Preparing to be CEO is like running a marathon, says the chief executive of Deloitte Asia Pacific. Fortunately, she has plenty of stamina, writes Kirsten Galliott.
Current role: Chief executive officer, Deloitte Asia Pacific
Previous roles: Chief executive officer; national managing partner, Assurance & Advisory; and leader, NSW Assurance & Advisory, at Deloitte Australia
How do you define good leadership?
Great leaders are bold. If you take over a leadership position and you just keep doing everything the way it was done before, that’s operations, not leadership. Leaders sense the context around them then make strategic choices about where they’re going to take the organisation. You have to be willing to be bold. Another thing that makes a great leader is curiosity – seeking to understand, seeking to learn, wanting to look for something more. And lastly, great leaders know their strengths and weaknesses and are comfortable with them.
What would you say is your greatest strength?
People often tell me that I’m a great team builder. I think I’m also able to make difficult decisions and to be comfortable with them. You have to be able to sleep at night after you have made a tough decision and to know that you made the absolute best decision you could have in the circumstances. Building a great team provides you with those different perspectives.
And what’s your biggest gap as a leader?
I tend to move very quickly. I can be quick to make a judgement or a decision and particularly now, in my role in Asia, that’s something I have to moderate. You have to slow down, be more considered. I can come across as quite aggressive but that’s a stylistic thing.
Is grappling with big decisions part of the thrill of the role?
Absolutely. One of my core traits is I love a challenge and if things are easy or repetitive, I get bored.
Eighteen months ago you left Deloitte Australia to become the first CEO of Deloitte Asia Pacific. What’s been the biggest surprise for you in the role?
The biggest surprise has been just how big the opportunity in Asia is. In Australia you are competing for space but in Asia there is so much space. The challenge is in picking your focus very carefully because there’s so much more you could do than what you actually have the resources and investment capacity to do.
You now have 50,000 staff and you’re overseeing 3000 partners. Is that exhilarating, challenging or just plain crazy?
All of the above! Well, at least the first two – it’s exhilarating. In Australia I had a great network and I knew the marketplace, I knew the offerings. Then I moved to a completely new context, with added cultural diversity. I didn’t know the market, I didn’t have a network yet and I was trying to understand the cultural nuances, which are different to where I come from. I did this once, moving from the United States to Australia a decade ago, but [moving to Asia] adds a whole different level of complexity.
Does it feel overwhelming or do you just roll with the punches?
Absolutely, it can feel overwhelming. A number of times in the first six to nine months in this role, I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” But I’m feeling much more settled now. You just have to work through it systematically – you get the teams, you get the strategic priorities, identify and line up who’s responsible for what, then you focus on the culture you want to create and you move forward. I think I’m actually very good just a year-and-a-half in.
When you have those moments of doubt, how do you pick yourself up?
I have colleagues I can talk to. A lot of people say leadership is lonely but for me, leadership has never been lonely. I think that’s the function of the team and the people I surround myself with – I don’t ever feel like there’s a topic or an issue that I have to grapple with on my own.
You worked very hard to eliminate the gender pay gap when you were in Australia. Is it also an issue in the wider Asia-Pacific region or is it more endemic here?
I think it’s a global issue. I’m finding in Asia some people don’t understand what it is so I’m tackling that now. There are two components – equal roles and equal pay for equal work, plus equal representation of men and women across the entire pay scale. The first one we fixed immediately and we’re monitoring it constantly. The next steps are all about enabling women in leadership.
So is that something you’ll be focusing on?
I have 19 leaders in seven different geographies reporting to me, all of them men. Many of them haven’t tackled this before so I’m telling them they’re like my male champions of change. The beauty of the Male Champions of Change group is that its members support each other – they’re willing to put themselves out there and put their organisations out there to drive change. The same concept can be applied within my team. It’s not all about women; it’s about working families. We’re not going to achieve gender equality if we don’t get to social equality, with breadwinning and caregiving being valued equally in society.
You once said you prepared for your first CEO role like a marathon. What did you mean by that?
Well, it’s very similar. The first decision you have to make if you’re going to run a marathon is, “Do I want to run a marathon?” It’s the same with a CEO role. You have to go through the mental process, “Do I want this role and why do I want this role?” I used an external coach to help me work through that, which was very helpful. From there it was, “What’s it going to take to get ready?” You have to put yourself forward as a credible candidate. In both cases, in Australia and Asia Pacific, I had to be selected and then elected in a competitive process and both times I spent a year to 18 months making the commitment and then doing the preparation to get ready for the job.
What did that preparation look like beyond working with a coach?
As a professional services firm, we run workshops for clients. So I got a group of people around me who I really trusted and who had different points of view and I ran a workshop for myself: “Pretend you’re the CEO – what would you do?” Then we went through the context of the business: “What are we facing? What’s the vision you would have? How would you leverage the values of the organisation? How do those values line up with your own?” Then we moved into what would be the strategic priorities for the executive. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do if I were in the role and that informed my pitch to get the role.
Presumably that means you were very clear in your head from day one about what you wanted to achieve as CEO.
Yes. I think doing that much prep actually makes stepping into the role easier. You’re not stepping in cold, you have a pretty good direction. Now, did I have it all right in those visioning sessions? No. I’ve learnt things [since] that have tweaked the direction but when I refer back to the workshop notes, I think, “Oh, the sessions weren’t too far off.”
What sort of support have you had?
I would not be where I am without my husband, who has supported me every step of the way, never tried to limit me and never put his career ahead of mine. When young people ask me what’s the key to success, I say, “Number one: pick a great partner in life.”
It makes all the difference.
I don’t have the statistics but if I take a look around our firm, the most successful women and the women who are rising to the highest levels of the organisation have strong, supportive husbands. And that’s no different for men – men’s careers are also enhanced when their spouse is supportive.
Is there such a thing as work-life balance for you?
I don’t really like the term work-life balance because I think in this day and age work and life are integrated so much. My career is a big part of my life but I don’t want it to control everything in my life. My family is super-important but if I only had my family and I didn’t have the intellectual challenge and the opportunities I have for work, I wouldn’t have as rich a life as I do.
You’re good about making time for your mental and physical wellbeing, aren’t you?
I’m better at the physical health but that drives my mental health. I keep saying, “I’ve got to learn to meditate” [laughs]. I’m hopeless at that but I’m very good at saying I need to exercise every day. A big part of exercise is that it’s mind-clearing mental strength for me.
What’s your approach to difficult conversations?
Talk straight. Talk straight with empathy.
And how do you prepare? Do you practise beforehand?
I rehearse conversations in my head. I even rehearse them with another person. Too often we shy away from difficult conversations and it only makes the situation worse, particularly if you’re frustrated with a situation and you don’t deal with it.
And what sort of person do you find the most difficult to manage?
Negative people. People who can always find a reason why something is not possible. They just draw the energy out of the room and shoot you down on everything.
Can you turn them around?
[Laughs] I think I’m pretty persuasive.
Have you had to learn the art of persuasion?
Absolutely. My role is very much one of influence versus real power. I had more direct power in Australia than I do in my role here. I have to be able to say, “Here’s the direction I think we should take, here’s why and here’s what’s in it for you.”
What advice would you give a brand-new CEO?
Being CEO isn’t about you, it’s about everybody else. The days of rockstar CEOs are over. There’s now so much change, so much complexity that one person can’t know it all and be it all. It’s about what you bring out in others and getting the most out of your team. When every employee is the best they can be in their organisation, that drives success.