Book Review of Live, Lead, learn: my stories of life and leadership

I was inspired to read this book after Gail Kelly was interviewed by Leigh Sales on 7.30 last year. Upon hearing the anecdote of how Gail Kelly turned to banking after spending an unhappy period teaching in Johannesburg, I was intrigued to know more about this bank teller moved to the other side of the world and became the CEO of one of Australia’s largest banks. What made her so successful? How did she learn to manage the immense pressure and responsibility of looking after such a large company? And, of course, what makes a good leader?

Having recently completed university courses in introductory management and banking, I also wanted to see exactly how Westpac had created its culture and how it navigated its way through the GFC.

The book is structured very simply into three parts — the first, offering general lessons on life; the second, offering specific leadership advice, often in a banking context; and the third, reflecting on the meaning of it all. I would have to say I was struck by the clarity of the whole account, both its structure and in the way key lessons and experiences have been articulated. That is not to say it reads like a textbook, as Gail intersperses poignant stories from her life to bring warmth, compassion, and occasionally humour.

One lesson I have learnt from this book is the importance of resilience and optimism. As Gail says (p. 158):

The biggest help of all was having a positive and optimistic attitude: ‘We can do this. Let’s take the lessons and find the opportunities. Look how far we have come’.

It is the attitude that determines how you find opportunities to succeed, and make the most of the opportunities which are presented to you.

For finance students, one of the most interesting points in the book was the way in which Gail talked about the three-fold changing nature of banking:

  1. The prevailing low interest rate environment with low wage growth
  2. The ‘new rules of banking’ — in essence, new regulatory changes
  3. The ‘new world of banking’ — both from a digital and automation perspective

Often, university courses teach students about the first and (sometimes) a little about the second, but in fact, probably the biggest change facing graduates working in the banking or finance industry is the third. In the Australian context, the soon-to-be-launched New Payments Platform is a case of this ‘new world’ which the banking industry needs to adapt to. Other examples include peer-to-peer lending, which Gail mentions (p. 151), and blockchain and other fintech. No one truly knows how lasting these technologies will prove to be, and how much of a threat they pose to traditional models.

From a management perspective, this book is replete with real-life examples applying management theory to the highest echelons of boardroom decision-making. It is refreshing to see concepts such as human resource management (recruitment, 360-degree evaluation), transformative leadership, organisational culture, corporate social responsibility, protocol and process being discussed and applied outside of the textbook. I was particularly struck by the importance of organisational culture to success and just how difficult it is to change an ineffectual culture.

In summary, I highly enjoyed this engaging read on life and leadership by one of Australia’s leading CEOs. The warmth exhibited in the interview by Leigh Sales shone throughout the book and put a tender touch to serious lessons in leading and managing a global organisation.

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