Q:You have had three roles at Lendlease and you have moved quickly to the top. How did you approach the shift from investment banking to corporate?

A: When I joined Lendlease, I spent a lot of time listening and I spent a lot of time learning the culture. I initially led a small team of 30-odd people and I spent time with them and asked them what they thought they needed to succeed. I listened and carefully considered the strategic landscape for a good four or five months before I was in a position to give clear guidance as to where I thought we should be going. That was an important initial step and I would encourage anyone transitioning from one industry to another or one career to a different career to do that.

Q:How different did you find it being a CEO in those first few years? What did you have to adapt or change when you started in the role?

A: You need to be able to translate management across a big team and if you’re running a business like Lendlease, which is geographically diverse, you also need to be able to structure your management team and style to be able to influence broadly. At the same time, you need to have line of sight into critical issues. It has always surprised me how much the way the CEO and the senior executive team behaves can influence 12,000 people, many of whom you may not have met, because culture really does start from the top. I had a mission to work out what it was that made Lendlease such a great organisation because, quite frankly, it was difficult from the outside to understand what that secret recipe was. I believe the essence of our organisational strength is now very well captured in our vision to create the best places. My job is to ensure the entire team is aligned with this vision and our core values, and has the tools we need to achieve it. The other thing I would say is that the people issues take up a much more significant proportion of my time than I anticipated, and most CEOs coming in for the first time may find that surprising.
Lendlease Board 2016

Q: When you are looking at the longer-term picture, how important is having some external support and advice?

A: From a strategic perspective, external input on the macro issues which may affect your business is critical. From a personal perspective, it’s also important to have some external sounding boards. One aspect of a CEO role that is obviously quite different to other roles is the nature of the relationship with the board. When I first took over as CEO, I engaged a coach who was a NED because even though I had interacted with boards—and the Lendlease board—in my previous roles, I most wanted to get a perspective from the NED side of the table so I could understand what the directors were looking for and how to best manage those relationships. My advice to anyone who is thinking about coaches or mentors is to be sure to pick someone who can help you with what you really need, not just someone who tells you how to improve the way you live your life.

Q:When you are succession planning, how important is it for candidates to have variety in a career—be in a line role, a small business, a start-up, or a function?

A: I think it’s very important, and I have made it clear to my team that the person I would be likely to suggest as an internal successor to myself would need to have been in a functional role and a line role within Lendlease. There are very different requirements for both roles.

Q:Are there any experiences, either in your career or elsewhere, that you draw on to be the leader you are now?

A: There were quite a few. I came from a working-class background and I had to put myself through university. When I finished school, I worked part-time in an accounting firm for three years while in law school and after that I worked for a bookmaker at the races for five years, first pencilling, then as a runner. Because I had to make my own way, when I started my career as a lawyer, I believe I had a more worldly view than some of the other graduates. I was more commercial and numerate, and I think that is why I did not stay in the law, which was highly specialised, for that long. I wanted to get my hands on the deals so I moved into banking.

Q: When you were working for the bookmaker, you must have observed the fine lines between success and failure, winning and losing, and the consequences of risk.

A: That was a long time ago, but I really believe it was a great early grounding in assessing risk. I think my commercial acumen was materially enhanced by that job because in a split second you had to be able to assess mathematically whether the risks were in your favour or they weren’t. When I look at a set of numbers, I can get to the answer quickly because I am so familiar with looking at numbers and making quick decisions. I think exposure to a wide range of people was also helpful. There is no doubt it has given me a broader perspective.

Q:What else do leaders need to learn?

A: Never underestimate the importance of what you don’t know. You’re only as good as the team around you and if you don’t have the right team then you are probably going to fail.

This was originally part of Korn Ferry’s ‘The C-Suite – moving up and moving in’ report.