Paul Smith – Co-founder & CEO of Future Directors Institute

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Paul is co-founder and CEO of Future Directors Institute. He is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders and business and an advocate for diversity, conscious capitalism and improving social and environmental outcomes. He is a coach, mentor and speaker on the topics of board careers, director recruitment and addressing the pipeline of new, young director talent. Paul is also the Chair of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia and a director of Gin Lane Australia. Prior to setting up Future Directors in 2015 Paul was Head of Marketing for Australian Ethical Investments and has spent almost 20 years working in investment, marketing and strategy roles both in Australia and in his native UK.

Can you tell me a little bit about your idea?

The original idea behind what is now Future Directors Institute (which launched as XY on Boards) was a bit cloak and dagger. I wanted to create a group of young leaders that, over the next few decades, would “infiltrate” companies, governments and organisations and change them from within. Hence when these leaders were in positions of influence and power they would automatically embrace a new, more conscious, way of doing things.

Why did you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

The idea developed to something less from a spy novel and more into a movement of empowering boardroom change-agents. We help purposeful and values-driven leaders into the boardroom and help them shift mindsets and influence positive change. Younger directors bring different perspectives, new ideas and a more collaborative mindset. These things can have a major influence on corporate governance in the new economy.

Please explain your business model?

Our model has three parts – advocacy, training and community.

We make money from training the next generation of board directors and currently have one established program plus another on the way. The first is the Board Kickstarter Program, which helps give people the confidence to know exactly what to expect from the boardroom and how to get there in the first place. The next program to be launched in early 2017 is our Board Influencer Program, which empowers directors to bring about the changes they seek in the boardroom.

Graduates of our programs automatically join our Future Directors Alumni. Through a variety of formats, we conduct ongoing personal and professional development exclusively for the community and help them with board and director connections and networking amongst what is a very diverse group.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?

Where to start? We are going so well. If I look back at our first program in July 2015, we have come so far, from a brand, influence and commercial point of view. Beyond the Influencer Program mentioned above, we are currently working on some bespoke programs for the School for Social Entrepreneurs, IAG and the Myer Foundation. We are also beginning to build an online platform designed for small to medium sized boards to future-proof their governance and perhaps reduce their insurance premiums.

Finally, we have begun the process of capital-raising to aid our expansion into online and overseas markets. The interest from other countries for what we do is strengthening. It’s pretty unique.

How do you make ideas happen?

One of my strengths is Ideation. But one of my weaknesses is turning an idea into action. I tend to make ideas happen by activating others to help make the idea a reality. One day I’ll have a team of “doers” to make all my ideas come true. That would be very nice indeed.

What role have mentors played in your business life?

To be honest very little up until the last few years when they’ve played an increasingly vital role. In the future, mentors and advisers will be integral to our business and my personal success. However, the biggest impact on my business life so far has been my journey of self-discovery and personal development over the past 5 years which has really helped me define my purpose.

What does your typical day look like?

There is no such thing. I live in New Zealand and Australia and spend my time travelling back and forth to Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, or sitting in our creative co-working space in the small town in NZ. Some days I could be free of meetings and writing articles, ideating or making new connections. The next day I’m knee-deep in partner and client meetings or helping to deliver our programs to the next group of aspiring directors.

It’s certainly not consistent and it’s certainly not boring. It can be tiring and stressful but what isn’t when you run your own business.

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business in Australia?

There are so many challenges for us in Australia. First, the small population and its geographical spread. Just over 20 million people in one continent-sized island. Compare that to London or New York where you have the same numbers in one city. Your costs are higher and your time is squeezed.

Aside from the physical challenges, there is also the mental challenges. There is a sense of complacency amongst large parts of the population, the “she’ll be alright!” mentality. We have a strong economy that sort of skipped the GFC, plenty of personal wealth and we are still a little isolationist. Therefore there is less desire to invest in yourself or your people the same way you might see elsewhere.

However, this is changing rapidly as employers get more savvy and the younger generations see the need to continuously upskill in the new economy.

We always say if we can make Future Directors a success in Australia, we can make it almost anywhere.


What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

“Growth From Within”

Whether it’s personal, professional or business growth instead of looking outside for the new, look within at what you already have.

For businesses, it’s often the focus of budgets to win new clients. It’s actually far more efficient, effective and productive to focus on retaining and enhancing relationships with existing customers. Give them what they want. Do this right and they will not only love you for it but they will want everyone else to be your customer. Hence, Growth From Within.

What people do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment?

I really like what’s coming out of some of the universities and business schools. They are focussed on the individual and empowering their inner purpose. It’s no wonder they continue to leap up the global rankings.

I also like what Ryan Trainor has done with B School out of Melbourne. They’ve ripped up the rule book about delivering training by developing a mixed platform of online and offline with some amazing content and speakers.

You also cannot look past the cult-like following of groups like KPI (Key Person of Influence) and The Entourage, both entrepreneur focused.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?

HUGE & PIVOTAL. What business is increasingly understanding is that greater and more sustainable profits come from taking a stakeholder, instead of a shareholder, approach. Look after your staff; they are more loyal, more productive and more likely to attract the best talent. Look after your customers and you are more likely to retain their custom and turn them into your most sales force. Win-win. That’s at the more micro level.

At the macro level, many businesses have the opportunity to drastically impact social and environmental change with simple policy changes, supply chain practices and influence with government. The best and long-standing businesses understand that you need society to be as harmonious as possible to deliver consistent results. Obviously, the best leaders are driven by their own consciousness’ first and the money second.

Of course, not all businesses can do this. A tobacco company cannot reinvent itself nor can a weapons manufacturer, but a coal company can transition to new forms of energy.

Is there a particular charity or social enterprise you support?

I am Chair of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia and a huge supporter of the Hunger Project (where my wife Millie works). From the more business side of things I’ve been awarded B Corp Champion status in the past and really want to help drive this conscious business movement both here and overseas. Future Directors Institute aims to become certified as a B Corp in 2017.

Name 3 books you would recommend to our readers.

The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John Mann

Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia

Eyes Wide Open by Robyn Weatherley

Plus, hopefully, one day my own book Compassionomics

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea?

Yes, we are looking at funding. We’d like to find investors that wish to support our long-term journey not just financially but by opening up new partnerships and distribution both here and overseas.

We haven’t yet had interns but we are always open to skilled young people coming in and adding value. It’s actually in the area of marketing that we do need the most help. Graphic design, website, SEO, social media and events are all up for grabs if anyone is willing.

We run a virtual office environment so if you want flexibility and exposure to purposeful start-ups, community building and boardrooms please contact us.

We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about startups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc. What would it be?

Tough one but specifically for this group of idea makers…

We all have so many actionable ideas, when is the best time to perhaps take a back seat on one and hand it over and start the next idea. Can you run multiple ideas at one time without stretching yourself too thin and going crazy?

What’s your favourite restaurant?

I have a soft spot for Tapa Vino in Sydney.

Learn from over 250 Australians making ideas happen.

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