View from the Top
The former Westpac CEO has earned her own AAA rating – she’s now an author, adviser and ambassador. And, she tells Kirsten Galliott, she hasn’t lost her desire to effect change.
Gail Kelly believes in having the right people on the bus
How do you define good leadership? When you find an organisation or a firm where the purpose is clear, there is consistency and it’s value-driven, you know there is a leader who is setting the tone from the top. What is your leadership style? I’m very clear on not just what the organisation is trying to do but also why it matters. I make sure I communicate that very strongly throughout the organisation. Leaders have a role of making sure there is meaning in the organisation, that people feel what they’re doing matters and they can understand why they’re doing it. It’s not just the what, it’s also the why. My style has always been people-centred: how do I create an environment where every individual can flourish and grow? What’s your general approach to hiring? Taking the time to get it right. It’s probably among the most important set of decisions you make as a leader and you really need to take the time to ensure you make the right calls. For me, defining “right” starts with a discussion of values and an alignment of values. You want to bring people on board who fit the culture and the values of the organisation. How do you test for that? By discussion. How do you approach certain issues? What matters to you and why? Show me hard evidence that that matters to you, in former roles and in difficult situations you may have encountered. People are happy to talk about what matters to them – and why it matters to them. What approach do you take to reference-checking? If you’ve never met the person before, you can’t just rely on an interview. And you can’t just rely on the referees, because that individual will choose referees who are going to back them. I did a lot of reference-checking myself. Obviously, the more senior you are, the more opportunity you have to reference-check more broadly. I would know people who would know people so I’d test out a bit more about the individual based on how they had travelled in other organisations and how they had dealt with difficult situations. And I didn’t rely on one interview, because sometimes you catch someone on the wrong day.
“THE OVERARCHING FINDING IS TO HAVE THE RIGHT PEOPLE ON THE BUS AND THE WRONG PEOPLE OFF THE BUS. I LOVE THAT METAPHOR AND IT REALLY RESONATES WITH ME.”
And that wouldn’t rule out the person? No, it would not. Sometimes you know they’re very nervous so you encourage them to come back. Sometimes you encourage them to meet other people in the team. I don’t see an interview as a test – I’m not trying to catch you out, I’m trying to understand you. I try to make sure they feel comfortable with me, that they ask questions. I want anyone I’m interviewing to ask me questions about my style, the leadership team, the organisation and what its challenges are. And I’m very up-front about the nature of the challenges an individual will face if they take the role. So you don’t sugar-coat it? No, never. If you bring the person on board, that’s the start of the relationship and you want to set the tone right from the beginning as one of authenticity and transparency. Let’s talk about the bus... As you know, it’s a metaphor by Jim Collins [author of Good to Great] about bringing the right people on board. His work was based on five years of research – and about 1400 companies – into what makes good companies truly great. The overarching finding is to have the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. I love that metaphor and it really resonates with me. I’m a team-based leader and I’ve always worked really hard to bring on board the right people for the fit of the role and the fit of the team. And when you have to get people off the bus? It’s hard. Some of it depends on why they are not the right person on the bus and it might be because you’ve made a selection mistake. That can evidence quite quickly. My advice there is always deal with it early, because it generally doesn’t get better. How do you approach those difficult conversations? I prepare thoroughly for them and have a very clear idea of what the outcome is that I’m looking to achieve. I think deeply about the process. Do you practise? Absolutely. I’ll write down what I’m trying to achieve, the process I’m going to use, the kinds of ways I’m going to set the scene, the questions I’m going to ask or how I’m going to answer questions. The better your preparation, the better you will be able to handle anything that comes your way. Always be calm and centred and unemotional. Always be warm. Where do you do your best thinking? Probably at home. I love my home and I find it a safe and happy place. I also enjoy walking a lot. I take that time to really think. But then I’ll test my thinking in one-on-one situations with people I trust. How important is instinct in decision-making? Hugely important but instinct comes from experience. I like to test it; I’ll want to make sure that the instinct is well honed. I’m pretty self-aware. Has there been a moment in your career when you’ve truly been scared? I’m not sure if scared is the word but there have been moments when I’ve thought, “Oh gosh, I’m out of my comfort zone. This is tough.” But, firstly, you have to back yourself – you know a lot more than you think you do – and, secondly, “How do I get up the learning curve here and who can help me?” As a leader, is there any such thing as work-life balance? I’m absolutely passionate about living a whole life. I’ve seen people who so dedicate themselves to their careers that they seriously neglect the other big rocks in their lives, to immense detriment. Your family is your most important priority. Although I’ve prioritised my family in my career, that doesn’t mean I’ve always had the work-life-balance equation right. There have been times when I’ve been far too tilted into the issues and pressures. But I’ve always known that my family is my rock and I’ve always found a way to invest back in there. When I’m with the family, I’ve learnt how to actually be with them. Do you miss the cut and thrust of being in it every day? Not really. Does that surprise you? I loved my career, particularly the last 13 years of being CEO of St George Bank and Westpac. I learnt so much and it made me a much stronger and better leader and a better human. But it was really my call to say I’m ready to move on to a new phase of life where I can give more back, be more reflective, live more of this life.