“Family is the top priority”
As the first CEO of a major Australian bank, Gail Kelly made history. Looking back on her impressive career, she believes a passion for positivity – at work and at home – yielded her most generous returns
As Australia’s first female CEO of a major bank, Gail Kelly changed history. Looking back upon her incredible career, she reveals that her husband and children always came first.
For Gail Kelly, being sandwiched between Lady Gaga and Beyoncé at number eight on the Forbes most powerful women list in 2010 was an uncomfortable honour.
The South African native, who made Australia home in 1997 and rose to become the country’s first female CEO of a major bank, couldn’t even pronounce Beyoncé’s name correctly – let alone name any of the global pop icon’s songs – when she shared the achievement with her daughters.
“I went home to the family and went, ‘Look at this list – look where I am!’ and the girls thought it was absolutely hilarious,” Kelly, 61, recalls. “Of course, now I think she’s fantastic.”
Hers is an improbable story, one of a Pretoria girl who grew up in the apartheid years and found herself, as an adult, a heavyweight in the sharpel-bowed Australian banking industry. And to think she started her career as a Latin schoolteacher. “There was never ever a plan to be here. It was never, ‘I’m aiming or intending or wanting to be a CEO of any organisation,’ much less a major bank in Australia,” Kelly tells Stellar.
“Each of my jobs – whether it be teacher or teller in a bank – every single role was an end unto itself. Each was: how can I be the best I can in this role?”
In 2015, the former Westpac CEO stepped down after a seven-year tenure that saw the bank’s share price increase by 25 per cent and home loan market share jump by close to 77 per cent. Prior to that, she was CEO of St George Bank and, following her move to Australia, general manager of strategic marketing at the Commonwealth Bank. Mention Kelly by name in pretty much any circle, financial or otherwise, and eyes light up in recognition. Her name is synonymous with accomplishment.
But beyond the numerous career achievements and penchant for stylish power suits, Kelly holds an equally impressive and important role as mother of four children – three of whom are triplets. In South Africa, she returned to work as general manager of human resources for one of the country’s largest banks 12 months after they were born – and earned a torrent of criticism from those who suggested she was better off staying at home. At the time, she says, “You’d feel guilty: ‘Am I compromising something here?’” But, says Kelly, “[Working] strengthens me and empowers me and brings energy into other areas of my life. I was a bit nervous about it because I was breastfeeding all the way through.”
Kelly’s brood are all adults now: Sharon is 31, and triplets Sean, Mark and Annie are 27. They have carved out successful careers, clearly inspired by their parents’ drive. Sharon is an English teacher, Mark a mechanical engineer, Annie a marketing executive and Sean a medical doctor.
“I am so immensely proud of my four children,” says Kelly, “and mostly because they are happy, centred, grounded children. they love each other and it is just a strong family unit.
“They grew up used to me working, and I am lucky that I do have a lot of energy and I don’t need a lot of sleep. I learnt how to be in the moment.”
GIVEN HER TAILORED corporate persona, in person Kelly is the opposite of what one might expect. She is warm and engaging, happily discussing her memories of what it was like to breastfeed her triplets and proudly showing off photos of eldest daughter Sharon’s wedding at their home in Sydney’s Terrey Hills last year. There’s a palatable joy whenever she discusses family, and she beams upon revealing she is soon to become a grandmother. Sharon is pregnant with her first child.
“It surprises people when I say family is the most important priority,” she admits. “They are the big rocks in your life and you must get that right first – above everything.”
But she says it hasn’t always been easy juggling that highest of concerns with her corporate career, which saw her move the needle for women in Australian business. (For the record, she is not a fan of the term “glass ceiling”.) There were days and weeks, Kelly says, when she was feeling burnt out and at breaking point.
“You’d come home and your son or daughter wants to talk to you about the day and they’d say, ‘Mum, can we have cookies for tomorrow?’ Or, ‘It’s show and tell tomorrow.’ And you’re thinking: ‘I can’t do this… I’m just too exhausted.’”
Kelly says she “absolutely” struggled with guilt as she raised her children and nurtured her career, questioning if each new step she took up the corporate ladder was also the right one to be taking for her family.
She credits her husband of 40 years, medical doctor Allan Kelly, with helping steer the ship and provide sound advice. “It’s a wonderfully rich love that we have for one another, and we just love being together,” she says of her husband. “It’s really nice. We would choose to be together over anything else.”
KELLY DENIES THERE was any magic formula to her achieving career success, and says she believes much of her story comes down to serendipity. But hard work and a drive to do well have also been key.
Post-westpac, Kelly remains active in the corporate world: she is director of Country Road Group and David Jones, a senior global adviser to Swiss investment bank UBS, and on the global board of advisors at the US Council on Foreign Relations, among other roles.
She is a champion for family, flexibility and women in work, and has made it her goal across 35 years in banking to lead with a “generous spirit” that lifts up women – and men – rather than clamouring over them to get to the top.
It is an attitude she writes about at length in her new book Live Lead Learn. “Being generous spirited is not a soft thing,” Kelly insists. “It involves actually wanting the best for others around
“It surprises people when I say family is the most important priority… You must get that right first – above everything”
you and treating every single human being with respect… I believe it is the toughest form of leadership.”
And women, she argues, need to be themselves rather than simply locking themselves into a harder, harsher persona to get ahead. “Women need to not try to be like anyone else or any other leader they have seen. Women tend to be more inclusive in their style, and I think that’s fabulous. We need more inclusion.”
She also believes gender-specific targets, such as the 40 per cent women in management goal she introduced and achieved at Westpac (before increasing it to 50 per cent) are necessary to change the dial on female workplace equality. “You actually need to be overt and clear and say this is an agenda topic, and this matters and this is why it matters, and then line up your policy strategies,” Kelly explains. “You have to call it out as something that is really important. And targets help deliver that change.”
Kelly hopes that by 2050, female workplace equality is not even part of the dialogue. By then, she wants to see office parity achieved. One way to get there? Kelly thinks Australian and global workplaces need to stop paying “lip service” to the idea of flexibility and realise it is simply the smarter way forward.
“If you show an element of trust to your employees – let them balance it out as such, they actually feel they are in control of their life and they can actually be happy in their life – they are going to give back in spades. We don’t need to have these rigid rules, 8-5 clocking in and clocking out.”
Kelly says her parents, Herby and Pat Currer, were bedrocks who helped her understand that passion was of equal importance at work and home. There’s a twang of pain in Kelly’s voice as she talks about them. Both have now passed – Herby died unexpectedly when Kelly was in her 20s, while Pat was laid to rest in 2010.
“My father taught me so much about choosing to be positive and being prepared to back myself and working hard. He was a big believer that if you want to achieve anything in life, you have to work at it. My mother would definitely have called herself a feminist and, if times had been right, she would have been a suffragette out there.”
Kelly also points to contemporary role models she says have bolstered her professional life, people such as Carolyn Hewson – previously an investment banker, now board member of BHP Billiton and Stockland, and
“Women tend to be more inclusive in their style, and I think that’s fabulous. We need more inclusion”
the ex-wife of former federal opposition leader John Hewson.
And surprisingly, former cricketer Steve Waugh also makes her list, with Kelly acknowledging with a laugh that somehow the discussion has gone from Beyoncé to cricket.
So, why Waugh? Kelly’s answer sums it up with the same breadth and attention she has brought to her storied career: “That resilience that he demonstrated when he was cricket captain, that humility, that calmness under pressure and that ability to have the very best people in the very best roles around him, and to provide exactly the support that each individual player on his side needed… It’s something to be admired.” Live Lead Learn (Penguin, $35) is out now.
THE KELLY GANG (clockwise from above) Allan and Kelly with their children (from left) Sharon, Mark, Annie and Sean; Kelly with her newborn triplets and their big sister Sharon; Westpac women (from left) Judy Scott, Kelly, Helen Lynch and Ann Sherry; with former PM Tony Abbott.