In conversation with Diane Smith-Gander AO

By Courtney Mathew

16 May 2020

From banking to professional services to education and non-executive directorships, Diane Smith-Gander’s career spans across several industries and countries, taking on challenging and diverse roles and opportunities along the way. She joined us on May 6th, 2020 to share her insights on how to navigate a constantly changing environment, how to become a high performer, building resilience in yourself and your career, and how leaders effectively manage in a crisis.

Diane opened with detailing her experience – across legal, housing and transport appointments – to paint a picture of the varying yet similar themes echoing from board room to board room. However similar or different these crises are, the industries Diane worked in all varied in their reactions and ways of leading in critical time periods.

In the present day, the social distancing measures due to the COVID19 pandemic, has rapidly changed previously held beliefs on workplace flexibility. There are now shifts towards permanent reduction in physical workplace attendance in favour of remote and flexible work arrangements. Diane hopes that these policies do not disappear once restrictions lift, and that organisations continue to implement best practice policies.

For instance, in crises, those without power nor influence become disproportionately affected by policy enactment and reversal. Diane echoed to the Global Financial Crisis whereby women experienced higher levels of retrenchment compared to men. Diane emphasised that advocacy must be a valuable tool in these times. Shifting to economics, Diane noted that the Federal Government cannot be the primary driver of recovery; rather, effective boards are engaged in finding relevant signals for when they can begin to re-engage their stakeholders in a suitable manner.

As Boards are working on returning to business as usual, Diane discussed the key trend of an increase in board meetings. The focus of these meetings includes potential risk mitigation, employee and customer safety, as well as supplying key updates and communications to stakeholders. Boards face the challenging task of making judgement calls with limited and often conflicting information; how can they lead effectively? Diane’s true measure of good judgement is to know when to stop trying to get excess information, as gathering information alone does not allow for effective decision-making. The higher up in the organisation chain, the larger the judgement calls are, so leaders need to have a good sense of potential scenarios and the assumptions that underpin them. These assumptions need to be clear and understood and available to all people who are involved in the judgement process.

In crisis, our ability to absorb messages decreases, so when it comes to good leadership communication, Diane says that if you think you are over-communicating, then you are doing the right amount. She shared with us a great method to ensure that information is impactful in organisations: double delivery. Where you deliver the message to your team and check that they understand, then go with your team member who delivers the message to their reports, checks they understand and so on, double looping the communication organisation wide.

Diane highlighted the need to also be prepared to go backwards during crisis. This may sound counterintuitive, but as you are moving forward in crisis, you often only look to the future. Good leaders are aware that not everything is going to go smoothly, so be prepared and aware with a rollback plan. During these challenging times, Diane also encourages people to draw on what they have been doing in their career in the last few years to build a resilience bank. She labels herself an introvert, drawing her strength from small group settings or alone, needing time for herself to recharge and function optimally. She encouraged everyone to take time to learn about what builds your personal resilience and know when it is low, that it is time to reset and recharge.

Our members asked what advice Diane had to become a high performer during crises, she said it was no different to what high performers deliver at other times:

Saying no is not is Diane’s DNA. In her early career, there was the general belief that as a woman, if you receive an opportunity, and you said no, another one may not come in its place. As such, you must evaluate every opportunity as they arise and see how you can make it happen.

Diane left us with some wisdom we can all use on our career journey; to look through the windscreen and not the rear-view mirror and, in the moment, ask how are you able to do the best you can, how can you know yourself to keep growing and build on your strengths. She encouraged everyone to spend your time on using your strengths, looking forward and being really open to opportunity.

Thank you, Diane, for sharing your insights with us, it was an enlightening discussion.

Listen to the full recording on the Members Dashboard or register for our upcoming events and webinars.