In the face of always-on work, how do those at the top manage stress and carve out time for strategic thinking? Three leaders shared their experiences at a dinner for Qantas magazine readers, held at Sydney’s Quay restaurant, for Think., a live-interview series hosted by Kirsten Galliott, Editor-in-Chief of Qantas magazine and Travel Insider. Here are some of the evening’s most valuable insights.
Brad Banducci: The CEO and managing director of Woolworths Group since February 2016, Brad Banducci joined the company in 2011 when it acquired the Cellarmasters Group, where he’d been CEO since 2007. Banducci previously served as the CFO and director at Tyro Payments and was a vice-president and director with the Boston Consulting Group. Born in South Africa, he moved to Australia more than 30 years ago and retains a close connection with his birthplace.
Melanie Silva: Managing director of Google Australia and New Zealand since October 2018, Melanie Silva has been a Googler for more than 12 years, including as managing director of go-to-market strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, where she was based in Singapore. Before Google, Silva was general manager at Fairfax Digital’s Direct Access. She has an extensive product and marketing background in the financial services sector, having worked at Citibank, ING and AMP (making good use of her Bachelor of Economics degree).
Didier Elzinga: The CEO and founder of Culture Amp, Didier Elzinga launched the leading peopleand-culture HR platform in 2009. One of Australia’s fastest-growing tech startups, the company now has offices in Melbourne, San Francisco, New York and London. Before Culture Amp, Elzinga was CEO of Rising Sun Pictures, a visual-effects company that worked on some of the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings movies. He’s committed to employee feedback, culture building and fostering greater creativity in the workplace.
We’re all so busy these days, with a million requests coming at us all the time. I’m curious to know how each of you has learnt to prioritise the most important things and to not sweat the small stuff.
Brad Banducci: Don’t let your diary dictate what you do. The problem we all have is that we end up with a diary that’s full every day and if you’re not careful, you let the diary drive what you do. That’s a very dangerous thing. Every morning, I think about the most important things I need to do that day and I try to make sure I achieve them. If it means I have to change my plans, I do. It’s critically important because events move so quickly in today’s world and yet my diary is planned a year-and-a-half in advance. You either run your diary or your diary runs you – and I think you have to run your diary.
With this in mind, how far in advance are you looking at your diary?
Brad Banducci: A couple of weeks. I always look at it on a Sunday then make a call about what’s important. We all get so structured and if you let that happen, you can miss the important insights right in front of you. The most critical thing is engaging with your team; we have an open office set over four storeys and I walk up and down it three or four times a day. In that walk, I invariably connect with a lot of people; I’ll know what’s going on in the business and whether there’s an issue. You need time to connect with people and you have to give them the opportunity to tell you what’s important.
Does that mean if you didn’t do that walk around the office you wouldn’t be aware of the issues?
Brad Banducci: You feel the heartbeat of a business not by sitting in an office but, for us, by being in a store or walking around – just by bumping into people and connecting with them. There was a study done about how many times you bump into people and what it does for building culture – [it found that] it gives you a subliminal sense of how a business is feeling.
Melanie Silva: I try to maintain the appearance of being an elegant swan gliding across the water but under the surface I’m madly going for it. It’s something I constantly assess. Busy does not mean important. I think we, as a society, have become [used to saying], “I’m so busy, I have to check my phone all the time” and, “I’m so busy, I’m in meetings all day.” I don’t want to win that race. I don’t want to be the busiest person; I want to be the most impactful person. I have quite a structured process. I ask myself, “Am I spending 95 per cent of my time on the top five priorities, not just for the business but for myself as a human being?” I need to spend time with my kids and I want to be a good mum. I also want to have a well-engaged team. I try to make sure I’m looking at what I call the “dopamine hits” versus the “drainers”. I ask myself, “How much of my day is being spent giving myself positive dopamine hits?” For me, that is spending time with other Googlers, going out and having chats, spending time with clients and partners. The drainers are the mandatory admin tasks: getting those reports in and all that stuff. It’s about making sure that I’m spending enough time “filling my cup”, knowing that the cup is going to get drained.
What does that process look like at the beginning of the month or, say, the start of the week?
Melanie Silva: I review it once a quarter to work out those top five priorities. I’m really quite detailed. I decide, “This is what success looks like and this is what failure looks like.” And then my admin business partner and my husband both need to see that list – we have to be a collaborative team.
Didier, I know you have a perspective on this...
Didier Elzinga: Early on, so much of your success comes from being open to opportunities – saying yes, going to that meeting, being at that event, making that call, whatever it is. Then if you’re good at it for long enough, you have to flip the other way and you need a very rigorous system for saying no because you have too many opportunities. That’s when you have to work out what you want to focus on. I find saying no much harder than saying yes.
How do you manage that?
Didier Elzinga: Badly. I have an executive coach; he worked with Steve Jobs early in his career and he’s a really interesting guy. He said to me, “If you’re not tearing up your diary every couple of days, you’re not doing your job properly.” You have to challenge yourself to spend time where it needs to be spent. And you need to manage your energy, not your time. It’s your energy that controls how much you’re going to get done, not how much time you have available. A lot of it is me trying to figure out when I can be most productive.
And given that so much of my work happens in the United States, all the standard management literature goes out the window. The advice tells you to do all your important work first thing in the day but I can’t do that because that’s when I have to talk to everyone in the US. So I have to change all that around.
I imagine you’re very busy first thing in the morning and last thing at night. How do you cope with that?
Didier Elzinga: You have to get used to the fact that you just can’t do everything. There’s a point where you hit a limit and you have to stop. And it’s at that point you have to ask yourself, “Were you paying attention to the right thing?” There’s a Buddhist phrase: “You are what you pay attention to.” It’s really useful to stop and ask yourself, “What did I end up spending my time on and, with the benefit of hindsight, was it the right thing? Can I use that to inform the choices I make tomorrow?”
It’s a process of asking and answering those questions over and over again. I structure my week with 20 hours for meetings and I try to have no more than that. I have one-and-a-half hours a day where I can work on my stuff – and that’s it. If I’ve only got 90 minutes, I have to choose carefully what I’m going to spend those 90 minutes on. Then the rest of the time is spent on emails and doing other things that will kill me if I don’t stay on top of them.
Does that kind of structure appeal to you, Brad?
Brad Banducci: I aim to have one interesting meeting or to meet one interesting person a day – something a little bit crazy. It gives you energy and it inspires you. To me, that’s very important and it’s a lot of fun.
Melanie Silva: I really resonate with the idea of giving yourself time to get into a flow – time when you can really be in the zone. Once a month I take a day to work from home and it’s my thinking day. I’m really structured; I literally make a little timetable. It’s important to give yourself time to get into that deep thinking where you can ask yourself, “What are the big, chunky challenges that we face? What are the obstacles? Where are the opportunities?” You’re paid to think in this kind of job and yet not many of us carve out that time. For me, it’s really important to bust out of the day-to-day.
How to switch off
We all know taking time out is key but it’s easier said than done. Here, our panellists share the strategies that work for them.
Melanie Silva: I’ve realised just how much less productive I am because of my phone. There are some meetings where I’ll put it out of sight. When you’re really present in a meeting, it a) goes faster, and b) you can run out a little bit earlier. Both iPhones and Android phones have great features where you can select your favourite contacts and, no matter what happens, when they call your phone will ring, even if it’s on silent. I have three numbers “starred” in my contacts: my daughter’s school, my son’s school and the security guy at Google. If anything ever goes wrong, I know those calls will come through.
Brad Banducci: I do a lot of yoga – it’s an entry into mindfulness and is really important. You have so much visual stimulation that you can lose sight of what’s important. What is the priority today? This week? This quarter? You’ve got to give yourself some quiet time or a mindful moment to reset the agenda. The clarity of thought you invariably have at the end is key.
Didier Elzinga:My wife and I have set each other a challenge for weekends, particularly when we’re around the kids: every time you take the phone out of your pocket, you have to say what it is you’re doing. Why are you taking the phone out of your pocket? Nine times out of 10, you have no idea. We’re just doing it because we’re trained to do it. So it’s essentially an act of mindfulness in the process of checking your phone. It’s okay to say, “I’m checking a basketball score” or, “I’m checking to see if I’ve got an email” or whatever and then you put the phone away. But it’s been really powerful for us in trying to untether outside of work.
The mental health crisis
All three leaders are passionate about finding ways to improve wellbeing in the workplace and beyond.
Brad Banducci: I always think of Woolworths as a microcosm of our society; we have 200,000 people working for us and right now we lose a team member to suicide every three weeks. That basically mirrors the national stats – and for every person who suicides, there are more than 10 who consider it. It’s a massive issue in our society.
The first thing we’ve tried to do is ensure we’re not embarrassed to talk about it. Suicide happens in every part of society – it doesn’t discriminate. We did a completely confidential survey with the 200 people at our six-monthly strategy session and the results showed that 15 per cent of the people in the room on that day – our most senior people – were in a very bad mental state. In fact, you’d have said they needed immediate counselling. That really shocked me.
So we have a lot more to do. The preventative side comes back to sleep, nutrition and overall health, including financial wellbeing. We’ve had 24,000 people do our I Am Here [volunteer] program and we have a mental first-aid course, which is the next level. I wish I had the answers but I do think it’s important that we start being overt about it.
Melanie Silva: People’s holistic wellbeing is something that keeps me up at night because it’s one of those fundamental ingredients to having a happy, motivated and engaged team. People are going to achieve their potential when they’re feeling whole. So, for me, mental health and mental wellbeing are really important for holistic wellbeing.
It’s something we encourage people to talk about. We also want to make sure we have the right resources in place to show that we care and can provide the right level of support when someone really needs it. We have a couple of programs, including Blue Dot, where you put a blue dot on your computer and that says to everyone, “Hey, I’m someone you can talk to if there’s anything going on.” It’s a bit trickier if it’s stuff that’s going on in the workplace so we make sure we have a number of channels for people to report that sort of thing, too.
We have a predominately young employee base and we keep a close eye on our team members’ ability to disconnect from devices. We have discovered that being able to disconnect when you want to is one of the biggest drivers [that affect mental health]. And so if I’m the boss and I’m sending the email, [how can I ensure you don’t] feel the need to respond straight away? And how can we use some of the tech that’s causing these issues to actually solve some of them?
Didier Elzinga: Where 15 to 20 years ago the prevailing view in business was, “I hope no-one at my work suffers from mental illness”, we now have an understanding that everybody is going through something. People don’t necessarily have a faith or family and friends as they may have had in the past. They’re relying on work to provide that for them.
I had one person who told me that being part of our company had been transformative for him because others had recognised themselves in him and had reached out and said, “Hey, I know what it’s like to be you.” Just creating those opportunities in the workplace – creating a sense of belonging and allowing people to heal and deal with the things they’re going through – is incredibly powerful.
But it’s tricky. One of the major challenges we see is that managers are being asked to deal with things that are clinical. So how do we get the right people to [talk to] the right people at the right time? I think it is going to become a bigger part of our role as leaders. It has been like this for decades – it’s just that before now, we never allowed ourselves to know about it.