Chairman of Woolworths and Origin Energy, Gordon Cairns, says he cannot remember a time in his career when business leaders were less respected.

“The theme coming out of the [Banking] Royal Commission – and I am on the board of [Macquarie] bank – is one of dishonesty, where driving profit is actually seen as the polar opposite to serving the customer … and where more regulation now is seen as the antidote to poor leadership,” Cairns told a recent Sydney gathering.

“It is worse than the political arena. I’ve worked in three continents – the UK, America and in Australia –and I actually fear for all of them.”

He said the situation had reached a nadir when the excuse for imposing a tax on the banks is because “everyone hates them” and the reason for pricing regulation in the energy sector is because “the retailers are gouging their customers”.

Cairns has a reputation as a plain-speaking Scotsman, frequently sharing his own leadership story to illustrate how authentic, self-aware leaders can transform whole organisations.

He was appointed CEO of the beverage company Lion Nathan in 1996 and engaged leadership consultancy Human Synergistics to conduct 360-degree reviews of staff. These reviews laid out how individuals were viewed by those they reported to, worked alongside and led.

His own results were abysmal – flooded with aggressive and defensive character traits (coded red in the results, as opposed to the more productive and affiliative blue).

Speaking in November at a Sydney event, hosted by coaching company Stephenson Mansell Group, Cairns spoke about what he has learned about leadership.

First, he says, the best organisations recognise that they are a social community of people who join voluntarily for a shared moral purpose. “They are neither an army, nor a machine. And our job as leaders is to inspire them with that noble purpose.”

Second, leaders get results and the “how” you get there is as important as the “what” you achieve.

“And to this point, leadership is mathematical. I remember having a conversation with Kevin Rudd and he said ‘What is the most important ingredient in leadership?’ And I said ‘Prime Minister, you have to have followers’. He said: ‘What do you mean?’

“If you are not getting results, people will not follow you. And, if you have no followers, then you have no-one to lead.” 

Cairns said his third lesson was that leaders are prepared to undergo a profound change in themselves. He saw the necessity for that when he received his own 360-degree review at Lion Nathan, which he left in 2004.

“So this is what is known as an ‘Aha moment’. I would actually describe it as an ‘Oh shit moment’.

“So, I go into the office the next day and I go to the HR director [Bob Barbour] and say, ‘Well you are going to have to be my coach. When I do something well, can you praise me in public? When I do something bad, could you take me aside and quietly just tell me. And we are going to have that trusting relationship’.

“The next thing I did was publish my 360-degree [report] to the 7,000 people in the organisation. This was somewhat foolhardy because, as I go around the organisation to talk to people, they would always have their 360-degree on their credenza and I would say ‘Oh, is that your 360-degree? That looks very good’ and they would say ‘Nowhere as bad as yours’.”

Cairns then asked around for an executive coach and was recommended, Tony Grant,
Professor of Coaching Psychology at the University of Sydney.

“So I called Tony up and said ‘Tony, I am a basket case and I need help’,” explains Cairns.

Grant told him to come at 5.30 on Wednesday.

“I said, ‘Tony, you don’t understand. I am very important. My diary is full, I cannot possibly get there on Wednesday’.

“He said, ‘That’s okay. Don’t come’.

“I said, ‘Okay, let’s negotiate. Instead of 5.30 in the evening, let’s make it 6 o’clock’.

“He said ‘It is not in the evening, it is the morning’.

“I said ‘Tony, you don’t understand. I like to get up in the morning. I like to meditate. It is good for my soul. I like to go to the gym’.

“He said, ‘We have had this conversation. Don’t come’.”

Cairns says the point of that conversation was that if becoming a better leader was not the most important thing in Cairns’ life, why should Grant – a renowned expert – waste his time?

Every week for five years, Cairns visited Grant and the results were spectacular. By the time Cairns left Lion Nathan, the formerly underperforming company had an employee engagement score in the 90 percent range, which indicates a very high level of buy-in from motivated staff.

“Human Synergistics had never seen a transformation of a company, so fast and so dramatic ever. The total return for shareholders was in the top quartile in the world – 22 per cent over a five-year period. I can honestly say, I became a better father, a better husband, and a better leader,” says Cairns.

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