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Leadership : People-Focused Company In Australia Wins Fans
posted by admin on 28/08/06

CEO of St. George Bank Concentrates on Customers

Gail Kelly, the 50-year-old chief executive of Australia's St. George Bank Ltd., sends handwritten letters to customers, and in emails to bank employees includes details of her family weekends so they know she wrote them personally.

This accessible, people-focused management style helped drive a rapid expansion of the bank, from a regional lender with lackluster profit growth into a full-service bank with 8,500 employees and more than 400 branches nationwide. Stock analysts now consider St. George to be an investment alternative to the Big Four (Commonwealth of Australia, National Australia Bank, Australia & New Zealand Banking Group and Westpac Banking Corp.).

Since Ms. Kelly took the helm in early 2002, the bank's shares have been the best performers among the country's big lenders, rising 58% as she pursued a low-key organic growth strategy focused on customer service. For the fiscal year ended last Sept. 30, St. George reported that net profit rose 16% to a record A$828 million (US$627.3 million).

The first woman to head a major Australian bank, the South African-born Ms. Kelly is a mother of four -- including triplets -- and an avid sports fan who draws lessons on management from the techniques of the country's leading team captains.
Rebecca Thurlow interviewed Ms. Kelly at the bank's Sydney headquarters about leadership, life and cricket.

WSJ: You began your banking career in 1980 as a teller at South African Permanent Building Society, which later became part of the Nedbank Group. What did that experience teach you?

Ms. Kelly: The day I arrived, I was put on the counter. What I was taught was how to count cash. You weren't taught much about the products or the customers or customer interaction.

And I remember thinking early on: This is crazy, surely the customers are the most important assets that a business has, and how is it that junior people -- the most untested people, the people who know nothing about the company -- are the ones dealing with the customers? I think there is still a little too much undervaluing the power and the importance of that person right in the front line who is the brand, who is today dealing with the moments of truth for that customer up front.

WSJ: Who gave you the best business advice and what was it?

Ms. Kelly: My best life advice, which has flowed through into my business advice, came from my father, actually. My father was a very positive individual and he taught me to have a very positive frame of reference on the world, to look for the glass half full in things, look for the opportunities in things rather than become a victim.

WSJ: How do you motivate your staff?

Ms. Kelly: A lot of focus on communication, from being seen visibly and getting out and about in the branches, to telephoning people. I'll ring the top 150 people for their birthday. I'll also just ring people who run business banking centers or branches every so often to find out how they are going, to say well done on a particular transaction. I really make sure that 90% of the emails that come to me get personally responded. And never, ever, if a phone call comes through, do I not respond.

The other is energy. It would be clear to people that I love what I do so I try to bring energy and passion to what I do, and that lifts people. I also motivate by reinforcing the positives. Look for reasons to say well done to people, look for reasons to make people feel good about what they are doing.

WSJ: What are the three most important aspects of a good manager?

Ms. Kelly: You want good leaders to be consistent. You don't want people to have to guess how she is feeling, and they blow hot and cold, that you can't trust what he or she says is what he or she means.

being able to get things done with people. Good leaders work well with people because they like people. If you like people, you get to know people, and you get to know what makes that individual tick. So it is getting to know your people and then making sure you provide an environment that allows them to be best at what they can do.

The third one is, good leaders have to role-model what they expect. It's not what you say, it's what you do that really matters.

WSJ: Do you have a favorite business book?

Ms. Kelly: Probably the one I talk about most is that Jim Collins book "Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't." We used it extensively internally because it really tracks those companies that are perceived to be good, and it is a piece of deep research but easily readable as well.

WSJ: What are you reading now?

Ms. Kelly: I'm reading the Steve Waugh book, "Out Of My Comfort Zone: The Autobiography." I read it not only because I love cricket and because I'm interested in Steve Waugh, but also because I think he is one of the best sporting captains I've ever seen.

He talks about Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, his two outstanding bowlers, a fast bowler and a spin bowler, two very different people. Shane Warne, by his own admission, is someone who likes to be loved, so he wants the captain to put his arm around him and say, "You are doing great, Shane, keep it up," and talk to him, reinforce, feed back between overs, between balls. Glenn doesn't need that. He is much more internally motivated, and if he isn't having a good day, he certainly doesn't need the captain to come and tell him that. So, different people, different style, know your people. That's a great example.

WSJ: What do you like about cricket?

Ms. Kelly: I love the mind-game element, the competitiveness, the strategy in it. It can change on a dime. I love the fact that each individual has a completely different role but they really are playing as a team. It's another great analogy of sport to business: They understand the power of the team.

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