A close collegial bond formed in New Zealand almost 15 years ago and interweaving interests since has built the strong connection between Ann Sherry AO and Christine Parker.
During almost 14 years with Westpac from 1994, Ann's roles included group executive human resources, and chief executive of Bank of Melbourne and Westpac New Zealand. She went on to hold executive roles beyond the bank, most notably as chief of Carnival Australia, before stepping onto multiple boards as chair or non-executive director, including current roles with Sydney Airport, Unicef, Enero and NAB.
After joining Ann’s executive team in Westpac New Zealand in 2006, Christine rose to Westpac’s group executive team in Australia, taking on the mantle as group executive human resources, a shared vocation which has seen the pair’s paths regularly entwine.
This is their story.
Something Christine and I always had in common was a view that there's no point in blending in. You really need to just develop your own style and stand out from the crowd.
Our meeting was quite serendipitous.
I'd been in New Zealand for a while (as Westpac chief executive since 2002) and was shaping up our executive team for the next challenge at a time Christine was about to finish at Carter Holt Harvey (as group human resources director). She was more experienced than anyone I’d interviewed, and the rest is history.
She’s always had a great sense of fun and occasion.
In fact, one of my cherished memories from that time was working together on our New Zealand Fashion Week sponsorship. It might sound frivolous, but it was brilliant on so many levels. We developed the Red Collection, where we invited local fashion designers to hold a fashion parade for customers. It was wonderful because it gave those local designers great exposure, it gave customers access to the glamour of a fashion show, and it really differentiated us as a corporate brand in the NZ market.
Our personal experiences are not dissimilar – something we’d talk about privately.
After I’d returned to Australia and moved on to Carnival (in 2007), and (then Westpac CEO) Gail (Kelly) had asked Christine to come over to join her executive team, for a while her partner had to stay behind in NZ and suddenly became a single parent to their daughter.
I’d been through all of that too. It's tough, because of the way expectations work and society runs, managing the tension when your partner is left to pack up the house because you're pursuing your dream. For most men at the time, the assumption was they've got partners to do all that stuff, but it wasn’t the assumption for women or that women's partners had.
That shared history, the experiences and all the good stories – those are the things that mean she and I click.
One of the things I’ve always admired, and a sign of her confidence as an executive, is that Christine took the stuff that was working, picked the eyes out of it and put a whole new energy into it. Often new execs feel a need to wipe the slate clean and do it completely differently. But most of the time making good things better is what makes companies great. Really embedding change takes time.
Her continuity, as an executive at Westpac, is probably more important than it’s ever been.
The complexity of running big operations now is pretty clear to everybody. There's much more that's expected. Never are you doing just one thing – there are always lots of “ands”. You've got to have a face to the world. You've got to be part of the community. You've got to have heart, be invested in the right thing.
Our paths cross in all sorts of ways, but we’re often drawn together around a shared passion for women in leadership.
I do worry about the pipeline in Australia. The number of female CEOs is still quite pathetic. Some sectors, like mining, have fundamentally changed for the better, but in others, the numbers really haven't moved that much at all.
The boards have, but the executives haven't. They're powerful jobs and women should have them. If you don't get gender diversity right, you get nothing else right.
We've been pushing it in Australia for a long time and we've come a long way, but we still have a systemic issue that needs much greater focus.
Christine gets this as much as anyone I know – and having been close for more than 15 years, I know she’ll carry on the challenges so more women get the opportunities we’ve had.
I actually didn’t join Westpac because I was passionate about banking. I didn't know a lot about financial services at the time. I joined because I wanted to work with Ann.
There weren't many women in CEO roles in New Zealand, or Australia for that matter. In fact, she was the first woman I’d ever worked with at a senior level.
I'd heard a lot about her: the work she did with community, with women, with people in disadvantage, her leadership style, that she was a great role model – all things that strongly resonated with me.
When we met, we just clicked. She has this big laugh, this wicked sense of humour and is great fun to be around. She absolutely energises everyone around her – she was like a whirlwind.
It was her drive and ideas that got me really excited about financial services, about how fundamentally critical it is to our society, the positive change we can have.
Her ideas were often ahead of their time. She’d always been such a strong advocate for women’s and Indigenous peoples’ rights in multiple environments, including politics, and she brought that passion into corporate Australia.
She's ferocious about doing the right thing, about fairness, equity. And she has always had the courage to push boundaries, both for organisations, for the community and her own family, calling out behaviour and driving change, understanding that there's a cost associated, but she’s willing to take on the battle.
If she believed strongly in something, she’d back herself whether, quite frankly, she had the backing of her organisation or not.
And she was also smart enough to say, well, actually, driving change – especially for women’s equity and by creating places where women can grow their careers, feel safe and be remunerated fairly – that's a differentiator that can drive positive business outcomes.
I’ve been incredibly proud to build on some of that work Ann started.
And I know the moment you take your foot off, it can go backwards. COVID is likely to create additional challenges for women in the leadership pipelines of many businesses, as organisations restructure and layers come out. It's a hard grind, and I’m absolutely committed to the challenge.
When I came to Australia, the decision, in itself, wasn't difficult. But the move was. I had to commute for that first year while my daughter finished her last year of school.
I didn't know a lot of people over here and Ann was incredibly helpful in terms of setting up connections. But she also gave me support and confidence, and has always been there as a sounding board, when there have been tough decisions or when I needed to test and challenge things.
That has been really important.
She’s such a grounded person and has this way of connecting with anyone she meets, and instilling belief, no matter who they are. The number of people she gives her time and energy to, coaching and mentoring and helping, over the years – including me – is astounding.
That help has really instilled in me an obligation to pay it forward, as a senior woman, to coach and support and bring others through. To me, it's an honour to do that.
And Ann does that in spades.