David Gonski is Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, President of the Art Gallery of NSW Trust and Chairman of Sydney Airport, the UNSW Foundation and Barrenjoey Holdings. David is also a non-executive member of Leapfrog Investments Global Leadership Council, a Patron of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation and Raise Foundation and a Founding Panel Member of Adara Partners and the board of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. David was a former member of the Takeovers Panel, the ASIC External Advisory Panel and a director of Singapore Airlines, Westfield Group and Singapore Telecommunications.
David is the former Chairman of a number significant ASX listed boards including the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd, Coca-Cola Amatil Limited, the Australian Securities Exchange and Investec Bank Australia. His other former Chair roles include the Guardians of the Future Fund and the Australian Council for the Arts and the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools for the Commonwealth Government.
“Trust is where one is prepared to depend upon another, to expect and get results from such person or organisation, someone to effectively make sure that things happen.”
David brings a breadth of experience and clarity of thinking to the subject of trust, especially how it is built, managed and protected. While acknowledging the complexity, David’s approach is unapologetically simple. It begins with a few steps … around the office.
Walking around the office, talking to staff, showing one’s own humanity is so important in building trust. If the staff don’t trust you and indeed, if you don’t trust them, you’ve got a major problem. Try and build an openness and honesty, which I believe are the foundations of trust
This openness is just as important at a board level. Especially between a Chairman and CEO.
“I’m a strong believer the CEO manages the company, and I feel very strongly that my job, particularly as Chairman, is firstly to appoint the right CEO and secondly, watch over that CEO and whilst generally keeping an eye on them, help them to fly.”
Helping them to fly is also about navigating the inevitable turbulence. And this is where his approach is as uncomplicated as it is invaluable. Not just for CEOs, but all leaders. Unsurprisingly, trust is at the core.
I believe you can actually grow trust if you are both human and humane. Obviously, try not to make a mistake, but if you do, own up to it. Counter-intuitively, you can actually build more trust by how you handle a mistake than you had before. Of course, do all you can to make sure it never happens twice.
Being humane is all about showing compassion. Businesses are obviously profit making, but that shouldn’t get in the way of understanding we are people dealing with people.”
To illustrate the importance of humanity, David compares the actions of Jacinda Ardern hugging relatives after the Christchurch massacre and the then CEO of BP, who chose to go sailing in the midst of the tragedy that unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We remember how they responded. It is clear who demonstrated humanity and who was literally and emotionally out to sea.”
For an industry that may have lacked it in the past, David believes humanity in banking is more critical now than ever before. He argues that the era of social media radically changed the power dynamic between customer and bank, meaning trust became more fragile and at times more formidable – depending on the speed and tone of messaging or the response to customers’ needs and concerns.
“In the past, companies could often ignore how communities responded and reacted. As they had no way of reacting immediately, it was almost like they weren’t watching. Now everyone’s watching, reporting and commenting. Communities are so much more involved through social media, which is better for companies and their customers.”
This involvement in community was never more evident than through COVID-19. “I watched with great pride how the banking system showed care by offering mortgage relief to those fearful of losing their job.”
While he acknowledges the erosion of trust in institutions, trust in banking remains, given the custodianship of people’s most valuable assets. In the past, the stone pillars and facades were enough to create a sense of trust through permanence. In his view, today trust is through the demonstration of humanity which is more enduring than masonry and more tangible.
When asked about the most trusted brands, David recalls his 20 years as Chairman of Coca-Cola Amatil. Despite the challenges around sugar intake and obesity, the Coke brand has enjoyed some of the highest levels of trust. Reflecting on this time, he reaffirms his belief in the value of the ‘trust metric’. A tool that values the accumulation of goodwill or support customers have in a brand driven, by the organisation’s success in delivering on its promises over time. “You could trust Coke would taste the same, and provide hygienically and precisely the amount stated on the can. The Coca-Cola brand delivered wherever you were in the world.”
However, it was during his time at Coca-Cola when the goodwill of a brand owned by Coke was literally going down the drain.
When the Coca-Cola energy drink Mother launched in Australia, it had a major problem. “Mother tasted awful. It was that simple and that bad. But they acted quickly and created a new Mother with a great taste.”
David recounts the advertising campaign that dramatised the failure. “Rather than ignore what had happened, they owned up to the mistake, and used the mistake as the core of the advertising campaign. It was a huge success. Trust was restored with humanity, and sales were stronger than ever.”
As we conclude the conversation the theme of humanity has echoed with every mention of trust. David Gonski may have extensive financial expertise, an impressive reputation as a leader, critical thinker, academic and board member, but it his reflections on humanity that are truly enlightening.
Dependability may be his definition for trust, but it’s humanity that is the path to achieve it.