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For Jillian Segal, a director of the National Australia Bank, the lucky eight people each year who are awarded a John Monash scholarship exemplify everything that is important in leadership. “There is a focus on excellence, on academic study, and on finding a path through that to contribute back to Australian society,” Segal tells LeadingCompany. “To be a leader in a particular field, that is what each of these scholars is motivated to do; to give back and be ambassadors.”
Segal is a chairman of the General Sir John Monash Foundation, which provides eight overseas study scholarships each year to graduates from Australian universities. “It’s one of my key areas of interest and passion: sending talented young Australians overseas to do post-graduate studies and establish international networks. It is all about leadership and excellence.”
Segal is one of Australia’s most powerful non-executive directors.
As well as her role at NAB and the foundation, Segal is a director of the Australian Securities Exchange and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, a member of the federal government’s Remuneration Tribunal and deputy chancellor of the University of New South Wales.
A former corporate lawyer, Segal is a strong advocate on the subject of women and leadership. She is a member of Chief Executive Women, co-chair of the Australian chapter of Women Corporate Directors and a fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
It is rare, however, for Segal to give media interviews.
In this wide-ranging interview with LeadingCompany, Segal discusses the goals and pitfalls of leadership, and talks about her own development and why she took the job on NAB’s board, and offers inspiration and advice for ambitious women.
The path to the top
Segal is herself the product of a scholarship; she completed a Master of Laws (LL.M) at Harvard University. It was an opportunity to travel, to study with world-class professors and be part of a milieu of rigorous thinkers. “I thought it gave one a broader perspective on a range of issues,” Segal says. “Particularly for Australian leaders, given our distance and our interconnectedness with the rest of the world, it is important to live in different jurisdictions.”
She returned to Australia, and worked for 14 years in law – seven as a partner at high-profile law firm, Allen Allen & Hemsley, now Allens Arthur Robinson.
Then Segal became a commissioner at the corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).
It was a brave move. Law was all Segal had known professionally; her father was a lawyer too. But it wasn’t a decision made in haste. Segal left Allens and spent some time as a consultant.
And she had begun taking on non-executive director roles, starting with the State Forests of NSW and the NSW State Rail Authority. “Those roles gave me insight into the way government policy affected community services. And I was also on CAMAC [Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee], where I saw that intersection of government, policy and regulation.” (CAMAC offers independent advice to the Australian government on corporations and financial markets law.)
After five years in ASIC, Segal faced a choice: “I had the option of going back into the law or choosing another career. I thought [board roles] would be an interesting next step. I was interested in the way in which regulation was increasingly impacting on business, and I had legal background to contribute to business, and was also interested in law reform and the not-for-profit sector.”
Segal joined NAB shortly after the bank suffered a crisis of corporate governance in 2004 that lead to a complete renewal of the board under the leadership of chairman Michael Chaney. The years since have delivered mixed financial results, but the bank has been successful in changing its internal culture and improving its customer and staff satisfaction results.
It was, in part, the size of the task that attracted Segal. “I thought it was a very great Australian institution, and it clearly needed to revamp its approach to risk reporting and management and its whole relationship with regulators and the way the regulatory settings were observed.
“Many companies have faced the need, not only to improve their processes, commercial competition and development, but also to drive cultural change. Many have faced it, all the other banks have, as well as other major companies, service companies, law and accounting. And that has been one of the most interesting and satisfying parts [of the NAB role]: to see cultural change. You do see the evidence.”
Achieving change is slow, and challenging. The important thing is to lead by example, says Segal. “I think it is very undermining for leaders to say one thing and do another because it doesn’t give authenticity to their leadership.
“And then the leader has to have a sufficient vision to inspire people, which ends up being a mixture of helping the organisation to achieve tangible outcomes, and having a vision of what they want to deliver. That has to be something to do with the community rather than just the shareholders.”
Segal sees “short-termism” as a key weakness of leaders in business and politics. “Unfortunately we are seeing leaders in all fields in Australia and overseas being judged on short-term decisions. Short-termism is a great risk. One sees it all the time in business and politics. It is understandable but it is great to focus on the long-term implications.”
A key part of improving leadership is getting policy settings right, Segal says. “At a national level, it is having the settings right for productive economy that uses the talents of our people. It includes issues of making sure we use female and male talent. It is the productivity agenda, in the broader sense. It is also really understanding and dealing with sustainability, and that applies to the environment generally, to food, agriculture and all the things that sustain.”
The risk of leadership
Successful leaders face a risk. “Leaders have to be careful not to become too much of a demigod or to believe all the leadership talk,” says Segal. “Businesses and communities value leadership, and they tend to elevate leaders, not what they stand for. It is very hard for leaders not to be overwhelmed by the attention. They have got to remember that their role is leading an organisation, or a party, and really focus on the policy and settings and financial outcomes.”
Women: sponsors, getting noticed and not giving up
Legal firms have a long established practice of sponsorship: for a lawyer to make partner, one of the existing partners must back their promotion.
Advocates for women in leadership say sponsors are as important as mentors. Segal is one: “Women need sponsors, whether they are male or female, to encourage them to apply for promotions and to speak knowledgably about their skills and abilities.”
Segal says the partnership system in Allens worked in this way for her. “I was lucky in my law career to have a number of partners who were very supportive. I was the second female partner ever, and the first one to have children. I had to write my own maternity leave policy!”
Selecting an employer that supports the promotion of women is an important step on the path for women leaders, she says. “They have to have a mechanism for nurturing and lifting talent up; that is an organisational element.”
Self-knowledge and ambition are important for leaders of both genders, she says. “Leaders need to have an ambition to succeed, to have a vision, to want a better this or that.”
Leadership is a demanding role. “If you are a successful leader, you need to know yourself, your strengths and weakness. And then, in light of changing circumstanced and evidence, adjust and be positive about decisions you make.”
Segal says women can combine their family and personal lives with a successful career. “I know lots of women who have resigned from a role or worked fewer hours or moved jurisdictions in a way that might have appeared a negative. It is all just a tapestry – where one door is closing and another door is opening. In my case I left the law. Some people say, how could you do that? But there is not only one path.”
Don’t be discouraged
Segal’s final words for women are a rallying cry. “It is important that women aren’t discouraged by, at times, having to change directions. It can be a bit of a winding road but it is OK as long as you are going forward. It is important not to give up.”