Career Path: The Biggest Lessons Elizabeth Gaines Has Learned

Elizabeth Gaines

The Macquarie Business School graduate is stepping down as CEO of Fortescue this month but will take her career lessons into her next role with the mining behemoth.

Ask questions and be prepared to listen to the answers

CEO, Fortescue Metals Group | 2018-August 2022

“The values and culture of Fortescue were founded by [chairman] Andrew Forrest but they’ve had an enormous impact on me and my leadership. Maybe it’s because Andrew and I both grew up in the outback of Western Australia but there’s a very strong alignment. Rather than sitting in Perth saying, ‘Well, we know all the answers and we’ll tell everybody what they’re going to do’, we ask people in the Pilbara, working on site, what they think. By asking questions and listening, we’ve been able to put in place the changes that we needed and that’s been critically important. I’m in a fortunate position where I’m going to stay on the board and transition to a global ambassador role for our renewable energy. The business is changing – we’re transitioning from a resources company to a renewable energy and resources company – and I’m really excited about what that means. I genuinely believe that this decade is critical to our planet, our kids, our grandkids and their future. We’re working with government but business is leading the way. We’ve got a lot of heavy lifting to do to decarbonise and eliminate fossil fuels but we’re making real inroads into achieving that.”

Get under the hood of the business

Non-executive director, Nine Entertainment | 2016-2017
Non-executive director, NextDC | 2015-2017

“Being a good board member means bringing all of your experience to the table – we all have different skills and experiences. If you leave a boardroom and think, ‘Oh, I really wanted to know something but I didn’t think I should ask the question’, then I don’t think you’re making the full contribution you can. The job of directors is to ask those questions and to get to know the business and to understand and drive strategy. You have to be curious and you have to invest in getting to know the business. It’s not just about the board meeting. If I think about the non-executive directors at Fortescue, often they’ll visit our Pilbara site because they want to understand our operations. Good board directors make a broader contribution than what happens in the boardroom.”

Don’t give in to the doubt

CEO, Helloworld | 2014-2015

“Leadership takes enormous courage. When I was thrust into the CEO role of what was a large business that had thousands of stakeholders, I had that moment of ‘Can I really do this? Can I back myself?’ All eyes were on me and because it was a franchise model, everybody was invested and had an opinion. But it’s at those moments that you find how much you can dig – and you dig deep. I take a moment to reflect and think about why I can do something as opposed to telling myself why I can’t. And setting up a strong team is the best thing you can do as a leader so that they’re there to share in the importance of engagement. I find the focus on one individual quite interesting. It’s not just about the CEO, it’s about the team and the success of the CEO depends on the strength of the team.”

Collaborate to transform

Global CFO, Stella Group and Jetset Travelworld Group) | 2008-2014

“I found the travel and hospitality industry fascinating. I joined the group about the same time as the GFC really hit and like a lot of private equity-backed businesses, it was a highly geared, highly leveraged company that required restructuring. People think transformation is something that can be thought about in a boardroom and implemented and everybody will just go along with it. The reality is that true transformation requires engagement and buy-in from the people who are out there doing the work. We had to take thousands of franchisees on that journey and it required enormous stakeholder engagement. You can’t say it once, you can’t say it twice – you have to keep engaging and repeating the messages. Thinking you can sit somewhere and dictate outcomes means that you’ll fail.”

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Say yes more than you say no

Finance director, Entertainment Rights Ltd | 2002-2008

“I really embraced this opportunity because it gave me a global perspective and exposure to doing business in Europe and the United States. We acquired a couple of companies in the US and I spent a lot of time working there and across Europe. It’s about embracing change. My learning from that time – and I often say this – is to say yes more often than you say no. By doing that, opportunities come along, a bit like this role, which was very important to my subsequent career. You still have to use judgement about what you can and can’t do but by the same token there are some people who get to a certain job and become comfortable with it. Then when opportunities come along, they question themselves. Say yes more often than you say no – you have to back yourself.”

Understand the power of business

CEO, Heytesbury | 2000-2002

“You learn the most when you’re faced with challenges. We had to sell some parts of the company and that required strong support across a group of shareholders who were first and foremost family but also had their own individual views about how the business should function and operate. I certainly learnt the importance of problem-solving – because there were plenty of challenges and finding solutions to complex problems – but I always think it’s about the collective team finding their way through those solutions. I also learnt how business can support philanthropy and the arts. Business doesn’t operate only for the benefit of shareholders. Successful businesses can add so much more to the community. I was privileged to see that in action through Janet Holmes à Court at Heytesbury and again at Fortescue.”

Be curious at all times

Graduate program and audit services, EY | 1984-1988

“I gained a lot of discipline and learnings from the chartered accountant program but there was also a strong team culture. EY made sure that the graduates coming into the firm felt as though they were part of a team. That’s where I learnt the importance of the culture of an organisation – how people can come together and feel a sense of belonging. I also worked across diverse industries. I could be auditing a regional shire council one day and big mining the next. That meant I had to understand businesses – the cash-flow analysis, balance sheets and the drivers of profitability. That was formative for me because I’ve worked in a number of different  industries and have a real curiosity about what makes an organisation function and operate and thrive. That really came from those early days.”

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Image credit: Jane Dempster

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