"I have a strong belief in the power of the collective": Q&A with Angela Emslie March 2019
Angela Emslie spent 24 years on the board of HESTA, the last nine as chair, before stepping down in December 2018. We ask Angela about her time with the fund and what she'll miss most. She also shares a little about her unconventional childhood, lightbulb career moment, how to cultivate a positive workplace culture, and her board roles in the areas of responsible investing and suicide prevention. And about that time, as a new graduate, when she developed a fascination for ports.
- Who or what was the impetus for your career path?
My career path has essentially been about being flexible and making the most of opportunities that come my way. I have been fortunate to have been given opportunities to step up into leadership roles. This was certainly how I got involved in superannuation when as a senior manager, with responsibility among other things for the health and community services sector, at the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI), I was asked to represent employers on HESTA. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about superannuation, but the lights really came on after my first investment committee meeting, and I loved it. I must have got the hang of it because VECCI subsequently nominated me to step in to representative trustee roles on the boards of Vision Super, CareSuper and VicSuper.
- You have mentioned in a recent interview the ‘special board culture’ at HESTA. As a longstanding Director and Chair for eight years, how do you feel this has been cultivated?
The HESTA Board, and the whole organisation for that matter, has an extraordinary culture and there is no doubt in my mind that it arose out of the equal representation governance model.
I am told that right from the start, nearly 32 years ago, the board of employer and union reps quickly coalesced around the notion of working together to achieve members’ best interests and it’s been a mantra since those early days that “You could walk into the board room and not know who was an employer or employee rep”. A key difference today however is that you will hear more female voices – I was one of 2 women when I first started and now there are 8.
"A key difference today however is that you will hear more female voices – I was one of 2 women when I first started and now there are 8."
Equal representation brings together a diverse group of people as trustees who have a strong connection and sense of accountability to fund members who they see day to day in their own workplaces and this drives that clarity of purpose that is the basis for a strong culture. Add to that the extra special ingredient of the health and community services sector and you have a board with a strong moral compass that drives not only a culture of dedication to members' best interests but also reflects their members’ social conscience, which means that they are ambitious for both members and for society – wanting to achieve both a stronger financial future for HESTA members and a better world for them to retire into.
"As I start to think about my next steps in my career as an NED I know I don’t want to take a backward step culturally."
During my time as Chair we proactively cultivated this board culture by regularly talking about it and even documenting it. We established explicit shared values and behaviours that provided a common view on what doing the right thing for our members meant. This not only enabled us to set the tone from the top for a truly authentic member driven organisation and articulate and drive an ambition for our members and society, but also helped us solve difficult problems and navigate different perspectives.
We actively sought to propagate and preserve the culture through careful selection processes, role modelling and mentoring new board members and of course continually talking about our culture and what it meant for our members.
As I start to think about my next steps in my career as an NED I know I don’t want to take a backward step culturally.
- What will you miss most about the role?
So much! The privilege of working collectively to improve the retirement outcomes for the amazing people who work in the health and community services sector helping others. And, being part of the amazing growth and development of the industry fund sector.
- What excites you most about being on the board of Principles of Responsible Investment?
Having spent much of my career involved in both industry associations and industry super, I have a strong belief in the power of the collective. With 2,300+ signatory members representing US$80+ trillion in assets under management and the support of the UN, the PRI is a truly potent global collective. It provides an influential platform for investors to work collectively to drive responsible investment and promote a sustainable financial system. The Board itself is a globally diverse group of people united by shared values and a common agenda - it’s a very inspiring environment.
"With 2,300+ signatory members representing US$80+ trillion in assets under management and the support of the UN, the PRI is a truly potent global collective."
- You have said that you would like to see the time when all investments are ‘responsible’. With climate change in mind, have you any ideas on how this could be speeded up?
In reality, it is very difficult to completely reconcile long-term investment strategy and acceptable social and environmental outcomes in the absence of stable and supportive political and regulatory arrangements. Therefore, the real need is for our political leaders to start behaving responsibly based on the science. Having said that, investors are trying to lead the way by making sure we build in the medium and longer-term risks of portfolio exposure to carbon.
- What was the impetus for setting up LIME Group, of which you are a founding director?
LIME was a coming together 15 years ago of a small group of women with diverse yet compatible backgrounds and the shared idea of forming our own management consulting business. We shared a passion for the type of work (centered on the health and community services sector) and a unique team approach. It proved to be a wonderfully collaborative and supportive partnership.
- What led you to your role as independent director on the board of Suicide Prevention Australia?
More than 3,000 people die by suicide every year in Australia - nearly triple the national road toll. And more than 65,000 make a suicide attempt each year. They are our loved ones, friends and colleagues. Young people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are particularly impacted. Yet, until recently, it was rarely a topic of conversation for politicians or others and few know of the range of organisations across the community dedicated to suicide prevention activities. These activities are underfunded and we need to not only advocate for more funding but for a whole of government and community response to preventing suicide.
"These activities are underfunded and we need to not only advocate for more funding but for a whole of government and community response to preventing suicide."
- Have you had a mentor or someone in the finance industry who has had an influence or positive impact on your career?
I have been fortunate to work with many wonderful trustee directors from both sides of the fence and many walks of life (not just on HESTA but across the other trustee boards, AIST and Frontier). The diversity has been quite staggering when I reflect on it and I had the benefit of great role models, good counsel and mutually supportive relationships.
- Where did you grow up and what was it like?
It was a pretty unconventional childhood for the time. I was born in Hobart but travels with my independent and adventurous mother led me to attend 9 different schools across 5 cities, 3 states and 2 countries. We lived in Canada for a year when I was 9 where I learnt to sing in French and Inuit and ice-skate home from school. I finished my schooling in Melbourne at MacRobertson Girls High which was very academic - girls were not allowed to learn to type! School holidays were often spent in Hobart with my architect father, step-mother, half-sisters and extended family.
- With the benefit of hindsight, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Find your voice and use it. Don’t wait to be spoken to. Be yourself, be authentic, and embrace change. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
- What is something that most people don’t know about you?
It was the early 80’s and graduate jobs were few and far between. I had completed an economics degree and was accepted into an honours year but applied for a graduate position in the economics department at the Port of Melbourne. I didn’t get that job but was offered one in the public relations department as a Port Hostess. We wore a navy-blue uniform with a scarf, high heels and a slug-like hat and covered every inch of the port taking educational boat tours and visiting all the different workers and operations that went on in the second largest port in the southern hemisphere. It sounds pretty cringeworthy with today’s sensibilities, but it turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to learn a whole lot of communication skills which in those days didn’t come with an academic education, and to see the many different aspects of a large port and its adjacent business operations. After 18 months I decided it was time to move on and make use of my economics degree (and eventually pursue a Master of Business) but to this day I still have a fascination for ports.