Australia India Institute CEO Lisa Singh on the Values Behind Great Leadership

Lisa Singh

The top end of town has got India all wrong, says the former senator and CEO of the Australia India Institute.

Current roles: CEO, Australia India Institute; deputy chair, Australia-India Council (DFAT)
Tenure: One year and eight months; two years and nine months
Age: 51
Previous roles: Senator for Tasmania, Parliament of Australia; minister and member of the House of Assembly, Parliament of Tasmania; director, Tasmanian Working Women’s Centre.

How do you define good leadership?

It’s living by a set of values and having them play out through your actions. For me, those values are integrity, equality, respect for diversity and excellence, if I can call that a value. Good leadership is also about taking people on a journey. You must have a vision and a purpose. You have to be driven and you have to work out what drives you. I’ve always been on a mission to make the world a better place.

Were there particular people in your life who shaped that drive early on?

My grandfather was in politics in Fiji. He was a farmer, a school teacher and a politician. I saw him as a leader of people. Equally, my maternal grandfather was a local police inspector in Hobart and for a long time I wanted to be a policewoman and be just like him. He was a great storyteller. I learnt a lot from my mum in terms of character and values – she’s a strong working-class woman and very resilient.

What did you learn about leadership from your time in politics?

Politics is fleeting – you don’t get into politics to retire; you do it to make a difference and drive change. I’m privileged to be elected by the people so what’s the legacy I want to leave? For me, it was long-term reforms that went on beyond my time of being there, including a 10-year strategic plan for corrective services, workers’ compensation reform and changes that brought in protections for renters in the housing market. I had a lot of energy and I wanted to get things done.

How did politics set you up for your current job?

A lot about leadership – about everything in life, really – is about building relationships. India is all about relationships – it’s not a transactional country where you just do deals and walk away. It’s about building trust over long periods of time. The skills I learnt in my time in politics – building strong partnerships across industry, academia and community – really help me now.

What should Australian leaders do to take advantage of this “sweet spot” you see now in the Australia-India relationship?

At the very top end of the Australian business sector, there is an outdated mindset about India that needs to change. I bang on about this all the time. They still see India as a place where it’s hard to do business. India is modernising, growing in leaps and bounds, and is now the fifth-largest economy in the world, overtaking the United Kingdom. It has an incredible, young population who are skilled-up in the digital space. Trade is starting to improve but there is still not much investment from Australia. India needs investment to increase its infrastructure; Australian super funds are worth about $3 trillion, yet they’re not investing in India. The Macquarie Group, a shining light in this space, is investing. I would love to see Australian super funds investing in India’s critical infrastructure.

What’s the legacy you hope to create from your work as CEO of the Australia India Institute?

Part of my remit is helping to change that mindset and finding industry players who can educate the top ASX companies to see things differently. Our institute partnered with Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes last year to run a dialogue on this. He’s passionate about plugging the skills gap Australia has in the tech space. India is a complementary country – we need to develop partnerships between our educational institutions and companies in Australia and India, to give graduates the skills they need in the digital age and to increase the two-way mobility between our countries.

You must have some difficult conversations in your role. What’s your approach to them?

It’s good to try to frame things as a question, rather than making a statement about a situation. Ask a question and you get a sense of how the other person might be feeling, as well as getting feedback from them, rather than pushing forward with all your own answers.

Have there been times when you’ve doubted yourself?

We all have self-doubt – let’s face it, I still have it. I didn’t do things conventionally. I was still at university when I had my first son and then my other one post-study. I was very excited about becoming a young mum but I remember feeling that other people might somehow see this as a failure. I had to juggle university with my first baby and I perhaps doubted whether I could finish my degree and manage both. But I did. I had a lot of family support and I think determination carried me through.

Is that your biggest strength as a leader?

People I work with describe me as someone who makes things happen. So I think it’s my energy and determination. I have a strong vision and commitment to drive change and that energy sometimes can be infectious. But I do set the bar quite high for myself and for others around me.

And what’s your biggest gap?

I’m in a rush to get stuff done. When you’re dealing with large bureaucracies… well, I’ve recognised that not everyone works at my pace and that I need to be patient.

How have you navigated that adjustment in your temperament?

It’s about having time out – the India side of my heritage is really useful because now yoga and meditation are a part of that. I’ve been doing yoga for a bit longer but meditation is relatively recent. I embraced it post-politics because I was going through a huge career change and I needed to reinvent myself. My 26-year-old son, Jack, recognised that I was trying to readjust and thought meditation would be useful. He was right.

How much of your success is due to hard work and how much comes down to luck?

Definitely hard work – you can’t rely on luck. If luck is thrown in for good measure, that’s great. Some things are about “right place, right time”. That’s a foot in the door then it’s up to you to do the hard work and make things happen.

How much do you rely on intuition?

I do rely on my gut feeling but I often go and share that with colleagues to test it before I act on it. When you’re working to build trust, it’s very important to listen to your gut.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give a brand-new CEO?

Work out what your values are, what drives you and the vision you’re going to bring to the role and the people around you. You need a vision as a leader and you have to want to execute it – for me, with great gusto! Work out what you’re getting up for in the morning and believe in yourself, obviously. You wouldn’t be a leader if you didn’t believe in yourself.

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Image credit: Marc Nèmorin

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