Managing your relationship with your board - interview with Rosemary Conn

For many NFP CEOs, creating and maintaining a strong relationship between management and the board can be fraught with angst. It is crucial that there is a clear and open working relationship. It’s important that this extends to all key management and not just the CEO, so everyone feels informed and connected across the organisation. In our work at Good Foundations, we’ve seen first hand the results of poor board relationships- thankfully, we’ve also witnessed the benefits of investing time and effort into fostering a sustainable and effective relationship with the board. 

Rosemary Conn, CEO of Australian Schools Plus has gone from strength to strength in creating a fruitful relationship with her board - we spoke with Rosemary to understand more about her approach and how she ensures a strong relationship between her management and board.   


The beginning - how did you feel attending your first board meeting? How do you feel attending them now?

I remember sitting in the first board meetings feeling like I was still being interviewed for the job - although that was more my perception than the reality. We were all feeling our way. Now I feel we all come to the table with our opinions, we all have a really good debate. I come away feeling really energised from our board meetings which I think is a really unusual thing to say. We have a few principals on the board, one of them invited us to her school, and it was great - it’s great to get the board connected to what you’re doing in a really tangible way. The more we can get meetings in schools, the better.. As a chair, Angus does a really good job, he’s the kind of person who will shine the spotlight on the elephant in the room - whatever is uncomfortable and bring it out, he’s not afraid of having the tough conversations.


On the development of the relationship from the first day of being CEO til now- were there any key moments or changes that helped improve your relationship and interaction with each other?

I think it’s definitely evolved. Dynamics really changed quickly, as we all got to know each other personally, and luckily we got to spend a lot of one on one time with each other, which really helps. If you can get to know each person’s personal drive, then I think everyone feels they have a voice around the table. We have 8 people on the board who are all as passionate as each other, we all bring something different to the table- whether that’s through expertise in education, or NFP experience, or from a business perspective. If we didn’t have these different groups represented around the board, then we wouldn’t see different perspectives around the table. That’s why it does come together, there’s a lot of mutual respect around the table, and not a lot of ego. Honestly, I am really lucky. I’ve also heard horror stories, there are boards that are not really active, but I’ve had the complete opposite experience - part of that is our chairman, Angus James - he is really engaged. Our board is really thinking about the organisation- the Chair and I catch up once a fortnight in person and chat a lot over the phone - which is a big time commitment for him.. Our whole board meets four times a year in person, with subcommittee meetings in between, and again the odd phone call in between.


On being accountable - how has the board contributed to ensuring the strategy of Australian Schools Plus is executed?

They have a lot of confidence and faith in our leadership team. They are also all hands on in their own way. Those that have expertise in education will help assess our teaching awards, for example. Others may help with making introductions, or whatever their area of expertise is. The Board is very involved in reviewing our strategy, as well as keeping me accountable.


On challenges - What has been the most challenging aspect of working with your board?

Simply the logistical challenge of getting us all together in one spot at one time for our meetings. And I guess, more in the early days, I was challenged personally and professionally, working towards feeling like I belonged and growing my own confidence.


On decision making - what would you say is the decision making style of the board?

Consultative - everyone’s ideas are listened to and then we seem to be quite good at making decisions rather than letting things drift.


Some advice- what’s one piece of advice would you give to other new CEOs in how they can build a strong relationship with their board?

The best thing that I’ve done is getting to know the directors individually, I think that’s really important. What happens outside the boardroom is just as important as what happens inside - if they’re not engaged and well-informed, then how can they make good decisions about the organisation.

Rosemary Conn is the CEO of Australian Schools Plus - her first time as a CEO, after previously working as Head of Fundraising for the Beacon Foundation.