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A chance holiday conversation proved to be one of the biggest turning points in the storied career of Dr Jane Wilson AO FAICDLife.
The veteran Brisbane-based board director, who’s served on more than 40 boards since her first directorship in 1987, recalls being en route to London’s Harley Street to take up a role in a medical diagnostics clinic after graduating and practicing medicine for a few years at home, when she stopped off for a quick ski trip in the US.
“I heard some Aussie accents and got talking to these three from Melbourne,” recalls Dr Wilson, recently elevated to the exclusive rank of Life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
“They were studying MBAs to get them into finance and investment banking in the US. I’d never heard of an MBA, they weren’t around as much in the early 80s as they are now, and it was unheard of for doctors to do them, but when I mentioned I wanted to get into the business side of medicine, they said, ‘Why don’t you do one?’”
With that seed unexpectedly sewn, Dr Wilson discovered Harvard Business School’s MBA program had a health care specialty not available at the time in any of the other prestigious US business schools. The penny dropped that this could be the elusive path she’d been looking for in her quest to find a way into influencing problems she’d witnessed in the healthcare system.
“I had realised, pretty early, that the drivers of policy – including in the healthcare system – always relate back to funding and economics; that the power to really change things is in the financing side,” she says.
So, after her stint in Harley Street, Dr Wilson was accepted into Harvard, and spent the next couple of years in the US exposed to some of the best minds in business, finance and medical technology. She became one of the first doctors – and just the second Australian woman – to graduate from Harvard with an MBA.
Although she didn’t know it at the time, her unique combination of medical and business qualifications – along with a few more chance conversations – would lead to invitations to join a string of medical and biotech venture capital boards over the next three decades. As well as joining the likes of Agen Biotech, Sonic Healthcare, BUPA, Universal Biosensors, Royal Brisbane Hospital Research Foundation, Bligh Ventures and IMBcom, she’d also become a member of the Queensland Biotechnology Task Force and the Premier’s Smart State Council, a guardian of Australia’s Future Fund, that also manages the Medical Research Future Fund, and co-chair of the Federal Government’s advisory board on technology and healthcare competitiveness, a role she still holds.
Over that same time, her skills would not be confined to medically related boards. Doors also opened to organisations across a raft of other industries, including energy, agriculture, transport, aged care, arts and education. Most recently she’s added sport to her sphere, having been appointed to the Rugby Australia board in 2021.
It was this breadth of experience that first struck Neil Chatfield FAICD when he met Dr Wilson during their shared time as directors on the board of listed toll road operator Transurban since her 2017 appointment.
“It’s given Jane a really strong capacity to get quickly across different industries and bring different perspectives to each situation,” says Chatfield.
These qualities, along with her practised handle on governance issues, pragmatic long term strategic focus (which, he reflects, is helpful in “trumping short term pressures”) and her innate curiosity, all contributed to Chatfield’s consequent invitation to Dr Wilson to join the board of Costa Group, the large listed horticultural company he chairs.
“At the time we were looking to bring a bit more geographic diversity to the Costa board and, going back, Jane had chaired Horticulture Australia and had a deep interest in the sector, so it all made sense,” recalls Chatfield, also formerly chair of both Seek and Virgin.
“Costa has big and growing operations in Queensland – as does Transurban – so it’s been really helpful for us to have someone with the insights on Queensland, with such a passion and community focus that she has, particularly as we went through the challenges of COVID.”
Given the expansiveness of Dr Wilson’s three and a half decades as a director, it seems remarkable that, to her, it was an “accidental career”, given she’d never thought it was a job for anyone but the “old, grey-haired guys”.
After attaining her MBA, she’d returned to Brisbane, took up an executive role with Macquarie Bank, and had the first of five children with husband Steve Wilson, who at the time headed up Wilson HTM Investment Group, a company she subsequently joined.
“Being a professional board director ended up becoming my career by default,” she says, recalling that after her first board invitation she realised that, aside from the “great intellectual challenge” of the job, it gave her more flexibility to care for her kids than an executive role.
“It’s the teamplay, when you're strategising with your executive team and have to make decisions, which you have to live by – you can't just run away from them – and you see their outcomes, that’s what I love about it,” she says. “It's very rewarding work.”
Dr Wilson is a firm believer that, among the many qualities directors need to be effective, one of the most valuable is to have a deep interest in the organisations in which they’re involved.
“You must love that area, because a good director is always thinking about the organisation, to really understand it and how it might be affected by world affairs. If you’re not that interested, you shouldn’t be there,” she says.
It’s a belief that’s underpinned her decisions about the roles she’s taken, and also steered her towards those she describes as her “passion roles”, such as her work with her alma mater, the University of Queensland including as Deputy Chancellor; and her appointment to Rugby Australia, giving her a front row seat to support the sport she’s always adored.
The family’s commitment to the game runs deep, particularly in Queensland where husband Steve, a former player, was a past chairman of Queensland Rugby Union and currently sits on the board of the QRU Foundation, to which the couple last year pledged a transformative gift of $1 million.
She joined Rugby Australia at an exciting time, just as the board was securing the sport’s biggest event, the Rugby World Cup, for 2027 – the first time it will be on home soil since 2003. Along with hosting the British & Irish Lions in 2025 and the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2029, these events are all important to shoring up the financial stability of Rugby Australia which returned to surplus in 2022 after years of financial losses. As a result, the board will spend quite some time with this year’s World Cup hosts in France as a key part of the preparatory runway to 2027.
In parallel, she says the board has plenty of other priorities on the go to ensure they have the best possible structures in place to attract top athletes to the sport, and to support them, including grappling with contentious player welfare issues such as concussion management – a theme around which Dr Wilson’s links to UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute have come into play.
Among the other initiatives to support a sustainable financial model for Rugby Australia, she calls out the importance to the board of growing the women’s competition and its national team, the Wallaroos.
“We're seeing the popularity of the women’s game just exploding and we need to be able to support our female players as much as we support our male players, but at the moment they're behind,” Dr Wilson says.
“The women's game is incredibly important, filled with very talented players who are terrific role models.”
Just as Dr Wilson has observed the ascent of women on the rugby pitch, she’s seen that mirrored in boardrooms over the course of her career, and concedes her own views about efforts to improve gender diversity on boards have evolved.
She remembers resenting being told she must be doing well on boards because she “ticked the gender diversity box”, despite her years of experience. She’d even actively turned down a role during an interview, when the chair told her they were only interviewing her because she was female.
“Because that said to me, they’re not valuing the diversity of my background or what I can bring to them,” she says.
“It used to really annoy me, but now I look at it a bit differently. It’s more reflective of the fact that boards really do try to make sure they don't have an over-preponderance of group think, not just from a gender perspective but also from background and career perspectives.”
Similarly, she believes that, together with having people around the board table with deep industry experience, the best boards also invite thinking from people outside the industry.
“Often the person with lateral thinking or the least industry experience offers the most insightful view because they are not ‘tainted’ with a predetermined way of thinking on an issue,” she says.
“We also really need more young voices. As you get older, yes you get wiser, but you also get more risk averse and constrained in your thinking. Things are changing pretty quickly, especially with technology, and young people bring a great perspective on that to the table.”
Acknowledging the many positives to have come from pressures on boards to evolve in this way, she also voices her concern around a growing risk of “groupthink” among institutional investors which she believes has the potential to stymie the strategic work of directors.
“If you don't do certain things that the institutional shareholders think is the right way to go, they'll put pressure on directors, forcing them down the road of groupthink, with the threat of voting them off,” she reflects.
“That lack of being allowed to say something different as a company to what those outside the business think, I see as a real danger, because it diminishes trust in the directors’ skill sets and strategy to really focus on the most important things for that business. That's a really big issue.”
As she heads towards the fourth decade of her career as a board director, and she adds the Order of Australia she received last year to her swelling list of accolades, Dr Wilson shows no signs of winding down, although she says she plans to make more time for “passion roles”, like Rugby Australia.
“There are just so many issues out there that I'm interested in that I’d like more time to pursue, so I'm not looking for extra or new roles on boards, unless they’re for passion,” she says.
Written by Emma Foster: firstname.lastname@example.org