Date posted: 29/04/2019 8 min read

On the board walk: Robin Low FCA and Kevin McCann AM

Kevin McCann AM and the AICD Chair’s Mentoring Program helped Robin Low FCA move from respected CA to in-demand director.

In Brief

  • Robin Low FCA used her CA training and experience as a base for her board career, but says being mentored by experienced chair Kevin McCann AM was “fantastic”.
  • McCann believes every board needs a director who has either been a professional audit partner in a large firm or a CFO of a major company.
  • Low is now a mentor for another women looking to join their first board. She really enjoys sharing what she’s learned.

As told to Susan Muldowney

Photo Graham Jepsom

Robin Low FCA

Non-executive director Appen Ltd, AUB Group Ltd, CSG Ltd, IPH Ltd, board member of Australian Audit and Assurance Standards Board, Australian Reinsurance Pool Corporation, Primary Ethics, Public Education Foundation, and the Sydney Medical School Foundation.

I started out studying veterinary science, but soon realised I’d make a dreadful vet. What I really wanted to do was to work in London. At the time, the best way to do that was to become an accountant and join one of the big firms. Accounting was initially a default career for me, and then I found that I really enjoyed it.

Being a CA has given me great experience and formed the basis of my director career. Without that qualification, I wouldn’t have the roles I currently have. I’ve chaired the audit and risk committees of all the listed boards I’ve been on, and that wouldn’t be the case if I weren’t an experienced chartered accountant.

I’d been with PwC for almost 30 years; when I left the firm six years ago, there was a real push for more women on boards. It seemed the time was right to transition to another role and I believed the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) mentoring program would help me in making that step.

I knew of Kevin because he was a prominent director. He struck me as extremely positive, engaging and enthusiastic. We met up about once every six weeks for a year and I received a lot of encouragement from him that I was on the right track. Having access to that level of experience was fantastic and I really valued his focus on helping more women into the boardroom.

Kevin encouraged me to join a board that was going through an IPO [initial public offering]. His view was you learn an enormous amount about a company and the role of a director by going through an intense process like that. I’d certainly agree with that. I’ve since joined two boards going through an IPO and I think Kevin’s advice was very helpful.

Kevin also advised me about the importance of the board chair. When I had my first approach about joining a listed company board, he asked me who the chair was. When I told him, he said, “Take it. I don’t know much about the company but he’s a fantastic chairman, so go for it.”

The mentoring experience gave me a lot of confidence about what I had to offer a board. It also taught me how to navigate the world of boards.

I’m now a mentor for other women looking to join their first board. I really enjoy sharing what I’ve learned, whether it’s my experience on boards or my experience of being mentored. I try to understand my mentee’s objectives and values. I also think it’s important to share my connections with others.

I still keep in touch with Kevin and we had dinner not that long ago. He’s someone I’ve really valued getting to know.

“Having access to that level of experience was fantastic and I really valued his focus on helping more women into the boardroom.”
Robin Low FCA

Kevin McCann AM

Kevin McCann and Robin LowKevin McCann AM and Robin Low FCA

Chair of Citadel Group Limited, Telix Pharmaceuticals Limited, director of United States Studies Centre and former chair Macquarie Group, Origin Energy and Allens. 

In 2007, the Workforce Gender Equality Agency released a report that revealed the number of women on ASX 200 boards was going backwards. At that time, I was president of AICD’s New South Wales division and a director of the AICD’s board.

We needed to take action to improve women’s representation on boards and so we set up the Chairmen’s Mentoring Program. The aim was to mentor board-ready women and enable them to get appointed to ASX-listed company boards.

I’ve been part of the program since it began. My first impression of Robin was that she was ready for a board appointment and she had been a partner at PwC, which was quite an accomplishment as there weren’t many women audit partners at the time in the Big Four audit firms. I could see she had talent, great potential and a lot of enthusiasm, despite the fact that an appointment to an initial board is a challenge.

My initial career was as a commercial lawyer. I joined Allen Allen & Hemsley [now Allens] as an articled clerk in 1961 and became a partner in 1970. I went on to become chairman of the firm.

In my leadership role I had to learn on the job. It was a time when mentoring and sponsorship was uncommon. Nowadays, people who achieve in leadership roles have frameworks around their progression. I would have benefited enormously if I’d had formal training and mentorship before and during my leadership role.

In Robin, I saw a number of valuable board qualities. She had an inquiring mind and I’d characterise her as someone who works well with others, and also as a chartered accountant, she brought audit skills to a board.

In my opinion, every board needs a director who has either been a professional audit partner in a large firm or a CFO of a major company. Robin fitted the bill very well. The issue was to get her before boards where there was a need for an audit chair.

I was convinced she would eventually get board appointments, which needed both patience and persistence.

I used my networks to get Robin access to chairmen, boards and investment banks that were looking at IPOs. She was a terrific mentee. I told her, “One of the ways you’re going to get on boards is to wear out your shoe leather by meeting people who can influence appointments.” She certainly did that.

The experience of mentoring encouraged me to think through my own strengths and how I can bring them to the chairman’s role. Historically, board positions were offered to me, but now it’s a lot more competitive.

Robin is extremely generous. I’m still mentoring potential women board candidates and she agrees to meet with them, and has been very helpful in giving them advice on how to pursue opportunities.

A thing that delighted me recently was when I asked Robin if she could join a company board I was chairing, and she said, “Kevin, I’m too busy.” It was a wonderful thing to hear that someone I’d mentored had become so successful.

“One of the ways you’re going to get on boards is to wear out your shoe leather
Kevin McCann AM