How Bran Black Contends With Big Business and Big Issues

Bran Black

The new head of the Business Council of Australia has to contend with big business, big issues and big opinions.

Current role: Chief executive, Business Council of Australia (BCA)
Tenure: Six months
Previous roles: Chief of staff, Premier of NSW; chief of staff, NSW Treasurer; director, Cabinet & Legal, Premier of NSW; chief of strategic initiatives, University of New South Wales; CEO, NUW Alliance

How do you define good leadership?

The best leaders are those who lead with integrity. It’s not just a question of being able to articulate a vision and having a clear sense of purpose and a goal; it’s how you go about delivering that vision. For all my flaws – and I have many – I genuinely try to be the best person I can be at work. Ultimately that translates into getting things done.

The media has painted you as Mr Nice Guy. Is that a positive?

I’d say you get more bees with honey. However, it doesn’t mean shying away from difficult discussions and difficult decisions. But you can do those things with integrity, honestly and openly. Somebody once said to me that trust, respect and, indeed, engagement have to be earned. That rubbed me up the wrong way. You should trust and engage as deeply as you can and as early as possible.

How did you approach the first 90 days in your role?

This is a membership organisation so I wanted to meet with members, staff and board members to get a sense of the status of the BCA. I was extremely lucky to have an excellent [month-long] handover from Jennifer [Westacott AO, the outgoing CEO]. My approach was to get up to speed on policy, to understand the organisation, make those connections and start to form my own views. What I’m doing now is finalising my three-year strategy for the BCA’s next steps.

One commentator has suggested that you have the hardest job in Australia.

I think I’ve got the best job in Australia. Look, it’s hard but it’s rewarding. It has the capacity to influence public policy outcomes enormously across the country and that’s always going to be a difficult job but I think there are a few roles that are a tad harder than mine [laughs].

You speak with CEOs of ASX 100 companies every day. What’s the one issue that’s worrying them the most?

Our competitiveness. Unambiguously, what comes through is that people are increasingly concerned that Australia is a less competitive place not just to do business but to attract business. We’ve always done exceptionally well as a country but there’s a growing sense of complacency.

So what’s going wrong?

Australia has naturally attracted investment but the problem is that other countries want to get that investment. If you look at some of the incentive arrangements that have been put in place with respect to the green energy transition in places like Canada, the EU, Saudi Arabia and Japan, they’re desperately trying to shore up investment. Increasingly, we’re faced with competitive jurisdictions that offer special tax zones – they might offer other types of taxation incentives, a concierge planning arrangement or direct subsidies and grants. We don’t do that. Instead, incrementally, we make it harder for people to do business. We’ve got a sluggish planning system across all of our jurisdictions. It’s harder to bring investment into this country so we need to acknowledge that and get on with the job of changing our approach.

What can the BCA do about it?

Have solid and robust advocacy campaigns and drive these conversations with policymakers and decision-makers in Canberra… If we want to invest more, we need more revenue and to get more revenue, we need to have more competitive settings. It’s a forward and frank conversation about what our future needs to look like. It’s extremely challenging.

You were chief of staff to former NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet. What are the pros and cons of your political background for your BCA role?

What I learnt in my time working in politics was that ultimately your capacity to get things done comes down to the quality of your engagement. If people know who you are, they know that they’re going to get a straight answer from you. When I deal with politicians, I give them an honest answer even if it’s not necessarily the answer they expect from me.

Presumably your political background is a double-edged sword. On one hand you understand the system and know the players but people may have preconceptions about you.

They may well but once people get to know me, I hope they can see the type of person I am and how I engage. It’s not simply something I do as part of a branding exercise; the approach I take is the right thing to do.

The BCA has more than 100 members – and we’re talking about the biggest businesses in the country – plus you have to deal with Canberra. Is stakeholder management the most important part of your job?

It’s a huge part of the role. The BCA’s greatest strength is its extraordinary convening power – we’re representing the largest corporations in Australia, which collectively employ more than a million Australians, contribute the majority of corporate tax and participate in communities. It’s that strength I always look to harness because it gives me the best chance of representing them. But we don’t represent our members’ interests slavishly. We advocate for policy that’s in the national interest in terms of driving settings that will generate economic growth, increase prosperity and wage rises.

How do you manage when your member base is so broad?

They’re all so different and presumably grappling with diverse issues. They each have different perspectives but the engagement I’ve had with the CEOs has shown me that they see the role of the BCA as having a broader remit in relation to economic issues that go to the prosperity of the nation. So part of what we have to do is bring together the different perspectives that come from that length and breadth and depth of the economy to formulate positions that we genuinely believe are in the national interest. A good example is the work we did last year with respect to gas and its future role in the transition [to renewal energy]. The BCA has a membership with a diversity of views but we were able to bring everybody together and formulate a position that we used to advocate reasonably effectively.

I’d imagine there would have been some strong opinions in those conversations. How do you manage a situation where you’ve got strong, smart people in the room with very different agendas?

I had exactly the same challenge when I was working in politics. You’ve got strong-willed, highly opinionated people [laughs] who are used to getting their own way and being forceful in delivering their views. If I have a view about what I think a policy needs to be or the direction it needs to head in, I don’t hold back saying what that is.

At a time when there are so many big issues confronting business, how do you determine the BCA’s priorities and focus energy on the right thing at the right time?

The short answer is that I do it in collaboration with the members and the board. And there are things that stand out as clear policy priorities that we need to move forward on. The BCA has a strong position in relation to the industrial relations challenges we’ve faced over the past 18 months. We know we’ve got a huge amount of work to do with respect to the country’s 2035 [emission] targets and how we set ambitious yet practical goals. Another example is ensuring that Australians have the skills for the jobs of the future and I think the BCA has a role to play in that regard.

Whether you call it influence or lobbying, it’s a vital skill. How did you develop those skills and become good at it?

Well, you can judge whether I’m good at it. My approach to dealing with people to a large degree has been formed by the experience I’ve had in surf lifesaving. When I first started, I had a couple of patrol captains that were very directive and liked to order people around. It always struck me as a little odd because everybody on the beach was a volunteer. My approach to dealing with people has been to try and create an environment where people want to be there and want to be there with you. Essentially I treat everybody as a volunteer and hope they want to be a volunteer with me.

What’s your biggest strength as a leader?

I try my very best to lead by example.

And what about your biggest gap?

I don’t always do it [laughs].

Where do you do your best thinking?

I do a lot of surfski paddling and that’s where I do my best thinking and also my best no-thinking. Sometimes you’ve just got to get into the groove of concentrating on your stroke and dealing with the waves around you. It gives you a chance to completely switch off. But invariably when I’m coming back from the beach, I’ll think, “That’s the way that I should do this thing.” So I know my mind has been working over things for the hour and a half I’ve been out on the water.

Has there ever been a time in your career when you’ve genuinely been scared?

I had chronic fatigue syndrome for about 18 months when I was a lawyer. It was just after my wife and I bought a place so I had to keep rocking up to work throughout that period. We didn’t have income protection insurance at the time – we couldn’t afford it – so I was scared that I was going to lose my job and our home. I was worried about that for the better part of a year and a half.

How did you manage to push through that when you were crumbling physically?

It was extremely challenging but I thought that I had to try and address the physical tiredness head-on, not by ignoring it but by taking a slightly different approach. Fifteen or 16 years ago, the advice was basically, “Stay in bed.” But I decided that I’d try and improve my capacity to do activities incrementally so I started going down to my local pool every morning and swimming 10 laps and stopping after each lap for a couple of minutes. When you exercise, you get that chemical hit and I think that kind of flicked a switch.

What would your advice be for someone who wants to become a CEO?

Be yourself. At the end of the day I don’t think people should try and mould themselves into a particular type of cast in order to satisfy a leadership ambition. You’ll derive the most satisfaction out of life by being true to yourself and appreciating what comes from that.

On the fly

Personal motto?
Don’t die wondering.

Email approach?
Brief, light and to the point.

Motivation tactic?
I give praise often and publicly – it’s the easiest feedback to let slip. I genuinely believe most people are motivated by doing good work and being acknowledged for it.

Business book or podcast?
I love [Australian business podcast] Fear & Greed [with Sean Aylmer and Michael Thompson]. I really enjoy listening to them, particularly the weekend edition. I think in everything you do in life, you’ve got to have fun and you can tell that those guys have a bit of fun along the way.

Productivity hack?
If I feel I’m in a slump, I go out and exercise then get back into it.

Hard-and-fast rule?
You’re only as good as your word.

Favourite piece of advice?
My grandmother used to say to me that the true test of character is not how you treat your equals and superiors but how you treat your inferiors. The language is outdated but the principle that you should treat everyone with respect and kindness is timeless.

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SEE ALSO: Turning Points: How 9 Small Businesses Evolved For the Future

Image credit: Marc Némorin

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