A new generation of leadership: Q&A with Vision Super's Chair Geoff Lake May 2018

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Geoff Lake, who has recently been named the newest, and youngest, chair of the Vision Super board, speaks to Industry Moves about board diversity - extending beyond gender targets - and why he believes the governance debate in super is “misguided.” He also shares his plans to further engage the fund's members, offers his thoughts on the qualities that he believes make for an effective chair and reminisces about a fascinating period of his life that saw him dining at the Lodge.

You are the youngest person to be appointed to the role of Chair at Vision Super. Do you think other funds should consider appointing younger Chairs?

I don’t think age matters as much as diversity does in other areas. As an industry, we still don’t have enough women chairing funds – although this is improving. We're also a very white bunch from similar work backgrounds. I realise I am not helping at all here, but I think we need to get more people from diverse backgrounds onto our boards – including from a more diverse range of work experiences, which is something we’ve done well at Vision Super.

With the recent appointment of Lisa Darmanin, you have achieved a gender equal board. Do you think it’s now time for Vision Super to set new diversity targets, such as diversity of culture?

I’m not sure that targets are the answer, but I do think it is a challenge for all boards – ASX, government, not-for-profit and superannuation boards – to produce boards that are more reflective of the Australian population. At Vision Super, we are working on how we engage with our nominating bodies to encourage nominations that will add to the skill and diversity mix on our board.

You mentioned that you’re looking into “innovative new ways of engaging with your membership,” can you tell us a little about this?

It strikes me that funds are very quick to speculate about what their members might think or want, but not as quick to actually engage their members directly to ask them. I think ESG is an obvious area where boards should seek input from members when it comes to making decisions on their behalf like negatively screening certain investments. I am keen to look at how we might use Citizen Juries, focus groups and member surveys at Vision Super to actively engage our 100,000 members and involve them in how we run their fund.

In this current financial climate, how do you best maintain members’ trust and confidence?

I don’t think it matters what stage it is in the financial cycle, it’s essential for funds to be transparent, highly ethical, focused on keeping costs under control and to adopt a disciplined, consistent and reasoned approach to investment decisions. We also pride ourselves on the high-quality service we deliver to our members – like having a real staff member answer member calls, workplace seminars and proactively managing the contributions and benefits cycle.

"As an industry, we still don’t have enough women chairing funds – although this is improving. We're also a very white bunch from similar work backgrounds."

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

Good judgement, being a generalist (rather than being a technical specialist) and having alignment with the interests of members. It is this latter one – alignment with members – which is why I think the governance debate currently taking place in super is so misguided. Any day, give me a director or chair who is aligned with the same interests as their members and major employers over someone who is completely unconnected. So-called ‘independent directors’ can make useful additions to fund boards – we have a great one at Vision Super – but mandating a minimum number undermines the equal representation structure that has served industry super funds, and millions of Australians, so well. Let’s leave mandated numbers of independent directors to AMP and the major banks where they have made such significant contributions to corporate governance. Our unique equal representation governance structure is a key reason for our out-performance of retail funds over every time period and deserves protection.

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

There is no such thing as a stupid question. And there is nothing that can’t be improved.

What has been one of the highlights of your career?

Being a member of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) during part of the Rudd/Gillard years when I was the president of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA). Not many people know that the president of ALGA is a full member of COAG. This period spanned the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis and Kevin Rudd was convening COAG about four times a year. It was a fascinating period to be sitting around that table and attending dinners at the Lodge.

What was your very first job?

A paper round.

"It strikes me that funds are very quick to speculate about what their members might think or want, but not as quick to actually engage their members directly to ask them."

Who has had the biggest influence on your life/career so far?

My parents and my wife. They have so much more common sense and wisdom than I do. I only wish I had followed their advice more often than I have.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

My kids. We are fortunate to back onto a park and so I look forward to our (almost) daily trips to the play equipment, to kick the footy, play soccer, throw a basketball around or have a hit of cricket. I’m also a runner and enjoy listening to audiobooks while I run which is a great way to unwind and explore new places.

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