The former Microsoft Australia boss has returned to tech as CEO of Salesforce ANZ and she wants her new team to ask her anything.
Current role: CEO, Salesforce ANZ
Previous roles: CEO customer marketplace, Suncorp Group; CEO strategic innovation, Suncorp Group; managing director, Microsoft Australia; public sector director, Microsoft Australia
How do you define good leadership?
For me, good leadership is values driven. It’s someone clear on purpose and who cares just as much about the how as the what. When you have a great leader with both those traits, people get excited about the purpose.
Is that what you value most?
I value honesty, transparency and accountability. On the people side of things, an old mentor of mine once said – and it’s always stuck with me – if you want people to believe you care, you just have to care. There’s no program or process – that’s just faking it. It gets harder when you can’t meet everybody one on one so you have to figure out how you connect with people at scale.
How do you do that? You now have 2000 staff.
I try to think about the ways I want to show up. I do town halls, where I’m on video and people can be connected from home or from the office. It’s personal, it’s live, it’s me talking and there’s really open questions and answers. I work hard to create enough psychological safety so people feel they can ask me absolutely anything. I’m really active on Chatter, which is a technology platform that allows people to ask questions. And I do smaller roundtables. Last week, I wanted to meet all of our equality groups so I organised a roundtable with the leaders. They could also learn from one another as part of it.
You joined Salesforce as the first Australia and New Zealand CEO in October, after a two-year stint at Suncorp. Does it feel good to be back in tech?
It does. I loved working at Suncorp but one thing I missed was velocity. Technology is the fastest-paced industry on the planet. I really missed helping companies and customers do the things they really wanted to do. I’ve never been the person who’s loved technology for the technology, I’ve loved what it can do for others.
How did you prepare for the role?
I’d like to say I took a really big break and found my Zen but that didn’t happen. I jumped in pretty quickly. Because there wasn’t much time between roles, in the first six weeks I tried to stay in a place of curiosity. It’s tempting when you come in to go, “Right, I’ve got to show them I can add value really quickly and make decisions and change things.” It’s actually harder to hold yourself back and just say, “I have to understand why things are the way they are, where the friction points are, where the opportunities are and what I can learn from what’s been done before.”
You spent 21 years at Microsoft. Is it hard to be the new girl now?
At Suncorp it was interesting because it was a total change – it’s banking and insurance so it was a moment of humility to not know the industry. I felt quite exposed and vulnerable. I think here it’s really important that I don’t try to make this company another Microsoft – you can’t recreate what you had somewhere else.
Had you stayed at Microsoft you would probably still have landed this job but did your two years elsewhere give you different skills to bring to the table?
I don’t think I would ever have taken this job from Microsoft because I would have felt like I was cheating on my partner [laughs]. But what that different experience allowed me to do was truly understand what gives me joy in my work. I’m not sure that what I want from my career now is the same as what I wanted when I left Microsoft.
How is it different?
I always thought I really wanted to be the CEO of a large ASX organisation. I thought, “Right, I’ll go into Suncorp, get ASX experience and start working with investors and analysts.” And that was great but I didn’t spend as much time with customers and our people. I didn’t get as much joy from some of the other things that I needed to do so I ended up thinking, “Why do I have to go and be an ASX CEO if that doesn’t make me happy?”
You’ve come to another company that has a head office in a different country. What are the pros and cons of that?
What I love is that you get a global perspective. You can gain insights into what’s happening with customers in France or in the US. You get a fast view of innovation application that you can learn from and you can pull in amazing, diverse resources from around the planet. But I also love the distance [laughs]. There’s the freedom and empowerment to create a culture that’s part of the bigger Salesforce family but is unique to Australia and New Zealand.
You’ve been described as a topnotch networker.
Yes, you have. And I think a lot of women would describe themselves as poor networkers. What’s your advice for them?
I’m motivated to ensure that I know people who I can tap into to help other people – I really love helping somebody in their career. I also want to be certain that I know enough people so when something is going wrong I can get some help. But I’ve never thought about networking just for networking’s sake.
So would your advice be to form rich relationships with other people so you can help them and sometimes they may help you?
Think about how you give before you get. There’s that interesting term when people say “give back” but that implies you’ve received something first. It’s not about giving back; it’s about giving. Who can you help in your universe? Start by thinking about who you want to give to and be really deliberate with that and then, over time, you can expand that. I quite like spending a day at a random conference that has nothing to do with my industry because innovation and connections can come from anywhere.
I love that.
If you want to change the way you think, you have to change where you go to listen and learn. If you’re going to the same places all the time, you won’t get those diverse perspectives.
You’re also a big believer in standing up and asking for what you want. How did you learn to do that?
By not doing it [laughs]. Too many times I’ve found myself listening to this little voice in my head that sometimes says, “You’re not good enough.” Fear held me back and I had to remember fear is just a feeling, it’s not a fact.
How do you get back up when things haven’t gone your way?
It’s very hard to teach resilience, I think you build it over time. Lots of small knocks – and sometimes big knocks – help you cope better the next time but I’m trying to minimise the distance from pain to learning. I don’t want to avoid embracing the bad stuff because I think it gives context to the good things.
Let’s talk about data and AI, which can scare people. What do leaders need to do to get comfortable with these topics?
These things that feel uncomfortable and crazy have the potential to disrupt and change things but we need to think about how we do it thoughtfully – there’s a bit of education that has to happen. We need to create safe places for innovation where people can be okay experimenting and embracing a little bit of failure – not just with AI and technology but with anything.
What’s a little bit?
If you never create the first space [to trial something and potentially fail] you will be stuck at the starting line. Your competitors aren’t waiting but it’s much harder when you’re an incumbent. If you’re a startup, you have nothing to lose – you don’t have any customers or market share. Incumbency is the biggest risk because you can be too scared to lose what you have.
Last year, you spent some time in San Francisco’s Bay Area with other Australian business leaders. What did you see and experience there that’s different to what we do here? Was there anything you wanted to bring back?
We released a report called Tech for Good with the Trans-Tasman Business Circle. There were a few things we wanted to bring back such as how can we increase gender equity in the technology space and even more broadly in business? We want to focus on data ethics – how can we make sure that when embracing technology we’re doing it in a way that creates good, not bad? And how are we in Australia investing in the capabilities and culture to support innovation, to support failing fast, frequently and frugally, so to speak? The thing about the Bay is, they’re not waiting for government or academia to fix things – it’s not somebody else’s problem. They’re creating, they’re leading.
How do you do it all?
I don’t. I try to embrace a bit of messiness. Busy is not an excuse, it’s a choice. So I’m trying to be more thoughtful about how I spend my time and when I’m in each place, I try to do as good a job as possible. I try not to walk in the house on my telephone on a work call – I’d rather sit outside in the car for 10 minutes so the first thing I do when I go through that door is be a mum and a wife. I give myself a moment at the end of each month to ask, “How did I do this month as a mum, a wife, an employee, a manager, a teammate?” I might answer, “You know what, I really didn’t spend much time with my team” or, “I didn’t get out to my customers enough.” So how do I change my next month and just move it a little to get back to the place I want to be in – and not beat myself up if I’ve got it wrong?
What advice would you give to a brand-new CEO?
It’s easy to move quickly, to make assumptions and judgements, but take that time to stay curious. The most important decisions you’ll make are about people so really get to know your staff. Your decisions will tell staff what you value – the choices that you make, not what you write in an email, not the values you write on your website but the things that you live and breathe and do. That’s the message you send to your organisation about what you really care about. In those early days you will send strong messages when you make those first calls so make sure they’re the ones that
you want to make.
Start as you mean to go on, right?
Totally. Somebody once said to me, it’s like setting concrete as a CEO. You’re coming in and what you do over the first few months will slowly set like concrete and then people will say, “That’s the model.” To change it, you have to take a jackhammer to it. It’s quite painful to reset.