Ann Sherry's Career Path Took Her From Radiography to UNICEF and Beyond

Ann Sherry, the chair of Enero Group

From working in the British prison system to rebuilding a battered cruising brand, Ann Sherry has thrived on diversity. Here, we trace her incredible career path.

Take a more unconventional path

Chair, UNICEF Australia | 2018-present 

Chair, Enero Group | 2020-present

“The transition from executive to non-executive is not easy because it’s hard to give up complete authority. When you step out of being a CEO, you’re not running a company anymore – your role in governance is quite different – and that’s an interesting dynamic straight up. You’ve got to learn to let go and trust other people, which is why the key role of a chair is to select a great CEO who you have confidence in. I’ve never been a micro manager but I’m quite a demanding leader because I expect other people to do their jobs well and be accountable for them. In a way, that’s what makes me a good chair. I’m not running the business but I am in the business of ensuring that two very different organisations – UNICEF and Enero – deliver and grow and provide great workplaces for the people who work there. You learn all the time and that’s why I’ve chosen to do different sorts of things. The conventional path is to get on one ASX top 10 [board] and stay there. I like being on the ASX but I like the energy of a smaller company like Enero and the energy of the not-for-profit. It gives me a fantastic breadth of experience and I learn different things in each organisation.”

Repair and rebuild

Chair, Carnival Australia | 2016-2019

CEO, Carnival Australia | 2007-2015

“There were a lot of fantastic frontline staff who’d been holding it together while senior management was hiding [after the tragic death of passenger Dianne Brimble on board a cruise ship in 2002]. When I went overseas to look at our operations in other parts of the world, which were so much bigger than anything that had ever been imagined for Australia, you could see the possibility in the business. If you can see possibility then you just need the discipline to execute the rebuild and fix the issues that led to the reputational damage. I had a commitment to myself, as well as to the organisation, that we wouldn’t let that happen on our watch again. It’s really like eating an elephant – you’ve got to do it a bit at a time. But you’ve got to step into it, you’ve got to be public about it and you’ve got to be courageous about it.”

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Understand frontline issues

CEO, Westpac NZ | 2002-2007

CEO, Bank of Melbourne | 2000-2002

“I received good advice before I went to New Zealand, which is don’t assume it’s a small version of Australia. I didn’t understand the regional variances so I said to the team, ‘I’m going to go to every branch in New Zealand.’ People tell you the stuff they want you to hear; they never tell you the stuff they don’t want you to hear. I can’t tell you how much I learnt about places, people and cultural nuances. In most of the branches, they’d never seen the CEO. That was more powerful than I understood. I set out to do it for personal reasons but it had much greater resonance than I ever imagined. The things that I learnt gave context to so many other things I had to do and gave me better information than some of the people I was talking to, who then had to get out and about and do more of what I’d done.”

Know your audience

Group executive, Westpac | 1999-2002

Head of Human Resources Management, Westpac | 1994-1999

“The thing we did that completely changed the culture forever was the implementation of paid maternity leave. [CEO] Bob Joss said to me, ‘How do we become an employer of choice?’ Seventy per cent of Westpac staff were women and when I first went and argued for paid maternity leave, I did it as though I was still in the public service – it’s fair, it’s equitable – and I could see everyone’s eyes glazing over. So I backed out of the room at a million miles an hour before anyone could say no and reworked it. I went back and delivered it in a very flat way: ‘If we have a return rate of A to B, it will pay for itself in one year.’ If you’re going to drive change, you’ve got to understand the audience you’re selling it to and what it is they listen to. Westpac became the leading organisation on this issue.”

Never squander power

First assistant secretary, Office of the Status of Women | 1992-1994

“I took from [then Prime Minister] Paul Keating that a good leader is courageous and takes on the sacred cows, whether it’s the role of women in society or speaking up about Indigenous disadvantage. Those things were not popular issues and they weren’t ones that got you elected. I had the opportunity to work on really hard issues, such as getting access to superannuation for women. I could affect change – I could see it. When you’ve got access to power, which I did, you’ve got to use it. There are lots of people sitting in very powerful jobs who do nothing – or they do the stuff that everybody before them has always done. When you leave a job of power, you’ve got to be able to look back and think, ‘What changed as a result of me being there?’ Otherwise, you’re a seat warmer and I’m not a seat warmer.”

Challenge the system

Coordinator, London team, Apex Trust | 1980-1982

“I helped people transition from prison to work. I came from a pretty privileged upbringing and found myself in the United Kingdom’s prison system, where kids were incarcerated for reasonably minor offences. I worked in the women’s prison system as well, which was even worse because many of them were in for drug offences or because they’d fought back in abusive relationships. It was Dickensian – an extraordinary place to go into – and it felt unfair that many of the women had been incarcerated by a system that favoured the perpetrators of violence as opposed to victims of violence. It sharpened my awareness of the way some of those systems worked against the people they are meant to protect. This job gave me a great opportunity to push into stuff that many people talked about but nobody was really that passionate about.”

Innovation above hierarchy

Radiographer, Queensland Radial Institute | 1972-1975

“I loved the people, I loved the problemsolving that went with it – I was doing therapy radiography, treating people with cancer – and I loved the challenge. But I hated the systems and the inefficiency. I hated that doctors who knew nothing had power over people who knew a lot. It made me realise that you’ve got to have the right environment to succeed and you don’t succeed if the hierarchy is so strongly embedded that it can’t see talent or capability for what it is. It matters to me that people are treated well and it matters to me that hierarchy doesn’t override good ideas or innovation. So I did learn those things and I learnt how intolerant I am of being told what to do when I know it’s wrong.”

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Image credit: Louise Kennerley

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