Written by Cathrine Long, Director of Long & Co
We spoke to the General Manager and Board Director, Sam Martin Williams, on life at Board level, self-mastery techniques and purpose. This is what she said.
An off-the-field chat
“Is there any game-playing at a Board level?” It is a sweltering summers day, the temperature has reached 30 degrees and morning tea time is still ahead of us. In front of me sits the accomplished Sam Martin Williams. An insider to what happens at Board level across leading Hunter organisations. On my deck, the General Manager of Hunter Valley Coal Chain Coordinator (HVCCC), Non-Executive Director of Newcastle Permanent and a Member of the Salvation Army Advisory Board, Mrs Williams contemplates the question before answering.
“There is game playing everywhere. Game playing in a family, game playing in business and a bit of poker face at a Board level. Some are more inclined than others, depending on sector, depending on the Board mix. But there certainly is an element of politics at Board level”.
The privilege of the company is not lost on me or the members of my family. Before Mrs Williams arrival, urgently sweeping the floors of crumbs and discarded arts and craft, my ten your old son asks enquiringly “Is there someone important coming over?” Sharing this anecdote with the Director, Williams laughs “I don’t think anyone has ever swept the floors because of my arrival”.
And there you have it. Accomplished and modest. Intrigued to learn more I press on. “Are you good at politics?” Not missing a beat Mrs Williams says “What I am good at is working out whether a fit works for me or it doesn’t. If it is beyond something that compromises my values, or my obligation as a Director I will walk away. And I have done that before”.
Some companies and people are good at standing out from the crowd, at creating a following. Williams is one of these people. In marketing we call this branding. Good branding is being clear about what you believe in, delivering on this in everything you do and say and in this way evoke attention and loyalty.
It’s harder than it looks. And you can’t rely on market research to get there. It is an internal discovery, and when found it can be transformational. A tool that can help you hack your way through what can be complex decisions. Like the one about leaving a Board role.
“The plan was not for me to walk away once I got a Board position like that, the plan was for me to stay. I realised that in my view I could not add value the way that I wanted to and as a result I walked away”.
Mrs Williams is not the quitting type. I learnt this when probing about her receiving feedback she at times has to provide to others. About performance, fit or skill gaps. “I actively seek feedback. If there are gaps I ask to be given the opportunity to give it a crack to address them”.
The decision to leave was values based. “Discomfort is not wrong. You need some discomfort, I’m uncomfortable talking to you right now! It is when the discomfort is too great and this competes against your core values that the voice in your head says “It’s decision-time now’”.
Sam Martin Williams’ purpose
Sam Martin Williams’ purpose is to influence people to be the best they can be. Whether it is enabling others in their chosen fields or bringing up a balanced child. And these are not platitudes. Trying to poke a hole in what could be construed as a text book approach proves difficult.
“One of my proudest achievements, apart from my family, is the canteen manager who worked for us at The Forum. She is now a national sales manager. It is incredible to think that I may have played a part in changing her life” Williams states.
Williams is a change maker. She led the diversification of the University of Newcastle’s sporting facilities, the commercialisation of the TAFE business model and is the GM of a HVCCC whose charter is to create a world-class logistics supply chain model. This, in what historically has been an environment plagued by inefficient planning, lack of coordination and excessive rework. As a Director of Newcastle Permanent she is overseeing the transformation into a more customer experience centred organisation.
The tools in Williams’ kit
Asked what is in her tool kit she carefully picks out three utensils; listening, perspective and doing.
“It starts with listening. Understanding what blows people’s hair back”. She puts it down to understanding a person holistically, to take a genuine interest in the person. This happens in all situations including at Board level. “Board subcommittees are a great way of really getting to know your peers. This translates into better outcomes in the Boardroom”.
Secondly, Williams talks about perspective. “A good day for me is seeing that people around me are healthy. Challenging things happen to all of us regularly. But you’ve got to have a certain tolerance for this. If I am batting a six or a seven out of ten, I’m still ahead. I’m still winning!”
Williams uses reflection to help bring perspective. “I enjoy being reflective about a conversation. I have some good personal dialogue after a meeting or a Board experience. I can say to myself ‘Oh shit, wasn’t that a monumental disaster’. And then I reflect on what just occurred. It could be that while I was talking, the visual cue from the person in front of me was different to what I had expected. When I play it back in my head I say to myself ‘Stop, just stop!’”.
Action is what concludes the Director’s trifecta. “I am good at closing things out. Listening and reflection are important skills. But you have to be able to make the learnings actionable”.
She credits her childhood as an only child having had the time to practice quiet reflection. “We often laugh about that” Williams smiles, the plural referring to her husband, Todd Williams.
Life at the Williams’
Curious about the influence of this second half of the power couple (Williams laughs this characterisation off) she describes a typical scenario. “It will be Todd and I, a bowl of chips, a champagne for me and a beer for him. I will explain a situation to him, what I observed, what I am thinking. Together we will work through the options. And by the end of the evening be convinced we have found the best option only to wake up the next morning trying to uncover an unexplored alternative”.
Oh to be a fly on the wall at the Williams’. Two highly decorated corporate figures (he is transitioning from the role as CEO of Regional Development Australia Hunter to explore ‘a number of options’). Isn’t life manic at their house I enquire? The Director counters.
“We are not different from other working families. Todd wakes up at 5am, we both get some exercise in before breakfast, we make sure we have a break with the family around dinner time and log back on in the evening”.
The importance of choosing the right life partner is not lost on Sam. “I genuinely like Todd, he is a good person and a great Dad”. Clearly Taj (their 6-year-old son) agrees “What did he say to me the other day with a big smile on his face?” She thinks back “The good times start when you leave Mum”. Self-deprecating humour. Figures.
“The next step for me in terms of working well is I would like to use my experience in logistics supply and resources to add value to a Board in this field. In terms of living well, I just want to keep turning up to personal training. Not improving, just maintaining!” Oh yes. The Director is a former aerobics champion as well.
Sam finishes her 6th glass of water. “What I’ve tried to change that I can’t is my taste for French champagne”. The interviewer is relieved there is a hint of a vice. But the truth is the Director is as impressive in person as she looks on paper. And it seems she is happy to continue to make her life here in the Hunter.
“Would I be keen to play with the cool cats at McKinsey’s? Sure! But that’s a compromise I am happy to forgo. It’s about balance. We have support here and that is important. If we were going to change that it would have to add up for all of us”.
About Sam Martin Williams
· General Manager at the Hunter Valley Coal Chain Coordinator (HVCCC)
· Non-Executive Director of the Newcastle Permanent
· Member of the Salvation Army Board and the Newcastle Charitable Foundation
· Fellow at the Australian institute of Company Directors (FAICD)
· Previous Executive roles at The University of Newcastle and Hunter TAFE
· The first female to be elected to the Newcastle Permanent Board in 2008
· Winner of the 2002 Telstra Young Business Women’s Award
· Married to Todd Williams, mother of Taj Williams
About the photographer:
Sophie Tyler is a designer and freelance photographer. She is the founder of Sophie Tyler Photography where she does a mixture of corporate, portrait and lifestyle photography. Easy going and with a unique eye, Sophie's portfolio is delightful to peruse.
About the author:
Cathrine Long is the Founder and Director of Long & Co. We believe that as a small-to-medium business, you want freedom to grow. We believe you want marketing that works. As a leader you are looking for an alternative to inefficient agencies and fly-in-fly-out consultants.
That is why, using our big company experience, we have launched Long & Co into a new category we call your "marketing partner". Just like you have your trusted accountant or solicitor, Long & Co is your expert marketing partner. It's a new world out there. Entrepreneurial, fun and with lower overheads.
You can access exclusive photos, videos and insights about our chat with Sam Martin Williams here.