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The 7 secrets to Gail Kelly’s success

The 7 secrets to Gail Kelly’s success

Gail Kelly, who will stand down from her groundbreaking role running Westpac next year, says her journey from teacher to bank teller to chief executive, “doesn’t seem conceivable or possible or probable”. But in this candid speech she gave at the St George Bank Foundation lunch in Sydney in August, Kelly revealed the seven life lessons that helped her smash the glass ceiling and learn to lead


This does go back to living in a small family, a happy family, in Pretoria and the very positive influence of my mum and my dad, particularly my dad, who was inherently a very optimistic person.

He had that wonderful flavour of, you can choose in your life how you respond to situations and you should actively choose to be positive, to see the world through a glass-half-full perspective. You should choose even in difficult times to look for the learning, the insights, the opportunities, the next steps.

And it’s a life skill, not just a business skill. I sometimes have to remind myself as I am going home at night and have had a really tough day that I can choose how I walk into my home. I can choose to be warm and embracing and welcoming, or I can choose to walk in and reflect in my tone and style that I had a bad day and everyone else is going to suffer a little bit because of it.


If you love what you do, you’ll do more of it; doing more of it, you’ll gather more confidence, more energy and get better at it. That builds more confidence and energy and you love it more. And you grow in your capability and skills. And the reverse is true.

I definitely had a period where I was in that mode. This is the time when I was a school teacher. Much as I loved teaching and I love education, I was too young, I think, for the environment that I found myself in and I was very unhappy as a young person, 21 years old.

I was teaching at a school in Johannesburg and I didn’t feel confident in what I was doing, I didn’t feel like I was doing a good job. I was teaching boys who didn’t want to be there, I was teaching subjects I didn’t want to teach, it was a whole combination of things. I just lost confidence, I lost a sense of my self esteem, I did it worse as a consequence and I all of a sudden ended up feeling deeply unhappy.

It came to a crunch point the day I’ll always remember. It was a winter sports afternoon in Johannesburg and I was on duty in this clubhouse and I was [thinking], ‘Thank goodness, it’s the end of the day.’ And I was on my way to the bus stop. And this young boy ran up to me and said, ‘M’am, I’ve left my jumper inside. May I please go and get it?’

And I stomped back upstairs and I was the worst kind of school marm. I shook my finger at him and told him this was inconvenient and I told him he should think ahead, and I opened the door with a great amount of noise and stood there in the door and watched him scurry to and fro. And then he went downstairs I shut the door behind him, with again a lot of noise and flurry, and walked downstairs and I reached the bus stop.

And I sat down at the bus stop and I just felt so ashamed. I thought, ‘What has happened to me, this person who loves people and enjoys teaching and who has a positive view of her life? What has happened to me, that this is the way I am behaving, this is the way I am reacting to some small situation?’

I realised it was affecting my life and it was affecting the way I felt about myself and I recognised that I needed to make a change either in my attitude or in what I was doing. I felt I wasn’t coping in what I was doing. And I ended up at the end of that term leaving teaching and ultimately joining the bank.


I suspect that [this] will apply more to women than men, though I suspect it applies to us all. Be courageous, and be prepared to take the opportunities and the challenges that come your way. In my experience, women like to be really 100 per cent ready before they put their hand up for opportunities. My advice and my encouragement to you, over life journeys and career journeys is put your hand up and be bold and be courageous. Be prepared to back yourself, be prepared to have a go.

It’s been trouble for me all my life, the sense of gosh, ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not adequate, I’m not going to do this well. I might fail, what happens if I fail?’

Every time I’ve met this career opportunity in a life sense, I’ve had to pause, stop, dig deep, take my courage in my hands, actively say I’m going to back myself, actively say there are others out there who are going to support me, there are others out there that want me to win.

I was in South Africa, 34 or 35 years old at that really critical time in your career, I was general manager of human resources of one of the divisions of the Nedcor Group. The organisation was going through structural change, so I knew my job would change.

The CEO of the group [Richard Laubscher] called and said would I like to have a cup of tea with him. He sat me down and said, ‘I would like you to think really carefully about your next career decision. I’d like you to think about whether you might like to take the opportunity to be the CEO of the card business.’

I said, ‘I don’t know anything about that business.’ And he said, ‘Yes I know, but you can learn.’ Then I went through how you make money in that business.

He started to rattle off about issuing income and fee income and merchant service fees. I thought, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I thought, ‘I don’t know anything about technology either and it sounds like there’s a lot of technology that underpins the card business.’

But I said thank you and went home and spoke to my trusty husband, Alan, and said, ‘What do I do?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you give it some good hard thought. Richard clearly backs you, the organisation is clearly going to back you.’

I would be breaking through a glass ceiling in that organisation. At that time there were no women in senior line roles in any bank in South Africa and, of course, including Nedcor. I was also coming from the retail part of the business,which was seen as the soft part of the bank and even more I was coming from HR.

I was a young mum, I had four children who were five and under. I thought, ‘Can I do this?’ It was really one of those digging deep and taking your courage in your hands [moments] and thinking, ‘If the organisation is prepared to invest in me and back me, I am prepared to have a go?’ I rang Richard the next day and said, ‘If you back me, I am in this 100 per cent and I’m going to give you everything I’ve got and give this a really good go.’

You can imagine the mistakes I made and the lessons that I had there. There was no transition. It was just, from day one you are now the CEO with no experience and knowledge of that at all.

It was all men in this business. It was a real culture shock for me. It was more the Afrikaans side of the bank as well, so culturally I was not equipped for this. But I reflect on it now, that if I had not dug deep then, if I had not made that call then, taken that opportunity then, there is absolutely no way I would be here today in the role I am today.


It’s become obvious to me [to ask] are the right people in the right roles? [This is ] the single most important factor for leadership success and for organisational success. I’m not alone in evidencing this comment and some of you will have read Good to Great, by Jim Collins. What he does over five years is research 1500 companies who are deemed to be good companies and he looks at what is it that distinguishes those that are good from those that become truly great. And he comes to the conclusion, which was a surprise to him and the researchers at the time, that the single most important ingredient was what he called having the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. It’s both sides of the equation that you need to work on.

If I think of the mistakes I have made in my career and things that I would have done differently had I had my time again, often they go to people where I should have acted more quickly; I should have recognised more quickly that this person was the wrong person on the bus for various reasons.


It is important to be able to communicate in a crystal clear way the vision and purpose of the organisation. This is how banks lost their way going into the [global financial crisis]. What for them was shareholder value, being successful in financial terms, [but they] lost sense of the why: what is the purpose of the bank, in society, why do we exist?

At Westpac, our vision is to be one of the most respected companies in the world: helping our people, our customers, our communities to prosper and grow. The communication of this is key. I talk about it everywhere and expect our team members to know and understand our vision and strategy.

In the last two employee engagement surveys, 97 per cent of our people say ‘yes, I understand how the work I do supports the vision of the company’. That’s fantastic for alignment and for productivity.


This is an essential ingredient for being successful in your life, as well as your business; practising generosity of spirit in the way you go about your life and indeed your leadership role in work. If you believe in practising generosity of spirit, at heart you believe in the power of an individual to make a difference and at heart you treat individuals with deep respect and want to see others flourish.

The people who do not practice generosity of spirit are selfish. People who do not practice generosity of spirit are binary: black or white, right or wrong; they are quick to judge, intolerant, they shoot messengers, they take credit for work that others do.


A life lesson for me is make sure that you live a whole life. I very often come across people who are at the pinnacle of their career, they are immensely successful, they’ve climbed the mountain, they are the best they can be in their job or their profession and yet they are deeply unhappy.

If you get to an environment where that gets talked about these people cry: grown men my age and more, in tears. Because of what they have lost along the way: a relationship, a partnership, they may not be connected to their children, maybe they’ve lost their health, maybe they’ve got no friends. They have no interests, they’ve lost sight of who they are, their spirituality, their inner person.

Do not let this happen to you. You need to make sure you live a whole life which means be really clear on the priorities in your life and invest in them all the way.

I am crystal clear and I make sure that all of my people in Westpac know I am crystal clear: my priority is my family. There is nothing more important to me than my family.