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7 Questions with Helen Wiseman
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7 Questions with Helen Wiseman
Name: Helen Wiseman
Current title: Chair
Current organisation: Elixinol Global
1. What have you found most challenging as a board member?
Balancing foresight and hindsight - our role is to make forward looking decisions in the face of uncertainty, a crystal ball would be lovely but since that is not going to happen then you are drawing on a combination of data, experiences of fellow board members and executive as well as your own knowledge and judgement from past experiences of balancing foresight and hindsight. It's about looking at situations from multiple perspectives and thinking deeply about them, then collectively putting your best foot forward.
2. How did you become a board member? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I volunteered as a crisis telephone counsellor which was immensely rewarding (and life-changing). I came to the realization that I wanted to effect change at a more systemic level and one way to do that was to join the board of an organisation whose mission I was passionate about (SHINE for Kids). I found I enjoyed board work immensely and it grew from there. I love teamwork and I love being exposed to a broad range of sectors, industries, geographies, opportunities and challenges. That exposure allows you to draw on multiple perspectives in determining strategy or solving problems. I get to work alongside truly outstanding individuals - as each new board came along, my enjoyment of this work has only deepened.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Thank God for my calendar!! I am a big believer in managing your energy, not your time - not just on a daily basis but on a week, month and yearly basis. But bringing it back to a day, I rarely schedule meetings for the first two hours in the day - that's my thinking/do my best deep work time. I space out my meetings too - prefer 30 minute or more gaps, meeting = energy out, gap = energy restore (introverted work such as checking and responding to emails, prepping for the next meeting - oh and a trip to the fridge!). No two days are the same but I love one-on-one lunches (pre-Covid - bring on post-Covid!). And I love taking our dogs to the park for an off-leash run (them, not me). I put on my earphones and I listen to my Masters of Performance Psychology lectures. Get back, dinner with family (typically sofa style, we are not Little House on the Prairie) and then.... Europe, UK and South Africa kick in (I have an international board portfolio). I exercise on weekends and get a keyboard lesson and a swim in during the week. My daughter and I end the day watching Modern Family - good to laugh out loud before bedtime! The four cats and two dogs also enjoy the lap time!
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
By far it is to listen to truly understand another person's perspective, to ask myself what can I learn from this, or what should I be seeing differently with this? And even if I don't agree, it will be on a basis of deep consideration and absolute respect for the other person. If you think you have "the answer" to complex problems that is probably your first mistake. Whilst burning buildings require a swift and decisive response, I believe diversity of thinking and challenge generally lead to better leadership outcomes.
5. What are some of the keys to doing governance well in a organisation?
First is to really understand the purpose for which the organisation exists, what drives it, what is the strategic opportunity that it is seeking to address or best positioned to serve. Understanding Organisational strengths including the best capabilities of its people. As a board, how do you harness and magnify this to be in the best position to achieve its strategy. What do its stakeholders require from the organisation, are we aligned? Then look at your custodian and asset protection role - risk, compliance, integrity of reporting. Then taking all of that, having a Chair who gets the best out of each director and board processes, supports the CEO and helps the board appropriately support and challenge the executive, regularly assess board committees and board/committee composition. Governance has to be non-negotiable but embedded in a way that is fit for purpose and allows the beating heart of the organisation to do its best work according to its mission.
6. How do you differentiate between the role of board member and the roles of CEO or executive team member of a organisation?
The board sets the frame (strategy) and the parameters for decision-making. It appoints a CEO to deliver on it. Oversight mechanisms are laid down in the Board Charter. The board's role is to ensure the strategy is achieved. The CEO and executive determine how. The board has ultimate responsibility to protect the assets and sustainability of the organisation and its compliance and standing with its stakeholders. That's the core stuff. The board collectively brings experience and diversity of perspective that (one hopes) is valued by the CEO and executive - the Chair plays a key role in setting the operating and cultural parameters of the board to ensure that what a board member may feel is helpful to the executive is not seen as an undue hindrance on the part of the executive!! And therein lies the art! It is organisation and situation dependent. It is also continual calibration.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a board member so far?
Don't have chewy mints as boardtable snacks... My most memorable day was attending as Chair of SHINE for Kids, the launch of a mentoring program at a juvenile justice centre just before Christmas. It was empowering but also a reminder of societal failures that these boys were spending Christmas in "Juvy". Then back to the city for the War Widows Guild Christmas party (I was a director on their board). I loved the stories of the generations they had created, their pride in their families and their support of each other through the years as widows. When Silent Night was played and sung I quietly shed a tear for the very different lives and experiences of those boys from the morning and these fabulous women whose average age was 87. I felt proud as a board member, in keeping with why I got into board work in the first place) that I was playing a role as part of a supportive organisation. Later that day, as a mother, I went to my three year old's daycare Christmas party. The hopes and delight of three year olds when Santa came in! Three very different Christmas celebrations across the broadest range of circumstances and how I came to be there. All board work is human whether non-profit or for profit, no matter how large or small the organisation. It truly is a privilege to serve and a responsibility I take very seriously (without taking myself too seriously!)