The desire and capacity to step outside your comfort zone is critical
(pages 41 – 43 of the printed journal)
There are a number of key inflection points in life – births, deaths, marriage, new jobs and personal achievements are just a few examples. Graduating from university, which for many and perhaps most, means moving from the formal education part of your life to a full-time career is one such inflection point.
What you do at such inflection points is, of course, up to you. For some they are a time to reflect and plan – to think a little more deeply about what it is that comes next, what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. For others, such points can come and go with little recognition or reflection – it's easy to be carried forward on the tide with momentum doing most of the work.
I think at the time of my graduation I was somewhere between these two options – as I suspect many are. As you sit here today you might ask yourself where on this continuum you are and, more importantly, where is it you want to be. I don't think there is a right or wrong answer to this, it's a personal thing.
Now my own planning and investigation at that time were modest and usually took place somewhere between the Clyde and Norton's. But I'd worked out that despite three years at university there was, as I think most of you here today would understand, still more to learn. Indeed, as I have progressed through my career one of the enduring guidelines or rules that has served me best is that learning never stops – not for one day. This will be the theme of my address today. Now this may be a life rule as well as a business rule but, as you might readily guess and in fact hope for, I'm really only qualified to talk to the business aspect of this and, hence, that will be the focus of my comments.
After much thinking and many interviews, I joined Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co, one of the predecessor firms of what is now KPMG. Yes, I've been with the one firm for almost 28 years now but it's been a great ride with many twists and turns and many different experiences. As you might expect, between starting as a graduate and ending up as the Chairman, quite a few things have happened along the way. I've worked on five different continents, in 35 different countries as diverse as Mozambique, Pakistan and Peru on the one hand to the US and UK on the other. I've been two kilometres underground in a Chromium mine in western South Africa. I've worked with the world's largest and most successful mining companies and banks as well as companies that have gone broke through poor management or business models. I've met the CEOs of the most successful companies and I've talked with CEOs who tried to defraud their shareholders and creditors. Within KPMG I've been both employee and employer. And to my earlier point, even to this very day the learning continues.
So today I thought I might share with you some, not all, of the most important things I've learned over the last 28 years in business. Where to start?
The desire and capacity to step outside your comfort zone is critical. It can make all the difference, and the more you do it the easier it becomes. It's easy to stick with what you're good at, something you know you can do; but in my experience fortune does indeed favour the brave. To be able to say 'yes' instead of 'no' when a manager asks you to do something you're not quite sure you're ready for will make a difference. I remember wanting to say 'no' when I was asked as an assistant manager to lead a training session for a group of partners on complex financial instruments. I'd been involved in the ANZ audit for a number of years and my manager thought I was up to it. I remember wondering whether a two-year secondment to Toronto to hone my banking skills was the right thing to do. After 22 years as a financial services specialist I remember being surprised when the then Chairman of KPMG asked me to be the lead partner on the BHP Billiton audit. In each case, despite some reservations I said 'yes'. And, although different in magnitude, the learning and development that followed the decision proved to be more important than I would have thought at the time.
What are often poorly labelled as 'soft' skills – people and communication skills for example – are at least as important as the hard-core technical skills. Indeed the further you progress the more important they become. As a young accountant I thought the answers to problems were most often to be found in accounting theory and standards. As I became a manager and then a partner I realised this was only half the battle – the real challenge was communicating to clients who didn't want to know and needed to be convinced. In 2007 as a senior partner leading the 120 partners in our Audit Division, I learnt that knowing the right destination was only one part of the problem – taking people on the journey with you, so that you all reached the destination intact and at the same time was what took the real skill. So when you get opportunities to develop broader skills sets, make sure you take them.
A guiding set of principles or values form the critical foundation stones of decision-making in business. At KPMG we have a set of clearly articulated values that include, for example, respect for the individual, the delivery of value and insight to our clients and, above all, acting with integrity. We only employ people whose personal values are consistent with these values. Now I've heard it said before that these types of stated values are good for key rings and lunchroom walls but that would not be my experience, at all. As you go through your careers you will often be faced with difficult decisions. Pressure to form particular views or act in particular ways will come from a variety of sources. As an auditor and as a business leader at KPMG I always found that referencing a difficult decision back to a set of core values has greatly aided the decision-making process. The business world is littered with examples of poor values – from the Enrons of the world to something as simple as mortgage loans being provided to people who can't afford to pay them back. You need to learn to connect your decision-making to your core values. I hope you get it right.
Lastly, I've learned that a rich and rewarding life and a successful business career are not mutually exclusive concepts. That old saying that one should work to live and not live to work is something I have carried with me pretty much from the very start of my career. I learned early on that it was mostly about the quality of what you did, not the quantity. That doesn't mean I haven't worked my share of late nights and weekends over the years (my family would no doubt attest to that), but it's always been with an eye to what's really important. I know some in business might consider this sacrilegious but work is a means to an end not an end in itself. To me this is a fundamental concept for any workplace and one which we strive for at KPMG. Yet I am amazed at the number of employers that I still come across who don't quite grasp this.
That's probably enough for today – I don't want to get too philosophical. I've always approached each day of my career as a learning experience and I hope that you can see the value in doing this. As that experience accumulates over time so your capacity to take on increasingly challenging tasks and roles increases. The inflection point you have reached, as you are about to graduate, provides you with the ideal opportunity to reflect on what type of career you want and how you are going to go about.
An edited version of his Occasional Address given at Wilson Hall, the University of Melbourne, on 14 December 2011.