David Gonski sat down with The Ethics Centre’s Dr Simon Longstaff to chat about the future of business sustainability.

David Gonski is so well known in Australia, his surname has become part of Australian vernacular. He’s been a lawyer, he’s headed up corporations and banks, he’s been the chairman of major companies, and he also serves as chancellor of the University of New South Wales.

After completing a law degree, Gonski got his start in the business world 43 years ago, long before climate, sustainability and corporate responsibility were on the agenda. “Profit was key”, he says, “We lauded people who made money and those who were not tough and didn’t exploit every loophole were regarded as not very good business people.” While his peers in the law profession were driven by ethics and justice, Gonski was disappointed to find that those in the business sector were characterised by their arrogance and capacity to exploit customers and resources for profit.

“I think we are humans and as managers we must never forget that we’re humans. And we have obligations to our society as humans which we bring to every part of the world in which we work.”

Nowadays, sustainable development goals are central to boardroom discussions. Business as a whole; from the very large to the very small, is being recognised as having a major impact in the world both in society and the natural environment, which in part is why people look to businesses increasingly to address concerns where governments have failed to do so.

“Today people don’t want to work for a company that’s not socially responsible. Today people often choose the container that is more biodegradable or whatever than the one that isn’t.”

Gonski on ethics.

In law there are very defined legal ethics, but when it comes to business it’s complicated. As an individual there are certain ethical things that you must do to lead a proper life, and for Gonski, the notion of asking the hard ethical questions has changed his life, and approach to boardroom decisions.  Business ethics is about asking the questions: what should I do? What is good for the planet? What is good for the future – the long term versus the short term? He believes those who are successful in business are those who really think about things, rather than just learning things by rote or just accepting the status quo. Of course, sometimes you make the wrong decision but you must always be willing to ask the questions.

Gonski on responsibility.

Above all, business leaders have a responsibility to their community. Business should never be about just about making profits, or just employing good people, but rather consider what business is achieving for the long-term future of the country and our society. Responsibility should be a compulsion, because if we ignore it, it will in the end reduce the value of our business and deter us from being able to do what we want to do.

Gonski on sustainability.

Sustainability should be our longer term compulsion to look at what your short-term thinking is and how that can affect long-term growth. “I have lived through 40 plus years of people making short-term decisions. And let me tell you, they may not have themselves regretted because often they’ve made good bonuses from it, but in the long-term the business has.”

 

AUDIO: Listen to David Gonski chat about the three key pillars of management.

What keeps Gonski up at night?

“I do believe we should all be working together. And I am worried that our working together between corporations, government, and the community generally is not as perfect a circle as it needs to be. We need to hold hands rather than keep arguing with each other. It’s still a little too easy to make short-term decisions. And I’m often very comfortable that a decision in the short-term is right, but I wonder a lot in the wee hours of the morning ‘is it a long-term sustainable idea?’”

Is David Gonski optimistic about the future?

“I am extremely optimistic and I have a number of reasons to be. As chancellor of a university my optimism is always reinjected and reignited by meeting the students that we’ve got. We’ve got fabulous people, who are excited by concepts, who are thinking, who want to change things in their own way and do good things. That’s exciting. That’s wonderful.”

“ I think an absolutely guided and principled optimism is the way one should look at business.”

Gonski’s advice for future business leaders.

Despite having over four decades of business experience, David Gonski is still learning. Throughout the pandemic, one of his most important lessons was that canvassing broadly for advice is a strength not a weakness; that it’s vital to broaden your circle of advisors and take more advice from more people. One of the hardest things for CEOs is to admit they don’t know the answer to a question, but terrible things happen when they pretend to know the answers. Throughout his career, Gonski has watched many CEOs laud strength, which is manifested in people who can make fast decisions, in people who don’t prevaricate, but now he believes the real strength lies in an ability to put one’s thinking to one side and seek advice.

 

AUDIO: Listen to David Gonski chat about what he looks for in a CEO.

Five tips from David Gonski.

  • Make sure you understand the history of the company. 
  • Learn about ethics.
  • Be willing to admit you don’t know all the answers, and seek advice.   
  • Be open to ideas. 
  • Seek inspiration from your communities.

AUDIO: Listen to the full podcast discussion >>

David Gonski is former Chairman of ANZ and Coca-Cola Amatil, he is also Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, President of the Art Gallery of NSW Trust, and Chairman of the UNSW Foundation. He is a member of the ASIC External Advisory Panel and the board of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a Patron of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation and Raise Foundation and a Founding Panel Member of Adara Partners. In 2008, The Sydney Morning Herald described Gonski as “one of the country’s best-connected businessmen”.

This series has been made possible with the support of the Australian Graduate School of Management, in the School of Business, at the University of New South Wales. Find out more about other conversations in the Leading with Purpose podcast.

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