Tough and Kind

On three occasions I have read a book and thought, if everyone read this book, the world of work would be a different place. The first was Sheryl Sandberg’s, Lean In, now five years in print. The second was The Wife Drought, by Annabel Crabb. And the third came just recently in the form of Live, Lead, Learn, by Gail Kelly.

Yes, as a professional my late 20s, women and corporate life are my bias. But I do believe that the lessons and ideas presented in each of these books are relevant to everyone.

My new rug feat. Gail

Kelly, the former CEO of St George and Westpac banks, and the first female CEO of a major Australian bank, is known for keeping a low profile. The vanilla title of her book may suggest that her penchant for privacy persisted in her approach to the book. This is not so. Kelly opens the curtains on a fascinating life and story, and provides a rare window into the highest ranks of corporate life in Australia. In doing so, she shares her advice on what makes a good leader. With a career like Kelly’s behind her, she is more qualified than most to give advice, and more deserving than most of our attention.

Kelly opens the book by saying it is neither a memoir, nor a self-help book. This is where my disapproval begins and ends. In my view, it is every bit a self-development book, strung together with personal stories and anecdotes that anchor the advice in Kelly’s life story. The best type of memoir. So what did I learn?

If I could summarise Kelly’s approach in one word it would be this: people. This makes sense when you read Kelly’s story.

Interestingly, Kelly does not come from a finance background. Originally a teacher in South Africa, Kelly quickly grew frustrated with the education system and took an entry level job as a bank teller. From here she worked her way through the executive ranks, with a primary focus on HR, then customer service delivery and on to organisational leadership. Having spent her foundation years in HR and customer service, it is unsurprising that Kelly’s approach to most problems or opportunities is to help or empower people.

In 2010, as the Banking sector stumbled through the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Kelly spearheaded an initiative to articulate a new Wespac vision. The vision became:

To be one of the world’s great companies, helping our customers, communities and people to prosper and grow. 

The emphasis on Westpac’s own people, and the customers and communities they serve, is consistent with Kelly’s focus on putting people at the heart of a business. She would apply this customer-centric approach consistently when pursuing new customers, developing new products or engaging in service delivery reform. She would also apply a people-centric approach when engaging in organisational reform, restructuring, shifting responsibilities or encouraging innovation.

Kelly’s story presents a valuable alternative to the “bulldog” style of business often presented in the media and in fiction. She cuts through any myth that one must remain ruthlessly detached from people in order to make the tough decisions required to succeed in business. Kelly is a role model for those who believe that being good to people is good for business.

One piece of advice that has always stuck with me is this – prioritise relationships over tasks. Kelly’s career seems to have been built on a similar premise. She is all about people. Kelly rejects the notion that a leader must be “tough but fair”. Rather, she says, a generous-spirited leader will be tough and fair. Or even better, tough and kind.

Kelly acknowledges that there will be times when strong feedback will be required, such as a decision to mark-down remuneration or demote, or a decision to ask an employee to leave. Kelly says that these conversations should of course occur, but should be handled sensitively, in person and with due consideration for the team member’s position.

Kelly says that a mature, generous-spirited leader will operate from a position of deep respect for people. She says, “It is not about being liked or being nice. It is about a deeply held value system that is based on the position that people matter”. This doesn’t make Kelly a people pleaser. Quoting  her chairman Ted Evans, she fully acknowledges that “correct decisions are often very unpopular”.

At the heart of Kelly’s story is her marriage to husband, Allan, a paediatrician. Together, they are parents to four children (now adults), three of whom are triplets (yes, it seems that Kelly’s overachieving even extends to childbearing).

The Kellys have managed to maintain a strong marriage for 40 years, even when the demands of their careers have left them with little bandwidth for home life . Kelly puts her career success down to “a marriage that is a partnership”, reiterating Sheryl Sandberg’s impassioned plea in Lean In to “make your partner a real partner”. She says that without her husband, her career in business would not have been possible.

I thought it was interesting to hear a high profile person talk about the practical support necessary to enable a big career. Spousal support, at an idealogical, emotional and practical level, cannot be overstated in anyones career. The Kellys also show that two big careers can co-exist in the one happy home.

This could be traced back to a commitment Kelly made early in her career. Prior to the family’s move to Australia, Kelly attended a leadership conference in Paris. She recalls fellow business executives breaking down at the thought of their deteriorating health and family relationships. Kelly says that she returned from that experience determined to never find herself in that situation. She says: “I knew I too had a tendency to prioritise work, with a view that my family would always be there. I felt guilty about this, but I was driven, I was conscientious, and I didn’t want to let my work colleagues down”Coming back from the Paris conference, Kelly decided to “explicitly put family first”. Noone could argue that that attitude did her career any harm.

I enjoyed this book. Best read of 2018 so far.

Thought Leader(s): Gail Kelly

Book(s): Kelly, G (2017) Live, Lead, Learn, Penguin.

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