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Ann Sherry: Life is messy, sometimes you won't have a bloody clue, so be courageous

Palladium Board Member Ann Sherry thinks it's mainly bravery and a she'll-be-right attitude that has carried her through a celebrated career at senior level in the public sector and to the heights of the corporate world. Stephen Easton writes for The Mandarin.

Ann Sherry delivering the inaugural Helen Williams Oration.

The company director, businesswoman and former public servant has not spent much time worrying about what she doesn’t know, or placing other people’s advice ahead of her own instincts. In moments of doubt, her mantra has been: “What’s the worst that could happen if I do this?”

While most of Canberra was captivated by the thrills and spills on Capital Hill last Thursday and the federal government leadership was temporarily up in the air, a group of public servants gathered down the road at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade headquarters to hear Sherry deliver the inaugural Helen Williams Oration. [Video below.]

“You know, everyone has an opinion, but really they’re no better informed than you,” Sherry told them, taking questions after her prepared remarks. “So I think there is something about just being clear yourself about what you’re doing and why, and what you want to do.”

Helen Williams was guest of honour for the new annual event, named as a tribute to her as the first female department secretary in the Australian Public Service. It was hosted by Frances Adamson as president of the Institute of Public Administration, ACT Division, and also incidentally the first female secretary of DFAT. 

Sherry was asked to guess what personality traits had been most important over her career, which has taken her from the union movement to the Victorian and later the federal government, where she led the Office for the Status of Women in the 1990s. Then it was on to banking as human resources boss and later CEO of Westpac New Zealand, and finally into the cruise ship industry.

While she came in with little specialist knowledge about cruising and immediately faced serious public relations and operational challenges in her first weeks on the job, she has often been credited with breathing new life into the industry, which had begun to develop a slightly daggy image. She is now the Carnival Australia executive director and sits on numerous other boards of both commercial and charitable organisations.

Sherry said she backed herself to be her own chief advisor and had not been afraid to push the boundaries, try where others had failed or go where others had not dared. If anything, that is exactly the kind of job she looked for.

There will always be warnings from well-meaning friends, family or colleagues to justify playing it safe, she observed. Everyone thought she was mad to leave the banking industry for cruise travel, but then “it looked like a brilliant move” one year later, she quipped, as the global financial crisis took hold. Life is messy, she added, so have a crack at it.

Her point was that leaders don’t have to know everything, and when that is the case, there’s no point in guessing or faking it, but they always have to stand up and take responsibility.

Sherry became Carnival’s chief executive in 2007, a few days before the New South Wales Coroner reported on the 2002 death of Dianne Brimble on board one of the company’s P&O liners (and 16 years on, the incident still has not led to significant industry reform in the view of Brimble’s husband).

Against a lot of advice to change the brand name for PR reasons, Sherry decided to stand behind it. Soon after that, a ship was swamped by a wave and passengers were left stranded at an unscheduled island stop. As a new CEO, she admits she had pretty much no idea what to do about this, and let her executive team to take the lead.

“So, you know, there’s sometimes you find yourself in leadership positions where you actually haven’t got a bloody clue.”

On the importance of role models

DFAT secretary Frances Adamson paid tribute to Williams and Sherry as trailblazers and noted the importance of such female role models who broke into the male-dominated upper echelons of the public service.

She recalled meeting the first female deputy secretary of the department she now leads, as a young public servant, and said that “for women in the service, meeting your first female whatever can be a real eye-opener because until you’ve seen it happen, it’s hard to imagine it actually doing so”.

A regular public and private keynote speaker herself, Adamson recently decided she would not address any more events without a decent mix of men and women. She will demand that a minimum — either 25% or 30% — of attendees are women. Otherwise, the DFAT secretary added, “I’m very prepared to cancel at short notice if they can’t do that when the time comes.”

This decision follows a recent event where she spoke to “a relatively select group” of 25 “very senior people” including former holders of the highest offices in the land, and saw only three female faces among them, and heard not a peep out of any of those.

Department of Health secretary Glenys Beauchamp joined Adamson on stage after the speech as another interlocutor, observing that both Williams and Sherry had quite diverse careers. Beauchamp said Sherry was proof that public servants could be very successful in the private sector, and that a HR boss could become a top-notch CEO.

“But then I also saw [on] Anne’s CV, she was a former prison social worker – so just the diversity of backgrounds that both these eminent women have is fantastic, and I think we’ve got something to learn from that in not [just] valuing people’s experience and skills, but valuing people as well, and that sense of leadership and what you actually see in the person, not where they’ve worked,” the Health secretary added.

A short walk away from the genteel proceedings, chaos reigned in parliament, but Beauchamp said the leadership turmoil offered a brief opportunity for APS leaders to take pause, reflecting on Sherry’s stoic advice to accept that things will go wrong, and life is messy.

“While we think things might be hitting the fan at the moment, you just take five minutes out – and that’s why we’re down here at the moment – and think, well, what are we learning from this?”

'Women leading countries matter.'

It had just emerged that Adamson’s minister, Julie Bishop, was throwing her hat in the ring for the Liberal party leadership and hence the prime-ministership, so Sherry was also asked to comment on that possibility. She was reminded of living in New Zealand, when the PM, chief justice and governor-general were all women.

There was a joke that a generation of boys might never think that a man could lead the nation. “There’s plenty of other jobs” was her favourite retort.

“Women in leadership matter. Women leading countries matter. Women leading well matter.”

Sherry chose not to barrack for Bishop outright — and events showed her chances were cruelled by strategic voting in the Liberal party caucus — but said it was important for the good of Australian society that female PMs became a regular occurrence.

“We should have a collective ambition that we don’t still have a parliament with only 10%. You know, our parliamentary numbers are terrible.”

Adamson, of course, was duty-bound to avoid commenting on the party ballot. She told the gathering that she looked forward to serving the next PM, whoever it would be. And she also looks forward to serving the next female PM, whenever that will be.

Watch the full Helen Williams Oration by Ann Sherry here. 


This article originally appeared on The Mandarin and was republished with permission.