Gail Kelly: Four new attributes required of leaders | Women's Agenda

Gail Kelly: Four new attributes required of leaders

If Westpac employees get in a lift with Gail Kelly they may just be asked to share the bank’s ‘elevator pitch’.

The bank’s CEO says with 20-something floors to travel, it’s a great opportunity to ensure employees are on the same page delivering the company’s vision.

“Most people in my organisation know that if they get in a lift with me I might say, ‘Right we’ve got 21 levels to go between now and the 21st floor, let’s do the elevator pitch. So, what are the five pieces of our strategy?” she said.

It’s an important skill because articulating one’s vision is essential for leading in today’s business environment, given change is now constant and nothing is certain according to Kelly.

Speaking at a Ruby Connection lunch in Sydney on Thursday, Kelly outlined the new challenges facing the banking sector – and all businesses – since the global financial crisis, and what she’s learned regarding how such challenges have shifted what makes a great leader.

She offered four new requirements for leaders, starting with the need to have a clear vision for an organisation and the ability to execute it – and an elevator pitch that all employees can articulate.

“The vision needs to not just be what it is we do but it absolutely needs to be how is it that we need to achieve that, the purpose of what it is that we’re getting to,” she said.

“It can’t just be that our vision is that we’re going to deliver acceptable returns for shareholders. That’s not a vision. That’s an outcome. Nobody jumps out of bed in the morning and says, ‘Right I’m off to the bank and I’m going to deliver acceptable returns to the shareholders! That’s not the motivating thing. The vision’s got to be something bigger and richer.”

Kelly’s second requirement for leaders is an ability to adapt to change and work with ambiguity – something bankers have not traditionally been all that good at.

“You don’t have all the answers. You don’t have all the facts. You don’t know where the next risk is going to be or where the next domino is going to fall so you actually have to be really good at change,” she said.

“Go deeper on your judgement, draw on your experience, get the information and the sources and the thoughts and then make a call – calm and considered. Move forward and be prepared to adapt and shape it as new information comes to light.”

Generosity of spirit was Kelly’s third requirement for leadership, something she conceded – given certain stereotypes – some might consider strange to hear from a bank CEO.

“Leaders need to evidence generosity of spirit. Why? Because life is difficult and challenging, it is demanding and you are going to get some things wrong.”

That means genuinely wanting others to flourish and not being quick to judge. It’s knowing there’s no perfect answer, but that you also can’t sit on the fence making a decision. “Leaders do not forget when they’ve said ‘yes’ down the track and they do not change the truth to suit the story they want to tell.”

Finally, Kelly noted resilience is essential for leaders, including being both physically and mentally strong. “We’re like athletes,” she said. “Sometimes you’re going to work all night and work all weekend, you need to be tough.”

“You need to be able to get up again. Know it’s ok. Ask, how do I get up from here? What did I learn from that? It wasn’t a great experience but let’s step forward and have another go.”

After serving as CEO of Westpac for five and a half years during a difficult economic period, Kelly said two things have helped her with resilience: loving her work and always retaining a positive attitude.

“If you have a tough day and you make a mistake or something goes really badly wrong within your control or not, you actually can say, ‘You know what? I love what I do and I believe in what I do’, and that gives you the resilience to go on off again.”

As for the positive attitude, Kelly said she’s always prepared to look on the bright side. “Approaching things from the point of view of positive energy and enthusiasm really helps with resilience.”

And forget feeling sorry for yourself. “If you’re the kind of person who when something goes wrong that says ‘woe is me, it always happens to me, look it’s happened again, who do I blame now?’ That’s not great for your energy. And it’s not great for your resilience.”

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