They left big jobs in Australia for even bigger jobs overseas. Some of our best-known CEOs share the mindsets and behaviours that have served them well on the world stage.
Sydney to London
CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland Group; incoming group CEO and managing director of National Australia Bank
Photo credit: Christopher Pearce
Three days after becoming CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, Ross McEwan lost a bet with his executive assistant. McEwan, a New Zealander who had worked for many years in senior banking roles in Australia, was keen to instil transparency into the 290-year-old financial giant. He’d organised a conference call with the bank’s 300 senior executives so they could ask him anything they liked. The line fell silent after three questions, just as his EA had predicted. The straight-talking McEwan did not give up. “I told them I had a bottle of wine on this. I said: ‘Let me be clear. If I can only get three questions, this may be our last call.’”
That was in October 2013. Over the next five-and-a-half years, until McEwan resigned from the London-based role in April (in July he was appointed group CEO of National Australia Bank), his outspoken, down-to-earth leadership affected one of the biggest corporate turnarounds in British history. RBS had teetered on the brink of collapse following the 2007-08 global financial crisis, only surviving after the British government took an 84.4 per cent stake in a £45.5 billion bailout. During McEwan’s tenure, RBS slashed costs, exited 20 countries and reduced staff from 109,000 to 67,000 full-time equivalents. In 2018, the bank delivered its first dividend to shareholders in a decade.
McEwan also worked hard at changing the bank’s culture. “In Australia and New Zealand, the business environment is quite open; there’s a belief that people should be able to say what they think,” he says, adding that RBS had a more controlled, boss-driven approach when he arrived. “I wanted people to have permission to be open and to challenge.”
He was upfront about what he was thinking. Early on, McEwan visited one part of the business and asked why the job couldn’t be done with 20 people instead of 100. He also asked staff why the bank was charging so much for foreign exchange and said he planned to slash investment banking by three-quarters. “People were stunned when I first said that but they’d rather know. They might not have liked the message but they appreciated the honesty. They’d say: ‘We don’t have to second-guess what Ross is thinking because he just told us.’”
Since that initial, awkward conference call, McEwan has been peppered with questions in the elevator, on the street, by email and by phone every couple of months by the 300 to 500 people who have joined the bank during that period. His staff has become used to him being out and about, asking questions and giving feedback.
“I’d just turn up at a branch and introduce myself. Or I’d sit at a contact centre with headphones on and listen to a customer call then ask the staff member whether they’d considered a different response.”
Where he did have to curb his antipodean egalitarianism was in dealing with the bank’s board. “Things are quite formal and there is a level of hierarchy so interactions with the board had to be respectful. The industry had gone through such trauma and the board had to be more demanding about ‘show us [that the strategy is right]’.” There was also an added level of complexity, size and competition that came with operating in a European market. “In Australia, there are five or six CEOs of major banks; in the European banking sector there are 20 or 30."
After a career moving between Auckland, Wellington, Melbourne and Sydney (in roles such as head of retail at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia), McEwan says he took two years to feel “at home” in London. Now the Harvard-educated son of a Melbourne-born pilot will likely base himself in Victoria’s capital. NAB’s incoming CEO has said Australia feels like his “half home”.
Melbourne to New York City
President of global digital real estate at News Corp
Photo credit: Jason Sammon
The moment she uttered the phrase “shag on a rock” to her team, Tracey Fellows realised the Australian expression did not translate well in New York. Newly based in the United States as News Corp’s president of global digital real estate, she provoked similar blank stares when she said of another proposal, “we’ll be cactus if we do that”.
Those minor hiccups aside, Fellows says two attributes have served her well in the job she started in January. The first is humour: Fellows often jokes about being geographically challenged, having twice lost her way between the subway and the office. “Australians tend to inject humour into meetings to defuse tension or make people feel relaxed,” she says.
Fellows is also direct. “I think that is an Australian trait – although I’m definitely moderating it. It tends to work better in a smaller forum and I’m a bit less direct with people a couple of layers lower; I’ll tone it down until they get used to me.”
Canadian-born Fellows, who moved to Australia as a teenager, became CEO of News Corp’s Melbourne-headquartered real estate group, REA, after heading Microsoft in Australia and the Asia-Pacific. She’d had plenty of exposure to American business before she relocated to New York at the start of this year; even so, she says the biggest surprise was the work hours.
“Australians have a reputation for being laid-back and relaxed so I expected everyone in New York would be super-driven and manic – in at 6am and leaving at midnight.” However, “some are, some aren’t; like anywhere”.
As well as abandoning several Australian phrases, Fellows is careful about making comparisons. “I’ve tried to keep top of mind not to spend too much time comparing things to the way we do them in Australia. It can be interesting then it becomes boring for people. While there’s always sharing to be had, it’s also about being curious about what’s different.”
Fellows says she already feels settled, a process helped by finding two good Aussie-style cafés nearby (Two Hands and Laughing Man). At least her Canadian accent is well understood but she often has to translate her Australian husband’s utterances to uncomprehending Americans.
Overall she feels comfortable as an Australian business leader in New York. “There’s still a sense that Australia is exotic; there’s a curiosity,” she says, laughing about the inevitable kangaroo questions. If she could bottle anything and take it back to Australia, Fellows says it would be America’s attitude to celebrating success. “Although I hate ego and arrogance, I think Australians can be critical about athletes, business people, politicians and others when they do something exceptional.” If she were allowed a second bottle, it would be Americans’ willingness to take business risks. “Australians are more worried about being humiliated if something doesn’t work but for entrepreneurs, success rarely comes from their first company.”
Melbourne to London
CEO of Merlin Network
Photo credit: Pat Scala
As FORMER CEO of Melbourne-based music label Shock Entertainment Group, Charles Caldas had operated in a global field for years. Still, it wasn’t until he moved overseas in 2007 that he realised how deeply ingrained cultural and historical differences were between countries and how seriously he had to treat them. “I don’t think I’d quite understood how sensitive those divides were, how deeply those prejudices ran,” says Caldas, the London-based CEO of Merlin Network. “They are clichés for a reason.”
Cultural sensitivity is a critical aspect of his job; Merlin is the global digital rights agency for independent music labels from 63 countries, negotiating licensing fees from the likes of Spotify, YouTube and Google Play on behalf of more than 800 members representing more than 20,000 labels. Caldas says he’s had to pause, learn and engage further on each country’s cultural concerns and how to navigate them, rather than just working it out as he goes along.
“Pretty much the whole world is a big learning curve,” says Caldas, who has twice made Billboard magazine’s annual Power 100 list. “The deeper we got into markets, the more I had to adjust my preconceptions, behaviour and thinking. Working overseas is about continually adjusting behaviour to who you’re with in the room and where you are – not to fundamentally change who you are but to develop and hone a cultural intelligence.”
He believes that being Australian helps. “Australia is mostly absent from cultural clichés. There’s this new-world culture that Australia epitomises for me, which is not particularly class-bound or defined by thousands of years of European history.” Traits such as openness and optimism are also an advantage – as is the climate.
“Wearing an Australian hat in a global role is a real advantage because of the generally positive view of Australia and the perception that we have an amazing lifestyle, weather and quality of life,” says Caldas. “There’s also a sense of ease and unguardedness that Australians have in dealing with people.”
However, like Tracey Fellows, he had a “shag on a rock” moment early on, when he used the expression in a room full of English business people and was met with stunned silence. “I put that Australian phrase away very quickly,” he says.
Caldas says it took more than two years for him to feel settled in London. “The first year, you compare everything that’s not the same as at home and wonder why. The second year, you still feel like an outsider but you’re excited about living and working somewhere like London, with Europe on your doorstep. By the third year, you don’t feel like you’re on an extended holiday – you’ve made some local connections, the rose-tinted glasses are off and you’re not worrying about the differences.”
If Caldas, who steps down as Merlin CEO at the end of the year, could ship something back to the Australian business community, it would be a sense of inclusiveness. “It’s going on in Australia, too, but there is a real focus here on gender, cultural and other forms of diversity, and fostering a more inclusive environment. This is being taken very seriously in the circles I work in.” Something else he’d like to see is a greater sense of Australia being part of a global business community. “We can confidently step onto the world stage without feeling like we’re on the periphery. Australia doesn’t need to perceive itself as an isolated island.”
Sydney to Singapore
CEO of Deloitte Asia Pacific
Photo credit: Christopher Pearce
Cindy Hook has twice adjusted to different business cultures: first when leaving her native America in 2009 to lead Deloitte Australia’s audit and assurance practice (in 2015 she was promoted to Deloitte Australia CEO); and then last September when she moved to Singapore to become the first Asia Pacific CEO, after the firm brought together 45,000 staff across Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and South-East Asia. In both cases, she’s had to moderate her behaviour to match the local environment.
In Australia, it was about learning not to use the sentence, “‘In the US we did it this way.’ While Australians are always open to new ideas, that just rubbed them the wrong way.”
Australians, on the other hand, surprised her by being more innovative, adaptable to change and globally minded than she expected, adding that another early lesson involved coming to grips with the ever-shifting political environment. “I left the country once for a few days and came back to a new prime minister – and there hadn’t been an election,” she says, laughing.
In Singapore, what Hook describes as her “American-nurtured boldness and assertiveness” is less accepted than it was in Australia. “Initially I would push to get to quick decisions in my drive to deliver short-term outcomes,” she says. However, her Asian colleagues tended to prefer consensus over compromise. “Our board, which has representatives from across Asia, will often discuss topics multiple times before action is agreed on. I’ve seen that spending the extra time upfront saves time overall – execution is much easier with full commitment.”
There’s also a greater focus on the long-term. “Asian countries, especially Singapore, play a long game in politics and business,” she says. “They drive activity with a deep eye on the future. It’s not just about the next generation but the one after that. Patience is something I’ve needed more of here.”
The surprises in Singapore – apart from the humidity – have included the sheer number of opportunities for growth and investment. Hook has also been impressed by the ease of doing business; of government investment in long-term, sustainable growth; and how challenges seem to be navigated more quickly than in Australia. “From immigration to taxes to health care to banking to drivers licences – the systems are all linked to a single personal identification number that makes the user experience much more seamless. And I just imagine the data asset the Singapore government must have – the possibilities would be enormous.”