Michaela Healey: Making it through the middle ranks

29 Nov 2012

There was a time when Michaela Healey would never have believed she could reach the senior executive ranks of the National Australia Bank. She recently told Women's Agenda sister site LeadingCompany how she came to rise through the executive ranks, to be identified as a talented leader, how she goes about identifying talent among those who report to her. "I swore I would never work for a bank," Healey says.

A lawyer by training, Healey is the corporate secretary for NAB, leading a 250-strong governance and legal team across New York, London, Hong Kong and Australia. She is responsible for NAB's continuous improvement program, Kaizen, and a member of the executive team.

Her job is to ensure impeccable communication between the board and the executive of the bank, particularly its chairman, Michael Chaney, and its CEO, Cameron Clyne.

As dry as it sounds, corporate governance has a special meaning at NAB, where an implosion of the board and breakdown of its relationship with the executive in 2004 destroyed more shareholder value than any other business blunder ... and there have been a few. Healey says: "My key interactions are in the dynamic between the chair and the CEO. I report to the board of directors, and if you look back at NAB's history and the board combusting as it did in 2004, the relationship between the board and the executive is particularly important."

Healey's job is to ensure the board has access to all relevant information. "It is to really ensure that they get what I call a "scratch and sniff" experience: the ability to really understand what is going on in the organisation, so we don't end up with a misalignment between what is going on and what they board are seeing and hearing."

Healey was appointed in 2006, by which time the board was being reincarnated under Chaney's leadership. After several years in private legal practice, Healey shifted to corporate roles, working in legal and company secretary positions at mining company, Northern, and at Rio Tinto, and at chemical company, Orica.

She was corporate affairs manager at Orica when the share price tanked after it was floated from its parent, ICI. "It was an interesting time to be managing reputation," she recalls.

Healey vividly recalls her first board meeting at Orica. At the end of it, the CEO, the chair and CFO had all been sacked. It was a lesson in the transitory nature of corporate status.

"Having been through a hostile takeover really influences your thinking about companies – they do not necessarily exist for ever. The important thing is not getting your own personal identify mixed up with your job title. Titles can disappear overnight."

It was an important lesson for an ambitious executive whose job it is to guard the integrity of the company she works for. "I have always had an element of independence. I never want to be in position where my personal integrity could be compromised by what a company was doing; so highly financially or personally indebted to the company that I can't leave."

Standout performance
But Healey's approach is not to stand aside from the activities of business; she attributes her rise through the ranks to her willingness to roll up her sleeves and get the job done, whatever that might be. "I have always just focused on doing the best job that I can in whatever job I am doing at the time," she says."

However, to this Healey added a focus on the enterprise as a whole. "So, not just doing my immediate job, but through my work and my team, actually advancing the enterprise I am working for. That has given me a collegiate and collaborative style, and a willingness to put my hand up to take on challenges."

In the case of Orica, Healey and two other executives worked around the clock with the newly-appointed leadership to staunch the cash burn and restructure the companies. "Even though that was not in my job description, and didn't play to my core expertise, there was a job to be done and someone needed to do it. It is that willingness to take those risks and put in that work that has probably given me the opportunity to make a difference."

Getting noticed

Corporate secretary roles do have one big advantage for ambitious executives. "I have always been fortunate that, despite the daggy nature of company secretary role, it does give you amazing access to the senior executive and the board."

In the end, her hard work in corporate roles bought her to the attention of headhunters, who put her name forward for the role on the NAB executive.

These days, it is part of Healey's job to identify and nurture the talented and ambitious from her own team. Although it is not a scientific process, Healey clearly identifies what she is looking for: head, heart and guts.

"The key element I would see for identifying talent would be attitude, people's willingness to be part of the solution, to make a difference and takes some risks. Their willingness to lead with head, heart and guts. That doesn't mean you need to already be in a leadership position, but that you can see that someone who combines their intellectual skills with their heart, which engages others, and their guts, which is that ability to step out of the 'plane' when you need to do so.

"They are the raw ingredients I look for, combined with some of the interpersonal skills: presence, and intangible ingredients that it takes to engage.

"The experience piece is something that we then think we can work on, by giving them the necessary exposure."

NAB has a leadership program, called the group talent pool or pipeline. The senior executives select candidates and the bank "sponsors" them for 12 months. "They get exposure to the senior executives, access to mentoring, evaluated through an evaluation centre, to determine how you perform and then get to participate in our programs, such as the Accelerate program, where they spend time working with the indigenous community."

Difficult conversations

So what about the people who just don't get the idea of the NAB culture – the non-performers? Healey says the executive has been trained in having "difficult conversations".

"We have chosen to embrace words like trust, and what impedes trust. And talking about whether we have files on one another and unpacking those files. If you and I have met once, and you were rude, I will have a 'file' on you that says you are a rude person. We are saying that is not healthy."

Acknowledging such prejudices directly to the person involved is very difficult, but Healey says she is motivated by her own desire to have others trust her, and give her the opportunity to address any misconceptions about her behaviour. Practise is important, as is the release that occurs once such a conversation takes place.

The arsehole factor, or how to score 5D

It's not possible to advance through the NAB ranks, under the current corporate culture, purely on financial performance, Healey notes. Both behaviour and financial results are measured in the annual performance review. Financial results get a score of 1-5, while behaviour is ranked A-D. "So the traditional element within the financial services of someone shooting the lights out on the financial metrics but they are a real arsehole, that in our language would be a 5D," she says.

That executive would not only forfeit some of their potential performance-based earnings, but would also start to jeopardise their likelihood of promotion, if they are unable to alter the way they work. "They would get a penalty for the arsehole component. We really take that behavioural component very seriously."

The big challenge

Asked to describe her biggest leadership challenge, Healey responds with a platitude that she quickly brings to life. "It is to lift NAB's total shareholder return. So that doesn't sound like something every executive would say. I am hugely motivated by the positive things NAB does in the community, in the environment, and with our culture.

"We have above the financial service norm engagement amongst our people. And all those things that we do to engage our people will only be considered successful if we can translate it into shareholder returns.

"I would love for NAB to be a positive test case that says you can do the right thing and it results in strong shareholder outcome. If it doesn't, we will be an interesting experiment. I would love to have people pointing to NAB and say, see, they did the right thing, they backed their customers, they supported their community, they set out to make a difference with the environment, and their shareholders benefitted."

Kath Walters

Kath Walters is the editor of Leading Company, a sister publication of Women’s Agenda.

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