Ann Sherry

Switching from executive to non-executive mode is an adjustment, but I started with smaller companies and boards while I was still an executive so I understood the different roles. The biggest surprise as a non-executive director is how hard it is to really understand what’s happening in an organisation when you only engage with it monthly or quarterly. You rely heavily on the content of papers and interaction with business leaders.

To be effective, the non-executive director roles require an understanding of the business and its strategy. But you can’t run the business — you suggest and recommend, but you do not do it. I’ve also learned that it always requires more time than suggested on paper. Being well organised is a prerequisite for me to juggle roles as executive chairman of Carnival Australia and a board member of nine organisations. I had no qualms accepting a directorship with NAB [in October]; I would not have done so if I did. The reality is, having been on the executive for so long at Westpac, it’s hard to be seen as independent.

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As an executive, one of the most surprising things I discovered is that some leaders do not take leadership seriously. I assumed we had all read the same books, been to the same courses and were equally ambitious for our businesses. I was probably a bit naïve. However, I’ve since dealt with leaders who are not all that interested in working with me as a stakeholder, not all that collaborative and not at all ambitious for their business or wanting to push boundaries. Some don’t seem to care much.

I used to think that by the time you got to the top, people assumed you had become CEO because you were great at what you do. But when I first joined Carnival Australia [in 2007, as CEO], some people talked to me as if I didn’t know what I was doing. It was probably a combination of me challenging the status quo and not coming from the shipping industry, overlaid with being female — a triple whammy. Lots of people are very comfortable with the status quo. I’ve also learned that when you have to deal with really tough issues, being a leader is the loneliest job in the world. At the end of my first week at Carnival, one of our ships was crippled by a big wave in the Pacific Ocean. We had to get 1800 passengers to Auckland within 24 hours and send the ship off to dry dock in Brisbane. Everyone steps up, but they’re all still looking at you as the person leading the business. All the calls came to me.

The way to get something done, if you’re clear about the value, is to just do it and say sorry later.

I was away for the weekend, screaming out to the family to pack the car to go home. I just had that moment of realising there’s no “phone a friend” in this situation.

You can’t overthink anything. Even though I’d only been there a week, crisis management has the same elements in all industries. It’s about not disappearing, but stepping forward and having the confidence to trust your instincts. You learn the best of your organisation in those moments.

I had to really lean on people and everyone kicked into gear. You don’t often get to test people that early in your job.

Many of the leadership qualities required today are the same as when I started out: be prepared to front up, be empathetic and decisive, think about the future, and be the person others want to follow. What’s changed is that the world is moving so much faster and technology is reshaping the nature of work and business. You have to be resilient and adaptable, and look at the world in a 360-degree way — not just scan your own industry.

A lot of leaders have stayed in the same company or industry forever. They know it deeply and well, but they don’t know what’s happening elsewhere. For example, Airbnb now has more rooms than the biggest hotel chains combined. You’ve got to be able to tap dance and sing at the same time.

Before I became a CEO, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a more senior colleague at Westpac, who said, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission”.

Big corporates have fairly diffused accountability, which can make us risk-averse and slow our decision-making. She said the way to get something done, if you’re clear about the value, is to just do it and say sorry later. If you wait to get permission, you’ll never get anything done.