Changing the Face of the Boardroom: Nicole Nader

Many times I am told by aspiring board members that they feel like they are not qualified for the boardroom, or that they have nothing to offer. Much of this self-opinion comes from the perception that is reinforced in messages about the boardroom; you have to be old, connected, conservative, and extremely educated to be on a board.

I call BS on this!

I am certain that there are many wonderful board members out there who don’t fit the traditional “pale and stale” stereotype of company directors / board members. People who came to the boardroom along the path less travelled, with a unique career background or because of some rare characteristic that has proved invaluable for an organisation.

I know they’re out there and I want to profile them to show aspiring directors that they do have something to offer. That the boardroom is somewhere they can thrive and give back; and that their uniqueness can have extraordinary value to an organisation. I want organisations and people everywhere to know it too.

In this interview series, we take a look at life as a ‘non traditional’ board member and the benefits they bring to boards and organisations.

Sharing her story today is Nicole Nader; a female in her early forties from Adelaide, South Australia.

GOBA: What board do you sit on?

NN: I am a National Director of The Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), the peak body for project management in Australia and the member organisation for Australia with the International Project Management Association (IPMA).

I am currently half way through a three-year tenure and hold the role of Chair, Governance and Ethics Sub-Committee.

GOBA: What do you think is unique about you as a board member?

NN: A number of things. I am a woman. I am (relatively!) young. I do not have an MBA. And I am not a consultant, retiree or university lecturer as many of my fellow board members are.

All of these things stood me apart from the usual appointees to the board: I am currently the only female director of AIPM and I represent a general membership that is, on average, 50-60 years old and male.

GOBA: How did you get your board seat?

NN: The AIPM was about to embark on its biggest transformation since it launched 40 years ago and I had a strong desire to be a part of the team that would be transforming the organisation and advancing the profession that it represents.

My seat on the board is an elected position, so I had to put my name in the ring and work to enlist the support of the general membership – many of whom I had never even met. Although this was an intimidating place to be at first, I found this to be an exciting venue to exercise my networking and interpersonal skills. And my hard work paid off!

GOBA: How do you see your uniqueness benefitting the board and organisation?

NN: I am responsive, approachable, and quick to solve problems.  A straight shooter – which is not common across many businesses.

Although I don’t discount my training, experience, and business acumen, these are hardly enough to be a true leader in a tough environment such as the boardroom. Empathy, humility and a sense of community also go a long way in turning a management position into one of true leadership.

I believe in ‘fail fast, learn and correct’. An unusual personality trait for a conservative organisation. I refuse to let mine and others’ egos and emotions get in the way of success. If we have different information now, then we should be prepared to admit we were going in the wrong direction and we should correct our course. If that means being the one to put up my hand and rock the boat, then so be it.

One of my favourite things I’ve read is ‘find someone you respect that disagrees with you, and listen to them’.  I cannot take credit for that genius but I certainly make sure I follow it!

I think a lot of my strengths actually came from experiences outside the usual avenues of business school and career experience. Growing up I played a lot of high-level sport, both nationally and internationally. This exposure to high-pressure, competitive situations has provided me with an instinctive sense of team spirit and a style of leadership that I have found to be incredibly advantageous in the boardroom.

Finally, but not least, networking matters. This has always been the case, but the new opportunities presented by social media give us entirely new ways of increasing our reach and influence. I have been very active in increasing the digital presence of myself and my organisation during my time as a director, and I’ve already seen a huge increase in online engagement and dialogue that we would not have achieved otherwise.

I believe this last point is particularly relevant to younger people and women, who will bring powerful social networking skills that typically aren’t present in the previous generations of board members and business leaders. It will be exciting to see what else the future brings!

GOBA: What has your experience on a board been like? Do you feel that your differences are a benefit or a hindrance?

NN: I do believe I’m playing my part in helping drive the changes we have set strategically.

Being an outsider is certainly a challenge at first, particularly when it comes to forming teams and enlisting the support necessary to bring about change. But, like any challenge, the best way to overcome it is to tackle it head-on and turn it into an advantage.

With this attitude in mind I have turned my relative lack of long-term experience with the organisation into a real opportunity. A fresh set of eyes and a common-sense approach are a remarkable set of tools for devising new solutions and overcoming the inertia of an established organisational culture.

Coming from outside the established social structure of the organisation has also meant that I have little to lose. By stepping up and going against the conventional wisdom, I have found that it is not uncommon for the ‘unpopular’ decisions to be not so unpopular after all! You’d be surprised at how many people are afraid to challenge the status quo, but are just waiting for someone else to be the first to speak up.

I doubt I would have achieved many of the things that I have in my career had I been ‘just one of the boys’. Coming from a completely different direction – and owning that difference – can be a powerful force.

GOBA: What advice would you give to people in a similar situation to you?

NN: People seek to join Boards for many different reasons, but if I can speak to the younger, non-traditional, future Board members, I would say this:

I’ve met a number of ladies in particular that make comments about ‘needing to achieve A, B and C before they can confidently put their hand up’. More often than not it is ourselves holding us back.

Don’t wait for the day that you think you’ll be ready; don’t feel intimidated; own your unique experiences.

Every team and organisation involves all walks of life and people that all look the same and think the same will not capture the hearts and minds of future employees, future managers and future leaders so we all need to ask the questions, invite the missing pieces into our teams to ensure a fuller picture.

Diversity and inclusion is critical for any team’s ability to adapt in a fast-changing environment. It is essential to the growth and prosperity of any organisation because a balanced approach to diversity and inclusion breeds among other things innovation, and innovation breeds business success.

Having said that, being on a board is not the glamour and kudos you might think.  It is challenging, hard work, sometimes confronting and often times uncomfortable. Some will grow from the experience and others will find it is not for them. But regardless of the journey, you’ll have developed skills and knowledge that neither mentors nor an MBA will be able to give you.

I have frequently found myself in the role of mentor to young professional women and I hope that I am giving them inspiration to succeed. But, more often than not, I am the one who is inspired by the young women making their way in non-traditional industries – younger, savvy, having different ideas, wanting different things, and this excites me!


Inspired by Nicole (I know I am)? You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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