Gail Kelly’s 7 Life Lessons

Nov 14
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Marked as one of Australia’s most successful CEO’s, Gail Kelly Chief Executive of Westpac  announced last week that she will be stepping down from her role early next year. Having led the bank since 2008, she will be replaced by Westpac’s Australian financial services chief executive, Brian Hartzer.

In her powerful role of leading the country’s second largest bank, “overseeing a whopping $670 billion in assets and over 36,000 employees”  you may be surprised to learn that Mrs Kelly did not start her career in financial services. . . 

“When she was 21, Gail Kelly was deeply unhappy, teaching Latin at a school in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her students did not want to be there. She did not want to be there. At the end of that term, she left to work as a bank teller. On Thursday, she announced her retirement as one of Australia’s most powerful bankers.”  – Sydney Morning Herald, November 2014.

So what were the secrets to her success?

What can we learn from this inspirational woman in leadership?

In a recent speech at the St George Bank Foundation lunch, Gail Kelly revealed her seven life lessons, for which I would love to share! Here are her words of wisdom:

1.     Choose To Be Positive

“This does go back to living in a small family, a happy family, in Pretoria and the very positive influence of my mum and my dad, particularly my dad, who was inherently a very optimistic person.

He had that wonderful flavour of, you can choose in your life how you respond to situations and you should actively choose to be positive, to see the world through a glass-half-full perspective. You should choose even in difficult times to look for the learning, the insights, the opportunities, the next steps.

And it’s a life skill, not just a business skill. I sometimes have to remind myself as I am going home at night and have had a really tough day that I can choose how I walk into my home. I can choose to be warm and embracing and welcoming, or I can choose to walk in and reflect in my tone and style that I had a bad day and everyone else is going to suffer a little bit because of it.”

2.     Do What You Love, Love What You Do

“If you love what you do, you’ll do more of it; doing more of it, you’ll gather more confidence, more energy and get better at it. That builds more confidence and energy and you love it more. And you grow in your capability and skills. And the reverse is true.

I definitely had a period where I was in that mode. This is the time when I was a school teacher. Much as I loved teaching and I love education, I was too young, I think, for the environment that I found myself in and I was very unhappy as a young person, 21 years old.

I was teaching at a school in Johannesburg and I didn’t feel confident in what I was doing, I didn’t feel like I was doing a good job. I was teaching boys who didn’t want to be there, I was teaching subjects I didn’t want to teach, it was a whole combination of things. I just lost confidence, I lost a sense of my self-esteem, I did it worse as a consequence and I all of a sudden ended up feeling deeply unhappy.

It came to a crunch point the day I’ll always remember. It was a winter sports afternoon in Johannesburg and I was on duty in this clubhouse and I was [thinking], ‘Thank goodness, it’s the end of the day.’ And I was on my way to the bus stop. And this young boy ran up to me and said, ‘M’am, I’ve left my jumper inside. May I please go and get it?’

And I stomped back upstairs and I was the worst kind of school marm. I shook my finger at him and told him this was inconvenient and I told him he should think ahead, and I opened the door with a great amount of noise and stood there in the door and watched him scurry to and fro. And then he went downstairs I shut the door behind him, with again a lot of noise and flurry, and walked downstairs and I reached the bus stop.

And I sat down at the bus stop and I just felt so ashamed. I thought, ‘What has happened to me, this person who loves people and enjoys teaching and who has a positive view of her life? What has happened to me, that this is the way I am behaving, this is the way I am reacting to some small situation?’

I realised it was affecting my life and it was affecting the way I felt about myself and I recognised that I needed to make a change either in my attitude or in what I was doing. I felt I wasn’t coping in what I was doing. And I ended up at the end of that term leaving teaching and ultimately joining the bank.”

 3.     Be Bold, Dig Deep

“I suspect that [this] will apply more to women than men, though I suspect it applies to us all. Be courageous, and be prepared to take the opportunities and the challenges that come your way. In my experience, women like to be really 100 per cent ready before they put their hand up for opportunities. My advice and my encouragement to you, over life journeys and career journeys is put your hand up and be bold and be courageous. Be prepared to back yourself, be prepared to have a go.

It’s been trouble for me all my life, the sense of gosh, ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not adequate, I’m not going to do this well. I might fail, what happens if I fail?’

Every time I’ve met this career opportunity in a life sense, I’ve had to pause, stop, dig deep, take my courage in my hands, actively say I’m going to back myself, actively say there are others out there who are going to support me, there are others out there that want me to win.”

 4.     Right People on the Bus, Wrong People Off

“It’s become obvious to me [to ask] are the right people in the right roles? [This is ] the single most important factor for leadership success and for organisational success. I’m not alone in evidencing this comment and some of you will have read Good to Great, by Jim Collins. What he does over five years is research 1500 companies who are deemed to be good companies and he looks at what is it that distinguishes those that are good from those that become truly great. And he comes to the conclusion, which was a surprise to him and the researchers at the time, that the single most important ingredient was what he called having the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. It’s both sides of the equation that you need to work on.

If I think of the mistakes I have made in my career and things that I would have done differently had I had my time again, often they go to people where I should have acted more quickly; I should have recognised more quickly that this person was the wrong person on the bus for various reasons.”

 5.     The Vision Thing

“It is important to be able to communicate in a crystal clear way the vision and purpose of the organisation. This is how banks lost their way going into the [global financial crisis]. What for them was shareholder value, being successful in financial terms, [but they] lost sense of the why: what is the purpose of the bank, in society, why do we exist?

At Westpac, our vision is to be one of the most respected companies in the world: helping our people, our customers, our communities to prosper and grow. The communication of this is key. I talk about it everywhere and expect our team members to know and understand our vision and strategy.

In the last two employee engagement surveys, 97 per cent of our people say ‘yes, I understand how the work I do supports the vision of the company’. That’s fantastic for alignment and for productivity.”

 6.     Generosity of Spirit

“This is an essential ingredient for being successful in your life, as well as your business; practising generosity of spirit in the way you go about your life and indeed your leadership role in work. If you believe in practising generosity of spirit, at heart you believe in the power of an individual to make a difference and at heart you treat individuals with deep respect and want to see others flourish.

The people who do not practice generosity of spirit are selfish. People who do not practice generosity of spirit are binary: black or white, right or wrong; they are quick to judge, intolerant, they shoot messengers, they take credit for work that others do.”

 7.     Live a Whole Life

“A life lesson for me is make sure that you live a whole life. I very often come across people who are at the pinnacle of their career, they are immensely successful, they’ve climbed the mountain, they are the best they can be in their job or their profession and yet they are deeply unhappy.

If you get to an environment where that gets talked about these people cry: grown men my age and more, in tears. Because of what they have lost along the way: a relationship, a partnership, they may not be connected to their children, maybe they’ve lost their health, maybe they’ve got no friends. They have no interests; they’ve lost sight of who they are, their spirituality, their inner person.

Do not let this happen to you. You need to make sure you live a whole life which means be really clear on the priorities in your life and invest in them all the way.

I am crystal clear and I make sure that all of my people in Westpac know I am crystal clear: my priority is my family. There is nothing more important to me than my family.”

These were some very inspirational words from a highly successful and powerful woman in leadership. Lessons from inspirational leaders make up a key theme of our upcoming 9th National EA & PA Convention. All the exciting details to be revealed soon, but in the meantime save the dates: 17th & 18th March 2015!

Submitted by Fiona Campbell

Fiona Campbell

Fiona is a producer who brings an international perspective to the team, with a background and experience in Scotland, Singapore and Shanghai. She is a foodie, a keen netballer and passionate about travel.
Fun fact about Fiona – She survived cycling down ‘the world’s most dangerous road’! (In Bolivia, South America)

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