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.

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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.


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.

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