“Fam­ily is the top pri­or­ity”

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.

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JA­SON ED­WARDS In­ter­view LANAI SCARR

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.

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