6 minute read 16 Dec. 2020

Change Happens

By Jenelle McMaster

EY Oceania Markets Leader

Transformation leader. Change ambassador. Passionate supporter of women in business. Lover of yoga and dance. Former army reservist. Mother of two. Metaphorical juggler.

6 minute read 16 Dec. 2020

Here's what I learned from great leaders in 2020...

They say hindsight is 20/20. Well 2020 hasn’t been great for hindsight. Well not just yet anyway. It feels like we’ve just been so busy being “in it” – we haven’t created the space for that perfect vision. The bushfire crisis rolled into a global health crisis and we found ourselves using new verbs like “quarantining” and “social distancing” and “tracking and tracing”. Scenario planning suddenly took priority and we started using a whole lot more of the alphabet, speculating what would happen in worlds of U, V, W and L-shaped recoveries. 

Every cliché known to human kind was rolled out with an apologetic groan or air quote, exposing our inability to find better words to describe this “unprecedented change” in this “volatile world” that would require us to adapt and dare I say it, ”pivot”! Turns out these words become clichés for a reason. We saw the crisis of the pandemic fuel panic-buying and a flurry to figure out how to do life and work online. The adrenalin of change and innovation morphed into boredom, frustration, grief, indignation, relief, innovation. The reactions differed by individual, household, state and country as we all just tried to deal with it as best we could. 

While it’s been tough to find that space to move to a lens of hindsight, having an unexpected “Ctrl+Alt+Delete” on life as we’ve known it, has given pause for so many of us to reflect on what matters, how we operate, what we believe in. This year has delivered many unexpected things for us all, but for me personally, one of them was a podcast series I launched at the end of March 2020. What started out as a plan for six episodes talking about leading through change, ended up being a 21-episode series that coincided with us all, collectively, navigating the single biggest global change experiment of our time. I have had the opportunity to speak to an unbelievable line-up of reflective leaders and organisation/nation/ humanity-shifting change makers this year who have generously and candidly shared their stories and insights. 

So as the year draws to a close I find myself desperate to put pen to paper (fingertips to keys just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it), forcing myself to stop and reflect on how these people created movements out of moments, how they picked themselves up from mighty falls, how they led to victory, and how they led through defeat. 

They shifted mindsets, they changed behaviours, and in some instances, they entirely changed the game. I’ve had access to a treasure trove of insights, and here’s what I learned.

1. They know what it means to be human

We're all in the same storm but sailing different boats.
Jason Pellegrino
CEO, Domain

The leaders I spoke with understood and embraced the humanity in others and in themselves. They recognised that people see, experience and respond to things differently. They saw that some thrived in remote working, while others despised it. They observed people in their organisations operating at their best and most productive, while others struggled to function. They acknowledged it all and made it okay. They provided support without judgement. Their people felt seen and safe. 

The leaders I spoke with understood vulnerability. They shared some of their toughest and darkest moments – a suicide attempt, a drink-driving charge, a crippling neurological disease. They didn’t shy away from it. Instead they used it to make change happen; first for themselves and then for others. The leaders I spoke with recognised that there are the haves and the have-nots – and they took action to make it better. They were not content to watch the divide between these two groups widen as the pandemic made choices between men and women, abled and disabled, the technologically equipped versus the bereft, and between the vulnerable citizen and the powerful customer.

2. They are all types of courageous

This is not about trying to hold onto the world that was, but seeing the world as it could be.
Jono Nicholas
Managing Director and Founder, The Wellbeing Outfit

I see now that courage comes in all forms, and I was given so many wonderful examples of it. The courage to make decisions with imperfect and fast-changing information. The courage to unmake decisions when new information came to hand. The courage to take accountability for your own actions especially when you knew you could have gotten away with not doing that. The courage to disrupt your own thinking. The courage to hire people smarter than you. The courage to “crush convention and run to the roar”. The courage to sit with human suffering, to sit with discomfort, to listen to opposing opinions, to understand the grey. The courage to let go of the past – to honour what was, but to embrace what could be.

3. They are clear on their purpose and they dream big

A problem that is big, needs a solution that's bold. Big problems need big ideas.
Bronwyn King
Founder and CEO, Tobacco Free Portfolios

Many of these leaders have dared to dream and dream big. And those dreams – those big, hairy, audacious goals came from all different places. For some, like radiation oncologist Bronwyn King, her vision of saving one billion people from tobacco-related deaths came from an inspiring mentor, and a three-month placement in a lung cancer ward. 

For others like strategist and management consultant Byron Pirola, the big dreams - such as attaining a Nobel Peace Prize by age 30, were less about whether he could achieve it, and more about pushing himself far beyond the confines of the ordinary, and opening up new frontiers of possibilities. And regardless of whether these leaders did achieve their goals as they initially defined them, they all agreed that they found themselves in places and with achievements that they would never have thought possible - like convening a UN General Assembly with the sponsorship of a president and prime minister(!) or signing $USD 11 trillion to the Tobacco-Free Finance pledge (!!). None of this would have been possible without daring to dream big.

4. They use their difference as their superpower

My disability is one of my biggest assets... for every one thing that I can’t do, there are 10,000 other things that I can do... The Dylan in the wheelchair is a much better version of any other Dylan that could have ever lived.
Dylan Alcott
Paralympic and World Champion

So many of the leaders I spoke with found their strength in adversity. They found their voices in the oppression or pain that they faced, or that others around them faced. They learned to see their differences as their strengths, and they used those differences to stand out from the crowd, to elevate their voices above the noise, to be their superpower. 

Some, like Wendy Harmer, who grew up with a severe cleft palate and hair lip, chose to stare the issue down – put it up on the stage, throw humour at a serious situation – bringing levity to the brutal while still making the point loud and clear. Others, like Dylan Alcott, used his disability to role model an alternative path – to show what the realms of the possible are when obstacles like stigma, shame, poor access and lack of employment opportunities are removed. And others used their difference and disability to find innovation and alternate pathways, like microsurgeon James Muecke who, when faced with a neurological problem in his hand that would prevent him from performing surgeries, turned to advocacy for education to achieve his mission.

5. They are realistic optimists

We all need to accept the brutal facts right now. The world is absolutely in the midst of a major health crisis, many lives are going to be lost and the way we work and operate and socialise may never be the same again... but we will succeed, we will get through this... and it’s the period in the middle where we are balancing those two factors which we will be remembered for as leaders.
Dr Kirstin Ferguson
Non-Executive Director

Board director Dr Kirstin Ferguson lives by the “Stockdale Paradox” – a term coined by Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great”, based on the story of US Admiral Jim Stockdale who’d been held captive for eight years during the Vietnam war. His lesson from surviving when so many hopeful others hadn’t, was that you must retain the faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, while at the same time confronting the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. 

Whether the leaders I spoke with were familiar with the concept of Stockdale Paradox or not, so many of them embodied the very principle. They all were inherently optimistic people. But not that blind optimism made up of little more than hope and energy and a rallying war cry, but the kind of optimism which is driven by a belief that you will get through this but which is underwritten by facing the reality of situations, listening to trusted advice and planning well.

6. They are fearlessly transparent communicators

We have chosen to be incredibly transparent with our team. Like literally showing them the bridge. What is going to be required in terms of savings? What is going to be required in terms of revenue? What’s that pivot point? How is that going to look?
Naomi Simson
Entrepreneur, Founder RedBalloon

The leaders I spoke with were clear and unwavering in their guiding principles. For EY CEO Tony Johnson, the message during the pandemic was simple: “Save jobs, save lives”. But then Tony, and all the people I interviewed were prepared to be transparent about the situation – why hide from what we are all experiencing? They were raw and honest and real time in their communications. 

They communicated frequently and openly about what they knew, what they didn’t know, what they were trying to figure out, and how they were going about figuring it out. And the more transparent and inclusive they were in their communications, the more the trust in them grew, and the more they trusted their people to be able to handle the information provided to them. And the more the trust grew, the more permission these leaders had to change course as new information came to hand.

7. They understand the role technology can play to stay connected

What would you do with the company if it worked for you (rather than the other way around), and how would you direct this business and this platform to achieve things that really matter?
Steve Worrall
Managing Director, Microsoft Australia

The leaders I spoke with were clear and unwavering in their guiding principles. For EY CEO Tony Johnson, the message during the pandemic was simple: “Save jobs, save lives”. But then Tony, and all the people I interviewed were prepared to be transparent about the situation – why hide from what we are all experiencing? They were raw and honest and real time in their communications. 

They communicated frequently and openly about what they knew, what they didn’t know, what they were trying to figure out, and how they were going about figuring it out. And the more transparent and inclusive they were in their communications, the more the trust in them grew, and the more they trusted their people to be able to handle the information provided to them. And the more the trust grew, the more permission these leaders had to change course as new information came to hand.

8. They tune in - and seek to understand the views of all

Listen, listen, listen. Listen really deeply - just try to really tune in.
Wendy Harmer
Radio and television host, author, comedian

These leaders do not create echo chambers around themselves. They don’t just seek the validation of like- minded others, nor do they summarily dismiss the views of the naysayers and dissenters. They have a spirit of generosity in them that assumes good intention in others, and therefore seeks to understand what the different perspectives are and what has driven the views that people take. 

They don’t judge, shame or cancel people for having different views. They don’t assume ignorance. In understanding the rationale and context for the views of others, they have a greater appreciation of what their drivers are, the lens with which they look at the world, the needs that they seek to be met. With a genuine desire to understand and to educate, they respond to dissenters with curiosity and kindness. 

As Liz Broderick so eloquently put it: “Build the bridges of understanding between diametrically opposed views so we can find some common ground from which to reform and change.” It takes empathy and humility. They find a common ground from which there is now a space for the conversation to go, and from which with a shared goal, they can work to make change happen.

9. They are students and teachers

Every day is a training day at Dominos... you're either providing it or receiving it.
Don Meij
CEO, Dominos

Bronwyn King lives by a philosophy of never underestimating intelligence and never overestimating knowledge. It’s that philosophy that gave her the confidence, as a medical practitioner, to take on the finance industry. To earnestly learn the language, the business models, the incentives and the levers of influence. And to earnestly teach those in finance about the role that superannuation investment decisions play in enabling tobacco-related death and disease. 

She never assumed poor intention and she never short-changed the intelligence of any parties – not hers, not theirs. Just always working to lift the information, education and knowledge of all. The leaders I spoke with have fostered a learning mindset and muscle in their organisation. Whether it’s “Coffees with Don” sessions alongside book exchanges and study groups at Dominos, or “Wisdom Wednesday” sessions at Melbourne Storm, these leaders are both mentor and mentee - hungry to learn, and willing to teach.

10. They are storytellers

I’m the keeper of thousands of stories... when I step up and advocate for change, it’s not just me Liz Broderick speaking. It’s Liz Broderick fuelled by the thousands of instances of human inequality that I’ve seen.
Elizabeth Broderick
independent expert and Special Rapporteur, UN Human Rights Council

Across the 20 interviews, I heard so many staggering facts, so much information about so many industries, and so many stories. I remember the stories. Maybe not all the finer details. But certainly, how they made me feel – the despair, the joy, the hope, the rage. These leaders understood that change happens when the head and the heart are connected. Yes, we need the facts and we need the stats: they help us understand how pervasive the issues are, how big the costs, how far the impacts reach. But while the facts can highlight the issue of many, the stories can speak to the power of one. 

One story about a 12-year-old girl in an acid camp who will be forever disfigured because she chose not to marry a 40- year old man is a story I cannot unhear. It’s a powerful story of one to exemplify the shocking issue of many. It’s the stories of how inequality has played out for young girls that could well be our daughters, or of how tobacco has taken the lives of people who could well be our brothers or how mental illness has stricken so many who could well be us. Breathing life into the why - turning a stat into a story, turning a name into a face, turning an emotion into an action – that is when change happens. 

Across all these interviews, I have learnt of the enormous capacity we have as human beings to deal with and seek change. I learned that we have the capacity to care about multiple things. I learned about the power of individual actions to inspire and contribute to collective action. We may not yet be best positioned for hindsight, but I know that I for one, feel equipped with some solid foresight for 2021. Bring it on!

Summary

Jenelle McMaster, EY Oceania Markets Leader, reflects on what she's learned from great leaders in 2020 through her conversations on the Change Happens podcast.

 

About this article

By Jenelle McMaster

EY Oceania Markets Leader

Transformation leader. Change ambassador. Passionate supporter of women in business. Lover of yoga and dance. Former army reservist. Mother of two. Metaphorical juggler.