David Gonski is chairman of ANZ Banking Group and Coca-Cola Amatil, chancellor of the University of NSW and president of the Art Gallery of NSW. He speaks with Financial Review Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd.
How is Australia going to be different once this is over?
The things that I think will change are, first, the acceptance of technology. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that this crisis has basically given a big impetus to all of us, whether we are young or old, to use more technology.
The second thing is that we will have a movement towards more self-sufficiency. We are seeing governments buying oil and other things and thinking to themselves: we need to make sure that we have enough of this onshore and that we perhaps do not totally remove our industrial presence.
But in general terms, I believe when there is a vaccine, that invariably people will go back to working in offices, even though they may be more flexible in the way they do that. I don’t believe office buildings will be empty. I do believe that art galleries and museums and aeroplanes, in fact, will fill. It may take a bit of time, but I don’t believe that will change.
Have particular leadership skills come to the fore? After we’re through COVID-19 and the economy is firmly on the rebound, are there traits to being a leader that will be different?
Crises bring out the best and worst in people. We are seeing this. And they certainly give the opportunity for great leaders to actually show leadership. This is a period where we can see the great leaders and actually score them against the also-rans.
What we will see more clearly then is an answer to the question of what is great leadership. It is not the commander-in-chief, over-confident in their own judgment. It is not just someone with a loud voice or personal charisma.
A great leader accepts they do not know all the answers. They know the people they work with will, in particular areas, have more experience or more direct knowledge or greater insight. They will inspire and co-ordinate, allowing their own views to change if required but ensuring in all cases that an answer is found which is ethical, clear, fair and strong.
What’s an assumption that we had about the future that now seems incorrect in light of COVID-19?
That planning for the long term can wait. When I was studying economics in 1975 we talked about pandemics and to be honest I hadn’t really given them much thought since. I don’t think I am alone as a business leader on that front.
This pandemic is a clear reminder we have to think and plan for the long term. We need to constantly update those long-term plans having regard at all times not just to what we think might happen but also what curve balls might be sent our way.
And what did we once think was impossible, that might now be possible?
I have been amazed and enormously impressed with how the federal government has worked so well with the states, and how the government and the opposition have put Australia first, rather than seeking cheap shots at each other. I’ve also been impressed with how business, including our banks, have gone out of their way to help the community through this virus.
Perhaps most importantly, we all have a greater realisation and respect for those on the front line such as our doctors, our nurses, our grocery workers and the police. They have been there for us during these most difficult times and we in turn must be there for them.
Only two months ago all of this co-operation might have seemed impossible. It is no longer a dream, it is now the reality. If we can keep it together that way, obviously while providing excellent governance in the process, I believe we will be all better off as will the nation as a whole.
The actions of businesses today will have a direct impact on their social licence to operate in the future, won’t they?
I hope people won’t forget it in two ways – those who are watching it, the general community, I hope they will realise what I’ve known for years: that business has a part to play and there is very good in business. There is often bad in business, but it’s not all bad.
The other side is those of us working within big business. Obviously, our job is to look after the shareholders. But in the short term, that often means looking after the consumers above all and the staff above all. And in the long term, the shareholders will reap the benefits.
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