Transcript: Leadership in the Voluntary Sector (EP54)
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Brendan: Hello and welcome to The Culture of Things podcast. I'm your host, Brendan Rogers, and this is episode 54. Today I'm talking with a good friend of mine, David Bacon. I'm just going to read a little bit of his bio to give some background on David.
David's an experienced director, chief executive, and senior executive in both the private and public sectors covering media, regional economic development, community housing, and the fast-moving consumer goods sectors. After an active broadcasting and journalism career in Australia, David spent almost a decade in London working in the fast-moving consumer goods industry as a communications specialist and chief global spokesman.
In 1999, he returned to Australia to become Chief Executive of the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters, which is now Commercial Radio Australia, and was later General Manager of Radio 2UE in Sydney before becoming Director of Corporate Affairs at Southern Cross Broadcasting’s Melbourne head office.
David is experienced in governance, particularly in the radio broadcasting sector, having guided the commercial radio industry through its response to the cash for comment scandal. He's led major global communication campaigns, participated in international business development, and oversaw the management of crises and sensitive issues in Australia and many international markets.
David also spent time as a career counsellor and is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. David, welcome to The Culture of Things podcast.
David: He sounds interesting, that guy. I'd like to meet him.
Brendan: As far as I know, we didn't have to make any of that stuff up, do we?
David: As a matter of fact, I haven't manufactured my CV. I'd forgotten some of that, but that's me.
Brendan: It is certainly possible to manufacture stuff today. We can just write anything on social media and there's an element of people that will believe it, right?
David: Yeah, we're going to tell the truth.
Brendan: Fantastic, mate. We love the truth here on The Culture of Things podcast. Now, a couple of things I want to just get into straightaway. One of them is this cash for comment scandal. That was about 20 years or so ago. I'm really interested. We all love a bit of saga. I just want to understand, give us a bit of background on what that was about, and what was your role in that.
David: In the United States, they had a great scandal many, many years ago where disc jockeys were taking money to play records to promote them. That was called the great payola scandal. This really was Australia's own payola scandal in some respects. It came about because of a culture within the broadcasting industry. Basically, what was happening was individuals were taking payments from interested parties to promote certain views on the air. That's what it boiled down to.
The main players were two of the biggest names in commercial radio, John Laws and Alan Jones. That's really what it was about. They were basically selling time themselves on the radio stations. They were taking the money for it rather than the radio stations getting it, but that wasn't the point. Things like this have gone on in the radio industry forever.
When I worked in the country, some of my colleagues in small country towns and small country radio stations would go down to the local butcher once a week and pick up a tray of meat. On the breakfast program that week, the butcher would be said hello in the breakfast program and a bit of a plug. It just meant a bit of a plug. It was basically the same thing that was happening, but this was happening really on an industrial scale because it was an important issue.
This is where I suppose the regulators and the politicians got involved and became concerned. They weren't interested if somebody's got a tray of meat or even a case of wine or something. When important issues were being influenced such as the banking industry and things like that, that's when the regulators decided to become interested. That's really what it was about.
Brendan: It sounds a bit like an old-fashioned affiliate marketing scheme taking in money for promoting products.
David: In fact, you're absolutely right. It was probably the forerunner to it. What was missing was that there was no declaration that there was a consideration being paid for these views to be expressed. That's the difference today in honest affiliate marketers. They will always acknowledge that they're taking something to promote these products. But on this occasion, they weren't doing that, they were just expressing it as a view.
I suppose, using the credibility which they had established as commentators, there were big hearings and it was quite a scandal. I came in towards the end of it. The hearings were being held and my role was in the negotiation with the government in the development of rules and regulations, which we're going to deal with in the future because I was running the industry association that affected the industry.
My role was to negotiate with the government and get in place an acceptable regime, which was going to enable broadcasting to continue. You couldn't have people monitoring everything, every day of the week from the government sitting in your studios. We came from that point to what amounted to—there had to be a declaration if they were going to mention something for which they were receiving consideration.
Brendan: How is that? Your involvement in that and the liaison with government agencies and things like that, how has that impacted the radio stations and these situations now or in the future then and up to now?
David: I've been out of it for 20 years. I'm not sure how they're ticking over. These things are in place. I think they've managed to work within the rules. I suspect that there probably isn't as much of that about. People are far more aware now, I think. Keep in mind that back then, you didn't have social media. You didn't have people being able to put something out almost like we are doing today.
You can reach a lot of people without having the expensive infrastructure of a broadcasting organization. These rules are in place. You get the hang of working within a regulatory environment, but it is a very highly regulated environment.
Brendan: One of the other things I want to raise today is, it's really important in an interview that myself as the host make the guests feel comfortable. I also think it's important for the guest to make the host feel comfortable. I know you're a Chelsea supporter.
David: I am.
Brendan: I've got something here for you. It would actually help me feel a lot more comfortable if you would wear this during the interview today. It's a Liverpool scarf. I've always loved seeing Chelsea supporters wear the red of Liverpool. If you just like to don that, that would be absolutely fantastic.
David: I'll tell you what I'll do with this. I'll just give it a little bit of a tweak here. Because I'm also a Dragons supporter and this is red and white. You've shot yourself in the foot, Go Dragons.
Brendan: Red and white are familiar to you.
David: Very familiar.
Brendan: I'm always interested in understanding why people follow a certain football team. Let's talk about Chelsea, why would you follow a team like that?
David: I used to live next door to a bloke who played for them when I lived in England. It was as simple as that. I'm fickle, I'm pretty easy. When I was living at the time in Windsor in the UK, Nigel Spackman, who played for Chelsea at the time and played for Rangers, was my next door neighbor. Our kids played together. We got to know them quite well and so I supported Chelsea. It’s as simple as that.
Brendan: If you're that fickle, I reckon I'll have you supporting Liverpool by the end of this interview, is that right?
David: No. I'm all set with [...].
Brendan: Is that what Chelsea supporters are?
Brendan: Let's talk about your involvement in Rotary. Rotary is an international organization. For those people that don't know, just tell a little bit of background around Rotary International and what they're about. You've been the President of one of the Rotary Clubs on the Central Coast for the last 12 months, still are. Change over happening soon. Tell us a bit about Rotary and your involvement as president of your club.
David: Rotary is an interesting story. Back in 1905, a young lawyer called Paul Harris went to Chicago to open a small law firm. He had an office in a building and he was quite lonely. He got to know some of the other guys in his building and suggested that once a week, they have lunch together.
They started to do this and they decided that each week, they would rotate to each guy's office to have lunch. They were rotating and Rotary was born. They then drew in a few of their other friends and associates. As well as enjoying the fellowship, keep in mind, one of the great objects of Rotary is fellowship, the value of that. They decided they should do some good work.
Their first project ever, they built a public toilet in Chicago. From that, Rotary has grown to this great international organization. I should have come armed with the statistics, which I'm supposed to be able to roll off my tongue.
Brendan: We can put them in the show notes.
David: Yes, show notes. There are 33,000 clubs around the world and millions of members, which is about on every continent, I think. One of the great things, the attraction for me to Rotary, is its internationalism. Secondly, it does good work. You came from Australia, do good works internationally, facilitate them, or foster them. That's one thing.
The second thing is that Rotary fosters peace and goodwill around the world. That's not, I think, a well-understood point about Rotary. Rotary was involved in advisory committees in the establishment of the United Nations. It's the only organization of its type, which has a seat on a committee at the UN today. Rotary is somewhat influential, and it's a very credible organization.
One of the great achievements of Rotary is that it has almost facilitated the eradication of polio around the world through its vaccination programs. Rotarians go to developing nations, and Rotarians in those developing nations as well actually go out and vaccinate kids. The number of polio cases each year now, sometimes there's only five or six. The places that they can't get to are usually around in the northern parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan because the Taliban won't let them in. That is the only place they can't get to.
One of the great achievements in the past few years is a collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed huge amounts of money. They're pretty smart. They say, we'll give you a couple of $100 million if you match it with $100 million, so Rotarians around the world. We don't all just go out and vaccinate kids, you help to raise funds. We do that through the Rotary Foundation. That's part of it.
Rotary also runs a lot of youth and international exchange programs, and that is how they foster this international understanding. The philosophy being that if you send kids, say, 16, 17, 18 to another country to live with another family for a year—a Rotary family—they will get to know them. They will be part of that family for a year.
When they go back home, these kids who get selected to do that are usually young leaders anyway. You've got to be pretty good to be selected to go. The philosophy is that they're likely to grow up and be the leaders of their countries in the future. Twenty years down the track, you may be able to make a phone call that just helps solve a problem internationally.
That's Rotary International. It does lots of other great things as well in local communities. In Australia, we have just celebrated 100 years of rotary. I know people are watching us everywhere. On the central coast where we're based, Rotary was first formed in 1947. It was the Rotary Club of Gosford. Out of that, the 15 clubs on the coast were born all except 2, they were formed separately in later years.
We've been here quite a while. Rotary locally has done some fantastic things. The Rotary Club of Gosford in the early days was responsible for the construction of first aid stations and a hospital on the Kokoda Track. For two reasons, people were going there, but also to the people of P&G who had assisted Australians so much during the second world war. We needed to do something later on to help these people, and the Rotary Club of Gosford was responsible for that.
There have been some great initiatives. In the club that I'm involved in, we assisted in the raising of funds, which have ultimately resulted in the establishment of speech therapy in Vietnam. Rotary, along with a number of other international charity organizations, go to developing nations and perform surgery—they do eye surgery. There's a group that goes and does cleft palates.
A lady and her husband went there, he was an orthodontist. She's a speech therapist and they went as part of a team on cleft palates in Vietnam. They realized that the good work was being done, the surgery was conducted, but then the teams packed up and went home. I'm not a medical person, but anybody who knows anything about these things knows that there are then months of therapy to get people back to normal, to be able to swallow, to be able to speak.
This woman said, we got to try and do something about that. She came back, she assembled her friends who were speech therapists, and she said, we need some money to raise some funds to be able to get people trained in Vietnam. They'd made connections in universities there. It was all of the literature, the manuals, and things for the training. Anyway, over a period of five years, my Rotary Club raised some money, assisted in all of that. Today, speech therapists are being trained in Vietnam.
Brendan: It's fantastic. Rotary is a very, very strong organization in the work they do. I can see the emotion in your face just how proud you are of that achievement. Well done.
David: Yeah, it's good.
Brendan: What makes it so special for you?
David: I've had a very fortunate career. I got to see the world. When I came back here, I thought, well, I'll give something back. That's what I thought I would do. I used what corporate life had given me to give something to my community.
Brendan: Well done, mate. Outstanding. How do all of those things you spoke about with Rotary—and obviously, you are unbelievably passionate about it—transpose into your role in these last 12 months as President on the ground? What responsibilities do you need to take on as a local President or as a President of a local Rotary Club?
David: Rotary is a very interesting organization on the ground. Keep in mind, we’re volunteers and this introduces a whole lot of different issues. I think, fortunately, because of where I've come from and I'm older and wiser, you've learned to get on with people better. I used to be a command and control guy, I have to tell you.
Brendan: Really? I never saw that in you.
David: I used to see what needed to be done. I used to say get on with it. We don't need to consult on this, let's get on with it. Of course, the world is not like that. You need to take people along with you. You really need to be able to articulate to people where you want to go.
This year, in my presidency, we introduced a new five-year strategic plan. We are a small organization with about 30 members. But just because you're small doesn't mean that you shouldn't have good planning, good systems, and good governance. We introduced a five-year strategic plan. I can tell you, I think it's three sheets of paper, but all it does is it articulates your values and the goals that you want to achieve over the next five years.
It isn't rocket science. It's very simple things like, we would like to increase the amount of funds that we raise each year. I've got a bit of a personal story, we would like to do something in relation to men's health. I'm a prostate cancer survivor. You bring your own agenda a little bit to these organizations as well. You set some goals like that.
For my year, I did a business plan. I was very lucky because of the corporate training I've had. Going to the UK, working for one of the major multinationals, the training was fantastic. I know how to write a business plan. As the president, you have to do that yourself because you're surrounded by people with all sets of different skills, great skills, but they might be different from yours and you've got to recognize that.
It's not too difficult, and then, of course, you present it to them and discuss it with them. It's not my plan, it's the club's plan. They have to sign up for that as well. Usually, I've also learned—through corporate life and through most things that I do—that you develop things in a way that you give people a chance to say yes.
I've learned that you don't go along and say, mate, we've got a problem, what do you think we should do? You go along to somebody and say, we've got a problem and I think we should do this. I found that 99 times out of 100, everybody's going to say, yeah. That's my experience.
You have to be clear, you have to take them with you. Generally, if it's looking okay, then they will come with you. We had another thing too where I challenged my colleagues. I said, I want to do something in this area, but I don't know how to do it. I know you guys want to do it. I challenged them and they rose to the occasion.
You're surrounded by good people there, everybody there. You volunteer to go to Rotary, so they're all good people. Sometimes, they just need a little nudging, a bit like water. It's all going downhill but you just nudge it along.
Brendan: Tell me a little bit about the formulation of the plan. You mentioned how you had some ideas and some visions, put this down on paper, and then presented it to the group. Tell us more about how you got the buy-in from your fellow Rotarians.
David: I suppose it's just explaining it to them. A lot of it is reasonably obvious as well. I didn't suggest that we suddenly go and build a rocket or something.
Brendan: No Elon Musk?
David: Elon and me, no. It was to pick things really, which are obvious. Most things that we need to do, I think, are largely common sense or obvious. Yes, you get the great innovators and things have a great idea.
Somebody once said though, there are no such things as new ideas, there are just old ones waiting to be rediscovered. If you think about that, it's probably pretty true. A lot of what we do in the community as Rotarians and things are reasonably obvious. We also have the availability of Rotary International and they set goals. It's a pretty [...] organization.
It's got a fantastic website and database where you can take ideas and things. There's great communication around. You can see what other clubs are doing, you can nick ideas. You can see what other clubs are doing, which is successful. You also listen to your members. I'd like to do something like this. Yes, it doesn't all have to be you.
It's the obvious things like we need to raise some more money, so that's a goal. Let's aim at something reasonable. If we can raise 5% more each year, that will be a good thing, and we did. We had a good year this year. I knew some guys were interested in doing something and I said, why don't you do that? This was a car rally. You've got some guys who are enthusiasts.
Brendan: I went along to that, it was a fantastic day.
David: It was a good day wasn’t it?
David: It was COVID safe at the time because people were in their cars. We could still run it. It was the beginning of COVID, but because of the nature of it, we could still do it, which was brilliant. One of my colleagues is well connected to car clubs, he's very enthusiastic, and he got them involved. We had a lot more people involved. We raised a lot more money than we'd hoped.
It's listening to what your guys want to do as well. You start off by saying, does anybody have any ideas? What do you want to do? You incorporate those things into it as well. There are some things you want to achieve yourself. Every person likes to make their own mark and leave their legacy. There are things that you want to achieve and if they're reasonable, your colleagues will support you.
Brendan: What was the legacy that you hope to leave after your 12 months as Rotary president?
David: I feared you might ask me that.
Brendan: The next question is, have you achieved it?
David: We didn't achieve every goal that I put into the business plan. We ran out of a bit of time. I think we're better organized. I hope we're better organized in the sense that we've got a plan. It's a five-year plan and I know the president who's coming in behind me is a supporter. He will then build into his business plan just extending some of those things, plus a couple of new things.
You really want to continue the things which are going well. We did the rally before, we're going to do it again. Then you hope they will introduce a couple of things which are special to them. I suspect we are probably better organized. It seems like a great legacy, does it?
Brendan: It's the foundation for the future.
David: It's the foundation for the future.
Brendan: Leaving it better than you found it.
David: Yeah. That should be no criticism of those who went before me because the president before me copped the worst of COVID, but I pay tribute to her because she kept us going every week through a Zoom meeting. Never relented that we got together every week on Zoom. She kept it going. There was something there then for me to get going when we could meet again after COVID.
Brendan: That's no mean feat. Absolutely, well done to Francine on that.
David: Yeah. Exactly, right.
Brendan: I'm not a Rotarian. I've been close. I know fitting everything in is tough. One of the things that I really love, there are many things, but one of the cool things about Rotary was, I can't remember the term you use, but when you're elected as president almost 12 months ago, the next president is also elected that president-elect. There's some succession planning in that process. What's your involvement as that elected president and working with the president-elect over these 12 months so there is some continuity?
David: Firstly, the president is normally pretty involved in selecting the president-elect. Voluntary organizations these days struggle to get office bearers. I know there are some Rotary Clubs that were presidents and are now doing two terms. It's traditional that they do one and that you keep this going. You get that renewal every year and I think that's a good philosophy. I know there are many clubs now that are doing two terms.
We are fortunate where we've got a slightly younger profile as well, in our club—myself excluded. I identified somebody who I thought would make a good president and basically encouraged him to consider it early on.
When I was president-elect, I was thinking about succession. You get these things because of your corporate life. I was thinking about, well, who was going to follow me? I encouraged this guy and involved him as I went along so that he was building his knowledge about Rotary. He was then keen to do it and he'll make a really good president.
You involve him—I certainly have involved him as I've gone along—to make sure he knew what I was doing and why I was doing it, and so that he could basically be able to hit the ground running when he starts. Of course, you remain on the board as the immediate past president. You don't have a specific vocational role or anything there, but you remain there.
Effectively, you are the new president’s mentor as well. You can be when it’s somebody like me who has been around for so long in Rotary, that I've done lots of things.
Brendan: You’re like rusted on the wall, aren’t you?
David: Yeah, I’m like a bit of old cheese, I think moldy.
Brendan: I've only known you for about two and a half years. I think you move along with society pretty well. You do your best to keep up with things and modernize ideas, thoughts, and stuff. It's all really important in leadership, isn't it?
David: I think that's one of the things that I learned in corporate life. As I said to you before, I was a bit of a command and control guy. I have pretty fixed ideas, and then I got into corporate life. The corporation I was working for was a fantastic place. It opened my mind and I learned to be far more considerate of other people's views.
I was very lucky. The corporate training was fantastic. I've got a CV with corporate training, which would be equivalent to an MBA, the things that I was sent on and with the people. Keep in mind, you're at an international level. You're in London doing this, so you're picking. We had guys from the University of Michigan Business School come to London to train us. It was fantastic.
We went on this thing called a high-performance leadership program with about 14 of my colleagues. We were all about at the same level in the company. It was one of those things that you see on reality television where they would follow it today. You sit around in circles and you tell each other what you really think of them. That was a hell of a moment, I can tell you. You can go into it with the right attitude or you can take offense.
I, fortunately, had the right attitude and I thought, oh, I didn't know that. I got to know myself a hell of a lot better. Hopefully, it made me a better person. I think it made me better in the leadership role because that's what it was designed to do. As I said to you there earlier, how did I approach the plan? Well, I listened to my colleagues. What did they want to do and could we incorporate that into a plan that was going to make the club successful?
Brendan: That listening and being open to ideas, potentially, from others sounds like part of the feedback you received. What did you do to change, to put yourself more in that frame of mind to actually take action on that feedback?
David: I know now, further on down the track, I'm conscious. I became very conscious. It's one of the things that we even talk about at Toastmasters—about active listening. I learned to be an active listener. My wife might tell you it’s not quite the same all the time, but I learned to be an active listener. That, I think, was far more important. I worked as a journalist, doing interviews with people, and I wasn't an active listener. I had no idea.
I learned more about being a broadcaster when I left the industry, went into corporate life, and joined Toastmasters, believe it or not. I did a Toastmasters program in 1986, a speechcraft program. Again, it was part of my corporate training. The corporation had paid for it. They sent me for 10 weeks. I probably learned more in 10 weeks with Toastmasters than I did in 15 years in broadcasting.
Commercial radio is much better at training people now. But back then, when I worked through commercial radio for 15 years in my early days, you had to figure it out yourself.
Brendan: Yes, Toastmasters is a fantastic organization like Rotary. We're not going to go into Toastmasters. We talked about Toastmasters with our current Toastmasters president, Kate Purcell, way back on a previous episode. A fantastic organization as well. It really helps us gain this confidence in public speaking, doesn't it?
David: It's confidence in a lot of things. As you will have covered with Kate, what a great training organization it is. Rotary is not dissimilar in the sense that, and this is a great collaboration between Rotary and Toastmasters, which is a great partnership because it brings online training. Rotary already had very good online training programs, but it's now better.
Again, in voluntary organizations, I don't know how you encourage people to do it. Certainly, presidents have training coming into Rotary. We have a big training program to get them up to speed and it's very good. They are now encouraged to do these online programs through the Rotary International website, which has been developed by Toastmasters.
Even if they're not for profits and the charities are recognizing the need to train their leaders. I think that’s a really big issue in the nonprofit sector and in the voluntary sector is training people. People come to the voluntary sector with wonderful attitudes. They want to do good. They have a passion to do good things. They can do good things. You need that passion to drive organizations, but often, they don't have a skill set to be able to make it happen effectively, on a scale, or to deliver things.
It's great having great ideas that I want to save the world, but I'm not quite sure what those things that you do. You asked me about the specifics of things. It's figuring out what specific things we need to do to get us to that point.
Brendan: You’ve mentioned skill sets, I just want to go back to something you said earlier about your involvement in the president’s election. What skill sets, attributes, and behaviors were you looking for as the most important in the person that you felt would be the next best president of Rotary?
David: I'm looking for someone who can do the job, someone who's smart enough to do the job. I was looking for somebody with experience in the business. There are people not in business, who come from the nonprofit sector, and who are also great CEOs and able people. I was looking for somebody who was younger than me. We need to be looking to encourage youth.
I was looking for somebody younger than me, somebody who was experienced in business, somebody who's a professional as well. This guy's an architect. It was different for me, completely different from me as well. I think you also need that diversity amongst the people.
Brendan: When do you hand over the baton?
David: Thirtieth of June. There's something else I should have said too. HR people used to hate me in corporate life.
Brendan: Only HR people?
David: Yeah. Because when I was hiring people, I could tell you within about 30 seconds when they walked into the room whether I was going to hire them or not. I'm a great believer in personal chemistry—can I get on with somebody—because that has a huge influence, I think, on the way you will manage them. If you like them and you have chemistry, you will get the best performance out of them.
You might not recruit the person with the highest qualifications, but you will recruit somebody with enough qualifications, somebody who you know you can get on with, and you will bring out the best of them. I learned that from one of my staff who told me that about me.
Sometimes, people tell you some stuff. Suddenly, the light came on. I thought, oh yeah, because I like you. I've known people that I perhaps have inherited, who I didn't hire, and I didn't have great chemistry with them. The outcomes weren't as good as they possibly could be. So I was also looking for somebody with whom I had chemistry, who I could continue to work with. I did. It's going to be good, I think.
Brendan: Tell us a little bit more. How do you feel you suss that out—for one of the better words—with people?
David: Do you talk to them very often? Do you talk to them about stuff? Do you talk to them about other things apart from Rotary? Do you have any other things in common?
Brendan: So you’re just getting to know them as a person?
David: Yeah. You got to get to know them. We have an interest in music. He's far more talented than I am. He can actually play the guitar properly.
Brendan: I just happen to have a guitar.
David: This is enough. In fact, this is going to have to bite the dust soon. Believe it or not, I was having this conversation with my wife.
Brendan: Do you know how comfortable you're making me feel?
David: My wife and I were speaking this week. I said, it's amazing how much warmer you feel when you've got a nice scarf on.
Brendan: That is a top-quality scarf I have to say.
David: It's top quality. It's the finest polyester money can make.
Brendan: Excuse me. I'm feeling really uncomfortable. The Liverpool scarf never goes on the floor. Can you please place it on the table?
David: I have to place it on the table.
Brendan: It's like a flag.
David: Believe it or not, it's warm.
Brendan: You're overheating then, mate. You've taken it off.
David: You need that at Anfield.
Brendan: It's a pretty cold place. More than a couple of times, you mentioned the command and control type of person and strength skill set you've got there. I know your awareness was brought to that over time, but where have you seen that come through as strengths in your ability to utilize that in your own leadership style?
David: I'll tell you where I see it come through as a strength. It’s not in myself, it’s in my son, bless him. I think I've bequeathed that to him. He emerged in his last couple of years at school as a school leader. He was very involved in the school production. He knew what had to be done. He just grabbed those kids and showed them what needed to be done.
Another thing about leadership is technical expertise. If you want to be the boss, you've got to know the job as well. You got to know what needs to be done. You will often take that because you have expertise. Often, if you're not rude, if you've got a style of doing that, you can deliver very well. I know he's done that.
I guess some people would say I don't know anything, but I know a little bit about a few things. If you can demonstrate that expertise, it's probably not so much command and control.
Look, I'm an impatient person. Probably I would say, look, don't argue with me. We don't need to debate this. I know it's right. Just get on with it and do it. All the corporate training tells you with all the HR people, no, take them along with them, pat them on the head, and encourage them. But sometimes, something just needs to be done.
You're working in the media. I ran desks in newsrooms. You got to meet the deadline. It's got to be done. Don't debate with me. Get the copy done. It's got to be done. I suppose I worked in environments as well where you needed to get things done that way. I'm a product probably of conflicting environments as well, which just had different requirements, that's all.
Brendan: Yeah. It was really interesting to me because I know you. There was a podcast maybe a couple of years ago you did around some career counseling stuff.
David: Did you find that?
Brendan: I did find that.
David: You're the only guy who's watched that.
Brendan: I told you that people have a digital footprint even if they don't realize it. You talked there—I don't want to put words in your mouth—around how you've been a bit of a get in and sort stuff out in organizations.
I know you've done that with a few and Pacific Link Housing, which is a local great organization on the Coast. Again, without putting words and ideas into your mouth and your head, that's where I see a strength of leadership for someone like you that there was an organization, Pacific Link Housing, not now but in the past was struggling. You've come into an organization, you took over the chairmanship of the board, and you got stuff done. Tell us a bit more about that.
David: Yeah. It's only in later years—when I did that podcast—I'd thought about it because it was many years after. When I looked at my career and looked at the jobs that I had taken, I then started to realize that there was a pattern emerging. You also discover these things when you have a bit of counseling yourself. There was a pattern emerging that I'd gone to, I suppose the first one was a newsroom in Canberra that I went to establish a new service. That involved setting up a whole lot of systems, processes, and a new service. That was the start.
I then went to the Press Gallery to, again, build an organization. It had a few clients, but it was a news organization again. We had to get more clients, so as well as writing the news, I was selling as well effectively. I didn't realize until later that that's what I was doing. I was selling the service. I then went to a normal job. That was when I first went to an industry association, but it was expanding. It was doing some new things.
Then, I went to the UK to rebuild a corporate affairs organization. Yeah, I suppose I have gone and built things. That's probably what I'm good at. Rather than saying something to continue on, just babble along and maintain the status quo. I suppose I like a challenge.
Brendan: Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way. You were a global spokesman for a tobacco company. It must have been pretty challenging. How important is it as a leader and the head spokesman globally to get messaging right?
David: In that organization, you had to get it right. You couldn't get it wrong. I make no apologies for having worked in the tobacco industry. I worked for British American Tobacco. It was an absolutely fantastic company to work for—the training that I got, and the welfare of their employees. You probably won't believe me, but the ethics of the people that I worked for.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Back in the ‘50s when we first started to hear about the risks of smoking tobacco, it's a bit like the global pandemic. Nobody knew how to react. You got a business, which was very wealthy and made a lot of money, run by a lot of salesmen. They're not going to react the way we do today.
This is one of the things that annoys me about the whole argument, about a lot of things today where we use today's contemporary standards to criticize the behavior of people 50, 60, 70 years ago. I find that a bit annoying on a whole raft of things, not just the tobacco industry.
But going back to my role in it, it was a wonderful organization to work for. That was also part of opening my mind. I did an amazing amount of research when I was first recruited to the industry association. I first went to work for the Tobacco Institute and they approached me.
They didn't do the research all that well. I was a bit of an anti-smoker. I joined the pack. It's another thing I've learned about the pack in the Press Gallery. I was part of the pack. The pack was anti-smoking, so was I.
Then suddenly, a headhunter comes and says, do you want to come and work for the tobacco industry? I said, oh, wait a minute. Why don't I do some serious research about this? I looked at what they were arguing and I thought, oh, they've got a case. Yeah, why not?
That was the beginning of a very enjoyable and successful 15 years that I had in the tobacco industry. It took me to the UK. It took me to the cutting edge. I was the chief global spokesman. But again, in a fantastic organization, I talked earlier about training. I was very well-trained and I think I'm reasonably smart. I always equated it to playing tennis. I practiced all the time and I got good at it. You're very well-briefed so you knew the arguments. You knew what you were doing.
But that's also part of later years when I'd finished all of that and I decided to semi-retire to the Central Coast. I've done some media training and things. I was the slick, trained corporate spokesman. That worked in that era. I don't think that works as well anymore because the world is far more aware of these things.
Back then, you didn't have a slick corporate spokesman apart from the guys in the tobacco industry. That was well-accepted. You were invited onto everything. You were on television a lot. I had a high television profile at once. It was particularly in Australia in the early days.
Today, if I was training corporations, I would say, no, we will reel out the real people who were doing that. If you've got a chemical spill somewhere in the Northern territory, reel out the guy who runs that business in the Northern territory.
You would train him and prepare him, but you also wouldn't give him a set of slick lines. People are awake to these slick lines. You would let him talk in his own language and tell the truth. You will always get found out if you're not telling the truth. Every time I spoke for the tobacco industry, I can tell you I was telling the truth. I never told a lie. We were told. We had it beaten into us—you do not lie, do not tell untruths.
Yeah, it was pretty good. But I had no difficulty. I make no apologies. I'm very proud of the work I did. It helped make me the person I am today.
Brendan: Can you think back over those 10 years and being a global spokesman for a tobacco company, what was your greatest challenge in a role like that?
David: Probably remembering the slick lines now. The greatest challenge was to be heard. Everybody had a definite point of view. Particularly, when you were on international media, the BBC was the worst. Those guys were really slick, but they're like most interviewers now in the media.
This is when I would train anybody. You ask anybody, why do you want to go on? What are you going to get out of it by going on? What's in it for you? Because you go into those programs these days and you'll fodder.
We were pretty good though. We had techniques to get our voices heard and to interrupt them back. But I found the BBC was the worst. You learn how to interrupt them back. Being heard was probably the greatest challenge. The other thing was I lost some friends because I went to work in the tobacco industry. They were critical of me. How can you do that? They're not great friends.
There were a few personal things like that. But in social settings, I didn't talk a lot about what I did only because everyone has an opinion about smoking. I did not want to go out all the time and talk about my job.
It's a bit like working in the media as well. What do you do? I read the news on television. Oh, really? I've had jobs where people only want to talk about your job and I would talk about other stuff. Believe it or not, I don't like to talk about myself. I know you find that difficult to believe.
Brendan: Are you sure?
David: I know. It’s not really me.
Brendan: Again, your background is unbelievably varied. I'm not sure there are that many things you haven't done or touched at some point in time.
The media side of things—media is media. Today, we hear good, bad, ugly around the media. I'd love to hear your own opinion on the state of journalism and media coverage today versus back in your day.
David: Back in my day, I remember once that I had an editor. It almost ripped me off because I wrote a line in the opening of a story—keep in mind, I'm writing for radio—which sounded like an opinion. I think I'd written something like, things are looking pretty serious today in the state parliament.
He said, we don't care whether you think it's serious or not. You're just going to report what's going on in the state parliament today, so you do not write like that. We don't want to hear your opinion.
Today, it's 180 degrees different. Even the ABC writes like that. It's not news anymore really, it's views. It's more important that you see what I think about the news today. They're all doing it. Even these young reporters who are doing a road accident. It looks like it's pretty serious, here. We can see that, you've got pictures. Just tell us the facts and tell us what happened.
There are all sorts of little things and it's happening everywhere even in the proper newspapers. The sub-editing isn't good. For radio, it's different from newspapers, but a sentence shouldn't run any longer than three lines. Otherwise, it's too complex. More and more, I find that written journalism is becoming more and more complex. I find myself having to go back and reread paragraphs in the paper to try and grasp what it is they're trying to say. Then, there are all sorts of other things.
I nearly drove off the road this week because the command of the English language isn't great amongst these young people who are coming out. It sounds like I'm an old bloke complaining about young people. I love young people.
Brendan: I'm starting to think you're almost the Kel Richards of The Culture of Things Show, is that right?
David: Almost, I can tell you.
Brendan: We can have a regular slot for you.
David: I almost drove off the road the other day because a young woman was reporting that somebody had been taken to hospital because they'd been shot in the Illawarra. There's nothing more painful than being shot in the Illawarra. I'd tell you, my Illawarra is very sacred to me.
They just cannot write the English language. They do not know where to put the word alleged in news stories. It clearly is an editor saying to them, you can't say that this bloke did it. It's only alleged that he did it, but he was driving the alleged car. No, it was alleged he was driving. There is a command of the English language that I think is faltering. That's point one. Yeah, I've got it all.
Point two. We're hearing too much opinion in the news. Then, the third thing is—this is the fault of the journalism schools—that people are turning to the news and being part of the media probably for different reasons.
For example, I heard a young woman on talkback radio bemoaning the fact that it was a segment about the media. She was saying that, oh, there weren't enough jobs. She just graduated as a journalist and she couldn't find a job. Wasn't this terrible because how was I going to be able to campaign on the issues I believe in? That's what happened to the media.
Brendan: It's certainly a very interesting landscape, isn't it?
David: It is.
Brendan: Thanks for sharing that opinion, mate.
I'd like to go back to governance. We started to touch on Pacific Link Housing. I'd like you to explain or tell us a little bit more about your involvement as a Chair in the relationship of the Chair with the CEO, who I know you were instrumental in pointing and turning around. Tell us a bit more about that.
David: The chairman and the CEO in any organization have got to be close. They've got to have a common understanding and probably respect for each other. That's how we made it work. Unless you've got a good CEO, they can make or break you as well. You got to pay tribute to the CEOs.
The board—as you know in a proper governance structure—sets the policies, and the CEO needs to get that out of the team. We had a strong understanding of the roles. You got to understand the definition and the line in your roles. That's the way it worked. That's what made it work. He knew what had to be done. I knew what had to be done.
High ethical standards as well are one of the other things that you've got to understand that people have got to do things according to the rules and within the ethical and moral standards of doing things. We both understood that. I think that's why it worked.
He was pretty smart. You got to be pretty smart as well. You can be well-meaning. You can be wanting to save everybody, but if you aren't smart enough, then things will stumble. I was lucky he was pretty smart. It made me look good.
Brendan: How's that organization progressing now? Going back to that word legacy and the turning around of the organization, what was your legacy?
David: It was a complete change of culture and good governance structures. I think that's probably what I left behind.
Brendan: When I hear culture, my ears prick up. Tell us a little bit about that journey that you worked with the CEO around culture change.
David: For example, as you know, the social community housing market is people needing social housing. We house people who need social housing. When I first went there, there were members of staff living in houses. Things like that were happening, so we needed to eradicate all of those sorts of practices.
They were happening for the best of reasons. You've got to pass the pub test as well, but you have to also have to pass the regulatory test. It is a highly regulated environment. Most organizations like that, all of business is highly regulated now. You have to work within the rules.
One of the great things that a lot of people don't understand are conflicts of interest and how to manage them. We got on top of all of those things. Again, a lot of it is just proper administration—having a register of your conflicts, having a register of all sorts of things, and having good administrative procedures.
A lot of being successful is not about inventing the light globe. It's administration. It's doing what you're supposed to be doing. It's paying your bills. It's sending out your invoices. I call it mundane management and that's what it is. That's what makes an organization successful.
Yes, you need to have goals, objectives, things to grow and to take your organization forward, but 99% of what you're doing is mundane management. Just do what you're supposed to be doing.
That's what we got happening there. People were doing their jobs and you introduced things. Again, taking me back to my corporate life, the training that I got in my corporate life. Because I was a senior head office manager, I used to get drafted into cross-functional teams as well, so I became a hay job evaluator. I knew how to evaluate jobs, job evaluation processes, and things. I was able to bring those things to the organization as well.
We had an appraisal system. People get frightened of appraisal systems and things. The way I was introduced to it and trained into it, you learn to love it because you set your goals. They were in stone between you and your boss. If you could exceed those and you worked hard, guess what, you got a bonus. You can do that in corporate life. You can't do that in the not-for-profit sector. Although you could, why not? My legacy is mundane management I think.
Brendan: I love that term, mundane management. It's a term you used earlier about the reporting, media, and views, not news. I really like that as well.
You've used the term ethical standards a little bit. As a leader, what are your ethical standards? What made you who you are as a leader?
David: I think I was very lucky that I was brought up by women, believe it or not, who had very high values and ethical standards. You wouldn't steal a glass of water amongst the people that I was brought up with. It was drummed into you all the time.
I come from the typical country folk, although they were townspeople. They weren't farmers. They're pretty ordinary, working-class people. There was no wealth where I was.
Brendan: This is a shout-out to Coonabarabran, isn't it?
David: This is a shout-out to Coonabarabran, yeah. My grandmother particularly was involved in the community. She was the secretary of the hospital. She wasn't a highly-educated woman, but she was smart and committed. She was the secretary of the hospital board. She was secretary of the Country Women's Association.
There were people around me who behaved in a highly ethical fashion. I've learned this from my children. They've told me that it's not about what you say to them. They're watching what you do. They're watching how you behave. If you behave like that, there's a good chance that they will behave like that.
I saw all the people around me paying their bills, going to work on time, not just sideling up—you got to get there. If you're running late, it was a big deal. You witnessed all of these things. I think that's where your moral compass gets set and then you continue to behave that way.
When I was a young journalist and I was on the road in Sydney, I'd see things that other guys were doing. I was thinking, that's not right. I wouldn't do some things that I was encouraged to do just to get stories and things. I thought that wasn't right. That's not honest. I suppose I thank my forebears for my ethical standards, and hopefully, my kids have seen that as well.
Brendan: Talking about your kids, you've got five, so you've been busy over your life. I've only met one of your kids and that's Robert who you've referred to in the show. He's also a past guest of The Culture of Things.
David: He always does.
Brendan: Robert was one of the school captains of a very exclusive private school on the Central Coast Grammar. He did a fantastic job last year. He's now going into the Air Force. How have you contributed to this fine, young upstanding man?
David: I've badgered him. I don't know. You probably should ask him that.
Brendan: I have asked him in a previous episode.
David: Hopefully, he saw what I was doing would be one thing. I did badger him a lot. I know I talked a lot about things and encouraged him to consider things. He'll probably tell you differently, but I wanted him to have options to consider. You sometimes do the kids' homework for them. I'm not doing their homework.
Brendan: Did you get good marks?
David: He wouldn't let me. There were some things that he'd be doing and he'd be struggling with a history assignment. I say, I spent my career writing. You want me to give you a hint? No, he would never allow me. He wanted it to be his work.
I'm pretty impressed with that, that he wanted it to be his work. But you did do things so that you could bring to them information so that they could consider something else. Because sometimes, when you're that young, you don't have the wisdom to go wider and see what else is out there. Therefore, you just put things in front of them.
What about you think about this? In fact, he's in the Air Force today because he was originally thinking about the Army. I presented some new information to him. Why don't you think about this? He thought, oh, yeah, that more suits me. I'd seen that and I thought, well, that suits him. You get to know your kids reasonably well so I know what would better suit him. He can do most things. He's a pretty good guy. All my kids are good, actually.
Brendan: I know you're very proud of your five children. I'm just focusing on Robert because I know Robert pretty well. Bringing that word legacy back, yourself and your beautiful wife, Sam, what are you most proud of with Robert's journey and that legacy you've given Robert as a fine, young man?
David: He's embarked on a career which he can be proud of doing, but I'm very proud of him of service. I suppose this must have rubbed off on him a little bit. I'd spent most of my career until I came back to the Central Coast. I lived here in the '70s and I came back in 2003.
One of the things I was determined to do or I decided to do was that I'd had all this great corporate training. What can I do? Well, I'll give something to my community. That was why I joined Rotary.
He had witnessed the service and the attitude of service to the community. There are different ways about service. We talk about these things. They're pretty boring for a teenager probably but hopefully, a few things rub off. He could see that service is a reputable thing to do and it's an honorable thing to do.
You can give service to your country, but also have a fantastic career. We're not supposed to be self-flagellating and things in our service. You can enjoy it, you know. In fact, one of the great things about service is you enjoy it. I get something out of it as well when you can see that you've done something good. There's nothing wrong with enjoying what you're doing and helping people.
Brendan: Why is service for you a real solid foundation for leaders?
David: I suppose it's in your attitude and it's part of your character. Leaders need to have character. I think they need to be strong characters. Don't ask me to define character. They are people who are honest, upstanding, reliable—things like that—can be relied upon. Leaders need to be relied upon because they—more often than not—need to solve crises, whether they be business, personal, or all sorts of things.
Your staff has crises, you need to be able to step up and help them as well. You have business crises, and you need to make tough decisions as a leader. That defines leaders. Can you make a tough decision? You sometimes need to let people go. You sometimes need to let hundreds of people go.
I've never been in that position of letting hundreds of people go, but boy, that must be tough. That requires a lot of strength of character I would have thought. Leaders need to be those sorts of people.
Brendan: Absolutely. Mate, you're almost out of the hot seat. I want to finish with one final question and then we'll wrap it up.
In your journey, there are a lot of things you've done. There's a number of things that you've done that we just don't have time to talk about today. You've been involved in government ministries, you've referred to press galleries, and all sorts of stuff. It's a pretty varied career, I have to say. What's the one thing for you that has had the greatest impact on your leadership journey?
David: I think the guy who took me to the UK to help in rejuvenation. I didn't sort it out, but I was the new blood that needed to come in. That was probably one of the biggest impacts that he had the confidence in me to do. I learned huge amounts from this guy. If you were to meet him, you would have thought he and I were chalk and cheese. We were, but I had enormous respect for him. He was wise. He counseled me.
I don't think he realized how much he was educating me because I was watching him. I learned a huge amount about business because I was a bit more of a journo-type and a communicator. We did all the fluffy, lovely things, so I learned a huge amount about business from him.
That had a huge impact of making me more complete to be able to then become a chairman of a company—although that was a not-for-profit—to recognize how it needed to make money to survive and to know some of the ways that you could do that.
Brendan: I guess if I could sum that up in a couple of words, what I'm taking away from that is that there was a person that actually believed in you, believed in your ability, and gave you the confidence to grow, develop, and do stuff. That's pretty powerful in leaders, isn't it?
David: Yeah, it is. Clearly, the people who knew him well in the company knew that about him because he was promoted and occupied that role, but I suspect a lot of people around him didn't. But I did. He was great.
Brendan: Mate, it's been absolutely fascinating. Like I said earlier, I've known you for 2 1/2 years or so. You and I spent a bit of time together on election campaigns, putting signs out, running around the Central Coast, and doing all sorts of stuff. It's a pleasure having you as part of my network. I think we get on pretty well. There might be only 5 or 10 years in age difference. What, you're only 50?
David: Yeah, look at this.
Brendan: We won't have to touch up anything. Mate, I certainly appreciate your friendship. I appreciate your guidance. I love having you as part of my own network and how we catch up at Toastmasters and outside of that. Thanks for coming on our show today and sharing your wisdom, you wise, old man.
David: It's been fun.
Brendan: Thanks for being a guest on The Culture of Things podcast, buddy.
David is a passionate community man. Since retiring, he’s doubled down on it. Not only is he heavily involved in Rotary and all their associated activities, he volunteers his time to several other community groups on the Central Coast. He’s also heavily involved in the political landscape and has really been appointed to the role of Deputy Chair of Regional Development Australia Central Coast.
David played a key part in the Trinh Foundation’s work in bringing speech therapy to Vietnam. His emotional connection to that goal and doing good things was clear to see during the interview. David’s a leader who is proud to serve.
These were my key takeaways from my conversion with David. My first key takeaway: a good leader is built for after they’re gone. They’re proactive with succession planning. Rotary encourages this very well. A leader is always coaching and developing their team, but it helps to identify someone in the team who can and wants to succeed the leader. Do this well and success will continue.
My second key takeaway: leaders seek feedback. If you do, you will get to know yourself better. To seek feedback, you must have a mindset of improvement. This mindset will result in a greater level of self-awareness and ultimately will improve your performance. Seeking feedback is the key.
My third key takeaway: leaders build confidence in others. How do they do it? They believe in you. All it takes is one person to believe in you and this will give you confidence. Think about it, whenever you achieve something you were proud of, there would have been one person who gave you the confidence to do it. They believed in you and that gave you the confidence to achieve it.
So in summary, my three key takeaways were: good leaders build for after they’re gone, leaders seek feedback, and leaders build confidence in others.
If you want to talk about culture, leadership, or teamwork, or have any questions or feedback about the episode, you can leave me a comment on the socials or you can leave me a voice message at thecultureofthings.com.
Thanks for joining me and remember, the best outcome is on the other side of a genuine conversation.
Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit brendanrogers.com.au to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.