Insights

Perspectives from The Directors College

The Beach or Innovation Governance?

by The Directors College Team | Apr 15, 2018

“That would be me right there walking the beach,” says Leah Fricke, using her  cell phone to point to a spot on Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia, where a couple of thousand people are frolicking in the sand and surf.

On a sweltering Saturday, Fricke would normally be part of the Bondi Beach life saving crew patrolling the shore with an eye out for wayward children and struggling swimmers.

(Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia)


Instead, in early April, Leah is in a 19th century tannery building in Kitchener Ontario, where the weather outside is struggling to reach zero and there are snow squalls in the air.



(The Tannery - Kitchener, Ontario, Canada)

Are Board Members Ready to Govern Innovation?

What brought Fricke halfway around the world, thus abandoning her native Australia during an autumn heat spell? To dive into the challenge of innovation to boards of directors, in the first full scale offering of Innovation Governance Special Program  by The Directors College, a partnership of McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business and the Conference Board of Canada.

This ground-breaking program takes on a critical governance issue: We are working in a VUCA world (military short form for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), but the educational and preparatory content for directors is lagging far behind. This innovation focus is a new imperative in helping boards serve companies and their change agenda.

For Fricke, the cultural shock in Kitchener was just as dramatic – and much more important to her work – than the climate inversion. Twice a year, Fricke, a veteran director in her country with a breadth of experience, travels outside Australia for an education program or experience that “just shakes you up".

Innovation Governance - Saturday session

There was a lot of shaking up in the intensive two and a half day program based at the Communitech innovation hub in the centre of the Kitchener-Waterloo technology ecosystem. The participants came to be challenged in their thinking and to challenge each other. They generally came away with eyes opened through a mix of presentations and role playing exercises from global and Canadian thought leaders.

Judith Athaide, a veteran director and energy industry consultant based in Calgary, sees an onrushing demand for innovation thinking in companies she both advises and serves as a director. “I am finding that all the organizations in which I am involved are seeing the importance of innovation – and how the cycle of innovation is speeding up".

“For some it is pots and pans; for others it is bits and bytes,” said Athaide, who is active in governance education circles. “It is something we as directors need to understand.”

The 14 participants came with a host of questions:

  • How can we ask relevant questions about  transformative technology if we are not tech specialists?

  • How can we integrate innovation into strategy conversations?

  • How can we achieve board-management alignment on what innovation means?

  • And how can we explore the importance of organizational culture in helping organizations meet the  innovation challenge?.

The Diverse Group Made Things Better

The questions [above] reflected the diversity of people who attended the immersive program – some were established directors like Athaide and Fricke;  others looking for the kind of background that would enhance their governance credentials. This mix suits Fricke’s appetite for new ideas – and a consolidation of existing ideas -- that she would take back to her own companies. “Every director [on a board] brings a bit of who they are.” What she brings to the table “is a greater perspective to see the whole of the universe.”

That comes from having grown up on a wheat acreage in rural Australia, attending law school in Melbourne and launching herself on a legal and business career in Sydney which has included extensive work throughout Asia. Now, she is an independent director who intellectually  likes to get outside her comfort zone – perhaps the model of an innovation-ready director.

Key Learnings and Insights

Fricke came away from Kitchener with a new network of people with whom she could continue to explore how boards can support an innovation agenda. And if she got a lot out of the program, the other participants learned a lot from her and her questioning style, asking the tough questions and challenging the presenters.

She observed that Australia may be more developed and progressive in its “regulatory courage” on governance – perhaps because it is an island and better situated to think independently, unlike Canada which is thrust up alongside the United States. She also felt her country has gone farther with diversity on boards – and a constant theme of the program was that diverse boards are better prepared for thinking about innovation.

Athaide came out with a host of ideas bubbling in her head. A month after the program, she had already shared a number of experiences and ideas with some of her boards.

She drew a lot of meaning from a presentation by Blair Sheppard, a former business school dean and now global leader in strategy and development for PwC, who wove the image of startling global technological and economic change into the journey of his own firm. She had a “wow moment” when U.S. digital innovation consultant Barry Libert put up a chart of companies relating their per-share revenues and market price – with the companies in the upper right quadrant relying on intellectual capital and networks.

Constructive criticisms emerged from the program-- some things should be expanded, others shortened, but when offered again, Athaide says, “I would absolutely be back.” She emphasizes the importance of continuous training. If directors don’t do that, they have to ask if they are still adding value.

In the final analysis, Athaide spoke for everyone: “I hope it will change my performance as a director”.

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