Kellie Hunt, Consultant, and Jocelyn Bosse, Research Assistant, Board Matters
Boards face complex governance issues and endure leadership tests. It’s part of the game. How effectively boards weather challenging times depends on many factors. One is the extent to which the board operates as a strong, cohesive social workgroup.
One board currently weathering tough times is the Board of Rugby Australia.
Former CEO, Raelene Castle, resigned in April. She felt she no longer had the confidence of the Board. Rugby Australia faced many challenges during her tenure. Media reports suggest the process of removing former star player Israel Folau was marred with many procedural issues. The Folau-saga also cost the organisation millions. In late 2019, former head coach Michael Cheika resigned, indicating that a “dysfunctional relationship” with Ms Castle and the chair at the time, as the reasons for his departure.
Added to this, the COVID-19 pandemic and the game’s suspension have intensified the organisation’s financial woes. Facing formidable financial times, Ms Castle asked the players to take a pay cut (60% on average) and took one herself.
Then, eleven former Wallabies captains signed a no-confidence letter demanding an urgent overhaul of Rugby Australia’s leadership team.
It was at this point that Ms Castle stepped down. The person touted as a future chair of the Board, Peter Wiggs, also stood down from his board position. This followed reports that Mr Wiggs got involved in a heated email exchange with interim Board Chair, Paul McLean.
During his brief time on the Board, Mr Wiggs was credited with steering the player pay-cut deal. He also pushed for Matt Carroll AM to replace Ms Castle as CEO. Mr Carroll is the Australian Olympic Committee’s CEO and reportedly a close friend of Mr Wiggs. But the Board pushed back, wanting “due process” in the search for the replacement CEO. Facing resistance from the Board, Mr Wiggs departed on 6 May, only 37 days after being appointed to the Board.
Rugby Australia’s leadership team are facing many challenges. They need to get on top of the organisation’s financial position, re-establish the game and mend Rugby Australia’s broadcasting partnership contracts.
Of course, we do not know what is really happening at board level for Rugby Australia. But if you have occupied a board or high-level executive leadership position in an organisation then you may understand, or even sympathise with, Rugby Australia’s invidious position.
Having robust governance structures and practices are important. We will assume the basics are covered: showing up for board meetings, reading papers, preparing for meetings, insisting on appropriate and timely reporting, establishing effective governance policies, reviewing strategies and testing risk frameworks.
But what builds true decision-making resilience and sees a board through a crisis? It is the board’s ability to work together as a cohesive social group, especially when faced with making “the least worst decisions”.
Working together, in this context, does not mean agreeing with each other on everything. It means building the capability to constructively test assumptions and beliefs and to drive out the truth or explore alternatives that may not have been considered as options. It means probing quiet board members and resisting the urge to automatically dismiss any non-conformists.
It is also important for boards to maintain a level of discipline during a crisis and resist solely focusing on immediate issues to the detriment of longer-term concerns.
Boards can benchmark or assess their performance and cohesiveness through a board performance evaluation process. A board performance evaluation can assess a board’s effectiveness as a whole or individual board members (including the Board Chair) through specific peer-to-peer feedback.
When we undertake board performance evaluations at Board Matters, we consider the board’s collective decision-making firepower. We also consider whether the right skills and experience are at the board table and the extent to which the board generates energy within the organisation through its decision-making. We explore a board’s capability of setting and monitoring an organisation’s desired culture from the top, and the extent to which the set culture echoes throughout the organisation.
To learn more about board performance evaluations, call us on (07) 3511 7988 or send an email to [email protected]. We would love to talk you through the process.
 Australian Associated Press, ‘Michael Cheika lifts lid on Rugby Australia after quitting as head coach’ (Sunday 20 October 2019) The Guardian Australia <https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/oct/20/michael-cheika-quits-as-wallabies-coach-after-rugby-world-cup-failure>.
 ‘Rugby Australia staring at $120 million revenue loss as it slashes staff because of coronavirus’ (31 March 2020) ABC News (online) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-31/coronavirus-rugby-australia-staring-at-massive-loss-in-revenue/12107506>.
 ‘Rugby Australia wants to meet ex-Wallabies captains after receiving no-confidence letter’ (22 April 2020) ABC News (online) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-22/coronavirus-rugby-australia-to-speak-with-wallabies-captains/12171814>.
 Australian Associated Press, ‘Rugby Australia’s dramatic power struggle has claimed another victim as Peter Wiggs tendered his resignation in an explosive email exchange’ (6 May 2020) News.com.au <https://www.news.com.au/sport/rugby/board-member-peter-wiggs-intends-to-follow-raelene-castle-out-of-rugby-australia/news-story/e159be0eaaa489ea9072ccbd8e5f8397>.
 Sam Bruce, ‘Rugby Australia director Peter Wiggs resigns’ (6 May 2020) ESPN (online) <https://www.espn.com.au/rugby/story/_/id/29139896/rugby-australia-director-peter-wiggs-resigns>.
 Georgina Robinson, ‘From Mosman to Manly: Clarke targets sailing mate to right rugby ship’ (8 May 2020) The Sydney Morning Herald <https://www.smh.com.au/sport/rugby-union/clarke-targets-old-sailing-buddy-to-rekindle-a-broken-relationship-20200507-p54qx2.html>.