Leaning In, Not Blending In: An Interview with Gail Kelly

The Briefings Interview: Gail Kelly.


The Briefings Interview: Gail Kelly

It’s a bright Sydney morning and the sun is streaming in through the glass to Westpac Group chief Gail Kelly’s office in the city’s Central Business District. The boss of Australia’s second-largest bank has a spectacular view of the sparkling harbor and the company’s new office tower rising up in a revamped historic docklands area below.

But Kelly’s rapid-fire mind is elsewhere. With trademark smile and almost infectious enthusiasm, she is recalling relentlessly busy Shanghai and Mumbai and the port of Chengdu. The western Chinese port, 13 hours’ flight north, ships in a week what Sydney does in a year, all mechanized efficiency and throughput.

The bank from Down Under is boosting its institutional presence in Asia, to help support the increasing number of Australian customers building their businesses there. Pretty much everyone is trying to home in on the emerging markets in this Asian century, including rivals from Australia’s bank-heavy market, including Commonwealth, ANZ and NAB.

Just shy of its 200th anniversary in 2017, Australia’s oldest company is setting itself up for a third century, knowing it will have to adapt to dramatically different circumstances and competitive terrain. It is a long list: sluggish credit growth, the disruption caused to bricks-and-mortar businesses by digitization, the need to rebuild trust and meet new capital rules after the reputational pasting the banks took during the financial crisis, and aging demographics, are just for starters.

Kelly drives all this, a business with 36,000 staff and billion in assets, from a CEO’s office that feels homey, that somehow underscores a generosity of spirit she believes leaders require in these disruptive days for business.

Budding vases of yellow roses, woven rugs, stuffed brand mascots and splashes of bright paintings, including a famous naive of Aussie bushranger Ned Kelly (no relation), soften the neat corporate furniture. Family snaps hint at the journey of the South African-born teacher and bank teller, M.B.A., mother of four (including triplets) and sports nut, to become Australia’s first female bank chief in 2002.

After overseeing an audacious and controversial merger in 2008 with St. George, the smaller rival she previously headed for five years, Kelly is making her mark, as one of the world’s most influential women leaders.

To use Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s line of the moment, Kelly is leaning in. She aims to make Westpac one of the world’s most admired companies. The bank is a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest voluntary corporate responsibility initiative. Having learned by harsh experience that it is not enough just to keep your head down and do your best, she’s also setting up Westpac as a model of what’s possible when a company sets its mind at achieving gender balance.

Kelly recently sat down with Narelle Hooper, former editor of the Australian Financial Review’s BOSS Magazine. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

Q: You’ve had a fascinating life and career journey — from growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, to running Australia’s second-largest bank. You seem to adapt well to change. How did that come about?

KELLY:  I’m not entirely sure!  A combination of luck, hard work and taking opportunities that came my way, I think.  I am fortunate to have had an excellent education, to have had parents who encouraged me to give my best and to back myself. I think growing up in South Africa was a help, too – I was given real accountability at a relatively young age and learnt how to deal with change. The 1980s and 1990s, when I was starting out in my career, were really interesting and challenging years.  Once in Australia [the family migrated in 1997], I was fortunate to have been given great opportunities which I threw myself into. I really do love what I do.

Q: How do you get that responsiveness in a big organization? That hierarchical structure is so strongly ingrained in the way we operate.

KELLY: Culture is one of the things I’ve pushed really hard, in all my stay in Westpac, and it has been a theme for me through all of my leadership career. It is what I call a One Team approach, which is different from teamwork by the way. Teamwork is one team working together, a One Team is all of us across the whole operation think about pulling together for the customer. It involves teamwork, but it means different teams will support each other so they will put the outcome for the customer and the outcome for the corporation first before the outcome for their own business unit and the individual.

Q: A lot of organizations aim for that, but how do you make that real for people who go in every day but who are not as connected to it as you and your top team?

KELLY: You start at the top — role modeling at the very top of the organization. We take our values very seriously. I talk about the values wherever I go, so there is a big piece of leadership in terms of communication and embedding and showing, by your own actions, that the values actually matter.

And we’re very clear on the behaviors that are evidence of One Team and the behaviors that are not. We call them out, and we recognize and reward through official performance reviewing. We evaluate individuals’ performance relative to their values; it’s a specific piece of the performance review.

Q: What about removing employees if they don’t adhere to the behavior?

KELLY: We absolutely do that. I have examples, and we make sure people understand exactly why that has occurred. Silo mentality, silo behavior … we really do call that out.

I run processes twice a year with my team where we sit down as a team and spend time to explicitly address how we are performing as a team and reviewing each. I’m part of that team, and I receive the same feedback and I give the same feedback. It’s very powerful.

It is a very open and constructive environment, but it is very candid. Out of that, we each devise our own set of things we are going to work on for the next six months.

Q: In that, there is an issue around trust. It doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people.

KELLY:  It doesn’t happen overnight. You keep on working on it. It boils down to a few things. One is deep respect for people and a belief people make a difference. If you don’t have a deep respect for individuals and a view that people make a difference, you are not going to get trust. You are not going to get a One Team set of behaviors. You are not going to drive a “generosity of spirit” approach towards leadership, which I feel very strongly about.

Q: When did you come to that? Was there a moment it clicked?

KELLY:  Many years ago, I listened to Jack Welch. It was after he left G.E. He was asked about leadership lessons he reflected on and things he might have made more of. He spoke of a generosity gene. That struck me and I thought “That’s it.” I inherently believe leaders need to evidence generosity of spirit.

That’s where it clicked for me because I inherently believe in the power of the individual to make a difference. You need to create an environment where individuals can flourish, where they can be the best that they can be.

He says it’s a gene in you. I’m not so sure — I think you can develop this empathy through learning, observation and experience, and there are some leadership dynamics.

I picked up on this in my research report on my M.B.A., in 1986. I’d spoken to these South African CEO’s, leaders. … If you want to be a good leader, you need to like people. Leadership is about people. If you like people, you take time to understand them, what that person’s individual motivators and drivers are and therefore how to create an environment where that person can thrive…. And to be prepared to develop that relationship to the point where you can have a conversation: “I’ve noticed … and I’m concerned, so perhaps you can help me understand why this is occurring.”

Q: And the flip side is when they need stretching?

KELLY: Correct. You see it in sport as well. I love sport. I have several passions in life, one of them is sport. My father represented South Africa and in team sports. I grew up on sports fields. I’ve watched and been involved in team sports, and I’m interested in the psychology of team sport and competitiveness.

Some people need daily feedback and others are, “Let me be. I know what I’m doing and when I’m ready I will bring it to you.” My kids are like that: “Mum, don’t keep asking me how I am. I am fine,” and other kids are different.

Q: How does that influence your day and how you do your job?

KELLY: A big part of my job is assisting in the process. I’m playing a leading, steering, guiding and cheerleading role in lots of ways.

My job is in lots of ways to take all the fantastic work, input and thinking and make sure I can distill it in really clear ways that have meaning. That is so people can identify with it and say, “I’ve got it.”

For example, we have a question on our [employee] survey on whether I as an individual understand how my work connects to the vision of the organization — 97 percent said yes.

I talk a lot about the elevator speech. They tease me about it. So you get in at level 1 and by the time you get out at level 21 between the two of us we can nail the elevator speech. You want people to have a simple, clear understanding.

Q: What are your main objectives as a leader?

KELLY: You have global goals — to be the [one of the] most highly respected companies in the world. That’s why our sustainability metrics matter. It is about deep respect. That’s why I was so chuffed with the World Economic Forum where they choose 100 companies as best in sustainability. We came out 10th this year. We were the leading bank on the survey and the leading Australian company on the survey. It is about being respected and helping our customers, communities and employees prosper and grow.

Q: And other goals?

KELLY: We set clear frameworks. We want to achieve at least 15 percent ROE  because it is important to be strong first, if you are going to play this role in society. We’ve all seen what happens when banks fail, they can’t support customers, or provide an adequate return to shareholders. We have EPS and TSR metrics. We talk about four quadrants. We seek to achieve a balance on financials. We need to be strong first, so we set clear goals on capital liquidity. Then the growth quadrant — we’re looking to target the growth in segments where we get the best return — so increasing in Asia, wealth, insurance and focus on deposits, transactional banking, SMEs and strength. Then there’s the productivity quadrant. It is really important, and we have to keep simplifying and standardizing and eliminating waste.

The last quadrant is return. It goes to margin management and ROE. And they’re trade-offs: you want the appropriate level of capital to be really strong and driving the growth piece to really drive the return metrics. You are balancing them, knowing there are trade-offs.

Part of my job is balancing resources that are finite – people, money, time — to best balance that set of outcomes.

Q: How does that sit on your shoulders?

KELLY: I don’t feel alone. I have a fantastic board — and it provides great input and support, understanding and guidance — and a great relationship with my chairman.

And I have a fantastic team. … Having the right people in the right roles is the single most important factor for achieving business success. And that includes moving the wrong people out of the wrong roles.

So I have a great team and we are all marching to the same agenda and we are all really clear about what success looks like and that balanced scorecard.  We’ll sit as a team and make prioritization decisions, and that comes to the One Team, because not everyone will have their wish; there are always many more requests for funding than we can do. It’s not just funding—it’s often people and change. You can’t put too much change into a system at once.

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