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

Business Day - - LIFE - Hanna Zi­ady LIVE LEAD LEARN: My sto­ries of life and lead­er­ship Gail Kelly Pan Macmil­lan

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


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.”


Se­crets of suc­cess: Gail Kelly de­cided to write a book on her ca­reer in the bank­ing in­dus­try, in­clud­ing her role as CEO of West­pac in Syd­ney, to help other peo­ple iden­tify and over­come chal­lenges in the work­place.

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