RSM Australia

Women on Boards - Personal brand with Margaret Jackson AC

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The following is a synopsis of Margaret Jackson's presentation from our October 2015 Melbourne Women on Boards lunch.

Bold. Brave. A risk-taker. Intelligent. Determined. Tenacious. Courageous. A trailblazer. A woman of great integrity. These are some of the words that are often used by others to describe Margaret Jackson AC.

Ask Margaret how she might describe herself, and she will tell you that it is terribly hard to talk about one’s own brand, but rather easier for others to do it. Margaret said, “I can’t tell you what my brand is. That’s in the eye of the beholder, and no amount of spin I could put on it would convince you if it wasn’t backed up by achievement and wasn’t believable.”

How interesting it is to note that while we “own” our personal brand, it is others who define it – that it is not how we see ourselves, but how we are perceived by others. We had the pleasure of hearing the Margaret Jackson story at our recent Women on Boards luncheon, and were privileged to hear Margaret’s own perspective on her career to date and her personal brand – a brand that has been built through perseverance and a very strong sense of self.

According to Margaret, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame gives you all the insights you would need about branding. Margaret was particularly impressed and inspired by the personal stories of the legendary sports people who surrounded her at the recent Induction Awards & Gala Dinner, which included netball champion Anne Sargeant, swimmers Liesel Jones and Priya Cooper, cricketer Ricky Ponting, and motorcyclist Casey Stoner.

Australians tend to relate to elite sports more than to elite business. But as she watched the sports people receive their awards that night, it dawned on Margaret that the similarities between the two spheres are many and obvious. Margaret was firstly struck by their modesty. Here were people who had strove for and achieved excellence in extremely competitive fields but who, when given the spotlight, chose instead to talk about their team mates, their coaches and their determination to give back to the grassroots sports organisations that nurtured them.

Interestingly, they also talked about their mothers – who took them to training and to games, prepared the morning teas, coached their junior teams, umpired, supported them whether they succeeded or failed, and reminded them of the right values when they needed reining in. And all of them talked about effort. Some in receiving their awards seemed on the verge of tears, possibly because the struggle to be the best in their fields is now over – the back-breaking effort has been worth it, and the sacrifice of the best years of their lives has been vindicated.

Building up their brand as sports people – with its blend of achievements, excellence, technique, skills, supreme determination and, finally, modesty – has to be done over time through consistent performance. There’s just no other way. And when you think about it, it’s exactly the same in business.

Margaret started her career in business with no particular advantages in life. There was no family brand to speak of, and the small country primary and public high schools that she attended did not give her access to any great network. And although Margaret attended university, in those days it wasn’t usual for women, even those with good degrees, to step into big jobs. Getting a foot on the corporate ladder involved a lot of pro-bono work and a lot of superior work as a junior in her earliest years. And so, like a sportswoman, Margaret had to get out there, compete and perform. Which she did – beginning with joining the Student Service Committee of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and ending up as its State President and on its National Council.

When Margaret moved into the “real” business world, she had to learn through managing crises. Like athletes who also grow through disappointments, Margaret had to learn how to survive and move to the next level.

These early skills from her twenties were the ones that Margaret built on gradually, and still serve her well today.

With so many years of experience working for some of the great Australian brands, Margaret naturally remembers the many great and extraordinary successes with fondness. However, what stands out in her memory are the really tough times when “my back was to the wall and I cursed the situation I was in, hoping for it never to repeat”. Because it is in overcoming these situations – at times crisis situations – and learning to succeed both as a business person and as a person, that provided the most satisfaction and the greatest pleasure.

Margaret recalls her first big work crisis, or rather gruelling campaign, when as a partner at KPMG she had to spend six months “in the bunker” with then Premier Joan Kirner and members of the Reserve Bank dealing with the collapse of the Pyramid Building Society. There was a lot at stake – the future viability of the whole of the non-banking financial sector and the life savings of many thousands of people. What was obvious to Margaret was that the Pyramid collapse had been foreseeable. And indeed some had foreseen it. But no one had done anything about it. The vital lesson that Margaret took from that experience was that in business, problems are often obvious (especially if you ask the right questions and do your job responsibly), and it is your duty to put your hand up and address problems before they become disasters. In Pyramid’s case a financial institution collapsed, many people lost their life savings, the regional city of Geelong was pushed into a painful recession, and a state government was discredited and destroyed. Someone should have stood up.

Margaret’s next strong memory is of her days at the Victorian Transport Accident Commission (“TAC”). She became Chairman of the TAC just as the then Kennett Government wanted to privatise it. With her mainstream economic belief that the private sector generally ran things more efficiently than the public sector, it initially seemed like an intelligent reform to make. However, when Margaret interrogated the situation closely, and was informed by the numbers coming out of the financial modelling or analysis of the sale, it became obvious to her that not everything was right. It wasn’t a case of fraud or mismanagement, but of moral direction. A number of people reached the conclusion that if the privatisation went ahead, premiums would go up, the number of people insured would go down, and the number of accidents, injuries and fatalities would probably increase. Even in the face of this knowledge, most in government wanted to proceed with the privatisation. This conclusion contradicted Margaret’s economic instincts and the evidence that she had uncovered. She opposed the continuance of the privatisation with much back-room activity and tenacity, and was eventually proven right. What Margaret learned from that episode was to never give up when you know you are doing the right thing. Ideology and “group-think” cannot be your master. You are paid for your judgement and honesty, and to be responsible to the people that you serve. In the case of the TAC, it was the people of Victoria to whom Margaret owed her duty.

BHP was a different experience altogether from the civilised world of state administration. Australian business has come a long way in the last quarter of a century in so many ways. But when Margaret joined the “Big Australian”, she found a culture almost completely at odds with the needs of the 1990s, never mind of today. She encountered a company driven by unusually developed and uncontrollable egos, hierarchical structures and a culture which had its origins in the 19th century. Margaret found from the get-go that, as a Director as well as a woman, she had to be brave and tenacious. She was determined to bring about the change that was long overdue. Many however wanted nothing to change. To them the structures and behaviours were just right. But Margaret felt that a great company with a great brand had lost its way, because those responsible for leading it had failed to fulfil their responsibilities. So Margaret and her team set about re-structuring the company. The Chairman and the CEO retired, and over $9 billion of assets were written off to get the company back on track. $9 billion is a lot of money; even back then it wasn’t small change for a mining giant. Writing it off hurt, but it had to be done. And the result was worth it, as BHP entered the mining boom in good shape.

By this time in her business career Margaret felt that she had attained a degree of knowledge and experience to make a real difference in any business environment that she found herself in.

In parallel to her BHP experience Margaret saw similar attributes at the ANZ Bank. Bad decision-making had been taking place over the previous ten years when Margaret joined the business in the early 90s. ANZ and Westpac had both allowed themselves to become far too exposed to a developing property bubble. According to Margaret, any experienced businessperson, or indeed anyone with a bit of historical knowledge and wisdom, knows that bubbles burst and that it’s best not to gamble too strongly with them. Again, experienced people failed to ask the right questions about the bank’s exposure, although the evidence was there. The executives didn’t ask the right people the right questions. They didn’t do their duty.

It is without doubt that the company Margaret is most associated with is Qantas, where she was a Director and then the first female Chairman. Margaret will always be remembered as the first and youngest chairman of an ASX top 100 company. For most of her term at Qantas, there were only two ASX 100 companies with female Chairs. There were no female CEOs at that time, and only five per cent of senior managers were female.

During her fifteen years on the Board and eight years as Chairman, Margaret experienced many extraordinary events: the acquisition of Australian Airlines; the trade sale to British Airways; the float on the Australian Stock Exchange; a major fleet re-order (the Airbus aircrafts A380 and A320 were ordered for the first time); September 11th; the Ansett collapse; the formation and launch of Jetstar; Bali I; Bali II; the Asian financial crisis; the bird flu epidemic or scare; and the private equity bid. Each issue was complex, trying and extremely important because they involved people’s jobs and their lives, as well as the strength of a great company and a great Australian brand.

Margaret’s lessons from her Qantas career could be summed up as follows: The thing that any business or public organisation requires to respond well to a crisis or a sudden and dramatic change in its environment, is exactly the same thing it needs when there is no crisis: leadership.

In a crisis, bold and brave decisions often need to be taken. To make no decision is a decision in itself. Leaders see the opportunity, make a decision and execute. And if the decision is wrong or inadequate, they have the confidence to admit it, and act decisively to rectify it. Clarity of vision is needed. It needs support for the organisation’s people. People need the resources to succeed – the right technologies, the right training, and the right linkages.

Not everyone has the skills or temperament for crisis situations. At Qantas some people definitely thrived while others floundered. A crisis is a time when great leaders show that they understand their people and know best how to manage them. And it needs great communication. Strong leaders keep open the lines of communication – they talk to those they trust and are open to gathering information from the best available source, wherever it might be. Their job is to help people make rational choices, instead of being driven purely by irrational fears.

Today, Margaret still plays a major company leadership role – at Spotless, Ansett Aviation Training and others, as well as in the charitable, educational and cultural sectors. It’s nice to now be able to give back to the community that helped her succeed. And it’s also good to know that the lessons that she has learned are the right ones and that, if followed, they tend to work. It really does take experience – and all those sports legends are exactly right about that. And because it takes experience, Margaret was keen to leave a couple of final thoughts with us.

The first is this: as you’re gathering this experience, you have to learn to be kind both to yourself and to others. Because gathering experience inevitably means making mistakes. That’s how you learn, and it is how those around you learn. You have to understand that the learning curve for others, as well as your own, is complex. Be generous. It will pay and definitely help develop a great brand for you.

The second is the need to make tough decisions. Life, and especially business, can be a little like gardening. You plant things; you nurture them; you watch the garden develop. But occasionally, stepping back, you realise that some plants and flowers aren’t where they should be. You have to have the courage to pull them up and start something new. Courage will help define your brand like no other. Along with wisdom, knowledge and generosity, it is the quality that your public will most appreciate and admire. Few successful people anchor their brand to one spot or company forever.  You’re allowed to move on. And when you do, you are giving your company the opportunity to make a fresh beginning, and giving someone else the start they deserve. According to Margaret, she has been the beneficiary of that generosity herself. Looking back on her business life, she realises that she has had an extraordinary personal journey with some wonderful experiences, where she has met some terrific people and helped develop some great companies with great brands.

In her closing remark, Margaret advises that your brand will depend on your achievements, especially how you respond to challenges and sometimes crises, and whether you are prepared to be the one to stick your hand up, speak out and take responsibility because and whenever it is necessary.