who are your staff and are you confident your companies are genuinely welcoming diversity across gender and ethnic groups. It is essentially much more sophisticated that it used to be and there is a lot more focus on it. HR departments work with the board to ensure this happens.

There is the involvement of making sure your senior management pick the best talent and get the diversity there. Right at the top level you need to make sure that the board has a fair cross section of the different interests and particularly genders.

Having said that, the boards are not usually appointed by themselves but by their owners, so that will depend on their priorities. There are some sectors like engineering where it is more difficult to get the broad group.  At St Vincent’s Health, gender diversity is much easier and our current board is 50:50.

What is the most enjoyable part about being associated with several organisations?

It is an enormously interesting job and you are mixing with an extraordinarily talented bunch of people. People who sit on boards and the senior management who report to them are all very talented, very motivated and there is a very high level of effectiveness in what they do. Because you are at the top of the organisational chart, you have a wonderful view of the strategic achievements and the cultural alignments of your organisation. You can look at an organisation and see all the good things it does.  All my organisations are doing high-quality work and have a good impact on the community. Whilst you don’t do any of that because you are not in the management team, you do have the ability to share that and it is very satisfying.

Many of your current and recent roles come with a lot of responsibility.  How do you manage your workload effectively to be successful in your career?

I think you get better at it as you go along.  I have been involved in board work for over 20 years. You get experience as to how you do that, where you put your focus. Sometimes you can have a 2-3 board meetings in a week each of which might have a board pack of 300-400 pages.  If you don’t have the ability to know where you need to go and what issues you need to focus on, you could get stuck in the paper work.

Over time you work out where the strategic issues are, the governance issues and you keep focused on them. It is a busy life. I chair several organisations and several not-for-profit and community activities and every one of them has a high level of responsibility. They are mostly leaders in their field.

The key is a fantastic management team. My life would be terrible if I didn’t work with outstanding management. When you have a board and management fails, you are pulled into the front line and are responsible for overseeing the changes. That has happened to me several times and it is intense. Again, that is part of the role that we play.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

My job is essentially seven days a week, but my retreat which is key to my sanity, is visiting our base in New Zealand. We spend a few weeks living near the mountains on the South Island.

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