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Gail Kelly on Life and Leadership

The former CEO of Australia’s Westpac Banking Corporation, South African-born Gail Kelly is an advocate for family, flexibility and women in the workplace. "Women in leadership is a major issue and there is still much to be done. It requires the focus, attention, drive, energy and commitment of senior management,” she told a Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) forum.  

Kelly, who was nominated as one of Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women, is also a mother of four, including triplets. Following her move from a career in teaching to one in banking, she often had to prove herself in what was still a male-dominated industry. “You have to stare down the fear of failure. You owe it to yourself to give it a go,” she said.  

Having a career and a family is possible with the right support system, she believes: “Having a husband and people around you who back you is huge. You muddle along, and you do need a sense of humour and to be prepared to take on a bit of chaos.” 

She explained effecting change within organisations requires ‘hard wiring’ initiatives such as measurements, structures and flexibility at work; as well as soft wiring ones such as role modeling and storytelling. 

After the introduction of targets, women now occupy half of all management positions at Westpac. The workplace needs to change to embrace flexibility, Kelly argued: “Rather measure people on their outputs. Back people to make it work and don’t micro manage them. At Westpac over 80% of staff are on a form of flexible work schedule. You have to get your culture right.”

Formative influences and early career   
Kelly’s book about her career and her early life growing up in South Africa, Live, Lead and Learn, details the influence her family had on shaping her value system. 

Describing herself as a conscientious, diligent student who was focused on achievement and didn’t like letting people down, Kelly always wanted to enter the teaching profession. 

Her father was a competitive person who encouraged his children to be positive. Kelly has a distinct memory of two books in his study: The Power of Positive Thinking, and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Her mother taught her “to read, to think and to stand on my own feet,” Kelly added.  

Following the completion of her studies at the University of Cape Town, Kelly began working as a teacher in the former Rhodesia and in Johannesburg. However, after losing confidence in her ability to teach, banking was an opportunity to learn and  grow. After starting out as a teller at Perm in Simmons Street, Johannesburg, Kelly recalls how she was told perhaps she “would become a supervisor one day.” 

Wanting to improve her formal academic qualifications, Kelly chose to pursue an MBA and was shortly thereafter made general manager of human resources of the Nedcor Group. Subsequently, she was given the opportunity to run the card business for the firm. 

After moving to Australia in 1997, Kelly joined Commonwealth Bank, which she described as “being in the right place at the right time.”  

“There was a focus on getting more women into senior management positions, especially in banking.  I wanted to join an Australian-based major bank and adjusting to a new country and a new culture meant I wanted to do something I was familiar with,” Kelly said. Despite this, she describes her first four years in the country as “the toughest in my entire career because of the magnitude of the change and the load.”

While the country is renowned for its efficiency, Kelly said she initially found the process, compliance regimes and the required consensus in Australian business frustrating. “But if you come with a willingness to learn, a preparedness to take things on and to be accountable, you will be able to get things done.” 

After a time as the CEO of St George’s Bank, which Kelly described as “ the very best role that I could possible have,” she became CEO of Westpac in 2007. 

During the financial crisis the bank’s funding model came under severe pressure, with immense expectation on Kelly to perform. As she had come from a retail and not an institutional banking background, her learning curve was very steep. “I applied my old philosophy of surrounding myself with the best people. You have to trust them, back them, empower them and let them shine.” 

Integrity and alignment in business and banking 
When asked about recent examples of failure of integrity and ethics in the corporate world, Kelly advised: “When the pressure is on, you have to do the right thing as well as when no one is watching. Do the right thing all the time, every time.” 

“Male banking CEOs’ style of command and control is partly what got us into the mess that was the financial crisis. I try to get the best people around me and use those talents.” 

Kelly explained she had a very strong belief in the concept of alignment to drive the long-term sustainable success of a corporation. This requires placing the customers’ best interest first and ensuring that everything from measurements, goals, remuneration, ethics and values need to align. 

Successful CEOs are those who work with and through people, and embrace a spirit of generosity, which she said she learnt in South Africa: “Find a belief in the dignity of each individual and create an environment where they can flourish.”  


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