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Leading with agility and dynamic strategy

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Company director Elizabeth Proust AO is actively involved in leading Australian businesses, 25 years after taking part in the PwC’s first Australian CEO survey. She is currently an Independent Non Executive Director for Lendlease and Chairman of financial services company Cuscal. Her former roles include Managing Director, Esanda, Managing Director of Metrobanking, and Group General Manager, Human Resources, Corporate Affairs and Management Services. In 1997, Proust was Secretary of the department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria.

As the 65 business leaders who took part in Australia’s first PwC CEO Survey discovered from their responses and their face-to-face discussions with Matt English and his team, today’s CEOs are also facing future challenges and change.

Focusing on dynamic strategy and business agility is as relevant today as it was a quarter of a century ago for Elizabeth Proust AO. “Businesses today need to be agile, and the pace of change means you need to think constantly about your strategy.” But Proust says there’s now an important difference. “CEOs 25 years ago held a strategy day once a year. They got consultants in and spent a lot of money on them. Today, CEOs need to constantly think about strategy, and the whole landscape is changing quickly.”

To stay relevant in such a rapidly changing environment, business leaders need to be across all parts of the business including geographies, people and markets, all of which needs regular dialogue to stay ahead of the game. “Hopefully when we come out of this current situation, resilience, change management and fast adaptation will help us in whatever the new world looks like.”

Climate change

Around 70% of CEOs who responded to last year’s CEO survey saw climate change and environmental damage as a threat to business, and the 25th annual survey will continue to look at business leaders’ concerns around this topic. “Every organisation I know sees it as a serious threat,” says Proust, adding “The science is real, the question is what can we all do together to ameliorate it.” Lendlease, where Proust is currently an Independent Non Executive Director, has shown local corporate leadership in ESG. The company supports the Paris Agreement of 2015, has taken gas and diesel out of its projects and is committed to green steel. When it comes to ESG and climate change, Proust believes people today have more trust in companies and their leadership, than in government.

Building Resilience

In today’s 24/7 environment with no physical boundaries to mark the end of the working day, more demands than ever before are being placed on CEOs. To be fully rounded, leaders need to stand back from the fray and take blue sky moments to build their networks with other sectors, a strategic move that requires discipline. Unlike the top down leadership in 1997, she says an organisation’s entire C-suite needs to be digitally savvy and skilled in leading people. CEOs of the late 1990s, she says, tended to view the people equation as something that was left to the organisation’s human resources department to sort out.

She says CEOs today need to understand leadership, opportunities and challenges facing people as well as their business. As chair of the Not-for-profit mental health and wellbeing organisation SuperFriend, Proust has a growing awareness that given current circumstances, businesses need to take greater care of their teams. “Managers need to be resilient in themselves but also need to build resilience in their people. By 2030, 30% of all WorkCover claims will be mental health related,” she says.

Supporting Diversity

Although workplaces are less hierarchical than those in 1997, and more informal in dress, speech and habits, the current lack of contact between colleagues impacts networking. Proust feels that people who are new to careers will miss out on the unwritten rules and culture of their workplace which she sees as being hard to understand and to leverage from the other side of a screen.

Working from home has disadvantaged many women. “Any time there’s home-schooling, 80-90% of the responsibility falls to the mothers and that’s a burden now that’s pretty close to intolerable. Many women will opt out of the workforce or take a pause due to a lack of child care and I see the disparity in pay growing. When we come out of lockdown, we’ll find a balance and it won’t be a five day working week in the office. It will be up to leaders to work out what is the new normal and how to keep your people engaged and that will be a big challenge.”

But Australia’s executive women are making gains. Proust points out that Australia leads the world when it comes to women being appointed to boards where a government mandate has not been put in place.

When Proust responded to the 1997 survey, she was one of Australia’s most senior female public servants. Although she believes the current number of women CEOs in the private sector is disappointing, particularly for ASX listed companies, the public sector has lots of good practices that recognise talent regardless of gender. Every state government has a policy of 50% inclusion of women on boards, but she says, corporations still have a long way to go.


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Matt Graham

Matt Graham

Managing Partner, Assurance, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 412 744 547