Career paths and their driving forces
In some respects it might be viewed as unusual and risky to build several careers in vastly different institutions and sectors of the economy.
(pages 38 - 40 of printed journal)
I have been fortunate to have enjoyed several distinct career paths. I started as an academic for a relatively short time at the University of Melbourne and Monash University. I then worked as a management consultant in the UK and the US, and subsequently became a chief executive in both the corporate and government sectors. Most recently, I have been a non-executive director of large businesses.
In some respects it might be viewed as unusual and risky to build several careers in vastly different institutions and sectors of the economy, including business, government and academia. As I describe the paths my career has taken, you will see that it is not always the case.
Driving forces in a varied career
Reflecting on my career, I believe there were three driving forces that form the basis of my forthcoming observations and the advice I offer to graduands.
Firstly, I had a passionate desire to try to make a difference to society. I am sure this reflects the ideals of graduands here tonight. Whilst at the University of Chicago, it became apparent to me that it was acceptable to move between academia, government, business and the professions, thus influencing broader aspects of society. For example, George Schultz, my Dean at the University of Chicago Business School, went on to become Secretary of State in the US Government and then President of the global Bechtel Corporation.
My own career, of course, has not reached such lofty heights. However, I was able to make a difference to society when I left the corporate sector to become Executive Chairman of the Transport Accident Commission, which has made a significant contribution to reducing thousands of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Paradoxically, after I graduated from the University of Melbourne, I commenced a retailing career with Myer in Melbourne; today, many decades on, I have ended up back in retailing as a Director of Australia’s leading retailer, Woolworths.
Similar career opportunities exist in North America, South America, Asia, Europe and Africa. However, although there have been marginal changes, mobility is still very difficult in Australia, especially between full-time positions in business and government. Regrettably, a variety of factors limit mobility between business, government, academia and professional firms. These include a lack of appreciation by business leaders of the competency of top bureaucrats and administrators, the rigid thinking of corporate HR departments and search firms, and the adversarial nature of the political system.
Secondly, I wanted to work in organisations that have a culture of employing highly talented individuals and a reputation for integrity. This was the basis behind my choice to work with McKinsey and Company in the UK and US, and my current role as a Director of Woolworths. Working with talented people will always push you to excel and provide enormous job satisfaction. However, talent alone is not enough. Society has witnessed the failure of many organisations and governments with highly talented individuals.
In my experience, the critical component of a company or organisation is the culture or DNA that binds the talents together – this is the key ingredient for sustained success and job satisfaction. Culture is essentially ‘the way we do things around here’. It is very difficult to measure and varies enormously between corporations and institutions. It is hard to read from the outside, but when you join an organisation you soon becomes aware of its key elements. In most respects, this will be the critical factor in your job and career satisfaction.
Thirdly, I had an ambition to travel and work in a global economy. I was fortunate to work in the UK, Europe and the US. Further, whilst relatively young, I had a wonderful experience of working in China in the 1970s. It bore little resemblance to the China of today with virtually no cars, few trucks, little infrastructure and no advanced industries. It was a huge challenge, but tremendously rewarding.
There is no doubt that developing and emerging countries will continue to have a major economic and political impact on your career. Take advantage of your degree and the mobility it gives you to live and work in different parts of the world. You have a magnificent opportunity to work in corporations and professions both in Australia and globally – corporations whose links with developing and emerging economies are increasingly important. It is interesting to note, for example, that over seven per cent of large Australian company chief executives have significant international experience. Soon this will be close to 100 per cent.
Drawing upon these three driving forces behind my career, I would suggest that there are certain practical steps you can take as you build your
At different stages of your career, find people who can help to guide you with career and life choices. This goes much deeper than networking – it requires trusting relationships with a variety of individuals. Initially, your family and extended family will help guide you, but you need more than this. Search outside the family circle to obtain advice, and although your employer may have a structured mentoring programme it still pays to get external advice. This is particularly important when considering changing careers or organisations, because corporations today are demanding higher levels of commitment and job stability. Mentors will help you to get to the core of an issue, while providing integrity and hopefully displaying good instincts. They will help you read the culture or DNA of your employer or future employer. In my own case, for example, I was guided in my early career by Sir Roderick Carnegie, whose wise counsel led to my early career with McKinsey.
Other mentors inspired me to challenge conventional thinking both in business and government. This lead me to develop a controversial road safety campaign in 1989 to ‘outrage, appal and upset’ the community. We needed to confront community tolerance of road trauma head-on in order produce a change in its attitude to road safety and driving behaviour.
One of the best starting points for seeking mentors is your own alumni. Wherever you live, it is likely there will be a University of Melbourne alumni group nearby. I would strongly encourage you to participate actively in the group, as it will provide you with the opportunity to meet individuals of different ages and experiences who can help mentor your career and life choices.
You are indeed fortunate to graduate from this great University, which is renowned for its teaching, research, scholars and, importantly, the success of its graduates. It has outstanding day-to-day leadership from your Vice Chancellor and the Dean of your Faculty. The reputation of the University of Melbourne is not necessarily just about its ranking in the latest league tables. Reputations of great universities require consistent performance over long periods of time. This University was founded in 1853 – the year my family arrived in Australia from France – and it has consistently been recognised as one of the finest in the world.
An edited version of his Occasional Address delivered at Wilson Hall, the University of Melbourne, on 15 December 2010.