How to be a leader who inspires

Diane Smith-Gander has had a long and industrious career. Among her many roles today, she is the current chair of ASX-listed Transfield Services, with a market cap of AU $800 million and first elected President of Chief Executive Women (CEW). But when she looks back, it is the time she spent as Westpac’s Zone Chief Manager in country Queensland in 1983, the first time she had a sizeable team and a critical profit and loss role, that she cites as crucial in learning how to be a leader.

At that time Peter Ritchie, former chair of McDonald’s, who was then on the Westpac board, challenged Smith-Gander on what she did when she went into a Westpac branch. ‘Ritchie would go into a McDonald’s store and make and eat something because it demonstrated his trust in the product. I had to workout what the lookalike was,’ she says. ‘It’s how do you do that bit of leadership where you don’t ask anybody to do what you won’t do yourself.’

Unable to go behind the counter because of the privacy issue in banks, Smith-Gander started by being helpful. If someone’s child had scribbled on a few deposit slips and strewn them about, she’d pick them up and put them in the bin.

Then she would always do a transaction ‘because as you put in your pin number, your entire relationship with the bank pops up. You expect the teller guys to maintain confidentiality for everybody and by being prepared to do that transaction, you show you absolutely trust the system.’

While her actions created a new level of trust between her and her staff, and was undoubtedly a talking point in those country branches, the biggest impact was on Smith-Gander herself. It changed how she viewed and communicated with the branch worker bees. ‘I wanted to know more about them and it changed the way I communicated with them. What you discover is that we’ve got a highly skilled work force, and in many cases people are being asked to do a small percentage of what they are capable of, so I found that I could go into branches and ask for their advice and I’d get a stream of quality ideas based on their experience of the customer and working with the bank.’

This small gesture not only made Smith-Gander approach her leadership role differently, it also unlocked some of the power and knowledge held by her staff.

‘That was a big change for me,’ she continues. ‘To recognise that there is expertise and leadership everywhere in the system.’

So, over the next week what gesture can you do in your work that will make a difference to you — and inspire others?

If you’d like to read more about Diane Smith-Gander and her vision on helping more powerful women leaders, read my article in Acuity.