Denver, CO 13 May 2021
EVERYONE makes mistakes.
Chances are, your boss has made more than you. Here, six Aussie chief executives reveal some of their early blunders, and importantly, what they learned in the process.
Phil Offer, CEO, Medical Director
“Before moving into e-health I worked in telecommunications for more than 16 years. The great thing about the industry’s pace is you need to make calls on issues all the time — which is code for, things don’t always go to plan.
In the early noughties, I reviewed pricing for the lead handsets that the acquisition teams were recommending. Back then, ‘big data’ and ‘algorithms’ weren’t even buzzwords, so demand planning was more art than science.
The team decided to capitalise on a new Nokia handset and drop it to a lower price to stimulate sales. We thought it would go well and modelled the sales upside and short-term impact from the handset subsidy.
What we didn’t do enough of was model the scenarios on how popular and how many units needed to move to generate incremental sales. The move was extremely popular. We’re not talking midnight launches with fanboys, but we sold out before the promotion end date.
We ran out of stock and exceeded the handset promotion’s budget by an impressive amount. Our competitors also tipped off the regulators, who wrote about not taking the advertising down fast enough and required undertakings.
I learnt from this to test new ideas from several sides. There’s a moment of truth with most new ideas that you can’t easily forecast. That’s what makes it exciting, but it helps to know what you might do if it goes really well — or badly — and the ‘please explain’ comes.”
Dr Alice Killen, CEO, Skin & Cancer Foundation Australia
“It is a truism, you learn from your mistakes and also through difficult situations.
Twenty years ago, when I was newly appointed CEO of a private Catholic hospital, a newspaper contacted me as they had heard that we videoed surgical procedures.
Trying to be helpful, I carefully explained the concept that we certainly did video arthroscopies (a minimally invasive procedure used for diagnosing and treating joint problems). We had strict protocols and consent was obtained from patients.
I outlined the many benefits for the patient because the surgeon could use this as a diagnostic tool: following up with the patient, showing them what was happening, going through the pathology and the proposed therapy.
Unfortunately, the headline in the newspaper was, ‘Have your vasectomy videoed at the Mater’. This is one procedure never actually performed in a Catholic hospital. The article was then taken up by the Catholic Weekly, the religious communities and other parties committed to upholding the philosophy and values of Catholic Healthcare.
To say it caused a major uproar is an understatement. Fortunately, the Board and Religious Sisters who owned the Hospital were very understanding and supportive as we explained the situation to key stakeholders.
The key lesson I learned from this was the importance of clear communication. Never assume that people have understood what you have said, especially when using industry-specific terminology. Confirm in writing if needed.
It also shows how problems can arise when you least expect it. Even a simple discussion can get out of hand.
When you are faced with an issue, get a team around to help solve the problem. Many heads are often better than one. People with diverse skills can look at a situation objectively and offer a range of options to identify the best solution.
It taught me that sometimes it is best to let an issue settle. I naturally wanted a retraction from the newspaper but the Board, especially the very wise Chair, advised “not to give these issues air” and to let it go. It soon became old news.
And at the end of the day, ‘time heals’. Things that seem very bad today are forgotten in a very short time. Just get on with it and know that things will get better.”
Erica Westbury, Managing Director, Norwest Recruitment
“Gee, where would I start? There are so many mistakes! Actually let me start off by saying I like, and encourage, mistakes in my team — otherwise we know we aren’t stretching ourselves or innovating enough.
I suppose if I look back on regrets it would be I didn’t get into the recruitment industry earlier. When I worked in London I was offered recruitment roles regularly and I was never interested, but with hindsight I should have connected the dots and taken the plunge earlier. I love people, I love business and I love finding solutions for people.
I have wasted a lot of my time and other people’s money perhaps, working in jobs that weren’t ever going to get the best me. I’ve been in the industry since 1995 and I still happily bounce out of bed on a Monday morning. Clearly recruiters identified my personality profile earlier than I did.”
Paul Higgins, CEO, DINGO Software
“I guess that one lesson I learned the hard way, is if something is not working and you have given it a pretty good go, it is better to kill it fast and move on. My mistake was flogging a dead horse!
Between 2000 and 2005, we received an equity investment from a major oil company, who saw a great strategic fit with what we did. Basically, they saw how our technology could help their customers and in turn give them a strategic competitive advantage. Things were going great for the first year with joint press releases, and some great wins for both parties.
Then this already huge oil company merged with another giant. I thought, this is fantastic — we now have twice the opportunity! Well we found out that this ‘merger of equals’, was actually one company acquiring the other, and the company who bought our partner didn’t have much value for the strategy of the company they bought — in fact they thought they (and we) had it dead wrong. Unfortunately, this included all the things we were investing in and ramping up to take advantage of the new ‘opportunity’.
I was so excited by this grand vision and the potential of the opportunity, that I overlooked the reality that their new management team fundamentally didn’t buy into it. I convinced myself that they would eventually ‘see the light’; all they needed was more time.
Well, a couple of years into this and after many frustrating attempts to evangelise them to my view of the world, one of my brave team named the elephant in the room at our annual planning sessions. He basically called out the fact that they weren’t going to support our vision, and we were spending a lot of time and effort for no return. “Why are we doing this?” he asked, and there was a very long silence in the room.
So we killed off about a third of our business to focus on the other two thirds. This is our business today and we have been able to focus on being the best in the world at that. In fact, we recently received a prestigious industry innovation award.
I do look back and think, ‘well that was a big waste of effort’, but also the reality of business is that many things fail. The trick is to fail fast, course correct, and move on. Oh, and listen to the brave people in your team who call out the elephant in the room.”
Stephanie Christopher, CEO, The Executive Connection
“The biggest learning curve in my early career is related to talent management and stems from one particular occasion that was a key lesson for me. I rushed and hired an individual to fill a role only to discover very shortly after they were not the right fit for the organisation.
The learning curve for me was not to hire out of the need to fill a position quickly but spend the time finding the right talent with the key competencies and skills. If an individual’s performance is affecting the business it’s likely doing the same to the culture of the organisation.
In hindsight, I would have been better off bearing the pain of an unfilled role with additional work for me and my team rather than hire a person who was not the right fit.”
Anne Moore, CEO, PlanDo
“While I don’t have specific highs and lows to reflect on, 30 years in the changing world of work has given the opportunity to draw some interesting insights. I want to reflect on those ‘catch a rising star’ moments, the career highlights — the times I made the greatest leaps forward.
Find what you love. I was lucky enough to join a global technology company at a time when the world was being reshaped by technology — it was the ‘first platform’ — mainframes, emerging personal computers. I had a clear aspiration for where I wanted to be. I’d seen an opportunity in the Education team and I chased it down.
That decision to listen to my instincts paid off. It set the trajectory for the growth I’ve experienced since and the opportunities I’ve taken. I was also lucky enough to ride the HR transformation wave — from administration/compliance to business partner then more recently, strategic player at the big table.
I wasn’t afraid to switch roles, switch careers. I made relatively rapid transitions at the time (two to four years tenure in each role) before I made the next move. I was flexible in my working arrangements — full time employee, contractor, consultant. Largely dictated by circumstance — like many women, juggling career and a young family. The world is now primed for this sort of employment flexibility.
I returned to my education mid-career. It meant the best of both worlds — growing knowledge, and applying new skills in practical ways that created real value. It meant I did well academically while boosting my career progression.
Most importantly, my successes (and conversely failures) have been hallmarked by autonomy, growth and purpose. When I reflect on my career I can see that understanding my strengths, skills and motivators played a key role in my shaping and realising my achievements. I’ve had dismal failures in roles where I wasn’t matched to the work, the leader or the culture. Tapping into what I love — learning and leading, meant that I was always intrinsically motivated to achieve and grow.
When I look back, the enduring threads of who I am and what I believe are woven, throughout my working life, although at times this has been expressed in different ways. The leaders I remember who supported me best were those who gave me the rope to focus, explore and make mistakes. They gave me the time and resources I needed to thrive. I think it paid off handsomely.”