Leadership and career lessons with Rosemary Vilgan, Telstra Business Woman of the Year 2013
Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart. Leadership is about inspiration—of oneself and of others. Great leadership is about human experiences, not processes. Leadership is not a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others. It is an attitude, not a routine
I had the pleasure recently to sit with Rosemary Vilgan, CEO of QSuper and the winner of the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year award for 2013, and talk to her about her career and experience as a leader. Rosemary won the Queensland award along with the state awards in Government and Innovation before being announced as the national winner in November 2013.
photo courtesy of QSuper website
One of the things that brought Rosemary to the attention of the judges was her drive to introduce a different strategy for superannuation, based not on a comparative rate of return against other funds, but results for individuals, or groups of individuals. From the QSuper website:
Driven by hearing fear in the voices of people whose superannuation savings were slashed by the GFC, Ms Vilgan said the retirement plans of many Australians were left in disarray… With board support, Ms Vilgan and her team introduced QSuper Lifetime, a product that she says is designed to give members “dignity in retirement.” It provides a more tailored investment strategy based on the age and savings of a cohort of individual members and the economic cycle, integrated with financial advice.
You can read more about the award and Rosemary at the Telstra website here .
Q: What went through your mind when you found out someone wanted to nominate you for the Telstra awards?
A: I was first nominated nearly a decade ago and at the time I was, of course, flattered and I felt a great sense of obligation to the person who thought so much of me to nominate me for this award, rather than impressed with myself! I did reach the State finals at that time. Telstra continued to write to me to go into the running, and last year I felt different about it – I had achieved so much more personally and professionally in the Superannuation industry since then that I felt it was worth re-entering.
Q: You won three awards at the state level (government, innovation and the state award) and then the national award. How did that feel?
It was a very different experience winning the state award, and in some ways more thrilling. We had a number of tables at the first event, and my husband, children, my sisters and their families were all there. For me, having my family there as supporters , including my own children and nieces and nephews, was wonderful — it wasn’t just about me, but about them seeing such an incredible group of women achieving in all different areas of work and in their communities. That’s really what the awards are about. But yes, for me, of course it is an incredible honour, particularly in light of the work I had done in challenging the way the superannuation industry operates.
Q: Aside from your leadership in terms of the superannuation industry changes was there anything in particular you think helped with the award?
A: It is quite an intense process in preparing the proposal itself in terms of the details required. I thought very carefully about selecting the people who would be my referees — along with my own boss (Chairman of QSuper), I asked my head of HR because I thought it was important that anyone who wins an award like this has to be known as someone who treats their staff well, as well as having pure business skills and leadership skills. Because good leadership is all about having and developing good people.
Q: I remember reading an article that said in a presentation to staff you said something like ‘decisions we make today will affect what people eat in their retirement’. What did you mean by that?
A: For me, it’s very important for our staff to realise that financial performance IS about the people who have entrusted us to make decisions about their superannuation fund for when they reach retirement age. It is about human beings. It is not just about how we are doing compared to other funds. When the GFC hit, we had to radically rethink how we made decisions and became market leaders as a result.
Q: Did you have a career plan?
A: Not as such, at first. After graduating from University with a Bachelor of Business (QUT) I worked in both the Public Trustee’s office and the Premier’s Department. I moved to the Government Superannuation Office in Treasury when superannuation became compulsory, as I knew then that there would be great possibilities for career growth. I decided to undertake a Diploma in Superannuation Management, of which I was dux. And that was the start.
Q: Did you have a moment when you realised you were a leader or was it pointed out to you?
The then CEO approached me when I was 29 or so and said he thought I had potential to be CEO. At the time I was head of Policy, and it had honestly not occurred to me. But he made sure that I was then exposed to a broad range of skills development to give me well rounded experience. I knew it was going to be a big step if it was going to happen.
Through my role as head of Policy, I also became involved at a national level through the Association of Superannuation Funds Australia. When the position of Chair of the Board became available, two colleagues on the Board nominated me for the position and I believed then that I could do it. I may not have put my hand up myself for the role, so I’m glad they nominated me.
Q: Was this a point where self belief became more important?
A: Yes – this was recognition from industry peers not just work colleagues, which is not to diminish their importance in my career or development — it was just different having people outside my own organisation believing in me. It opened up incredible opportunities for me.
Q: Did your organisation have career development programs for women?
A: Not as such, back in those days. Once I had a clear vision of where I might go (i.e., to the CEO role), the then CEO made sure I got even more exposure and some Board experience. I went onto our audit committee which was fantastic experience and I can highly recommend audit committee work to any woman aspiring to leadership or Board positions because you learn a while new skill set.
Q: What are the best lessons you have learned as a leader?
A: There are three things:
1. Deal with the ‘big rocks’ first. What is the big goal? If you keep the big goal in mind, all the smaller transitions and actions that are needed fall into place so you remain focused on that big goal. And that big goal has to be regularly and clearly communicated.
2. Don’t let fear drive decisions, but love. If what you are proposing is the right thing to do, go with it. Fear (whether of failure, of what people will think) will limit effective decision making.
3. I talk to my staff a lot — it is important for me to make sure all our staff understand what we are here for, and I make it very human, using real people as examples of why what we do is important.
I believe these things, and having a good team of people in senior management roles, are the reason our organisation has exceptionally high levels of engagement on every level.
Thank you Rosemary - a remarkable woman and quiet achiever in very important industry.