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For Don, trust is about having genuine belief in people while demonstrating empathy, respect and authenticity

Don Luke is the former Chair of Australian Retirement Trust, the super fund formed in February 2022 through the merger of Sunsuper and QSuper. He is also the Chair of Purpose Investment Partners Ltd, the immediate past Chair of Queensland Investment Corporation and has along track record of influential Non-Executive Director roles.

Don and CEO, Bern Reilly, have helped lead the successful integration of two major Queensland Superannuation funds to become Australian Retirement Trust. Responsible for serving the retirement needs of two million Australians. A merger of this magnitude, in compressed timelines with teams hampered at times by remote working or even past loyalties, has been a once in a career challenge and huge opportunity.

Don’s approach is the rare blend of optimism and down-to-earth realism. Not one for corporate platitudes or disingenuous statements of purpose, Don breaks it down into a more human insight.

How an organisation describes purpose can inhibit trust if it isn’t real. Leadership is about belief in people. It's about treating people with care, kindness, respect, empathy and truly being present when needed.

You quickly get a sense that Don has no time for pretense. It’s his honesty – and his search for honesty in others – that may prove his greatest strength. Especially being honest about the merging of two loyal teams, both driven by serving their members but with different styles.

From tentative beginnings to confident future

Australian Retirement Trust is headquartered in beautiful Brisbane, Queensland.

“When you bring organisations together, it’s natural for people to feel that their role before was more special than a similar role in the other company. This can be compounded by an apprehension that the merger would lose some of what really matters”. According to Don, “Trust was the problem, but also the solution.”

Don is a strong believer in the power of people working closely together to form loyalties, to share goals and above all mitigate that sense of insecurity or fear of change. Showing patience and understanding of these very human reactions, rather than ignoring or pushing back against them, gave Don and the broader leadership team a significant advantage that has proven a model for success. As he eloquently puts it: “Prejudice happens when people are apart. Prejudice dissolves when people come together with a sense of purpose and doing things together.”

Multiple voices. One mission

With the teams returning to the office in mid-2022, the next challenge was to build out a purpose and a clear strategic direction for the new brand, something to believe in and to execute. This proved harder than first imagined. However, rather than a select few ‘handing down a plan for all’, Don and the team championed a more iterative and inclusive approach.

“Our core strategy group tested ideas with the board, then across the organisation. Listening and refining. Welcoming a diversity of thinking with a genuine acknowledgement of the uncertainties and challenges.”

Importantly, Don wanted a combined knowledge where everyone had a voice and people were genuine participants in the cultural journey – not just along for the ride.

“I love the celebration of diversity, the inclusiveness of bringing that through the organisation and listening to multiple voices.”

Australian Retirement Trust has over 2 million members.

Broadly speaking, the areas that gained momentum included celebrating serving others, celebrating members’ best interests, and celebrating diversity, inclusiveness and humility.

What also gained momentum through the process was trust.

Almost immediately we created much deeper, long-lasting trust. If you want trust for the organisation then you better trust the people in the organisation. Trust is a two-way street, and you can never get trust yourself if you don't show trust to people

While it may take longer and be harder to bring together, Don believes this is a more fulfilling and ultimately more success-oriented process. Again, he brings it back to humility and the trust-building benefits of acknowledging that no one has all the answers, not even a board, CEO or Chair.

Vulnerability. A great strength

According to Don, “Unless you are vulnerable then you will never get honest feedback, you’ll never have equal relationships and you'll never get trust.”

To further illustrate the point, Don references a quote from Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’: "If you're not constantly being challenged, what are you doing to inhibit it? Because don't pretend they agree with you because, it never will be thus."

This invitation to challenge, and his confidence in showing vulnerability, is core to the trusted relationship that has been established between Don and Bern. Their conversations are short, purposeful and without barriers. Meetings are transparent and open. Positional power is never protected or misused. If there is an area of disagreement, it is never over-defended. Rather, it becomes an opportunity to sharpen decision making.

At the end of the day, the interests of the members come first. As Don days “If you allow anything to get in the way of serving the members, you don’t deserve to be here.”

Serving members and members of society

Don’s belief in people and the positive impacts that can be made through authentic trusted relationships extends into broader society. He strongly believes in an overriding obligation to serve the community, to invest appropriately and with social impact in mind.

“We have to always fulfil our fiduciary duty by giving the right return to our members, but in addition to that, do things that help transform and add value to the society in which we live.”

When considering Don’s definition of trust - the ‘genuine belief in people’ - this broader societal commitment is unsurprising. Nor is the overall success of this merger. As the process continues, and the teams, leaders, and cultures galvanise as one, what is clearly evident from Don is the power of trust to unite, to break down barriers and to establish doing lasting organisational success.

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