With a reputation as a tough corporate lawyer and holding a solid portfolio of blue-chip directorships, Catherine Walter has firm views on the roles of management and leadership in business. Lauren Thomsen-Moore reports.
Catherine (Cathy) Walter rates her greatest business-related achievements as: Standing up for what I believe matters and trying to make a difference to an organisation and the people in it. And having moved on from the very public blood bath that occurred during her time as a National Australia Bank Director, Walter tends to look forward rather than back.
Raised in Victoria , Walter has three brothers and was educated at Toorak’s Loreto, Mandeville Hall. Her family roots are in law rather than in business and finance (her father is a former Federal Court Judge).
Walter says it’s very hard to identify precisely a person’s motivation for business success: Probably a product of a mixture of genes, family influences, schooling, social environment, age and aspirations.
But, she says, two factors have generally been uppermost: A sense of obligation about developing and using any talents you might have to the fullest, and a sense of obligation that you must contribute to the community.
With the first, it’s a case of continuously learning and challenging yourself within a particular occupation and by moving through different occupations. In my case, from solicitor to managing partner to City Commissioner to non-executive director on public and private and not-for-profit boards.
With the second, it’s trying to give back to the community through not-for-profit boards, university and school council service, contribution to government and how you try to live your life. All the talk these days about life balance tends to be about balancing work and life commitments. To me it’s also about achieving consistency in the way you live and behave.
Walter currently serves on a range of listed and not-for-profit boards and councils including: ASX, Orica, Australian Foundation Investment Company (AFIC), Melbourne Business School , Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), and the Financial Reporting Council.
All of the roles are non-executive; as a member of the organisation’s governing body, and involve setting and reviewing strategy, hiring and reviewing the CEO, and monitoring budget and operational performance.
Walter says that most of the time the roles fall into the category of careful and considered structured monitoring But every now and again the particular circumstances of the organisation may require quite deliberate, demanding and detailed action and the exercise of significant judgment. She says the time and energy required can be considerable and unpredictable.
Of the boards on which Walter has served, she says each brings different challenges and forms of satisfaction.
She says a challenge for board members of any listed company is to anticipate and satisfy the needs of its myriad stakeholders shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers and the communities in which they operate.
I particularly enjoy roles on pure investment management enterprises or those with a major focus there such as AFIC as they raise the core of corporate activity, creating wealth and optimising returns for investors over the medium and longer term, Walter says.
Intellectually driven enterprises such as the Melbourne Business School and the WEHI provide particular satisfaction for Walter because, she says, they continually test and stretch intellectual frameworks and demand unremitting commitment to excellence and analytical rigour.
I love being on the WEHI board because it doesn’t have to talk about being world class in its research on the blood cell system, and the diseases that impact on it, it just is. Its motto really appeals to me too: Fiat Lux let there be light which it sees as illuminating the causes of some cancers and auto-immune and infectious diseases.
Incidentally, this reminds me of my first ever car. When I was a university student, I had a little Fiat, which I wanted to call Fiat Lux but my brothers thought that was too high falutin’ and called it Freddy Fiat instead!
Leadership vs Management
Walter says leadership and management are not just the preserve of senior people in elevated ranks in major corporations.
In all the jobs we undertake we can exhibit good leadership and management behaviour, as long as we have and maintain the skill-set to do so.
This includes doing the instant job well, seeing our work in the context of the larger whole and the greater good, being open and predictable, encouraging others around us in their pursuits, monitoring our own performance and standing up to be counted when it matters.
It sounds a bit like motherhood and, you know, it really is like the actual task of motherhood which, when it all boils down, may turn out to be the most important job I’ve ever done.
Walter says she finds Peter Drucker’s and Warren Bennis’ definitions of management and leadership the most helpful: Leadership doing the right things; and management doing things right.
Walter is a strong believer that management can be taught: That’s why business schools and organisations such as [the Australian Institute of Management] exist and flourish.
Having trained initially as a lawyer, I relate to models and frameworks and reasoning by analogy. I derive, for example, ongoing benefit from thinking about frameworks I learnt at Melbourne Business School during my MBA. I often use the discipline of McKinsey’s Seven S’s skills, staff, style, shared values, systems, structure and strategy. And Michael Porter’s Five Forces: industry analysis of suppliers, substitutes, buyers, entry barriers and rivalry. It’s interesting that Porter now says you also need to think about chance as well a factor of which I have become more and more aware.
According to Walter, authoritarian or overly hierarchical management and leadership styles are a recipe for disaster.
In a business environment in which people and intellectual capital are critical to business success, authoritarian management simply chases the company’s competitive advantage out the door and down the road to a competitor.
Walter says personal predilection and training probably predisposes each of us to a particular management/leadership style even though you can train yourself to manage in particular ways.
So, while you always have to be yourself, you also have to identify the style and feel for what the organisation most needs in the particular circumstances in which it finds itself. Obviously rewarding merit ought to be a priority in every environment except perhaps The Office, Dilbert and the Simpsons and all the unfortunate organisations they resemble.
But, according to Walter, when leading a professional service firm, for example, the emphasis on meritocracy and the meritocratic style is relatively more important. The corollaries of a meritocratic style are transparency and predictability factors which should be paramount in all management styles.
Culture of success
Walter uses one of her much loved analogies to describe the creation of a successful organisational culture.
A 20th century English gardener at a grand house was asked how they had managed to create the perfect lawn. He said it was just a matter of cultivating the soil, planting the seeds, feeding the lawn, and then cutting and rolling it for a few hundred years. In the modern business environment we haven’t got a couple of hundred years to build cultures. But we need to realise that Astroturf isn’t going to deliver the same result as a 100-year-old lawn.
To extend the gardening analogy, just as nurturing in the garden is important so it is in culture. For instance, you could regard culture like an orange tree you need to feed it, water it and protect it from harsh winds and possums and other predators so that its flowering and fruit production can be appreciated. In cultural terms, this translates into identifying what the needs of the organisation are it may be, for example, customer focus, commercial efficiency and team work, and then nurturing these where they occur and celebrating success.
According to Walter, Orica’s cultural revolution, led by Malcolm Broomhead, is an instructive example of employees identifying the cultural values the organisation believed it needed.
A pithy and clear articulation of these values is presented in Deliver the Promise, which covers safety, health and environment, commercial ownership, creative customer ideas and working together.
It is widely disseminated in many languages across Orica’s workplaces around the world, and, employee reward is measured against the achievement of these cultural values, Walter says.
Walter says she has learnt a lot from many different people and personalities during her career.
She also likes to observe admirable conduct in people that she comes in contact with, and tries to learn from those observations.
I admire people when they see beyond the instant easy solution, have the courage to admit when they’re wrong, forge a consensus out of apparently discordant views, do their homework and put forward a considered view, and exhibit respect for others’ ideas especially when they disagree with those views!
Lessons that have stayed with Walter include:
- Sometimes the more virulent the opposition there is to an idea, the more likely it is to have merit
- If something is too good to be true, then it probably is including the glib response, the too simple solution and the universally-held good idea
- Non-conforming views are often less valued, but are often more valuable than conforming views
- People deep within an organisation know a great deal about it and can teach more senior people a lot about what they need to know
- Reading and reflection are as important as talking and doing. Much that perplexes us has perplexed others who’ve had the wisdom and altruism to write about it.
The people, stupid
According to Walter, just as elections are about the economy, stupid, it can also be said that businesses are about the people, stupid.
I was taken by the wisdom of the late Charlie Bell, former McDonalds CEO, who was quoted as saying he’d never ask an employee to do a task he wasn’t prepared to do himself. I found it immensely helpful when I was managing partner of a law firm to run quite a few legal files myself so that I was continually reminded of the stresses and competing priorities faced by the practitioners I was leading. Similarly with the executives in marketing, human resources, administration and so on, I derived insight into their challenges by having previously run, in a much smaller context, the back office demands of a two-person law firm, Walter says.
While Walter rates her greatest business achievements as standing up for her beliefs and her drive for accountability; in the personal context she says her achievements include: Preserving my sense of humour most of the time and my golf handicap. But, most importantly, being the recipient of loyalty from family, friends and business associates, and trying to be a good wife, mother, friend and business associate.
As a self-proclaimed natural optimist, Walter subscribes to the view that the future for us all is what we make of the chances that come our way.
I am enjoying the opportunity to combine continuing involvement in the commercial and not-for-profit areas with reflection, writing and speaking about the work and experiences of the past 30 years. I plan to continue to build on both.
On a personal level, I plan to learn bridge and Italian, reduce my golf handicap and not come last in the Sorrento Bay Swim’s Grand Masters’ section next year.
Effective management/leadership tips
Walter says a key management skill is the fundamental task of setting strategy and then clearly articulating it. Effective management involves:
- Developing, encouraging and monitoring effective teams with complementary skill bases where co-operation and respect for the individual is prized
- Identifying and measuring the key performance indicators of the business or function in a quadruple bottom line context: economic, environmental, governance and social
- Fostering a healthy, vibrant and functional culture which delivers key results
- Managing yourself to make sure you model the key behaviours and values required to sustain the culture and deliver the results
- Being constantly alert to shifts in the economic, social and political environment, and being aware of the significance of innovation, calculated entrepreneurial risk, and the need to constantly exceed customer expectations
- Developing and monitoring management systems that deliver the core operations and manage the risks
- Maintaining the rigor, balance and sense of perspective which allows you to test and challenge the assumptions you made about all the things listed above
Walter’s lessons learnt
Walter says her earlier terms served on the University of Melbourne Council , Australian Ballet School and CEDA (the Committee for Economic Development of Australia) provided valuable exposure to educational and artistic environments.
She says her time as a Melbourne City Commissioner was a fiery baptism in terms of understanding the legitimacy of stakeholders’ interests and the challenge of balancing competing interests such as the economic efficiency of service provision on the one hand, and the expectation of ratepayers or city users of a particular service on the other.
Walter said all of the Commissioner’s decisions were subject to regular media scrutiny, something I was perhaps ambivalent about at the time, but which I later found very useful to have experienced.
Other roles and experiences Walter has valued include:
- Preparing companies for flotation and listing, such as ASX and SGIO, or for dis-aggregation and trade sale (such as Generation Victoria).
- Companies with major shareholdings offshore (such as Mercury Asset Management and Vodafone Pacific) tested the constantly complex balancing of accountability of local executives to the local board, and their parallel obligation to their head office executives and the parent board. This provided helpful insights where later involvement included service on the parent boards of companies such as Orica and NAB, with offshore and subsidiary operations.
- Boards of Government corporations such as the Victorian WorkCover Authority and the Transport Accident Commission provided challenges about the roles of the board, the relevant Government Minister and Parliament, and the community expectations of the core services provided such as workers compensation or compulsory third party personal insurance.
- Involvement in inquiries as diverse as the Tricontinental Royal Commission and the Nugent Inquiry into Public Funding of the Arts allowed Walter to apply, respectively, professional and forensic experience as a banking lawyer, and management training from the business school.