A strong passion for justice: Q&A with legalsuper's new Chair Kirsten Mander December 2017

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With a passion for justice and a fondness for a good intellectual argument, Kirsten Mander steps into the role of legalsuper chair this week. She tells us what she's most looking forward to in the role and what drew her to the fund and the sector. She also shares some highlights from her work with the International Women's Development Agency (IWDA) and some fascinating initiatives for the coming year, as well as her thoughts on board quotas, some sound advice, and how she learnt to manage angry female mud wrestlers.

What initially attracted you towards a career in the legal profession?

I think I have always had strong passion for justice and a belief that it's important to stand up for those less well off. In law I saw the opportunity to make a real difference to people's lives and I suppose too that my career choice might possibly also have been influenced by my fondness for challenge and good intellectual argument.

What are you most looking forward to in taking on the role of Chair of legalsuper?

legalsuper has impressed me with its performance, professionalism and commitment to members and I am greatly looking forward to helping steer it through its next stage of growth and development.

I'm also looking forward to the opportunity to play a role in the development of the superannuation sector which, notwithstanding its significant growth, is still developing and continually changing. There are some really important challenges and policy questions in play that will have a real impact on most people's future standard of living.

The demographic challenges of an ageing population, the changing nature of work, shifting government policy around health, retirement and fiscal policy, the opportunities and threats of the digital revolution and changing community expectations. It's a fascinating and important mix of issues and I am delighted at the opportunity to play a role, both in the interests of legalsuper members and the development of the sector as whole.

Can you share a highlight from your time, so far, as Chair of the International Women's Development Agency (IWDA)?

It's been quite a few years since the 1990's when I worked with Western Mining Corporation negotiating minerals joint ventures with governments and multilateral financiers in places like the Philippines, China and Uzbekistan. But while this was an exceptional career experience, it also gave me real, confronting exposure to the very difficult circumstances of many people in these countries, particularly women.

Helping these women to improve their economic circumstances, participate in the leadership of their communities and live without violence is not only a matter of equity, it's also important for the peace and prosperity of the region we live in.

One of my recent highlights as chair of IWDA this year was the launch of our Myanmar Women MP's mentoring program, which matched six recently elected women politicians from Myanmar with six Australian women MP's. As part of the program earlier this year the Australian women MP's visited Myanmar and then the MPs from Myanmar came to Australia, where they met with leaders in Canberra and Melbourne, learned about Australian democratic processes and strategised about how to adapt and apply them in their own Parliamentary contexts.

The program is unique in its depth and its multi-ethnic and cross-party nature and has been a huge success. We hope it will be a model for many future such programs.

...and what are some initiatives that the IWDA are currently working on that excite you?

Other initiatives IWDA is working on include a variety of exciting programs with local partners around leadership development, economic empowerment and safety and security, such as the Young Women's Leadership Campaign in Bougainville and the Responding to Violence Against Women program in Solomon Islands.

IWDA is currently working towards joining the Global Compact Network, which brings together a number of leading civil society, private and public sector organisations to help steer the implementation of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals. This has the potential to be a very exciting initiative which recognises and helps navigate the increasing interconnectedness of business, financial, social and sustainability issues and agendas.

"Helping these women to improve their economic circumstances, participate in the leadership of their communities and live without violence is not only a matter of equity, it's also important for the peace and prosperity of the region we live in."

In your opinion, what are the qualities that make for an effective Chair?

The principle role of the chair is to lead and facilitate a strong and effective board and its connection with the executive team. In a large part this is about inspiring and supporting directors and the executive to work together to achieve a shared vision and goals for the organisation. Strategic vision, culture and communication are all critical to this. Though each of the boards I chair are quite different, the importance of these factors doesn’t change. A strong chair will have a good understanding of how businesses operate, a strong ability to maintain strategic focus and an understanding of its external stakeholders.

Personal qualities of truly effective chairs in my view include humility; listening while challenging and supporting, and courage to do what is right for the organisation. An effective chair will be strong but not domineering, strategic yet able to dive into details, engaged and team oriented while preserving their independence.

What are your thoughts on female board quotas?

At legalsuper, we have a good balance of male and female directors on our board so quotas would not impact legalsuper. Speaking more generally though the question of quotas is a challenging one. The number of women on boards is still comparatively low and market forces on their own have proved to be insufficient to sufficiently challenge stereotypes or overturn barriers sufficiently to improve diversity at any reasonable rate. Yet diversity of thought and experience is essential for high functioning boards.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors recently noted that if we are not able to see more movement towards genuinely diverse boards, then governments are likely to take action to mandate it. All things considered at this point, I probably favour a strong 'if not why not' regime rather than quotas.

What's the best piece of advice you have received?

The early bird may get the worm, but it's the second mouse that gets the cheese.

What was your very first job?

As an articled clerk in a small one-practitioner law firm in St Albans, doing conveyancing, small business, and family disputes. It's a world away from what I do now, but it taught me important lessons about customer focus, what you can achieve if you set your mind to it, and how to manage angry women mud wrestlers.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I can't claim to always be successful in getting the balance right, but I think that's part of the learning - balance is always a work in progress, not a permanent destination. I make time every now and again to review what are my most important priorities in each aspect of my life - work, family, friends, and myself. I set work limits and priorities to keep my focus on what's important (rather than trying to do everything). And I take holidays. Next stop - Cuba.

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