02/11/2011 - 11:09

Skira makes opportunities count

02/11/2011 - 11:09

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Eva Skira says a career as a professional director does not suit everyone, but it has worked well for her since she moved to Perth nearly 20 years ago.

ONLY a handful of women in Perth can genuinely be described as professional company directors, particularly at the top end of the market.

Diane Smith-Gander, Fiona Harris, Jennifer Seabrook, Eva Skira … the list starts to trail off after that.

With her recent appointment to the boards of listed contractor Macmahon Holdings and the Water Corporation, adding to an already busy portfolio, Ms Skira ranks as one of the state’s eminent directors.

The path to her current career success started with her upbringing in rural Tasmania with her parents, who had migrated from Europe.

“That very profoundly affected my life,” she says.

“I had fantastic parents, they were incredibly supportive, and my father thought there were absolutely no limitations on what the children could achieve.”

Ms Skira’s working life started in Sydney, where she joined Commonwealth Bank as an economist, later moving into corporate banking and capital markets.

That followed studies in economic history at the University of NSW. With support from the Commonwealth Bank, Ms Skira was able to pursue what became one of her most satisfying personal achievements – completing an MBA at IMD business school in Switzerland, as dux of her year.

That was followed by a move into institutional stockbroking with Barclays de Zoete Wedd.

Her career, and life, took a major change when she moved to Perth with her husband and young family.

“One of the best things we ever did was move to Western Australia,” Ms Skira says.

“The quality of life for my family, and the growth in the economy and the maturing of the city, it’s just been great to be part of that.”

Director’s duties

The move towards being a professional director started in 1993, when Ms Skira was appointed a director of Transperth, which in those days ran all public transport in Perth.

The chairman was former Futuris and Bristile executive David Gilham, who proved to be the first of many mentors and role models to have helped Ms Skira.

Other board positions have included with private building and construction company Doric Group, the state government’s Forest Products Commission, and superannuation fund Westscheme, which recently merged with Australian Super.

Each of those roles ended this year, to be replaced by three new appointments – at Macmahon, the Water Corporation and the Sydney-based Australian National Maritime Museum.

In addition, Ms Skira is deputy chairman of not-for-profit St John of God Healthcare, deputy chancellor of Murdoch University and a director of listed engineering company RCR Tomlinson and MDA National Insurance.

Is that too much for one person, especially at a time when directors face increasing legal risks?

Ms Skira doesn’t believe it is possible to generalise about the number of board roles any individual should hold, but in her case she is comfortable with the workload.

“I’m busy, and I think being busy is fantastic. I also think, given the nature of my boards, that I have a very manageable portfolio,” she says.

She is also very conscious of the increasing risks and scrutiny of company directors.

“It definitely has changed. Expectations from the community, investors, all stakeholders have changed, for all types of institutions,” Ms Skira told WA Business News.

She attributes this to the increased access to information and data via the internet.

Ms Skira says she is also very aware of regulatory changes and court judgements that affect director liability.

“You need good advisers around you,” she says.

While formal training has a role to play in preparing company directors, Ms Skira says nothing beats maturity, life experience and some grey hairs – figuratively speaking.

 “It’s about building up very strong relationships, understanding people and people management,” she says.

“All of that comes together to equip us with the skills and depth of understanding that you need.

 “That’s the glue that binds it together, and that is not something that you can do courses on. As you mature, you gain that. It’s also about being a good communicator; and probably the most important one is the ability to listen.

“If I think about how I’ve matured as a director, it’s having a better understanding of where people are coming from.

“When you are young, it’s all about where you are coming from, and as you get older, it’s about where others are coming from.”

Common thread

Having served on a wide range of boards, including government agencies, not for profits and listed companies, Ms Skira believes there are more similarities than differences.

In particular, all of these organisations have a wide range of stakeholders. She believes any differences are outweighed by one imperative.

“You have to get alignment between the shareholders, the board, the CEO and the senior executives,” Ms Skira says.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t have disagreements and robust discussions.

“But you need to have a strong understanding of what you are trying to achieve, and how you are going to get there; then you have strong leadership and a strong organisation.

“When I come into any organisation, I’m looking to understand that alignment.”

For people evaluating board opportunities, Ms Skira encourages a normal due diligence process, evaluating the organisation’s background and financials.

But she emphasises the key is the people sitting around the boardroom table.

“It’s the quality of the people you’ll be engaging with,” she says.

“You also need a clear sense that you can add value, otherwise it’s a waste of time for you and the other people on the board.”

Her last piece of advice is to pursue opportunities that present themselves.

“People should, within reason, take up opportunities.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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