Former ANZ CEO Mike Smith is helping Australia’s next generation of business leaders

Other CEOs have transitioned from membership to facilitating their own masterclasses, including Claire Rogers, former CEO of World Vision, and Mike Foster, CEO of Fujitsu.

“Claire Rogers [who worked for me when I ran Esanda] reached out and said, “One of the problems that has come up is working with the government,” says Proust. “Unlike, say, America, where people often switch between the public service and the private sector, we tend to stay in our boxes.

“Often people become CEOs and all of a sudden a minister or prime minister wants to talk to them and that’s completely alien. Some people think, well, you just call the minister. But when you work on energy or technology policy, you work with the public service at different levels.

“As you contemplate the increasingly complex challenges of being a CEO, you need a safe space: sometimes that’s your board, but not always a safe space to say, ‘This is an emerging topic, how are you? are you dealing with that?’”

Elizabeth Proust gave CEOs a master class on working with government. Eamon Gallagher

When asked about the most common mistake he sees in new CEOs, Smith warns that “ego” — something Smith himself has never been accused of — overwhelms many executives.

“Ego overwhelms a lot of people,” says Smith. “Start believing their own bullshit. I’ve experienced this many times. And often people surround themselves with people who don’t tend to push back. If you look at Vladimir Putin, he’s a classic example, he has no resistance and I don’t think he really knows the whole story.

“These groups can actually say, ‘That’s what my team is telling me,’ and people at the table can say, ‘Actually, 10 years ago, that’s what you’re living off of’.”

Smith literally has “many war stories.” In 1999, while running HSBC’s Argentina business, he was shot dead in a kidnapping attempt before ramming his Jaguar past his attackers to escape.

He says “learning from mistakes is just as important as learning from successes”. Smith has been criticized for ANZ’s failed Asia strategy. But he says the big lesson about Asia is that “too many eggs have been laid in it [the China] Basket”.

“All relationships need to be reset occasionally,” he says. “They generally need a catalyst and the change in government will be a catalyst here. However, the China of 10 years ago is very different from the China of today.

“We were too dependent on one market as a country and it just became too easy and I think the business got complacent. The great learning there, like any supply chain, is that you have to have choices and different markets.”

Smith also admits his “big, bold” leadership style is now out of style, but “the core tenets [of good leadership] are absolutely the same”.

“People need to be much more aware of their perception and their own image because we are in a very different time,” he says. “But what makes a business work or be effective is basically the same thing, but you might need to approach it a little differently.”

Big names in business

Almost as impressive is the list of members – those who want to be named – and across all industries. Names include Tony Lombardo, CEO of Lendlease, David Harrison, CEO of Charter Hall, Todd Barlow, CEO of Washington H Soul Pattinson, Damian Keogh, CEO of Hoyts, Andrew Clifford, CEO of Platinum Asset Management, Robert Iervasi, CEO of Asahi Beverages, ABC CEO David Anderson, Linfox CEO Mark Mazurek, NBN Co CEO Stephen Rue, John Holland CEO Joe Barr, Melbourne Mayor Sally Capp, Rio Tinto Australia CEO Kellie Parker, and Pip Marlow, CEO of Salesforce.

The mentoring group is by invitation only but has expanded to include a group of rising CEOs including James Georgeson, Chief Financial Officer of AMP, David Lamont, Chief Financial Officer of BHP, Anthea Kane, Chief Financial Officer of IFM Investors, Liz Westcott, Chief Operating Officer of EnergyAustralia, and Chief Operating Officer of Wesfarmer’s CFO Anthony Gianotti.

When asked what tops the list of problems facing CEOs, Smith cites skills shortages and rising input costs, major geopolitical trends driven by the war in Ukraine, tensions with China and a looming class divisions will be driven by the post-pandemic new way of working.

“The biggest problem across the spectrum is the lack of qualified personnel,” says Smith.

“The skills shortage is massive across Australia. Almost every industry but especially the IT side, everything related to technology is a problem. Just find people.

“The whole geopolitical issue and how that is affecting supply chains and the entire logistics sector, is that going to get cheaper? I do not think so. Energy costs, trade costs, availability of material, which of course is exacerbated by the tensions with China, the Russia issue and how it all plays out.”

He also warns of a looming class divide in the workforce that is worrying CEOs.

“I find [work] will be a hybrid model. But when you run a business and you have truck drivers and frontline workers, they can’t work from home. So then you have “us and them”. That adds another element of complexity to how you manage people. You have a class gap within your own workforce that wasn’t there before.”

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