Three CEOs I love

I have found myself recently reflecting on leaders I loved working under / with.

Three come to mind as “standouts” – all somewhat different in their own ways, but all sharing a passion and commitment to purpose – supported by both principles and pragmatism – and a culture of people working together.

1. 1980’s Hori Howard

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A Major General with Military Cross, Hori was classic “old school”, with a brusque manner, a sharp mind and a heart of gold. His people would follow him anywhere – and that too is a shared feature of these three leaders.

While heading up the Federal Government’s Natural Disasters Organisation, his strength lay in mentoring and bringing people into the tent. A down to earth leader who used to tease his training staff with the challenge of “changing the mind of a NSW police sergeant” (by way of illustrative example only – no offence intended). He would identify my key weaknesses and warn me to be wary of things like “falling for the fashionable” – of simply putting old wine in new bottles; or of not keeping focussed and my head down but instead, flitting like a butterfly from one vogue to another; and my all time favourite, of “pole vaulting over mouse shit”.

Giving permission and support to moving the emergency management culture from a focus on hazards (walls of water / fire etc.) to a focus on risk (the vulnerability of communities to those hazards) was a watershed moment and an indicator of his great leadership.

2. 1990’s Jude Munroe

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As CEO of the City of Adelaide I fondly remember on one of my first days there attending a presentation by the Lord Mayor who boasted the strengths of a particular strategy because it had 237 actions. On the walk back to the office Jude said “recast that into a five point strategy – owned by all of the key stakeholders in the city”. Love a challenge – it only took a year or so (insert smiley face).

Again, as with the other CEOs in this piece, a focus on working together was at core for Jude. I recall many a meeting where she would chair a disparate group of staff, Councillors and ratepayers – and move us to a shared solution to a wicked problem.

My favourite story is of Jude addressing a full Adelaide Town Hall after having just returned from a trip to Africa. She rustled her tourist bangles against the microphone and said “you know, they may be up against it in Africa, but they have this beautiful saying – a single bangle doesn’t jangle”. Can’t recall the rest of that talk – don’t need to.

3. 2010’s Craig Niemann

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A consummate listener, again a shared trait of all of these leaders, Craig Niemann is the current – and recently reappointed – CEO of the City of Greater Bendigo. I emphasise recently reappointed because there is a fashionable approach of turning CEOs over every few years – as if they simply have an MBA set of tricks we might grow weary of.

Craig brings traction to the concept of respect. He encourages people to be the best versions of themselves – and to accountably support each other and work together.

The central role of culture is fundamental to all of these CEOs – focussing on unity of purpose, shared commitments, and growing team spirit. It’s how these people lead their people. And I love them.

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