A Fortunate Life
Chris Gillies’ Career Snapshot
Some thoughts on how to recognise opportunities and take them.
When I’m invited to speak in front of large audiences of professional people, I feel flattered and I wonder what I could possibly share that could truly be of help and perhaps influence people’s lives. What could I share that would give you some new or changed ideas about work, home, and how to deal with the whole meaning of life when you Finish reading this snapshot biography? I thought I would share the following with you:
1. Who am I and where did I come from?
2. How did I get to where I am?
3. The lessons I learnt along the way, particularly on leadership.
4. A little bit on being a woman in the workforce.
5. Some of my big challenges.
6. And what you might take away.
Preparing for what I would say in this story has made me think a lot about my life and career. A Board colleague of mine said the other day that he thought I had achieved lot in my profession and I said: "I think I have had a really fortunate life." He remarked that I made my own fortune – and this made me think: "Life is experience after experience, good and bad, at work and at home. It's how we respond to these experiences that makes us what we are and how our careers progress.
I'll take you through my story and share with you some of the decisive moments in my career. I call them my turning points – moments where I had to take stock and make decisions, assess my capability, figure out what I've learnt and what I didn't know – and look at the mistakes I've made.
Born in the UK, I came here with my parents in 1951 when I was nearly 8 years old. My father wanted us to have a better life, so we had to pay out passage as mum had TB scars on her lungs. I will forever be grateful to my father and mother for the sacrifice they made for our family.
I am the youngest of three, with two older brothers and very little money. We were expected to win scholarships to take us through school. Incidentally, the bar was set high in our house: 100 meant you know the subject, 50 meant 1/2, and anything under 95 was questioned.
Mother suggested that I leave school at the end of Form 5 when I announced that I didn't think I would get a Form 6 scholarship from the Education department. Her rationale was that I could get married and my husband would provide for me in the manner to which I would like to be accustomed. My brothers, on the other hand, needed the education; they would have to support families. Incidentally, I had been dux of form 4, and found out after I had left that I had been awarded a scholarship; I could have ended up being a teacher.
In on the IT Ground Floor
I got a job as a clerk in a material warehouse and it was shocking, but luck was on my side: my mother's friend, in a significantly different economic position, was horrified that I wasn't going to university. She suggested I go work for her husband programming office equipment, when Melbourne Uni Computer still had valves. This was the first but unrecognised decisive turning point in my life. I had no idea of the significance at the time, but I had started on a career in IT and I was in on the ground floor.
I married at 19, I had 2 girls, I worked at all sorts of jobs to get the flexibility I required to be a mother and earn an income. I was a girl Friday, medical records clerk, casualty clerk, lab assistant (why am I telling you all this?) I learnt things then that I still use today.
• I learned what it was like to be at the bottom of the pack.
• I found out what it feels like to have a brain and ideas, but be treated as a nobody. I was ignored.
• I also found out about the feeling you get when you are acknowledged; being listened to and the joy you get when you are credited for your ideas and performance.
When the children were old enough (school age) and I could stop working odd hours, I went back into the computer business and by then I was divorced. Mum lied, I wasn't being kept in the manner to which, and income necessity had become a significant driver as I wasn't getting any support. I was offered a job at Xavier College - they had just bought a visible record computer from the company I worked for and they were moving from brothers with quill pens to being computerised. It was my first real encounter with the need for the effective management of change. I was there for 9 years - I wrote all of their systems including Dr, Cr GL, academic reporting, and timetabling. I also became the assistant bursar, and then acting bursar for a short time – I think I grew up at Xavier. The key lessons I learned that I still have with me now are:
• Great opportunities present themselves. Learn from the experience, don't be afraid to have a go, and take the risk.
• What it feels like to be empowered, to take charge and make decisions.
Leaving the Comfort Zone
The next decisive point in my life was making the move from Xavier. Life was very comfortable then: schools, a car, incredible freedom - the Jesuits were after outcomes and they trusted me completely to deliver. The children were in their teens, doing well at school and self-sufficient. The question was: did I want to end up being a little grey-haired old lady working for the Jesuits? The answer was no. The issue was that I wasn't well qualified for anything other than going to another school and I wanted to get back into the mainstream computer industry/profession which had grown significantly during my time at Xavier.
My only real option was to take a few steps down and take a role as a business systems analyst. I joined a company that had licensed the technology to support the first ATMs and POS devices in the banking sector, and a new world emerged: after 6 months I was asked to run the division I had joined. I was excited, flattered, and I had no idea why I had been appointed, and I didn't really have a clue where to start - someone obviously had a far better opinion of my capability than I did. This was probably the first time I took stock of what I could do and what I was capable of. This was when I realised how much I had learnt at Xavier.
A division of about 50 people, building and implementing leading-edge technologies, we had some big customers with great expectations: ANZ and Westpac to name a couple, who were depending on us to deliver.
The challenge was enormous. The thing that really hit home was that in taking on this role I could no longer just think about Chris Gillies and that she had to perform. I had to worry about 50 people and what every one of those 50 people was doing. Every one of these people were brilliant and knew far more than I did. How was I going to get them to listen to me? I think this was when I first started to think about the difference between leadership and management. If we were to achieve the objectives set by the CEO and meet the expectations of these key customers, then just supervising what everyone was currently doing would not work. I had to figure out how to get everyone on the same page going in the same direction with the same set of objectives.
I had to get out in front and lead and the team along. I also found that taking the time to understand every individual - what made them tick, and listening their ideas really worked. The "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" rule applies!
The response was fantastic; I didn't realise there was so much talent and commitment in the place. I also realised that the old saying: "never judge a book by its cover" is so true. There were some absolute gems in amongst the 50 whose combined brainpower got us across the line. We played as a team; I was the leader because they wanted me there.
In summary I had learned:
• Be prepared to step down or sideways to take a step up.
• You don't have to have the solution to be the leader you just have to have good people and listen. People love being asked for their ideas, particularly when the ideas are used and recognition is clearly attributed.
• It's OK to say you don't know, people won't think any less of you. A bit of a surprise for me given I thought I was meant to have all the answers.
• The minute you are put in charge of people and what they have to deliver, you become a leader.
The division did so well that it was acquired by Tandem (and I was headhunted to join a newly formed consulting company DMR as employee number eight.
The Consulting Life
The next phase of my life began – I came to grips with what it meant to be called a consultant and I learnt to consult - and that is another whole story in its own right. But on the leadership front, one of the biggest takeaways from being a consultant was learning how to get people to adopt consulting advice thru influence alone as one had no authority. And this is where I learnt some very important skills that I once again, continue to use. To be an excellent consultant, one really needed to:
• Be able to differentiate between symptoms and causes - not point to treating a backache when a company is bleeding from the femoral artery.
• Really listen to what people had to say.
• Take the time to talk people through with ideas and solutions, getting people to understand why a new direction is required, and more importantly, how they can be part of it.
• Watch what successful people do. Consulting one provides the opportunity to meet some great people; monkey see, monkey do has a lot of merit!
• The list goes on…
Elected to Leadership
The next decisive moment of my career happened two years later. We were a practice of 50 people in Melbourne and the Victorian General Manager was returning to Canada. It was unclear as to who would replace the GM: the assumption by staff, in the light of no factual information, was that the appointment would be from outside. This caused a great deal of dissatisfaction with everyone running around bitching about the unreasonableness of the CEO, just bringing someone in from outside without consulting any of us.
A couple of my colleagues and I thought this was pretty disruptive behaviour; and as sure as God made little green apples, it wasn't going to get us anywhere. So, we said to our colleagues, why don't we get together and work out what we would like to happen and put forward a solution to the CEO, and we did just that. We examined and assessed all internal and external candidates we thought appropriate and I was elected to run Victoria. The CEO was a little put out, but happy to accept the proposal that was based on the practice meeting revenue growth and profit objectives. For me, I found it a very sobering experience being elected by my peers; I felt a three-way responsibility: to the CEO, my peers, and the rest of the staff who had put their trust in me.
So, what did I learn from this part of my life?
1. Put forward solutions, not problems.
2. That respect from your peers can go a long way.
3. That being elected leader is a great leveller. Expectations from all round made me really think about everything I did, the way I did it, and the impact it would have.
4. I learnt a lot about decision making: being the elected leader I thought I should get consensus. I was soon to learn that some decisions have to be made by the leader and not everyone is going to agree. Leadership is about being respected, but not necessarily liked.
5. Action speaks louder than words. In this role, I realised that we had a bunch of young people who were looking for role models, and for better or for worse I was now in that position.
The practice doubled in size in two years. I continued to consult and run the practice. It was a real team effort and we were very successful; life was good.
An Unexpected Challenge
Then came the curved ball: I woke up one day not being able to see out of my left eye, then my feet went funny and I became numb up to my waist. I didn't say anything - just kept working. My GP sent me to a neurologist and after an MRI and various other tests, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). It was scary - was I going to end up in a wheel chair? Yet I was pleased it wasn't a brain tumour.
I came to a big decision - I decided not to tell anyone at work. I thought that might be the end of any promotions in my career. I also decided that I didn't want MS to define me in any way. In effect I decided to give MS the back seat – any problems with walking, etc. were blamed on skiing accidents.
Coincidentally, at that time I was sought to be a board member for the MS Society of Victoria. They didn't know I had MS and I didn't tell them.
The next decisive moment was really the biggest in my life. I was asked by the ANZ to come in as GM of IT development (on a contract with DMR) to recentralize and downsize IT, get IT to operate as a service organisation with excellent customer service, and be on time, on budget (a figment of the imagination if you think about it). The ANZ essentially wanted a DMR inside the Bank. This was a huge decision as I would have to give up my Victorian role in DMR. This was a complex job with big risk of failure; one person had already had a go and failed.
The job was to take half the people out over a 4-month period, change the way the remainder worked, outsource some functions to India and not miss a beat, AND this was a DO job. I had been advising for quite some time but for the most part it was someone else who had to make it happen.
The Bank's risk was very high and the personal risk in my view was extreme. I could become the person responsible for the disruption of IT services to the Bank - a very career limiting move! In the end, the decision was not hard to make - this was a great opportunity and the upside far outweighed the risk of failure. Anyhow, I wasn't going to fail!
The challenge: I was leading just under a thousand people who were uncertain, cynical and scared. Some of the best talent had already left so I had to act quickly and decisively. I had to create stability. The sad thing was that the majority of the existing management were difficult to engage because they were so involved with protecting themselves. I decided to talk to everyone directly so they could hear what was going to happen straight from the horse's mouth. Once again this is an entire subject in its own right. In short, the program was a success. Here's what worked:
• Telling everyone the truth and why this was happening. Helping them understand the big picture; they may not like it, but at least they can see the logic. People do like being treated as intelligent human capable of understanding the big picture. The other thing is - as we all know, if you leave a vacuum, it will be filled with rumour and that gets hard to fix.
• Making commitments to every individual and following through. I personally checked that everyone was dealt with individually, and treated with respect and dignity.
• Working with everyone to create the vision of the future organisation - every individual had input even though they might not be part of it. It is interesting how creating a common vision improved morale.
• Having the courage to take make the hard decisions. Trying to please everyone can results in a ‘massive pink elephant’ which nobody wants to acknowledge or talk about!
• Keeping the executive stakeholders in the picture was paramount – listening, responding, modifying - the constant feedback loop
The big lesson on change: make decisions and act. Don't stuff around; you get judged on outcomes, not process. The 80-20 rule applies.
This was an 18-month assignment. My job was to make the change and appoint a permanent head of Information Technology Development. I was offered the job, but couldn't accept it on the grounds that I had committed to all staff that I was independent, had no hidden agenda, that they could trust me to be entirely fair, and had no past to deal with – no future role to position for. My integrity would have been harmed had I taken the job; personally I think it's very disappointing, but onwards and upwards as they say.
What I discovered is that I was really good at leading change.
One big personal change for me during this period was to deal with my deep down feelings of self-worth. I had no tertiary education, no degree; everyone else had one or two. Somehow I felt inferior - or lacked credibility. I was OK with IT techos - I could program in machine and assembly language so I must be OK. Now I was dealing with senior and executive management right across the bank. The Change program was actually a great success, and everyone wanted to be part of it. I was asked to give guest lectures to the Melbourne Business School MBA program as a case study. It was at this stage that I worked out that the learnings and experience I had gained over the past 20 years had given me the equivalent of a degree and an MBA, and I probably had enough case material to do a PhD. I learnt a new level of confidence.
Back to DMR – I was no longer running the place and I must say I found this really hard. Staff kept on coming to me saying: "You're back – isn't that great? Now we can get back to the way it was." I realised that you can't repeat the past. I decided my time with DMR had finished. It was time to take stock again and to use the learnings and experience accumulated to date somewhere else.
Two very large change programs took up the next four years of my life. First at MITS – the privatised IT arm of Melbourne Water and then at Coles Myer. Coles Myer was another real and different learning experience. I joined the Coles Myer as a senior employee reporting to the CIO with dotted-line reporting to the CEOs of the companies within the conglomerate (Kmart Target, Myer Grace, etc.). The challenge being to bring together the 10 separate IT shops, 10 CIOs with egos - and realise the synergies. That's where I did my PhD in politics and ambiguity. I learnt about a world where it seemed to be acceptable for words and actions not to match. I must say it was a pretty negative experience, it was my first experience as a permanent employee in a large corporate and I was wet behind the ears. This was a highly competitive, very male, political environment. The whole place seemed to be about patch and power, and here I was believing that everyone would automatically want what was best for the company, and that people are fundamentally well intentioned, and only just a few are a little misguided. CML really tested the courage of my personal values and convictions. This is where I learnt about some of the really negative things one has to deal with if one is to be a successful leader. I must have had a charmed life up until this point or I must have been blind – I suspect the former. I learned:
• How to identify hidden and personal agendas.
• How to deal with conflicting messages and ambiguity.
• The biggest lesson was on dealing with low organisational self-esteem (very different from dealing with low personal self-esteem). For example, a CEO up on charges of fraud and poor results.
Here I learnt that if I was going to make a difference I would really have to understand:
How to stay positive and differentiate between the things I could change and those that I couldn't, and to focus on the possible and get some early successes to boost morale.
Two years at CML was enough. A lot of two steps forward and one step back, and a fundamental conflict in values. I went out freelance consulting, thinking that my corporate career was over – I was 55.
And then along came the opportunity of a lifetime: I was head-hunted for the CIO role at the Bank of Melbourne through the recommendation of an ex-CML employee who was in the senior management team. They told him he wasn't ready for the job as yet, and he said - guess who is - and gave my name (I must have done something right at CML). He must have given me a great write-up: I got the job - it was perfect. The right-sized bank, good-sized IT shop, wonderful executives, a great place to put all learnings to date in place, great culture and values, I thought I had died and gone to heaven… until Westpac came and rained on my parade. Some parallels here don't you think? Once again, I learnt heaps.
• What is was like to be on the executive team of a listed company and reporting to the board and what that meant.
• Very big lessons on dealing with uncertainty – it took the ACCC about 6 months to give approval for the acquisition, so keeping staff and keeping staff motivated was a real issue. If the ACCC had said no and BML had lost most of its key staff, the Bank would have been in big trouble. So how did we keep staff?
• Retention arrangements of all kinds, but more importantly we decided we needed a common goal to keep us motivated. In IT we decided that the goal would be to make this the best damned takeover that had ever happened. People love to be part of a success. It's the leaders' job to frame the success.
• Most importantly – we communicated and communicated – we kept everyone informed.
The acquisition was very successful - particularly on the IT side which is usually a problem. We went away very proud of the preparation and our conduct and behaviours, and Westpac were pretty impressed. Members of that IT shop formed, and alumni continued to meet for years after.
As an aside, I had my first paid board appointment while I was at the Bank of Melbourne – I think this was about being in the right place at the right time, being in IT, and being a woman. The stars were aligned - Centrelink was being formed and the inaugural Board – they wanted an IT specialist on the Board – from preferably a bank, and they needed to get the gender mix right being a government department. Need I say more? Which I guess takes us onto the women in the workforce topic…
Women in the Workplace
Does it make a difference being a woman? I actually found it an advantage being one. If we stay true to our fundamental differences, we can bring to the table a complimentary set of behaviours that work very well with those of our male counterparts, particularly multi-tasking.
My experience is that women can change the atmosphere - change the dynamic of a meeting, and can change behaviours. Women manage and lead differently; we are simply wired differently. Don't try to be a man.
Let's deal with the much talked about glass ceiling. I think "the whatever it is" is there for men and women. I believe the glass ceiling is really another terminology for a cold, hard reality that in an average company, there is one CEO, about 10 executives, and around 500 people at various levels wanting to get to the top jobs. And not everybody is going to make it, and this doesn't mean you have failed.
I also think we have to be careful not to use this glass ceiling as an excuse.
If you are ever having a "blame the glass ceiling" moment, you are the only one that can break it. At this point, I recommend you take stock: do a self-assessment and be realistic. Are you ready for the job above you? If you think you are, then let the organisation know, so you can be in the succession plans.
Think about it… Your competitive advantage is not your sex. It's demonstrated in your skill, your performance, your contribution, your experience and your EQ, your leadership capability. Focusing on these fundamentals, rather than the glass ceiling, is more likely to take you places.
I think the other thing we have to realise as women is that it was only 40 years ago that men worked and women stayed home. That was the model and it had taken men at least 200 years to set it in concrete. In fact then, men were in jobs for life with a gold watch at the end. Now I believe we are right in the middle of a huge change very much enabled by technology: we are developing whole new business models and processes for running companies that will support a completely different way of working, which will give both men and women flexibility not seen before.
• It's generational – I was at the beginning, my mother saying you will get married and your husband would provide (the lie), etc.
• You guys are in the middle of this change and some companies are way ahead of others.
• The next generation will wonder what all the fuss was about.
I must say – I don't see any part-time male or female executives. I think it's a pretty full-time role at the top and on the way, if that's your ambition. You need to ask if you want to make this commitment.
I decided I was better at work than keeping house so I would earn enough to make sure the house was well kept. And I made a decision that it was the quality of time I spent with my children, not the quantity.
Reaping the Rewards
But back to the life learnings - let's talk about the reaping the rewards phase of my life. After Bank of Melbourne, I once again thought it was all over…but the opportunities rolled in.
I was offered the Zurich CIO role and I was about to sign the contract when a call came from St George Bank: I was asked if I was interested in taking on the integration of St George, Advance and Bank SA.
Another key decision point – take on the integration with no guarantees or go for the corporate CIO role with trips to Europe? I chose St George. Why? St George offered the greatest challenge: I asked the CEO, Ed O'Neale why I should take the role instead of the Zurich job. He got me in one: he said the place had lost its way and was demoralised - and the bank had to achieve integration before year 2000 or APRA would make them defer until Y2K was over and this would cost heaps. He said he believed I could get the place back on the rails. I took the job for two reasons:
1. I took stock and thought this would be the best job to try something new using all I had learned to date; the CIO of Zurich would have been more of the same.
2. And because the CEO Ed O'Neale said he believed in me and my ability to deliver the merger
I got the integration across the line and worked with the bank to downsize by 1,600 people over a 5-year period.
Expanding Horizons and Careers
I was then 60. I wasn’t ready to stop work; however, my mum was in her 90’s and my partner hadn’t worked for the last 15 years and was showing signs of “inaction”. Time to examine the options:
• Another full-time role – mum needed more care and my partner required more attention, so this option wasn’t really feasible
• Extend my Board portfolio – I already had a reasonable portfolio and although I enjoyed the boardroom, I really loved getting into an organisation to make change and making a difference.
I chose the best of both worlds, a board portfolio focussing on IT Governance in the Board room along with interim change management consulting roles which included a deal of coaching and mentoring.
• I really had to think about my brand and how I could remain relevant and ahead of the game
• I found writing publications and speaking at conferences an excellent way of being recognised
• I learnt to forget my age and be just me, my experience and hopefully my wisdom
I also thought it would be a great idea to do something together with my partner so we started hunting for a place by the beach where Rupert our great Dane – Mastiff could roam freely, and my partner could paint and garden. It became evident that that all we could afford would be a cut down version of what we had in town. Certainly not our dreams of ocean views and open space
We started looking further afield, the only constraint being around 1 hour to the airport to meet my work travel needs. That got us looking between Macedon and Bendigo. One particular property we considered had a small vineyard and the settlement terms had the vendor receiving the revenue from the grape sales for the next 4 years. A light went on, we could plant a vineyard and sell the grapes. 3 months later we were the proud owners of 100 acres at Redesdale, with a blank sheet of grass ready for us to plant a vineyard. Our dog Rupert thought he had died and gone to heaven! We named the place Rupert’s Ridge.
We knew absolutely nothing about Vineyards other than buy a bottle, pull the cork and drink. We bought a book and how to plant a vineyard. Ignorance was bliss! We successfully planted 10 acres of vines on the rolling Redesdale hills and acquired cows and sheep! I fell in love with the peace, quiet and fresh air. Early mornings with the dogs and being able to stand on top of a hill and see forever. A lace where my soul felt free of the corporate world. I also fell in love with tractors and 4-wheel bikes!! Another story!! I also learnt a little bit of what it would be like to walk in the real farmers shoes, living through droughts and watching cattle and crops die. We live an insulated life in the city.
Life was good – I had the perfect mix of corporate and country life!
In 2009 we were burnt out by the horrific Black Saturday fires.
We were the lucky ones – although the house was destroyed and the fire went through the vines, no one was killed, and the animals were all saved. 130 people, many we didn’t know at all, turned up to help save the vineyard, removing nets, dropping grapes and repairing 16 kilometres of dripper lines, getting water back to the vines within days of the fire. These people literally saved our vineyard. Although I lost the house along with all those prized possessions one carts through life, I learnt to remind myself every day to:
• Stop the world for a few minutes and take time count my blessings
• Give something back to the world
• Remember that what I keep in my heart I will keep forever
I am now in doing the 70-80 career and love being here!
I have had and I am having an incredibly fortunate life. So many people have helped me along the way. I thank them all!
Thanks for taking the time to read my snapshot biography.
If it has raised any questions for you, or if you’d like to connect, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org I would enjoy helping you as others have helped me!
I travel a lot so I’m not always easily contactable, but I’ll do my best to get back to you as soon as possible!
Best wishes for your own success and enjoyment!
Christina Gillies Consulting