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How to bring your experience to the board

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 25 Apr 2024

Jane Hemstritch’s impressive portfolio career has taught her a thing or two about how to choose the right role – or, better still, ensure that it chooses you.

For opera lover and former choral singer Jane Hemstritch, her appointment to KPMG Australia’s National Board earlier this year marks something of a return to her business roots. But ACA-qualified Hemstritch also accepts that the business today is singing a different tune from when she was an audit trainee with Pannell Kerr Foster in London back in the 1970s.

The main thing that’s changed in the intervening 50-odd years is use of technology, she says. “When I was starting out, we were lucky if we had cards with magnetic stripes down the side. With artificial intelligence and large data tools, it’s possible to look at everything and use analytics to draw your attention to things that look out of kilter.” 

A seasoned non-executive director and audit committee member of large commercial boards, Hemstritch believes a good auditor is there to shine what is sometimes a rather uncomfortable light on aspects of the operation. “That’s a step up from where we were all those years ago.”

Her early career involved “cardboard box jobs” for smaller clients – being presented with a mountain of receipts and other paperwork to pull together a true and accurate representation of what had been going on in the business – but it proved to be an invaluable learning experience, she says. 

“It taught me a lot about how to categorise things and the importance of cash flow, which sometimes gets a bit obscured in large businesses. In very large companies, you’re down in the weeds and you don’t really get the bigger picture of how all the pieces fit together, what’s vital, what’s not so vital and where the danger points are.”

It’s also an experience that has once again come into its own in her portfolio career. Following 25 years with Andersen Consulting and Accenture, during which she led Accenture’s business in Asia Pacific including China, India and Japan, she now juggles the demands of her latest KPMG role with a diverse portfolio of honorary board positions. 

Hemstritch is the Board President at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Australia’s leading medical research organisation focusing on cancers, infection and immunity, healthy development and ageing. “If you remember the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the people there have brains the size of planets,” Hemstritch jokes. 

It’s inspiring to work with an organisation full of people so passionate about what they do, she says, but the quest for funds is a perennial challenge. “You’re always looking for money. Scientists spend far too much of their life applying for grants. And getting philanthropic money is hard work.” 

Meanwhile, Hemstritch is also on the council of the University of Melbourne’s Queen’s College, on the board of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, and is on the investment advisory board of fund Cremorne Partners. She also serves on the advisory council of the Violet Initiative, a social enterprise that supports carers of those in the last stage of their life.

“When you’ve worked for big corporates, working with an organisation that is getting by on the smell of an oily rag is sobering because it makes you very aware of how far they can make not very much money go and to good effect. It’s wonderful to work with small organisations that really make every penny count.” 

Having a personal interest in the organisations you volunteer your time to is essential, she says. “All of these roles have come to me, but it’s really important to do something that you’re passionate about, especially later on in your career. At the advanced age of 70, it’s not like I need the money; I’m doing this for the intellectual interest and it’s also an opportunity to give back and share a bit of what I’ve learned.”

If developing a portfolio career is part of your game plan, start thinking about it well in advance, Hemstritch advises. “You need to let people know the kinds of roles you’re interested in.” Knowing what you won’t do is just as important to helping headhunters do the leg work for you. “I would not take on roles on public listed boards if they had a significant minority or a majority shareholder. To me, there’s an inherent conflict that I didn’t want to have to deal with,” she explains. 

Similarly, opaque financial arrangements are an immediate personal red flag. “If there was a lot of off-balance-sheet stuff and peculiar financial engineering, that wasn’t for me either. The rule is, never do anything you don’t fully understand.”

And while you certainly don’t have to always agree with potential colleagues, it’s important to like them, Hemstritch says, so make a point of meeting them. “Being on a board is teamwork. It’s important to feel comfortable with your colleagues and respect them. If you don’t think you're going to fit into the team, don't do it.” 

The other thing Hemstritch won’t do is “window dressing” as the token female NED. Fortunately, recognition of the benefits of diverse boards in all their guises means it’s a situation she hasn’t yet found herself in. “Most reputable public companies can see the value of having a range of points of view. It’s not just a bunch of old boys who go to lunch anymore. That’s partly because the regulators are a lot more focused on the responsibilities of directors and we’ve got to do the hard yards.” 

Gender and other protected characteristics aside, a good non-exec is someone who’s able to see the bigger picture. “As one of my former colleagues used to say, ‘you’ve got to be able to smell the smoke’ and you’ve got to be prepared to go against the consensus and stop the herd thundering off in a particular direction.” 

Be prepared to ask for data and be analytical about the information that you’re presented with, she says. “That’s where the accounting training comes in very handy. I remember once we were being asked to add a service line and when you looked at the figures, the growth was profitless. There can be good reasons for doing things like that, not least market share, but you’ve got to be prepared to paddle around in the numbers to see what they’re telling you over and above what’s being presented to you.”

Meanwhile, having worked with all the Big Four at some stage or other over the course of her career, Hemstritch says the profession has evolved well to meet the growing expectations of clients. “The accountants I’ve come across are much more polished businesspeople than technocrats. They really understood the context in which the business was operating and the insights that they’ve bought have been right on point.” 

There is no substitute for a proper understanding of your client’s business, she says. “If you don’t understand how that business works, where the sore spots are and where the opportunities are, you can’t add any value. Understanding what makes the business tick is about being curious.” 

It’s an attribute that is clearly in Hemstritch’s DNA. When she’s not working or indulging her passion for opera, she loves to travel and is currently researching her family history – as a British/Australian dual national, it’s all about uncovering the convict ancestor, she laughs. “The audit training comes in handy there and asking: ‘Does this evidence support the narrative that is developing here?’” 

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