Be bold, have a go, Gail Kelly urges women

Simone Ziaziaris
(Australian Associated Press)

Gail Kelly never planned to write a book but after a career stretching from school teacher in South Africa to Australia’s first female bank CEO, the former Westpac boss felt she had something to say.

“It wasn’t on the agenda at all really,” Ms Kelly told AAP in Sydney for the launch of her autobiography, Live Lead Learn.

Ms Kelly stepped down as chief executive of Westpac in 2015, ending a 35-year career in banking.

But her success as a businesswoman and a mother of four, including triplets, remained admired by many who were eager for a glimpse into her experiences and the secrets of the elusive work-life balance.

“It just struck me that I had something to say,” the 61-year-old said.

“Having now written it – gosh I am putting a lot of myself out there.”

But opening up about her personal life isn’t entirely new for the South African-born former Latin teacher-turned bank teller.

During her time as chief executive of St George Bank – before it merged with Westpac in 2008 – Ms Kelly sent employees a fortnightly company news email and would frequently end the message with something about her family.

Whether it was a snapshot of the family holiday or the challenges of having triplets all learning to drive at the same time, Ms Kelly said the insight made communicating with staff more personalised and real.

“All my career – as a consequence of being a woman in business – I have always been asked a little bit about family,” she said

“It has been part of my style I suppose, my persona, to be open and candid about my whole life.”

Her book is no different.

Ms Kelly provides insights into how she thrived as a woman throughout her career – from having to get her husband, then studying, to grant her written permission to work as a teacher in South Africa in 1979, to putting her hand up for the role of bank CEO in a male-dominated industry.

But she isn’t immune to missed opportunities – recounting how she missed her son Mark take the stage as Ellie the Elephant in a primary school concert because she was absorbed in business calls.

“How embarrassed and ashamed I felt. A knot of pain settled in the pit of my stomach,” she writes of the experience in her book.

Ms Kelly says she was aware throughout her career of wishing to be at every family event.

“I felt lots of guilt at different times,” she said.

Now a director of Country Road Group, David Jones and Australian Philanthropic Services, Ms Kelly hopes by sharing her experiences, women in similar positions will live in the moment and know that there will be the odd priority mistake here or there.

“I have had lots of self doubts along the way in different opportunities that have come my way,” she said.

“Dig deep, be bold and have a go.”


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