6 April 2020
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The Key to success

I want you to picture that old St. George Bank television commercial during which a backyard barbie party was thrown into silence when someone was asked what he did and he replied that he was a banker! But after a pregnant pause, during which the banker observed the shocked partygoers, he eventually added: “I’m with St. George!” And happiness and relief was bestowed upon the stunned crowd.

The voiceover lady then asked: “Why does St. George have so many satisfied customers?” She answered her own question with: “Cos we’re good with people and good with money.”

This ad was made in the image of the brand created by its former CEO, Jim Sweeney, who was a giant of a man and a man with giant quality and leadership talent. These words, which we seemed to believe in 2006, really appear anachronistic nowadays, following the public defrocking of our financial institutions at the Royal Commission.

Yes, this might surprise the mob at the Commission, but a banker can be likeable. I met with one and introduced him to my staff on Tuesday at our Sydney office. What’s even more surprising is that this unbelievably inspiring, self-effacing good guy, is not only a former banker but he’s an ex-politician and a Prime Minister to boot!

I was thinking about all this after interviewing the former Kiwi PM, The Rt Hon Sir John Key, who gave up his valuable time to talk to my team. To a man and woman, the Switzer team and invited guests were inspired by this natural born leader.

In case you don’t believe that a politician can be inspirational, just look at my Coffee with Switzer, which shows Sir John in full cry, ripping into the Opposition for opposing sending troops to Afghanistan to train the local forces fighting ISIS. This is a political tongue-lashing of Churchillian or Keating proportions and shows what kind of rare pollie he is.

I’ve got to know John (he doesn’t expect someone like me to call him Sir John) after doing the post-Budget speech for PwC in Brisbane, which draws a breakfast crowd of over 2000 people! For years I did it with John Howard but of late JH has done PwC’s Sydney budget shindig, while Sir JK has delighted the Queensland crowd with his perceptive assessments of how my old student, Scott Morrison, has performed on the second Tuesday in May.

Nowadays, John is on the boards of ANZ and Air New Zealand, as well as the monolithic Comcast in the USA, which, among other things, owns NBCUniversal.

But as my employees and company stakeholders found out, this knight of the Commonwealth realm doesn’t have any airs and graces.

On the night he became PM-elect, he admitted he was overwhelmed by his success and can always remember his wife doing a curtsy when he woke up the next morning. “However by mid-morning, I was back to ‘put out the rubbish and feed the cat’ status,” he said.

Given his investment banking record before being called Prime Minister of a conservative government, you might think he was a product of a privileged upbringing. The reality is vastly different.

“My Dad dropped dead when I was six and mum later went to her accountant who said ‘I’ve got good news and bad news, what do you want first?’” he recalled. “My Mum asked for the bad news first and to that the accountant said ‘you’re broke but the good news is I think I can fix that.”

But Mrs Key, an Austrian Jew who’d escaped the Nazi’s reign of terror via an Aunty who married a Brit for money, wasn’t up for a questionable accountant’s trick and took John and his sister to Christchurch, where they lived in what we Aussies would call a Housing Commission property.

By the way, that enterprising Aunty, who initially brought John’s Mum to the UK under a family reunion policy, wasn’t able to lure some of the others in John’s Mum’s family out of Austria, and regrettably they never survived the horrors of Hitler and World War II!

I watched as John answered my questions with such natural openness, belying his history as someone who had the status of a country’s number one person of influence. This is a guy who, when I asked what international leader impressed him the most, he quickly pointed to how impressive Barack Obama was, especially as a speaker and communicator.

But he was most impressed with one leader with whom he and his family spent a weekend and that person was the Queen of England!

The Windsors — Liz, Phil, William and Kate — welcomed the Keys and their two children to a get together at Balmoral, which included a BBQ on the first night.

John said he was staggered when the Queen jumped in her four-wheel drive and took the couple to a spot on the wilds of Balmoral. “As a person, the Queen is the most remarkable person, she is amazing — she has had (entertained) every US President and every important person imaginable and her stories are incredible.”

He was also very impressed with Germany’s Angela Merkel. “Smart as...” he added, showing his Kiwi upbringing!

John’s pre-PM background was as an accountant with Deloitte, he then moved to investment banking with Banker’s Trust, before heading up foreign exchange for Merrill Lynch. The latter two workplaces must have been good for building on the self-belief that seems to have been with him from birth.

He entered Parliament in 2002 and was made Leader of the Opposition National Party, replacing the former Reserve Bank Governor of NZ, Don Brash, who didn’t cover himself in glory as a politician. John became PM in 2008 and surprisingly retired in December 2016. His replacement, Treasurer Bill English, lost the 2017 election to Jacinta Arden, whose win astounded pundits, as she was made leader in August 2017 and was PM-elect by late October!

Maybe there’s a bit of John Key in Jacinta but only time will tell.

Interestingly, Don Brash, only this week, took out the sour grapes of the century award when he told NZ media that he marks John’s legacy a zero out of 10.

This was a day after the former PM knocked out my staff with his candid, and at times self-deprecating, look back at his time as PM of the Kiwis. “I always believed New Zealand was an amazing country that had underperformed and I could play a role, along with a big team in transforming that,” he told me. “And while there’s a bit of an argument over my contribution over the time I was PM, I think we did take New Zealand to another level.”

He says leading a country is a journey, not a destination, and his trip did have some hazards, like the GFC, the Christchurch earthquake and the Pike River mine disaster. But less biased observers than Don Brash formed a different view on what John left behind. “After all of this HSBC came out and described New Zealand as the Rockstar economy!” he proudly revealed.

He was also happy about his possible impact on the All Blacks! “They never lost in the entire time I was Prime Minister,” he crowed but what would you expect of a Kiwi when it comes to their precious rugby players.

Let me add, I’ve seen many examples of a country’s sporting teams respond to the national vibe that comes out of great political leadership and economic achievement. The coincidence of India’s emergence as a developing economy and a part of the so-called fast-growing BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the rise in the competitiveness of its national cricket team was hard to ignore. The Indian players grew in their price and their aggression and it translated into a playing squad that could stand up to the irrepressible Aussies!

I think there is a lesson in this for Malcolm Turnbull, who needs to push back against those who would push him around.

I asked John what was the biggest surprise revelation in being the head honcho of a country and he said, while the “easy decisions” are made by an army of advisers and public servants before it goes to Cabinet for a virtual rubber stamping, the really hard ones get down to the person who has the top job and it ain’t easy.

“Let’s say it’s oil and gas exploration, you’ll have the environmental people arguing their case and the economic team arguing the other and you have to make that call,” he explained. “And it can’t always be one side…and I always thought these big decisions would have been a lot easier.”

When I reflect on John Key, he makes me contemplate what leadership expert John Maxwell told me about so-called natural born leaders. “Leadership is not an exclusive club reserved for those who were “born with it,” he explained. “The traits comprising the raw materials of leadership can be acquired. Link them up with desire and nothing can keep you from becoming a leader.

“Some people have a more intuitive grasp of how to lead than others. These ‘natural-born leaders’ will always emerge, but their influence hinges upon their ability to supplement inborn talent with learned skills. Ultimately, leadership is developed, not discovered.

I asked John what would he advise anyone who nowadays has big hairy audacious goals, as Jim Collins of the book Good to Great would say? And he happily volunteered a couple of real nuggets of inspiration that drove him.

This is what he offered: “It’s two things. My Mum always told me that you get out of life what you put into it. I do think you can make your own luck even, though you do need a helping hand along the way.

“And the second thing is I never wanted to die wondering. I always had this ambition to be Prime Minister. I wanted to leave a mark, if you like, and there are always different motivations why people want to do that but when I go to my grave, I’m going to be an unusual Prime Minister because

I’m going to go happy ‘cos I’ll look back and say that the public were great, I gave it a good go, I enjoyed the things I did and yeah I made some mistakes but I got some things right and so I won’t die wondering.

“So for anyone who is ambitious for whatever it might be, my advice would be ‘don’t be afraid of failing, give it everything you’ve got and even if you don’t make it, people will be proud of you that you gave it a go and you gave it your best.’”

If I can give anyone some great advice, it would be to strive to put yourself in the company of a great like John Key, because his positivity and his accessible nature, up against his long list of achievements, is absolutely awe-inspiring, and I have 50 staff members and colleagues who would wholeheartedly agree with me.

I only hope his gloss upon the All Blacks has finally rubbed off but I guess we’ll find out on Saturday night, when the first Bledisloe Cup battle is played in Sydney.

Go the Wallabies! And go The Rt Hon Sir John Key!

PS: As someone of Irish and Scottish descendants, I’ve always felt uncomfortable about knighthoods and even calling politicians “The Rt Hon”. But with John Key, this form of respectful address is entirely appropriate and fitting.

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