Breaking New Ground

Wednesday, August 1, 2007 - 11:30

Ann Sherry was the first woman to become CEO of banks in both Australia and New Zealand. She talks with Jennifer Alexander about what she looks for in managers, networking and leadership.

Ann Sherry makes a habit of breaking new ground. Appointed as the first female Chief Executive Officer of banks in both Australia and New Zealand, Sherry recently concluded a 10-year stint at Westpac with responsibility for banking operations in New Zealand and seven countries in the Pacific. In July, Sherry was appointed CEO of the Australian arm of the international cruise ship company Carnival, which owns P&O Cruises.

Q: How does it feel to be a groundbreaker?

A: It has its good days and its bad days. I think being a ground breaker is quite important from role model and other perspectives, particularly in an industry that has a lot of women working in it. Suddenly they sense that getting to the top is possible.

Q: At a recent AIM NSW and ACT luncheon you attended when you were still with Westpac, a lot of Westpac women came up and spoke with you. They obviously see you as a role model.

A: The Westpac women would always come and speak with me at those type of functions, which I think is fantastic. Firstly it says that I’m approachable, because I think often people in leadership roles are seen to be very unapproachable and people are nervous about talking to them directly. There is a pressure that comes with that, however; always to be on form, to be sharp, to have the right message.

Q: So is there, then, a public and a private Ann?

A: No, I’m probably the same person always, but I do carve out private time. There’s a great trap in being in public jobs; that the job becomes who you are rather than you being yourself.

Q: What are your most important skills as a manager?

A: For me it’s the ability to place myself in the shoes of both the people who work for me and our customers. I believe firmly that the art of running businesses is understanding what drives people to do business with you, and what motivates your own people to deliver either amazing or ordinary service.

Q: What do you look for in managers?

A: Passion and desire. I look for curiosity and an interest in “how do you do things differently?” That I think drives innovation and a sense of impatience to fix things. I also look for people who are self aware; I think if you’re going to manage and lead other people, if you don’t understand yourself, you can never really be a good leader. And of course, you always look for the technical competence in a job.

Q: You had a background in human resources. Does that influence how you assess people?

A: It probably does. I’ve had the experience of hiring people into jobs and looking at what does and doesn’t work. I have the experience of hiring people – who on paper were the best technical fit for a job – but don’t work because they can’t engage with their peers or nobody wants to work for them.

The most common thing is for someone to have great technical competence, but with no-one wanting to work for them. It used to be that the focus was heavily on technical competence, but everyone’s looking for a better balance now. I think it has swung back to trying to find good rounded individuals who can spend time talking to people and motivating them.

Q: It’s often said that women don’t make senior ranks through a lack of line experience, so they move into marketing or HR. You’ve defied this.

A: I had a broader background before I went into banking. So I didn’t quite fit any mould, which probably made me much harder to pigeonhole. I’ve worked running line agencies in government as well as being in central policy areas. I’ve worked on the other side of the table in trade unions, I have a very broad set of skills and I think it probably goes to my earlier comment about the fact that it’s harder now to just grab people for one set of skills.

Q: What about the glass ceiling? Does it still exist?

A: Ten or 15 years ago when I was in the policy areas in government, people said it was just a matter of time when all the women coming through university would, in another 10 or 15 years’ time, be running the world. It was just time. It hasn’t happened, and I think it’s a combination of things: one is having children and women primarily caring for children. The disruption that causes to a career has quite a significant impact, particularly in big organisations where opportunities tend to come sequentially. If you’re not there when the next step happens, then often it passes you by.

I also think culturally, many big organisations are more closed than they need to be, and they close out not just women but anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant paradigm at the time. So you walk out into the street and you see multicultural Australia and smart young women, and look at the senior levels of many of our organisations; that is not how they look.

Q: So do you have any advice for women?

A: My advice is that you’ve got to be tenacious, and if you want it, you have to hang in there and fight for it. I know it sounds a bit macho, but that’s what the men in these organisations are doing. If you really want one of the big jobs they make sure you’re doing what it takes to get there, rather than sitting back and hoping that someone will notice you.

Q: We hear a lot about networking. Is it important? Is it different for men and women?

A: I think everyone networks. Men always network at their lunches, their clubs, at sport. There are lots of structures that are just implicit in business with networking opportunities that men have used for a long time. What women didn’t understand initially was that there was a power to it; that it was seen as social initially, but was much more about support than it was about information exchange. For example, where the next job was coming, which board was looking for someone, and so on. So there’s networking on a personal level, which is important, but there’s also networking that is just about staying in the loop; I think on both levels they’re important.

Q: So are women still excluded from the traditional male networking? Golf, drinks after work, the club?

A: Some of it. There’s plenty of women who have been learning to play golf. I know lots of networking happens on the golf course. So I say to people, “Now if you get invited to the golf, go. Even if you can’t play golf, walk”. Find a way of engaging with it because there’s a lot of quality time you spend with people who otherwise you would not get that quality time with.

Q: Are management and leadership the same thing?

A: They’re different but connected. I believe leadership today is often getting confused with jobs and hierarchy, whereas I see leadership as a process leading to an outcome that is better than the point from which you started; that’s not necessarily just to do with the job. I think management is the task of organising resources and getting things done, which is ultimately about what you’re doing in your job day to day.

Ultimately the test of leadership for me is, is it getting better because of what you’re doing? Have you got anyone with you? Is what you’re articulating the vision or the change that you want to make? Are there people who are saying “Yes, we can see that and we’re onboard”? There are lots of people creating vision statements and doing things they think is leadership; but they’ve forgotten to look behind them to see if they’re leading anybody and whether anything is changing.

Q: Can you give an example of a leader you admire?

A: I’ve worked directly with Mike Hawker as well as now observing him at Insurance Australia Group. He has the capacity to engage with people at both an intellectual and an emotional level. He’s thinking about the challenges of the future and trying to draw them into his organisation today. He takes risks; he’s really gone out very hard on climate change. The way he engages people, his ability to work across cultures, across gender lines, is very strong, and I think they’re really the hallmarks of leadership.

Q: Have you had people that have mentored you?

A: Yes, I have over time. However, not in a formal mentoring sense. But I’ve got a lot of people I talk to and who actually have reached out to me as well, and they’ve varied. I’ve got a very strong network of people who have been friends for a long time and they often give you really earthy advice, which is don’t take yourself too seriously.

Q: Now and again we make mistakes. Is there anything you are happy to share with us around something that has indelibly stayed with you?

A: One was when I was involved in the merger with Bank of Melbourne, which was a time-pressured and market-intense big change. And at the beginning of that process we went through the people that we thought would be the organisation of the future, and those that we thought would probably not survive.

Part way through that process we realised two things: that we had lost one person we suddenly realised had a huge amount of corporate knowledge; and we had also marked someone for departure – and we didn’t have enough information at the time – who was terminally ill. It was one of those terrible moments, we thought that was just the wrong thing to do.

So in both cases we made mistakes; one was retrievable and one was not. The consequences weren’t dire in the macro, but they made what was already a difficult task slightly harder than it needed to be. I think about it every time I’m about to restructure or go into a big change; just have that moment of reflection to step back before you hit the go button, it’s a bit like thinking before you hit the go button.

Q: You’ve worked in both Australia and New Zealand. Are they very similar or very different?

A: I think we’re very different. We look and sound the same, we do a lot of trade with each other, and our distance from the rest of the world and proximity to each other makes that logical. Culturally, we are completely different. Maori and Polynesian culture is so strong in New Zealand, and we sort of see that here in Australia but we don’t understand it. New Zealand is bilingual, it has Maori television, the influence of Pacific in New Zealand is very strong and it’s completely absent here.

The structure of the economy in New Zealand is also completely different. Most of New Zealand business is very small; something like 90 per cent of New Zealand business has five employees. It’s the quintessential small business economy; that makes people very suspicious of big business.

Q: How do you work out your work/life balance?

A: I’ve learnt that work/life balance means different things at different times. When I was younger, it meant getting home at a certain time. As I’ve got older and less constrained about practical things like running a household, it’s been more about working hard while at work, but not extending work indefinitely so you have nothing other than work. I actually do that in a disciplined way by having times on the weekend when people who really need me can get hold of me; but I’m not on call 24/7. I carve out family time and time for friends, and I’m in a book club. I’m also heavily involved in not-for-profit organisations such as the Board of Special Olympics Australia and I am passionate about that.

Q: What does the future hold for you?

A: I’ve always asked myself where is the next opportunity to learn, and I’ve previously expressed my interest in other industries and sectors. Becoming the chief executive of cruise ship company Carnival Australia is definitely a change from my time in government and banking. The cruise industry is the fastest growing segment of the travel industry, and I’m looking forward to using my skills and experience in growing and developing the cruise market in Australia and the region.


Ann Sherry is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian arm of the cruise ship company Carnival, the owner of P&O Cruises. Prior to this, Sherry was CEO of Westpac New Zealand, and Group Executive, Westpac New Zealand and the Pacific where she had responsibility for Westpac operations in New Zealand and seven Pacific countries.

Sherry is Chair of the New Zealand Government’s Growth and Innovation Advisory Board, Chair of the New Zealand Banker’s Association, Deputy Chair of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development, and a member of the Board of The New Zealand Institute. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Banking and Finance and a Fellow of the Institute of Public Administration. In 2003 Sherry was awarded a Centenary Medal by the Australian Government for her work on providing banking services to disadvantaged communities, and in January 2004 was awarded an Order of Australia.