Changing of the guard at Westpac

News that Gail Kelly will step down from her role as Chief Executive of Westpac has reinforced for me that we in are the middle of a significant ‘changing of the guard’ in terms of influential business leaders in Australia. National Australia Bank has already seen a change at the top and in a seemingly short period of time new faces will stand at the helm of other major organisations including Deloitte, Ernst & Young and of course Westpac.

One of the questions I am often asked is, “what is the most important thing our company needs to do to keep and attract more women to our workforce?” The answer is complicated but it always hinges on the need for strong and genuine leadership from the firm’s CEO to mandate and lead the changes required to support women in their careers.

When the CEO is replaced, initiatives to support and promote women at a firm can either thrive or die overnight. This sounds dramatic but I have worked with clients through a change of CEO and seen the effects of a new CEO who doesn’t ‘get it’ or doesn’t consider gender initiatives to be a priority. Programs stop overnight and they never recover. And I’ve seen the impact of that in the longer term as the same clients start to experience declining numbers of women in their senior teams and across the firm. This ultimately starts to have an effect on the reputation and performance of the firm as it experiences the results of having less diverse teams in its business operations.

So a new CEO is both a threat and an opportunity. What could this mean for the companies experiencing new leadership? I’ve always been very cynical in listening to CEOs talk about gender balance and I like to ignore the rhetoric and look at results. So lets have a brief look at the state of play across the executive teams of these companies:

Leadership teams

  • Commonwealth Bank – 13 members – 4 women (31%)
  • Westpac – 13 members – 3 women (23%)
  • NAB– 10 members – 2 women (20%)
  • Ernst & Young Oceania – 21 members – 4 women (19%)
  • Deloitte Australia– 13 members – 1 woman (8%)

In December 20011, Ian Narev took over the CEO’s at the Commonwealth from a great supporter of gender diversity, Ralph Norris. CBA’s leadership team has 13 members and of those 4 are women.

So there is room for improvement across all of these firms and there certainly isn’t room for a decline in numbers. Will we see the new CEOs of these companies providing strong, genuine and committed leadership to promote greater gender balance across their businesses? Let’s watch and see.

In the meantime, like so many others I applaud what Gail Kelly has represented in the minds of capable and talent women everywhere. It was interesting to see an interview on ABC Breakfast this morning with the head of B20, Wesfarmers CEO Richard Goyder. He was asked what he considered Gail Kelly’s legacy to be. In addition to praising what Kelly had achieved for Westpac as a business, Goyder said that several of the most senior women in his own team had cited Kelly as a major inspiration for their own aspirations.

Wesfarmer’s has a 16-member leadership team that includes 1 woman and its 12-member board includes three very impressive women. Maybe some of that inspiration will rub off!