Barbara Yeoh | A View from the Board
Former Chair at Monash Health
Barbara Yeoh is an experienced Board Director and CEO in a range of sectors. Currently the Deputy Chair of the Victorian State Emergency Service; she has been Chair of Monash Health, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority Audit & Risk Committee, the ACT Investment Advisory Board, the Victorian Rail Freight Advisory Board as well as holding several Directorships across healthcare, transport and finance.
She recently sat down with Managing Director, Wayne Bruce to discuss her career. Some of the topics they touched on include:
- What was your first job out of University and how did it shape your future career path?
- Has there been one role across your career that you would say has been your favourite? Which one did you learn the most from?
- How did you get your first board position?
- I’d be particularly interested in how you think the world has changed from a diversity point of view since you started working until now? Do you think it’s where it should be yet and if not, do you think it’s getting there?
- How do you measure cognitive diversity?
- Are there any boards you’ve been a chair of, where you have used this tools or references?
- You’ve been on a number of company boards across numerous sectors, what key differences have you noted across different sectors?
- When you are recruiting for a senior executive to join your team, what are the key attributes you look for in the person, apart from technical skills and experience?
- What are your top tips for aspiring leaders?
What was your first job out of University and how did it shape your future career path?
I think to put it into context, I studied pure and applied mathematics, and statistics at university. I did that because I absolutely loved mathematics and still do up to this day. I really didn’t have any idea what I really want I want to do. I was young, fallen in love with mathematics and thought let’s see what happens. So, when I graduated I was offered a position with the Bureau of Statistics as a research officer and worked in a small research unit that essentially was active in consulting and undertook consultancy roles in applied research.
The first job I had there was to work with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and looked at the effectiveness of wearing seat belts. I’m probably showing my age a bit here, but that was a really exciting opportunity for my very first project I worked in after I graduated. I think I really just let my career find its own way, a bit like a stream coming down the mountainside it assigns its own path, it doesn’t go in a straight line. I never had a career path; never had a career plan and I’ve always been prepared to take a risk with my career. Something came along that appealed to me and having studied mathematics it really is about logic and problem solving, so you’re not really boxed into a particular sector or industry. That in part is why I really have never had a career path.
Has there been one role across your career that you would say has been your favourite? Which one did you learn the most from?
I’d probably say I don’t have a favourite role. I think all those roles contributed, although I would say working in the health sector really gives me a very strong sense of purpose. What really impacted me was my bosses and the people I work for.
My first job at the Bureau of Statistics, my boss was a retired ex-wing commander, from the Australian Air Force. If we jump onto the stereotype wagon then you’d say, “oh, wow, chain of control, command and control type” of leader, when in fact he was the opposite. He was a wonderful and inspiring leader who encouraged and supported me. He never looked over my shoulder and had an open-door policy. I think most of all I remember him for his kindness and generosity.
I have to say, I’ve been lucky in my career. Particularly in my early to mid-career because there were men who were my bosses who had the same leadership styles, and they weren’t the type who had this notion of a glass ceiling. They really gave me the confidence to pursue my career interests through life.
How did you get your first board position?
I can’t remember exactly when, but it would have been probably over 30 years. I was still young; I was in a CEO role of the Treasury Corporation of Victoria. It’s actually a funny story because you asked me how you got the role Barbara – I have no idea. I was in my office late one afternoon, my secretary came in with a large envelope had been couriered to my office and it was addressed to me, marked confidential from La Trobe University. I said to my secretary, I’ve got nothing to do with La Trobe University, clearly, they’ve made a mistake, you need to ring them and courier the documents back. She came back into my office and said No, Barbara, there’s no mistake, these are the meeting papers for your first council meeting next week, you’ve been appointed to the La Trobe University council. I didn’t even know, so clearly there was some miscommunications along the way and still to this day I don’t know who proposed and supported my appointment onto the La Trobe University council.
I’d be particularly interested in how you think the world has changed from a diversity point of view since you started working until now? Do you think it’s where it should be yet and if not, do you think it’s getting there?
I think when I first started out, I’m not sure that there really was the skills matrix, these are primarily about both your education diversity and work experience diversity. I think we have made progress, clearly in terms of gender but only in respect of women on boards. But if we put the two words together, diversity and inclusiveness, my view is that they aren’t necessarily one thing or automatically come together. If you’ve got a diverse board, I think it’s erroneous to believe you’ve got an inclusive board.
In terms of diversity, I think my reading of the research is telling me that cognitive diversity is perhaps the more powerful, stronger influence in terms of diversity of thinking on the board. The cognitive thinking in diversity is how you think about a problem, how you think about your approach and what your approach to solving an issue.
I don’t think we really talk about or think about cognitive diversity. We probably make assumptions about if you’re a lawyer, your cognitive strength would be X, Y or Z, rather than thinking more deeply about it. So, I think there’s a bit of a risk in terms of having a simple tick the box approach to diversity, we now tick the gender box and that is a bit of a concern to me. But I think the one that I really think we need to do a lot more work around being inclusive. For me, that’s about our biases as individual directors, both our conscious and our unconscious biases. It’s hard work, first of all, to try and identify, recognise and understand where your biases may come from to work hard to leave them outside the boardroom. Because if you don’t do that, then, of course, you’re not going to get the benefits of diversity, cognitive diversity and diversity of information.
But I do think, one of the key conversations that is happening as a result of the financial royal commission is a sense of purpose. I think both collectively and as individual directors, having a strong sense of purpose is very important in terms of going down the path of understanding and practising inclusive behaviours in the boardroom.
How do you measure cognitive diversity?
I think that’s the challenge, it is how you could put that in practice. I’ve certainly done a workshop on cognitive diversity, and it’s helped me discover what my strengths and weaknesses were in that space. It’s challenging, I think we probably have to have some discussion about how we can to some extent, try and reflect cognitive diversity.
Are there any boards you’ve been a chair of, where you have used these tools or references?
In regard to cognitive diversity, I would have to honestly say no. It’s been a reversion to the aspects relating particularly to work experience and education. That’s not to say that cognitive diversity, which I don’t believe is mutually exclusive from the others. They all come together, but perhaps that requires just a bit more asking what is the evidence in terms of coming to a solution rather than not having the strength of saying, what’s the people in that?”.
You’ve been on a number of company boards across numerous sectors, what key differences have you noted across different sectors?
I would say there were two differences in my view between government sector boards and the private sector. The first difference is balance sheet management. With government boards, you really don’t have accountability for balance sheet management. You’ve got essentially constraints in terms of your funding and your funding models, but there is that dependency on government. What that does in my view is that it takes some edge of driving accountability performance for performance on government boards.
The other difference I would highlight would be shareholders. When you’re on a government board, you are very conscious of who your shareholder is. It manifests itself all the time through government policy, government strategy, and again funding constraints are always present there in the boardroom. One of the things that does to some extent is be a constraint on innovative thinking on government boards, because you are you have to work within that context of government policy and government strategy.
When you are recruiting for a senior executive to join your team, what are the key attributes you look for in the person, apart from technical skills and experience?
I suppose I’m going to show my cognitive biases here or my unconscious biases. First of all, to me it’s very important in terms of being an inclusive leader. It’s not all about me, if in an interview I feel it’s all about me, then I would be asking myself, is this person really just driven by their ego, are they a hero leader, are they a control freak. Are they perhaps charismatic, but there’s not a lot of substance beneath that charisma. That’s probably the biggest red flag I have in interviewing for a leader.
I’d also like to understand how their self-awareness, and their impact affects others. I think that’s very important, and I think the last thing I’d say is I love to come out for an interview just feeling so energised and excited about a candidate. That’s important because I think if they can make me feel that way, it’s important they make staff feel that way too. If they are able to effectively engage with stakeholders and make them also feel energised about the purpose and the vision, that’s great for the organisation.
What are your top tips for aspiring leaders?
First of all, self-reflection. It’s terribly important and I think you need to build your self-awareness. I’d say that was something that I’ve really come to later in my career, rather than very early. When you’re very enthusiastic and see things with a bright future. But I think self-reflection is so important, and I personally benefit a lot from self-reflection after a board meeting about what went right, what went wrong, what have I learned from that and what can I learn from that.
The other couple of tips I’d give is don’t leave kindness and generosity outside the door, it does matter. You need to have courage, and you need courage for two reasons. If you’re really going to grow and develop both personally and professionally, you need to step outside your comfort zone. You need courage to take risks with your career, but more importantly, you need moral courage to make decisions as a leader. When you’re a leader you don’t have perfect information, if you’re a leader and making decisions based on perfect information, then you shouldn’t be making those decisions, you should be delegating them.
I think the one for the future is to have an open and agile mind. I don’t think any of us could say we know what the future’s going to look like at this point in time. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we don’t even know whether we’re really going to come out of it, how we’re really going to come out of it, and what transition really looks like. So, that is going to be a strength that we’re going to need more and more of in our leaders. So that they are very open in their thinking, they’re very agile in the way they process information and make decisions.
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