Westpac CEO Gail Kelly Retires With Inspiring Message For Women In Leadership

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Back in 1980, a 21 year old Gail Kelly just started a job as a bank teller in Johannesburg, South Africa. Today she is a recently-retired CEO of Westpac bank, one of the four big banking corporations in Australia. She has been named one of the top 10 most powerful people in the world by Forbes, earning close to $13 million in her last year on the job. Her retirement made big news down under, one of the big reasons being that she was in a minority in the industry in Aus, and her departure leaves a gaping hole that leave some worried for the future of women in corporate leadership.

Her replacement is a guy by the name of Brian Hartzer who also has an impressive banking resume, originating from Scotland. But the women of Australia and elsewhere in the world who are reading this should not see this as a sad day, or a disappointment. In fact it is her retirement that has brought a lot of positive facts and figures to the public sector, giving even more women a reason to chase leadership roles.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that when Gail took the top job in February 2008, Westpac’s shares were trading at $25.90. They closed at $33.33 on Wednesday, an increase of 25.7 per cent. Gail was the only female in the top 20 companies on the ASX (Australian Stock Exchange) and was one of only 7 women in the top 200 companies. In fact Australia has the lowest percentage of women in top executive roles, compared with countries that have similar corporate structures, which understandably leaves some women worried.

However, during her time at Westpac, Gail helped to pioneer the 100 Women of Influence Awards in 2012 which is committed to increasing the visibility of women’s leadership in Australia. Each year they nominate women from a range of industries and celebrate the important contributions they make which enable Australia to thrive.

The mother of 4 children, Gail also made a significant leap in equality in the workplace. In 2010 she announced she was working toward a target of 40% of women in the company bu 2014, but she reached that target in 2012. Today the quota of women in Westpac is sitting at a healthy 45%, and the company plans to reach 50% by 2017 (if it doesn’t happen earlier, that is.)

It should also be pointed out that Gail worked at Westpac before, during, and after the financial crisis, so these numbers are incredibly impressive.

Those stats right there are rare in the corporate world no matter which country you look at. It is the kind of equality we would like to see everywhere, but now we know for sure it is possible, and that women in positions of leadership can have a significant impact in making this happen.

Her influence on the Westpac working environment has gone beyond their office walls, because now the ASX have made their own announcement to increase the number of females in leadership positions from 25% to 40% after reading a survey which provided compelling evidence that companies with women in top positions created better returns for investors.

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“Gail has been a trailblazer and I am looking forward to seeing what trail she chooses to blaze post-Westpac,” said Diane Smith-Gander, who is a joint member of Chief Executive Women, an organization representing Australia’s most senior women leaders, along with Gail.

During a press conference Gail shared some important pearls of wisdom to other women looking to emulate her success or who simply want to find their place as a leader.

“Back yourself. Be prepared to have a go, be prepared to put your hand up, be prepared to put your hand up before you think you’re ready for a role.”

“There are people out there who want to support you. Ask for the opportunity, dig deep when those opportunities come your way and have a go,” she said.

In another interview (there were certainly shortage of these!) with ABC News Australia, Gail shared her thoughts on how the workplace can improve in order to be a more attractive option for women, rather than forcing them to choose between having a family and working.

“Companies and environments that support women to live a whole life and support women through the various stages of their lives when they have young children, when children are starting out at school, they may have aged parents, have other responsibilities, but support women actually balance all of those elements. Now that requires companies to redesign workplaces for everyone – not just women, but for men as well.”

When women are supported on all fronts, they feel less hesitant to put their hands up and go after those roles, which is why more women in leadership will enable companies to see a new side of how to support their employees better.

Back in August, Gail gave a speech at the St. George Bank Foundation launch and shared 7 lessons she learned along the way which give a bit of an insight into why she was so successful in her career: choose to be positive, do what you love and love what you do, be bold and dig deep, go after the right roles for you, have a clear vision, be generous, and live a whole life. You can see more in depth about each point by clicking here.

The retirement of one successful female CEO should be a cause for celebration, because it means the opportunities are out there, we just have to work hard, stay determined and don’t give up at the first sign of defeat. Gail leaves behind a legacy that has impacted millions of people around Australia. And hey if a 12 year old bank teller can do what she did, what’s to say you can’t do the same?

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