The founder of online skills marketplace Expert360 reveals why Australia's skills shortage is a critical issue for every CEO.
How would you describe great leadership?
I think great leaders can see around corners and have the courage and conviction to call that out and to set the direction. And I think great leaders evolve.
How has your own leadership evolved? Like many entrepreneurs you started your business in your living room and now have 100 people in your company.
I look at decisions I made before or how I acted in situations as recently as six months ago and I think, “Wow. I would have done that differently knowing what I know now.” Leadership is really how you behave in the small moments – it’s how you carry yourself in the hundreds of moments throughout the day, not the big ones.
As a leader, you’re having to grow exponentially in a short period of time. How do you approach that?
Success breeds ambition. I’m constantly thinking, “How do I 10X this to get to the next level?” What got me to that point [at the beginning of Expert360] is definitely not going to get me to the next point. When you’re solving a problem that no-one else has solved before, there’s no playbook. You have to develop your own mental model. That sounds exciting because it means that you can craft exactly how you want to be without having to conform to someone else’s ideas. Of course. But one thing I have learnt is to have a healthy respect for the way things are... When I started Expert360 in my mid-20s an irreverence for how things were was helpful but pairing that with a respect and understanding for how they got that way has definitely helped me in my journey as an entrepreneur.
How is the leadership in your company different from what you see around the boardroom table at Telstra?
What it takes to run a $40-billion well-established Australian institution is quite different to a high-growth disruptor like Expert360. In some ways, large organisations are looking to imbibe the best of disruptors – agility, speed, ambition, customer obsession – and younger companies are trying to build infrastructure to scale. Hopefully, my intersection is complementary to both organisations. The board and management team at Telstra are just exceptional. That they’ve let an entrepreneur into the den to challenge is a sign of how dedicated they are to transforming one of Australia’s most iconic organisations.
Much was made of your age when you joined the Telstra board because you’re the youngest member by a long shot. Why aren’t more companies tapping into different perspectives?
Quite frankly I’m surprised there aren’t more younger people or entrepreneurs on large corporate boards.It strikes me that rather than being a risky move, it’s actually a deeply risky move not to have someone on the board who understands how digital-native businesses are built. Larger organisations in every sector are not only competing against their traditional incumbents; they’re competing against kids in hoodies in a basement down the road. So we need to understand how they’re thinking and approaching things.
Expert360 is a freelance marketplace. Has COVID-19 helped to accelerate an appreciation of project-based workers?
We pride ourselves on access to high-quality talent and we’re in an unprecedented skills crunch in Australia right now. There’s so much demand for consultants, developers, data scientists, marketers – the absolute engine room of digital transformation. At the top of any leader’s mind is the skills and capability shortage – they have no idea how they’re going to fill it. Our business will quadruple this year.
Was the skills shortage going to happen anyway or is it because of COVID-19 and the lack of immigration that it’s accelerated?
It was going to happen but it was going to be a slower burn. We saw companies like Atlassian already moving to remote hiring, for example, to fill gaps. And we saw a lot of top tech companies being more flexible about when, where and how work got done. But COVID really accelerated things. By 2023, we’ll need 185,000 new developers to meet the demand of the software, digital products and technology we’re building. We have 3000 to 4000 graduates from tertiary institutions every year in Australia. This isn’t just, “We need to reskill everyone and then we’ll have the skills of the future.” We need to build the muscle to be able to tap into new skills. Great leaders are now realising they need to define what the customer needs, the kind of work that’s going to be done and [create] a permanent and non-permanent workforce. But this isn’t just a one-off shift – this is about shifting to constantly shift.
The workplace hasn’t significantly changed for decades. Is now the moment when we’re going to see rapid change or will it take time?
People will come back to the office, for sure – but not every day – and people will conflate that with things reverting back to the way they were. But things won’t be the same. We are seeing winners and losers emerge in the business world based on who can access the talent fast enough. It’s not who owns it, not who’s got the biggest workforce on site but who can find the capabilities fast enough and deploy them fast enough.
And are you having trouble attracting talent for Expert360’s own flexible workforce?
A huge part of the focus for our business is our hunt for talent. How do we make this a great experience for them? We also want to help companies understand [talent]. Companies still don’t realise what a good developer is worth to them – a good developer will create 20 times more value for an organisation than an okay developer, for example.
In 2019, you said that in the next five years we’ll all be gigging between companies or between different units of the same organisation. Do you still believe that’s true?
Yes, I do. And I can extend that. I think that kids who are in school today will, instead of having a career in something, work on 300 to 400 projects until retirement. So it’s more process-based than role-based? Yes, exactly. In some ways, even a CEO role is project-based because you’re constantly shifting between different priorities.
Yes, there’s an element of business as usual but it’s very much about responding to the world around you and the internal dynamics of the company. There’s an interesting stat that if your role hasn’t significantly changed over the past 18 months then you’re at risk of redundancy.
It speaks to the fact that technology is so transforming how the world works that if it’s not transforming your job or processes in some way, it’s a bit of a worry.
So how do you build a framework that protects workers in a more casualised workforce?
We must create stability in flexibility. In this country, we have an amazing track record of protecting workers and we must take that philosophy and extend it to a more flexible workforce. For example, can we create several classes of workers that sit between permanent and fully casual, where entitlements can accrue? But we need to make it simple. Complexity is a tax on our economy.
Companies are now focusing on purpose and it’s moving from a nice-to-have to a must-have for employees. Does that apply equally to casual employees?
One hundred per cent. Purpose and long-term direction and vision are more important than ever. People are looking to be a part of something bigger than themselves and millennials are much more purpose-driven. But what’s less understood is that as companies move to more agile ways of working, it’s less about setting a strategy. You know, the CEO tells the executive team what to do and they tell the next level and they tell the next level and then everyone just does what their manager expects. That’s actually how we ran companies five years ago – even 10 years ago. In an agile world, decision-making is far more decentralised so we have people in the bowels of the organisation making important decisions for customers about products and processes. In order to make good decisions throughout the organisation, the company needs everyone in the organisation to know where it’s going.
How important is it that CEOs agitate for change? I know this year you’ve joined some other CEOs of tech companies in launching the Australian chapter of Leaders for Climate Action.
The data shows that at this moment in time people are looking towards business leaders as bastions of change, of societal leadership. For me it’s hard to untangle running an organisation from being a good citizen. I think we’ll continue to see business leaders standing up for things that they believe in and that they think Australia needs. Equally we’ve done a relatively good job in Australia of not politicising the everyday.
Where did you get your drive? You grew up in Sydney, Toronto and a small village in Ireland.
My parents are deeply curious and they encouraged that in me. I think if you’re not afraid to ask questions – even ones that seem dumb – you can learn quickly and consume quickly. If people felt free, particularly in the corporate world, to ask the questions that were on their mind, we would all get everywhere a bit faster.
You were also quite entrepreneurial from a young age, weren’t you? Buying textbooks off Amazon and selling them at a huge profit to your fellow students...
My first business was paper baskets – I sold them to octogenarians on Johnston Street in Annandale [Sydney]. It was a great business – a 100 per cent margin – because I’d take the paper straight out of my parent’s printer and make a killing [laughs].
I spoke to Luke Anear from SafetyCulture last year and he said one of his biggest challenges is getting his employees to think big enough. Is that a problem for you?
Absolutely. There are two questions I often ask [of my staff]: “How do we do this in half the time – what would you do if we wanted to do that by December this year, not December next year?” You see them panic. Or I say, “What about if we wanted the outcome to be 10X this or 100X this? What would you do?” You remove their existing juristics. But you also let them know that you’ve got their back.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a brand-new CEO?
Trust your gut. You got the job because you know what you’re doing. The buck stops with you so don’t wait for permission. Trust your gut.
Illustration credit: Marc Némorin