Leading the Faithful

Saturday, April 1, 2006 - 07:56

Two outstanding business leaders who rely on their diverse experience and religious faith to inspire their communities and organisations speak to Cameron Cooper

Tim Costello
CEO, World Vision Australia

The sheer scale of World Vision Australia would be daunting enough for most chief executives: about 400 staff, an annual revenue of more than $360 million, and in excess of 365,000 children under sponsorships.

Yet for Reverend Tim Costello AO, head of the much-loved charity organisation since 2004, it is as much the value of the brand - and maintaining it - that puts him in the hot seat.

"All of that does put some pressure on you," he admits. "This is not a business making someone else rich. This is a business trying to change the world, so that high trust is very important."

For Costello, ordained as a Baptist minister in 1986, the personal rewards are high in a job that is dedicated to eliminating absolute poverty: "The nice thing is that I believe in it."

Voted one of Australia's 100 National Living Treasures - other luminaries on the list include Perth burns specialist Dr Fiona Wood, Aboriginal singer Jimmy Little and Exodus Foundation Chairman Reverend Bill Crews - Costello has long been an advocate of the less privileged in his contrasting roles as a lawyer, pastor and human rights campaigner. His has been an active life: a student of law and education at Monash University; the senior minister at the St Kilda Baptist Church from 1986-1994; mayor of St Kilda in 1993-94; and executive director from 1995-2003 of Urban Seed, a Christian not-for-profit organisation that helps street people. Along the way he has been an outspoken anti-gambling activist.

The diverse roles have, in a sense, prepared Costello for his current post. Operating in 66 countries, World Vision Australia has the challenge of dealing in countries as diverse as Chile, Azerbaijan and Mongolia.

"In some countries we say World Vision and they say 'Oh yeah, is that an optics company'. You are measured on the credibility of what you do, not because [in Australia ] it is known and loved, and I'm known and respected. It's a very different place managing other people from different countries."

For Costello, the key as a leader is to be clear about the story he tells around "dealing with people's hopes for a better world... dealing with their desire to be transformative of others".

Managing the expectations of people - staff and donors alike - is "the great trick" in life. People from all walks of life and religious denominations grace World Vision's corridors, but almost without exception they want to make a difference.

"I rarely have people who ask for a pay rise," Costello says. "Where else in business is it like that? They actually are in it largely for reasons of vocation. They want to make a difference."

However, that drive creates challenges for the executive team: in short, staff want to save the world while much of their responsibility revolves around day-to-day tasks such as management, regulation audits and accountability.

Costello says: "That's a big part of the job and it can be pedestrian, so you've got to keep people focused on that and explain why it is also contributing."

A Christian faith has "nourished" Costello's beliefs and leadership style, which has found a perfect vehicle in World Vision.

"That faith in a Christian organisation says God created everyone in his own image. And what cripples an image is sinful, and poverty cripples that image. Kids who did nothing more than [being] born in the wrong latitude are destined to poverty, malnutrition and death. That's sinful, that's wrong... it shouldn't be that way."

Costello's upbringing has also shaped his character - his mother and father, both teachers, encouraged a questioning environment that has produced two formidable leaders in Tim and his brother Peter, the long-time Federal Treasurer in the Howard Government, and a likely future prime minister.

"At home, it was really a learning environment and dominated by a mood of why is it like this, read this, think about that idea around the dining room table. We really were encouraged by our parents to discuss, to think, to not criticise people but ideas. It was a home where there was a strong sense - even though we were just middle middle-class and it was a three-bedroom weatherboard and I shared a bedroom with my brother for the first 18 years - that we were blessed and we should give back."

World Vision gives Costello that chance, again.

He believes that his strengths as a leader lie in assessing the big picture rather than micro-managing. He made an early decision at World Vision to appoint a Chief Operating Officer and to build an executive team that is strong on systems development.

"I'm much more a leader than a manager," he says.

The campaign to alleviate poverty, while never likely to be completely won, is progressing well, according to Costello. He takes comfort from a new generation of teens and young adults who see themselves as citizens of a global village. They will face a moral question as to whether they tolerate poverty.

"It's the new slavery issue of this generation."

Costello also sees more corporations playing their part, as CEOs and staff appreciate that they, too, can make a difference. Their message is clear, he says: "I want to do more than just make myself or someone else rich. I want to also believe in what I've done and leave this world a better place."
Nicolas Frances
CEO, easybeinggreen

Reverend Nicolas Frances MBE offers a blunt assessment of Australian business leaders.

"On the whole, not impressed," says the CEO and founder of easybeinggreen, a Melbourne-based for-profit social and environmental company.

Acknowledged through the World Economic Forum as a leading international social entrepreneur, British-born Frances fears that today many corporations in Australia are paying lip service to the principles of corporate citizenship and triple bottom line management.

He cites some notable exceptions who are both entrepreneurial and committed to the broader picture - former Wesfarmers boss Michael Chaney, Tabcorp's Matthew Slatter and the ANZ's John McFarlane, among them - but adds that many Australian CEOs have been slow to embrace the big picture management style so famously espoused in the business bestseller Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.

"I would say that generally we think of ourselves as entrepreneurs but we are not engaged with where the world is moving," says Frances, who moved to Australia in the late 1990s.

"We do not see what is happening in terms of the environment and global warming. We do not see and understand how to integrate some of these big social and environmental issues into our business."

Managers are operating very narrowly, he says. "They are focused on the bottom line."

The accolades for Frances are impressive: an MBE in 1998 for his work in the United Kingdom; recognition through the Schwab Foundation in 2001 as one of the world's top social entrepreneurs; and a Centenary Medal for his work in Australia.

Yet he is self-deprecating, admitting he does not have all the answers as a leader and that some people would say "bloody awful" things about him.

"I've got no advice. I've only got lots of mistakes."

Ordained as an Anglican priest in 1995, Frances cut his business teeth running two not-for-profit organisations in Britain. In Australia, he is best known for his stint as executive director from 1999-2003 of Brotherhood of St Laurence, one of Australia's leading welfare and social policy organisations.

Although describing the chance to lead the Brotherhood as "one of the huge honours of my life", Frances admits he was not a perfect fit for the job. Yet the experience taught him much about himself and running an organisation. His strength is as an innovator and entrepreneur who can pursue change and fast growth. He is less useful in an organisation that defers to its history.

To that end, trying to tinker with the Brotherhood's proud 70-year heritage was always going to be a tough assignment. It was a case of "we've always done it this way".

Frances says: "I found it much more difficult to be Nic... If it had been for-profit, I'd have gone, 'Listen guys, the goal is clear because we are for-profit and we are going to change' and everyone would have said 'yes'. But we had a heritage to safeguard."

Building on themes he discussed as a keynote speaker at an Australian Institute of Management lecture late last year, Frances says it is essential for business leaders to be up-front about their goals before taking on an executive role. And it is important to recognise the environment to which one is best suited; in his case small, dynamic businesses of the type he ran in Britain.

"In those I didn't worry about who I was because they were mine," he says. "I would go out and be Nic and some people didn't like it and some people did... I actually am somebody who will radically change things and that will radically upset people both externally and internally."

easybeinggreen fits the mould perfectly for Frances. He and his team have set some ambitious goals: to help 70 per cent of Australian households cut their energy and water consumption by 30 per cent in the next 10 years; and to establish easybeinggreen as the leading environmental service provider to households.

Frances feels confident that those benchmarks are all attainable. He worries, however, that many companies have failed to heed the message of triple bottom line management. He breaks organisations into three broad groups:

  • one in 10 are at the cutting edge socially or environmentally and regard triple bottom line principles as part of their core business strategy (he cites Visy for its commitment to packaging and recycling, and Toyota for its low-emission car, the Prius);
  • the next 30 to 40 per cent of companies embrace good corporate citizenship and use it to the benefit of the community and the company (for example, IAG Insurance backs life-saving initiatives through the Red Cross that result in fewer deaths and fewer insurance payouts); and
  • the rest, for whom it is business as usual and for whom profits come first (he cites ExxonMobil, which he says is reaping enormous profits from higher oil prices at the expense of the environment).

As a CEO, Frances likes to work with equals; he delegates to trusted colleagues and the organisation benefits from the sum of their parts.

"My role is to lead, set the parameters and to ensure good communication," he says.

"Truth-telling in a company is also crucial.

"It does require people being able to say, I've screwed up badly here today boss. And you go 'Good! How? What are we going to do about it?'."

Importantly, Frances continues to learn. Liaising with fellow leaders at the World Economic Forum has changed his approach: before he proffered good ideas and hoped someone would pick them up; now, as evidenced by the easybeinggreen initiative, he is prepared to make things happen.

As Frances says: "This time I'm doing it."