Rising to the top Down Under on the basis of lessons learnt in SA
• Kelly recounts how she overcame uncertainty to head an Australian bank
Gail Kelly’s success is not surprising. Dressed in a baby-pink cardigan and matching skirt, she is warm, bold and self-assured. A former CEO of Westpac – one of Australia’s big four banks and its oldest company – the South African-born Kelly is fiercely proud of her heritage.
The lessons learnt during her first 40 years in SA were, she says, “enormously important to my future success. I can’t overemphasise that.
“South Africans have a special set of capabilities because of the environments we grew up in and work in here … because you learn about change and you learn about diversity, and you learn about how to make decisions in ambiguity, and you learn how to get up again and go forward, and you learn about resilience, and you learn tolerance and respect for difference, and you learn about inclusion and you learn about accountability,” she enthuses.
And then she remembers to add to the list the South African quality of calling “a spade a spade” and being able to “deal with the reality as it is”.
“Those capabilities were a huge part of what made me break through within the Australian banking arena,” says Kelly, who with her husband has four children, including triplets.
Coupled with “humility, a preparedness to listen and ask for support, and a sense of humour”, Kelly has come a long way since her first job in banking as a teller at the Simmonds Street, Johannesburg branch of the then South African Permanent Building Society (SA Perm).
What she remembers most clearly about the interview for that position was a comment by the male interviewer that it may be possible for her to become a supervisor one day.
To be fair to the interviewer, Kelly was 24 years old, had majored in Latin and history, was fresh out of a teaching job and had no banking experience.
In her recently published book, Live Lead Learn: My Stories of Life and Leadership, Kelly shares her journey to becoming the first female CEO of one of Australia’s biggest banks.
“I hadn’t planned on writing a book,” she says.
Kelly was approached by several publishers following her retirement from Westpac in February 2015 and politely declined all their requests.
A few months later, while on a three-month trip around Africa with her husband Allan, a paediatric surgeon, she concluded that a book was a good place to capture answers to the questions she had been asked time and again when speaking at business conferences or university graduations.
“The extent to which I can help people is something I enjoy, which is why I wrote this book. During that [trip] I thought, I’ve had such a privileged business career and such a privileged life of learning and opportunity and if I can capture some of that….”
While undoubtedly privileged, Kelly made the most of the opportunities she was gifted. After entering banking in 1980 she would, over the next 12 years at the SA Perm, complete a banking qualification, an MBA and have four children.
One of many breakthrough opportunities came in 1992 when Richard Laubscher, CEO of Nedbank’s predecessor, Nedcor Bank, asked her to head the group’s card business.
As with many talented women who second-guess their abilities, Kelly’s response was to come up with a list of reasons for why she was unqualified for the position. On top of the list of insecurities, she added the complexity of having four small children and a husband working full-time as a paediatrician at Soweto’s Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.
Yet, Kelly accepted the role and with it leadership of an allmale team who had far more experience in the credit card industry than she did. Fittingly, this story is included in a chapter of her book titled Be Bold, Dig Deep, Back Yourself.
“In this decision, as in all of my big life decisions, the person who helped me most to dig deep and to back myself was my husband, Allan,” she writes.
Kelly acknowledges that her marriage, which is a “very solid foundational relationship of trust and support”, has been critical to her success.
“That is huge. If you’ve got that you can absorb anything. If something had personally been very difficult [at work] I could draw on the fact that there were people at home, a husband at home, who love me for me.
“Allan and I mucked in and did whatever needed to get done together. Allan had no problem with doing washing, ironing, sewing, fetching and carrying. You do what you have to do in a way, what alternative is there?”
There were, of course, some days, particularly when her children were young, “when you wanted to say, I’ve done my day’s work and I’m going to leave now”. Kelly laughs as she shares this thought, adding, “if you love what you do and you find meaning and joy in it, that gives you capacity”.
She has had to dig deep and back herself countless times, such as when she put her hand up to be the CEO of Australia’s then fifth-largest bank in 2002. Kelly would later oversee Westpac’s 2008 acquisition of St George’s Bank. She recalls leaving a meeting of global banking CEs in October 2008 questioning whether she really had what it took to do the job well.
There were “many moments of doubt, uncertainty, fear of failure, fear of being inadequate”, she says. But, when it really counted, Kelly was able to push past her fears.
“I learnt that, as challenging as it may be, it pays to be courageous and back yourself.”
Westpac’s market capitalisation doubled during her tenure as CEO, from $50bn to $104bn.
Despite being CEO for 13 years, she was not afraid to ask for help or instruction, a characteristic she believes female executives display more than male executives. Kelly insisted on getting to grips with the detail, not to be able to rattle it off. Her chief financial officer was a frequent companion when meeting journalists, analysts and investors, more because it made her feel more “competent and confident”.
Now a member of the Group of Thirty – a consultative group on international economic and monetary affairs whose members include the likes of Bank of England governor Mark Carney
SOUTH AFRICANS HAVE A SPECIAL SET OF CAPABILITIES BECAUSE OF THE ENVIRONMENTS WE … WORK IN HERE
and former US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke – Kelly is helping review a piece of work done in 2015 that focuses on bank culture.
Her experience overhauling Westpac’s vision, values and purpose around the time of the 2008 financial crisis — ensuring that employees were involved with and on board with the changes required — will come in handy.
In her so-called retirement, Kelly is also a nonexecutive director on the Woolworths board and a senior adviser to global banking group UBS. She teaches on strategy, leadership and business as an adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales’s business school in Sydney, where she lives.
Kelly says businesses need to understand that they are “fundamental to the fabric of society” and play a vital role in the “health and welfare of the economy, and the future of people.
“I think South African firms by and large get that, although there is more work to be done.”