Risk-taking made my leadership career: Ann Sherry AO | Women's Agenda

Risk-taking made my leadership career: Ann Sherry AO

The solution to getting more women into leadership positions isn’t that hard according to Ann Sherry, the CEO of cruise company Carnival Australia.

She heard the answer first-hand working at Westpac in the 1990s when Bob Joss landed in Australia from the US to take the helm of the bank and asked where the women were.

“What he did was say to everyone on his executive, ‘The next job you hire for in your team, find a women’,” Sherry tells me. “And amazingly, they did! Women were found.” Simple.

Sherry was one of a now well-known handful of business women who took key positions within Westpac during the 1990s, including Helen Nugent and Leslie Martin. She laughingly referred to the group as “Joss’s girls” at a recent conference, but told me they became known as the “laterals”, people who came from outside of the bank, and stirred some internal resentment amongst those internally who’d been expecting promotions.

Joss could find women for leadership positions back in the 1990s. And yet in 2013 Sherry is amazed that much of corporate Australia still seems to believe women are missing. “I just don’t think there’s any lack of talent here,” she says. “You can’t have merit-based procedures if everyone looks the same. People have adopted the language without changing the culture. Companies need to get under the cultures that shut women out.”

Still, to an outsider, Sherry may have seemed an odd person to manage HR policy when she was first appointed at Westpac. Most of her experience had been in the public sector where she’d achieved some significant work with the Office of the Status of Women and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

For Sherry herself, it was also a risk. She crossed from a high-profile job and powerful position to corporate life, where she now admits even she was a little confused about the HR position she would be taking.

And yet Sherry’s appointment – which could have also been perceived as a “risk” by some at the bank – not only ultimately changed the course of the bank but also corporate Australia. Asked what she could do to make Westpac an “employer of choice” when she first arrived, Sherry hardly blinked on what she believed was the solution: maternity leave.

After barely a year in her new role, the bank announced a revolutionary move to offer paid maternity leave to women. It was the first bank and large business to do so, and it created a domino effect, with the rest of corporate Australia racing to play catch-up. “Nobody understood what a big deal it was going to be. Nobody understood the power of being first to market with an idea like that. But I did.”

Sherry put everything on the line to achieve the new policy. And when it worked, it significantly enhanced her profile within the bank.

The success for Westpac of hiring a woman “outside the square”, like Sherry, moved well beyond the introduction of maternity leave. Sherry went on to manage the people and customer side of Westpac’s merger with the Bank of Melbourne before getting the HR community excited by being appointed the BoM’s CEO (a rare move for an HR professional). Later, she crossed the ditch to become CEO of Westpac New Zealand.

Four years later, Sherry was approached for the CEO role of Carnival Australia in 2007.

The shift would require a move to Sydney and taking the helm of a business in terrible shape following the tragic death of passenger Dianne Brimble back in 2002. So why agree to head a company that even Sherry herself concedes had developed a reputation as a business that treated women poorly?

“It was a big risk, I understand that … I stepped into a business that was really getting hammered from a reputation point of view and in a way I lent my reputation to it,” she explains. “Equally, I understand that resuscitating businesses that are in bad shape is a really energising task. And I love people businesses and this is the ultimate people business!”

Still, from time to time, Sherry questions if moving to Carnival was the right move. Indeed, the week before we spoke she’d been dealing with the death of a young couple who went over the side of a Carnival ship. She says she could have gone into a corner and wept for the families of those involved and did everything possibly to share her empathy. But she also moved to ensure the public knew how increased safety measures have changed Carnival ships since she took over, including the introduction of higher rails and infrared cameras.

Family keeps her grounded on the difficult days, says Sherry, as well as her internal ability to do a “headspace shift” when things get tough. “I needed a hug by the time I got home and I got it. I then needed to be alone and they left me alone,” she says. “Domestically, it’s so important that I have a solid base.”

Sherry clearly enjoys taking a chance, and has taken some significant ones throughout her career. She believes risk-taking ultimately pays dividends, and has personally reaped the rewards. She’s moved from Brisbane to London to Melbourne, New Zealand and Sydney, each time having a short conference with the family – her husband and son – about starting life again in a new city.

“I probably have a higher tolerance for risk than most people and I’ve learnt that taking a risk does pay dividends,” she says. “We packed up and moved to the UK when everyone thought we were mad; we moved to Melbourne and everyone thought we were mad; then I went to Westpac and New Zealand.”

It’s these significant moves that have ultimately benefited her career, she says.

“At every point people were saying, ‘Why would you do that? You have a great job. You stay here and the prize is yours’, which may have been true. The question is: do you really want that prize or do you want to try something different?”

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