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Transcript: Leadership Observed and Actioned (EP63)


Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.

Voiceover: To all of our loyal listeners, The Culture of Things podcast will now also have specific episodes produced for YouTube. To ensure you don’t miss out on this exclusive YouTube content, head on over to YouTube, click the subscribe button and hit the notification bell. Now, let’s get into the episode...

Brendan: Hello and welcome to The Culture of Things. I'm your host, Brendan Rogers. Today, this is episode 63. I have a chap on the other side of the video called Michael Crutcher. Michael, how are you, buddy?

Michael: I'm very well. Thanks, Brendan. Thanks for having me on the podcast.

Brendan: Mate, it's a pleasure. You and I go a fair way back which we'll get into a bit soon. I'm going to give the listeners a bit of an understanding of your bio because you're a pretty credible dude, but what's this background? You got a few dodgy Norths jerseys in your background there.

Michael: This is the jersey of the Premiers. As of a few days ago, the mighty Norths Devils in the Queensland Cup Rugby League Competition. You can see our logo at the top of those jerseys for my business, 55 Comms. It's our first premiership in 23 years. I've been able to protect my voice just enough to be on the podcast today. But it's been a good fun week, 23-year drought broken. Thank goodness for that.

Brendan: Congratulations, man. I did watch some of the highlights in preparation for the interview. It looked like a fantastic game, with a few nail-biting bits at the end for you.

Michael: It was now, buddy, I tell you. I think I aged 20 years in those 80 minutes. I think too because it's been a journey of this one in particular for years over a lot of things. Anyone who's watching who understands, I'm sure there are lots of people who have been through business goals or sporting goals are looking to actually get something done and achieve something.

When it comes down to something like the last seven or eight minutes and it could go either way, there's sometimes a feeling of how much hinges on it and you try not to put yourself in that place. But to be able to get through those seven minutes and get over the line, whether you're in sports, business, whatever, there's a great feeling of relief there because sometimes you can peek over the other side and think how far you've come and you may not get there for the goal you want.

I think that's a mixture of relief, to be honest. I watched the replay of the grand final the other day and I still felt tense. I still wanted us to win even though we'd already won. That was that tense, but I think when you're so invested in something, you tend to ride those things so strongly. So wrap for all the players involved.

Brendan: Too many beers before the game. You don't remember the game or what?

Michael: I don't drink at all before a game or during a game.

Brendan: Even when you're not playing?

Michael: That's right. The moment a game finishes, I'm still sober. I stay like that. My role is a Club President there just in honor of the players and what they put their bodies through. Boy, they sacrifice a lot. So wrap for them most importantly.

Brendan: Sounds like you're setting a good standard as President of the club. We will unpack a little bit of that Norths journey today because there's a lot to be learned from that for people listening, and those leaders out there learning bits and pieces. Just to make sure we let people know that you've done a few things in your life, I'm going to read a bit of your biography. Be patient, sit comfortably. Take a listen to some of the stuff you've actually achieved.

Michael: Make some stuff up if you have to. I'm in your hands.

Brendan: I have done that. It's all right. We always try and make people sound even better than what they are.

Michael: [...].

Brendan: Michael is the Founder and CEO of 55 Comms. He started 55 Comms in 2013 to help clients tell their stories in a rapidly changing world. He's helped clients of all types from listed companies to government departments, religious institutions, schools, not-for-profit organizations, and professional sports teams. At 35, Michael was appointed the editor of The Courier-Mail which is Queensland's largest source of news and information and served in the role from 2010 to 2013.

Before becoming the editor, he had stints as the newspaper's Deputy Editor, Chief of Staff, and Investigations Editor. Michael set up and ran the newspaper's award-winning investigative unit receiving a Queensland Media Award. Michael's experience across all levels of print and digital media across all platforms and executive level is rare among Australian journalists. His extensive experience as a sports writer included coverage of two Olympic Games and six Australian cricket tours overseas.

Michael's a regular media commentator for outlets including ABC Radio. Outside of 55 Comms, as we mentioned, he's director of Norths Devils Rugby League Football Club and President of St. Patrick's College Foundation at Shorncliffe. The focus of our conversation today is leadership observed and actioned. Michael, that sounds pretty good.

Michael: All right. We'll leave it there. Hey, Brendan, I'm not going to let myself down now. I've been very lucky. I've been very fortunate over the years to have a lot of experiences that came through my profession and gave me access to very interesting situations with very interesting leaders, especially through sport and then into politics. So leadership has always been something I've really focused on and been helped along with.

As you said, at age 35, I've always been editing a metro newspaper and I had people 30 years older than me in my newsroom. I've been very lucky to have experiences to see things, to be able to try and put those into practice for better or for worse, and have people helped me out of a bother at many times.

Brendan: Yeah, absolutely. I have to say again, we've known each other for many, many years, although we haven't been in contact for a long time. We went to the same primary school. You're a year above me, so that means you're slightly smarter than me, I suppose. Then you went off to some dodgy school called St. Patrick's. I went to a great school called Nudgee College. Now we've reconnected back again.

Our parents are very, very friendly. I don't know how you feel about this, but I feel through our parents. I know, unfortunately, your father passed away some years back. But through our parents’ relationship, it's funny how we've got a handle on the kids' journey. I've always known what you're up to, what's happening, and really loving the journey of where you've gone and where you’ve taken your life. Have you felt the same?

Michael: The mothers’ network and where we grew up is like nothing else. I still feel as though I know what the Rogers clan are up to, what so many other families are up to. It's like we never left. I reckon we're really fortunate to have that network. But I'll tell you what, we got away with nothing when we were younger because if someone put a foot at a line, someone's mum would know and it would be brought to the line.

I'm grateful for it now, it always kept me very honest. It's a great connection to have that connection to our childhood. I've mentioned off air, but Trent Dalton, who some of your listeners will know from Boy Swallows Universe grew up in our suburb in the 1980s and chronicled—in that book that sold more than 600,000 copies now—our suburb where we grew up, which is quite unique. To have that part of the suburb shown to different parts of the world has been fascinating to see. I love our background and will always cherish that.

Brendan: Let me test you. Do you know how they call themselves the POSSUMS?

Michael: Yes.

Brendan: They're probably the original mothers group, aren't they, these people? Do you know what possum stands for?

Michael: No, I don't.

Brendan: Come on, give it a crack.

Michael: I'm sure I've been told. Is it parents of something?

Brendan: People of similar situations and under matured seniors.

Michael: Really? That's ingenious.

Brendan: I didn't have to check in with mother.

Michael: That's outstanding. I should work for some of those bright minds.

Brendan: Isn't it fantastic?

Michael: I think you can't underestimate the value of those friendships. I still look at those and think how—our suburb was a rookie suburb. It was a new suburb. Out of that comes so much opportunity. I guess no one should have had any expectations on them and it was a new suburb.

We spoke off-air about Deborah Riley. Deborah, who went to our school, won four Emmy Awards for her work as a production designer on Game of Thrones. Out of those suburbs that are new suburbs, there is so much activity, energy, and excitement. We were very lucky to be in that suburb more younger than the parents that we have.

Brendan: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn't agree more. Like you did on the episode with Deborah Riley when you interviewed her, hi, mum, here's your opportunity, hi, mum and dad, hi, mum.

Michael: Hello, Mrs. Rogers. Hello, Mr. Rogers. Hi, mum, how are you going? It'll always be Mr. Rogers and Mrs. Rogers. I know that I will say John and Sharon, but hey, it’s the old days. It's still Mr. and Mrs. Hope everyone's well. Hi, all the POSSUMS.

Brendan: That's the next thing. A massive shout out to all those POSSUMS. I couldn't agree more. Really, from my own personal journey, I didn't realize it at the time. We're mature-aged citizens. We're mature people now, Michael, so we appreciate these things. But like you said, the value of relationships is important.

I think that's one thing I really garnered from that. I guess from my parents and their involvement in the relationships I've had in those early days starting a school in a new suburb, I always say, the relationships determine your success and failure. Those qualities of relationships are so important.

Michael: I agree. I've seen some of that with some of the athletes we've worked with over the years. I guess sometimes, we're so lucky you take for granted those networks, those families, and all those different ties. I've worked with some athletes who've had nothing like that, some athletes who left home at age nine, for instance, because the home wasn't a safe place for them. I'm always very grateful for that. Mindful, it's not everyone's experience. Yeah, we were blessed.

Brendan: Absolutely. Let's dive in. We've had 10 minutes of preamble and talking everyone else up. We set you up for a little bit. Let's get into some stuff. You alluded to before, you've worked with and had the opportunity to sit alongside many leaders, political, sporting leaders all around the world, to be honest. Just give us a bit of flavor of some of those leaders that you've been close to and maybe what stands out in some of those experiences for you.

Michael: I started as a cricket writer at age 25. As a cricket writer, I would travel with the Australian cricket team through the summer and also to different overseas tours. We'll be on the same plane, same hotels in a different era to now in the sense that social media wasn't as prevalent as it is now. Just working through a situation where Steve Waugh was the first captain I've encountered and first leader. He was playing Test cricket when you were in primary school.

I first covered Steven towards the end of his career and probably one of the most significant leaders that I covered as a cricket writer. Steven was the leader who was quite inspirational, a leader who didn't compromise on standards that he expected. But at the same time, he managed to be a leader who also was so supportive of his players, particularly those players who might be on the fringe. I think one of his books was called No Compromise.

That was Steven. His standards were not to be broken, but he was also very encouraging. Matthew Hayden, one of my favorite players that I covered, a Queensland batsman. Going to be one of the Australian crickets' greatest batsmen, Matthew was a guy who valued Steven's arm around him many times. A hard guy like Matthew, he had a leader who still recognized that he needed support, particularly at a delicate time in his career.

Steven, he was tough on journos. I had Steven tell me a few times that he didn't agree with what I'd written, but that was part of what he did. He was doing that for his team. In the end, Steven had respect as well. You could earn Steven's respect. I guess that period for Australian cricket was Steven Waugh followed by Adam Gilchrist as an interim captain.

Gilchrist is a wicked keeper who took over when Steven was injured for a test, followed by Ricky Ponting, who was another one like Steven, who was a younger player who came through, but three really different leaders in a short space of time. I guess for me, that was a glimpse into the fact that all three are rated highly as leaders. Adam Gilchrist is an underrated leader who was probably a reluctant leader, but a very good one.

I always thought that Adam could have been a long-term captain, just wasn't something he particularly cherished. That was a great example for me to see how different styles of leadership could work and could bring out the best in people but in different ways. I guess it was a lesson that there was no set format to be a leader. You had to be a leader in your own way, but you still had to get people to [...]. One political person told me very early in the piece, you can't be a leader if no one's following. That's great advice.

Brendan: On the political side, again, you've spent time with leaders, prime ministers on both sides of politics. What stood out on the political side given that you've just shared a bit of what stood out on the sporting side? Were there any differences?

Michael: Yeah, big differences. The cricket captains that I covered closely, all very big team players, all extremely big team players. I think from my observation as a newspaper editor and working with political leaders, I would regularly get phone calls from Prime Ministers, Premiers. I would speak with them face-to-face quite regularly.

The Courier-Mail newspaper is the biggest news outlet in Queensland. At the time I was editing, it was the third highest-selling daily newspaper in the country. It was seen to have influence, and obviously, because you do that job, you come into contact with politicians regularly. Very different from the political leaders to the sporting leaders. I never saw the same amount of teamwork as such. It was much more focused on issues or egos and uncertainty at different times. 

I couldn't put a blanket over any of those as being very similar, the leaders that I covered. They were leaders who were when I was an editor, we went through a bunch of Prime Ministers in Australia. Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard were all Prime Ministers while I was editor of the paper, three completely different individuals from my viewpoint.

Kevin Rudd, probably the most prolific in terms of his contacts. Tony Abbott, very different from that and also with Julia Gillard. I guess what I learned from political leaders was they weren't to me as straight up as sporting leaders were.

For instance, I had to say to them at different times, look, I know you're pushing the particular line you want to push, but it's my job as an editor to actually question you and pick you up on things that we may not believe to be the same. It's also our job to work with our readers. That was the most important thing for me as an editor.

My job was to ensure that our readers got the news that they needed, got it in a way that we tried to break it down, and look through things for them. I must say, when I finished in newspapers, and [...] one of my highlights was I didn't have to deal with politicians again in that relationship. There were some wonderful politicians I worked with on both sides, but there were also some politicians who I thought were less than honest, they were not leaders of people, and in the end, the audience sorts them out. Because there's one thing that audiences do, they get it. 

People sometimes like to say that audiences are stupid or voters are stupid. They're not. If you underestimate audiences, you do so at your peril. Audiences get it. They can see through phonies. They understand people who are honest with them or decent people. That's a hallmark of, I think, Australia.

Now it's changed a bit with social media. There's no doubt that social media has given voters, consumers, or whatever you like more confidence. They've got far more confidence than they used to have. The power now rests with the consumer, that's a given. That's changed the dynamic and that's made politicians need to be even more on top of their game than they had previously. That's a broad summary, Brendan. I think the sporting leaders are far more straight-up than our political leaders were for whatever reasons.

Brendan: Let me put you in a difficult position maybe, I'm not sure. You choose to answer this question or not, but let me phrase it in a way that if there was one in a sporting context that most resonated with you and what you felt was the style of leadership that you wanted to exude and you really valued, and also on the political side, so one from each side of the fence, who would that be or who would they be?

Michael: I had a lot of time for Ricky Ponting as a leader. I think our birthdays are six weeks apart, so we're fairly similar in age. But to me, I always like the fact that Ricky Ponting had his rough times. He had learned a lot. He was in the Australian team from age 19. He was an unbelievable talent, far more talented than I'll be in my field. But Ricky had to go through some pretty tough times, late-night incidents, et cetera.

When he came in to be a leader, he was just a guy who was extremely comfortable in his own skin. Ricky didn't try to be anything that he wasn't. He was who he was. That was a leader that you got, whether you liked it or not. I quite admired Ricky for that. I liked the way that he captained his team and I still see him now as a coach.

He's currently coaching in the Indian Premier League and he's a very good coach as well because that's just Ricky. He was brought up in Launceston. I don't know how Ricky went to school. I don't know how he was academically, but Ricky was street smart but had a great affinity with people. That's what I liked about Ricky.

I look from a political viewpoint that's a really good question actually. I've never thought about that. I'd tell you one leader who wasn't a leader for long who I've always had time for. He was an opposition leader in Queensland, John-Paul Langbroek who was still in the state parliament now. I think John-Paul Langbroek would have been a very good Premier of Queensland.

I was sorry that he didn't get the chance to do that. He was a guy who was a leader who didn't change much in a person. He's a good company, John-Paul Langbroek, and he didn't change too much as a leader. In politics, to me, that's difficult. You don't often see many people in politics who are able to maintain their normal personalities.

I always saw JP was someone who I thought was interesting, who should have had a longer leadership career but didn't. From the labor side of things, there were a couple of very, very good leaders in labor, but there are probably more ministers, people who didn't exactly become leaders of their party. But I think there are ministers who work particularly well with their constituents and also within their broader party. The labor should have probably been elevated to be leaders.

I won't mention them anymore because they'll probably whack me over the head if I did, but I don't want to embarrass them with it. Those guys I'm still in contact with now. I'm still in contact with them. I really think they're upstanding leaders. 

One of the things that I've really enjoyed over the last few years was also the rise of the female leader and to get that different perspective. I think that's been something that particularly politics needed now. Whether you agree with the politics or not, I think the rise of the female leader over the last few years has been fantastic. I've enjoyed that, whatever the politics. It's hard to have those debates that people wanted to break it down. But on leadership, I think that some of them have done extremely well and have been a great addition to our ranks.

Brendan: It's a great point on the people you've mentioned, but on the female side, in respect to that, does anything stand out specifically for you around the patterns of qualities around a male style versus the patterns around maybe you see more in the female style?

Michael: It's a great question. It started for me with Julia Gillard. Everyone told me how good a person Julia Gillard was as a human. I didn't get to see that side of Julia Gillard, which I wished I could have. I thought Julia Gillard was, to be honest, I didn't feel there was ever a conversation that's connected on a human level. It was always conversations that were more between prime ministers and editors.

Sometimes you got to show some humanity, but people who I write very highly of have always praised her for being one of the best people that you'll ever hang out with. I saw Annastacia Palaszczuk when she was an opposition leader, I think, seven MPs. Annastacia Palaszczuk, [...] her, I think the leader who never expected to really be a leader. I think that helped her immensely as she came through.

She's no one's fool at all, but I think she was genuinely someone who didn't go out in the early days seeking that. She had to work really hard as a leader of one of the smallest parties in Australia, in Queensland political history. I enjoyed seeing that side of Annastacia and I always found her a very pleasant company, I must admit.

One leader who I've got to know who I don't know at all is Gladys Berejiklian from New South Wales. She's no longer a leader. I've always quite liked what she's done just sitting in Brisbane, but not being led by her in particular. I find her quite interesting. I just think that women bring to it an ability to not be seen as being as combative.

In the end, I just think we switch off and we have combative politics. I know I do. We don't carry on that way in our own businesses and other businesses. I think women in the last 10 years in Australia have brought with them as leaders ways to get things done without being so combative. Who knows what happens behind the scenes, but to me, it's a refreshing change.

Like I said before, audiences get it. They don't need to have their heads whacked over the top with something or fights between politicians. Change the channel and let's move on. It's been an interesting year in politics, and one that I’m obviously not following as closely as I used to have to follow, and for that, I'm grateful. It gives me a different opinion to look at it now.

Brendan: Yeah, absolutely. It is an interesting one. You have a very insightful and interesting perspective, given that you've seen some of the inner workings, but politics and conversation probably for another time, I would say. I want to go back to the Ponting scenario because he's affectionately known as Punter, his nickname. You're a bit of a punter. It sounds like you got a bit of favoritism there that's why you picked Ricky.

Michael: I think Ricky was so practical. Ricky was a cool head. He doesn't mind a punt, especially on the greyhounds. The thing I really admired about Ricky was, he would play the odds, he didn't care about convention. If he thought that he could do something and it would work, he would do it. I love that.

He backed himself to do things. He was supremely talented as a batsman. But that doesn't mean just because you're a great batsman it doesn't make you a great leader. He managed in his own way to have the same to me, he had the same no-compromise standards that Steven Waugh had. But Ricky had it in a bit of a different way.

I don't think Ricky was a you-put-your-arm-around-you player and cuddle him in the way that Steven was. Ricky wasn't that type of leader, but guys played for him. I guess Steven took Australia to a certain level, Ricky then took it as well to a level beyond that in his own style. I love the fact he didn't care about convention, he would back himself every time, and he just always kept a cool head.

No matter what was happening around him, Ricky seemed to be very cool, and that's a talent to me to see that. I've worked with leaders, especially in our own business of crisis communications and you get to see leaders up close there. To me, that's a massive insight into leadership. When you've really got your face to the fire, how do you respond? I'm sorry, if you lose it, if you start lashing out at others in those moments of crisis, you're done from my viewpoint because the best leaders are those who, as one of my old CEO said, go and sit on the toilet seat of fire and see how long you can go for.

That to me, it's a great way to think about who can hold themselves together and be real leaders when things around them are falling apart. To me, that's the thing I really seek out. Ricky was great. Steven Waugh was unbelievable in that way. It fired him up. But I've seen some leaders who just can't handle those situations. For me, that's the end of the road for them. If I've seen them in a situation where they lose it, sorry, it's game over. Being under pressure, Ricky was great at it and he has shown them.

Brendan: Did he ever give you any good tips on the punt?

Michael: No.

Brendan: Did you give him some?

Michael: No. I think because when we're away...

Brendan: Strictly professional.

Michael: When we'd be away, the races would always be run back in Australia at times we're in bed or early morning. It was always difficult. It was like we had to follow remotely or very professionally, Brendan. Very aboveboard, always professional.

Brendan: You are the consummate professional, absolutely. You've observed a lot. Again, you shared some fantastic insight there. My chance to paraphrase your insight is at the end of the episode when I do some key takeaways and all that sort of stuff so I'm going to put the hard word on you.

There's been a number of things that have popped out for me in what you've said, but if you had to pick your top three attributes or qualities that have really resonated with you out of all of that observation of the different styles of leaders that you've observed and spent time with over the many years, what would you put down as your top three?

Michael: Number one, people. You've got to be able to connect to people. If you're the CEO, you've got to connect with the COO, as well as you connect with the janitor out back who might be walking through. The best leaders I've seen are those people who can connect with everyone, regardless of what stage they are in the business. That to me is a massive priority.

Number two is to be inspiring. Sometimes to be inspiring, you do that because you collaborate. The idea from the youngest person in the business might be just as good as from the most experienced. You can inspire people by listening to them and making them feel a part of it. Never discount anyone.

I've been fortunate. I've been surrounded by people way smarter than me all the time in leadership positions, and accept that there are smarter brains around than you. Three, be cool under pressure. Be cool because you're the leader. People look to you when things might be going as well as they should. You need to be able to do that.

I've got a theory that that doesn't come easily. It's like courage when you play football, you either have it or you don't have it. To me calmness under pressure, you have it but you can develop it, I believe. You can look around and get help from others and try and develop it. If you want to scream, shout, and stomp your feet, just bite your lip and take a step back.

They're probably the three things. People, it's about people. It's always people. Inspire, you do that through collaboration and making people feel part of it. Then be cool. Always be cool because that'll be so important when things don't go well.

Brendan: How good is it speaking to a journo? You've just written my three key takeaways.

Michael: I've got problems. I’ve got lots of problems and that's one of them. It's a big one.

Brendan: In my book, that is gold.

Michael: I do think that people, you can't underestimate it. Some of the leaders that I've loved, they just know so much about different people's lives. I've worked with editors before who will know what's happening in the cadet journalist's life and why they might be doing something in a particular way when maybe they shouldn't be. It’s studying humanity and knowing how to do that.

We get back to our parents, but we were lucky because of that because we were all raised in that way that everyone was equal in a suburb that was new and the dignity of people was paramount. I think that was really important in teaching us those types of things. I've always been grateful for that. The fun conversations you can have with people of all different walks of life, my goodness, my life's been about telling people stories, it still is. You hear some cracking stories. It doesn't matter what life you have. People have good stories and I love to hear them.

Brendan: Absolutely. Our parents are going to love us after this episode. They already love us but we're going to get some brownie points, aren't we?

Michael: I might need mum to do some babysitting for me so that might [...].

Brendan: Good on you, buddy. I don't want to get political on you, but there was an ulterior motive to me asking that question because we're going to use those three pillars as a bit of a conversation when we talk about Norths Devils, which you are the president of. As you said earlier, they won the Intrust Grand Final on the weekend with Wynnum Manly, 16-10, I think the score was. So a fantastic result.

Before we go into that, because you've been hitting that journey as president, 55 Comms, I know there's a story around the name and the number 55. Can you just tell us a bit about that before we go into the other stuff I mentioned?

Michael: Yes. So 55, that was my wife, Ainsley, who's my business partner. That was her idea. When I left journalism, I knew I wanted to try my own business because I always had such admiration for people who had their own businesses. I had no idea about it. I must say, though, I was naive because if I had any idea what starting a business was like, I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn’t have gone in blindly, but I'm lucky that I did.

I was looking for a name for the business. I didn't really know much about what I was doing. My great grandfather was a guy called Jack Tracey. He lived quite a remarkable life. He was in the First World War for Australia. He went from being a policeman at South Brisbane to enlisting as a volunteer and heading over to fight. He was part of the 9th Battalion in Queensland, a Queensland-based battalion.

The 9th Battalion was the battalion that landed very early at Gallipoli on the morning of the first Anzac Day in 1915. He was wounded several times at Gallipoli and eventually discharged because of his wounds, but a guy who's maybe as a 13-year-old rushed away to try and join the Boer War in South Africa. All the excitement that he stowed away, he left his family and his parents went across to the Boer War, but too young to fight, came back.

He was always seeking adventure. He found his adventure in Gallipoli and was wounded and discharged. There were about 320,000 Australians in the First World War who received service numbers. The number that was allocated to them as Australian servicemen, his number was 55, which shows you just how fast he was at the front of the queue to go and find adventure overseas.

He did things with his adventure that I could never imagine. My wife said, well, this is going to be a bit of an adventure, this business, why don't you link it to a guy who just piled in and found his own way? It's a tribute to my great grandfather, Jack Tracey, the number 55.

Brendan: Thank you for sharing that and it's such a great way to honor his memory. Again, the leadership qualities he showed, no doubt in being so early in enlisting, fantastic. I love the story. Thanks for sharing, buddy.

Michael: Thanks. It's an era that I'd love to know more about. It's something I can only admire and pay tribute to.

Brendan: Let's go on to Norths Devils because as I mentioned at the start, at the top of the show, you've got these jerseys behind you. We did mention them at the start. You guys won the grand final on the weekend. You've been President of Norths since 2018.

Michael: No, I've only been president this year, but on the board since then.

Brendan: My apologies.

Michael: We did a rebuild in 2018. It's a club of my youth. My great grandfather, who I mentioned, was a Devils supporter when the club first formed in 1933. I'm his fourth-generation Norths supporter. It's a club that's very dear to our family. I first got involved on the board in late 2017 when we needed to rebuild the club, Brendan, it’d be going through a bit of a tough time.

Brendan: Fantastic, mate. Thanks for clarifying that. Just so the listeners know, I'm an ex Brothers fan. Dad was a Brothers boy. We really disliked Norths. But in my book, we disliked Wynnum Manly far more, so I was very glad to see Norths won on the weekend.

Michael: Solidarity. Good to hear. Yes.

Brendan: Today I'm betting for your team.

Michael: Well done. Probably those great tribal things, Brothers, Valleys, all these things when they're sport, business, or whatever, they're great tribal things. They do get people together. That's a great part of it.

Brendan: Absolutely. It's exactly like the hiatus you had in our friendship when you dodged off to a dodgy school called St. Patrick's Shorncliffe and I went to Nudgee. But anyway, that's another story again, isn't it?

Michael: That is, but we had a good Nudgee boy in our squad this year. Great to see the Nudgee boys see the light and come across to the Premiers. It was very much a good contribution.

Brendan: No doubt, he was the ultimate leader in the team too. Anyway, we'll talk to him in the next episode.

Michael: All right.

Brendan: Let's dive in. Thanks for clarifying that. You've been President in the last 12 months, you've been part of the leadership of the senior executive team of Norths for some time, and your blood bleeds blue as far as Norths colors goes. When you look at the three elements—the people, be inspiring, and cool under pressure—let's start on the people because it's very, very important as you said. What sort of stuff did you guys do? What stood out around what we needed to do to rebuild Norths people both on and off the field?

Michael: Let's set the context here. As I said the club, 1933, it started. Our 89th season has just been finished, but a club of massive success through the 1960s. Won six straight Grand Finals, which will probably never be matched again. Won eight Premierships in 11 years, won again in 1980, and 1998 won again, and that was their last Premiership.

That started an era that we had a relationship with the Melbourne Storm. We became the feeder club for the Melbourne Storm and a relationship in which we provided the Storm with some great players. Billy Slater, for those who know Rugby League, was a Norths Devils player. Cooper Cronk played three seasons for us before he became a Rugby League legend. Our youngest ever first grade captain in our club history is Cameron Smith, who I'm sure even people who don't follow League, have heard of.

Brendan: I don’t know those names.

Michael: That’s right. Our club had this period of having Greg Inglis. He was one of our youngest players as well. We had this period of having these fantastic guys who were Devils who came through our season, but what we didn't do was win a Grand Final. Then we had a period from 2012 to 2017, where we hadn't made the finals at all. It was a time to rebuild the club. 

We’re a feeder club with the Brisbane Broncos so we have an affiliate arrangement with the Broncos. We're one of the three clubs in Brisbane that do. The Broncos were quite hands-on in saying, we probably need a better resources club. It wasn't that the people there were doing a bad job, it was just trying to better resource it. Broncos were a client of mine and I work closely with Paul White there, a very inspirational CEO who's still a friend of mine to this day.

I'm working with Whitey and then some great brains at the club. There are some great people there, people like Peter Fraser, Kevin Carmichael, four-time player of the year and a real player. They were there and they had great insights. As a matter of just bolting on they're learning from those guys, but say, what's the pathway here? This is a great club that hasn't won a Premiership, the longest drought in the club history. How do we go about repairing that?

​There were two key things that happened. There was the appointment of a CEO by the name of Terry Reader. If that name sounds familiar, Terry is the big chief of the Dolphins who've just made the NRL as a seven, eight team. I expect Terry will be the CEO of the Dolphins. Terry was seconded from the Broncos and spent 16 months with us as CEO at Norths Devils.

Then Rohan Smith, we signed as Head Coach. Now if you know Rugby League, Rohan's father is Brian Smith, one of the greatest coaches in Rugby League history in Australia. Rohan, in his mid-30s at the time, came in and we were blessed to have two guys like that. Rohan Smith remains our head coach and won that grand final last Sunday.

What they did was set about to build what we are going to do with this club. Our goal is very clear—we wanted to win the Premiership. We didn't shirk away from that. Again, I go back to the likes of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. We had clear goals, we want to win, but we want to win in a way that is fitting for our club. That means if we want to win with a very team-first approach, every ego is left at the door of our club. These were hallmarks of Rohan in particular.

We have bypassed players who we thought would be very good players, but would not fit that mindset of a very, very team-oriented approach. I can't emphasize that enough. You had to leave your ego at the door, you must play for each other. You win together, you lose together, but you're always together.

I think those elements are really important. We wanted to win the Premiership. We're not going to shy away from that. We knew it would take some time, but we're impatient. We still would love to have done it as soon as we could. We had the challenges of COVID last year where we had one game, we won that game, and the season was canceled. We thought we had a pretty good team last year. So we had to wait, be patient, and come back again in 2021.

Patience is really important as well and making the hard decisions along the way. Sometimes there are guys that just aren't going to be part of it. They're not going to make it. You've got to make the hard calls. Rohan is unbelievable at doing that. That's a really important thing. To me, if you compromise at any time to say, yeah, but he's a good guy. He may be, but in the end, we need the great guys who are team players, but also the best that we can get in their position.

Those factors were never ever breached. To me, that was the key to it. I should mention one other really important thing. After Terry Reader left after 16 months, we got a CEO by the name of Troy Rovelli, a former football manager at the Sydney Roosters. Troy was a Godsend to our club because they're your two most important leaders in a small club—your CEO and your coach. Troy Rovelli was a guy who had seen so much in the Rugby League world. He was another guy who still has a great people skill set, but he remains our CEO.

Those two work together and got us to that position last week. I'd say, always surround yourself with really smart people. We're very lucky to have that. Don't compromise on those standards because you can't afford to. Be bold about what your goals are. To be honest, if we hadn't won the Premiership last week, I would have been gutted, I would have been ultra proud of what our players had done because they had done so much.

In the end, we knew what the goal was. To not get it, it would have left everyone disappointed, not just me. I didn't even play for goodness sake, but I know how much it meant to those players. In the end, the Premiership was won, the Grand Final was won on five minutes of defense at the end. That five minutes of showing where that team-first attitude came and everyone stuck together. It was great to watch from the stands. It was something that I'll let sink in at some stage anyway. My voice is holding together now for what it's worth.

Brendan: You're doing well, mate, and you've got both eyebrows today as well. Nobody got to you after the Grand Final by the looks

Michael: I got too much responsibility hanging up my shell, which is boring. But I think that part of it, I'm still preaching myself in the sense of being happy for all those players because let's face it, it's hard to win Premierships like it is in business, like it is to achieve goals, and get contracts that might be goals that you have.

To be honest, I didn't understand just how hard it would be. That's why I admire guys like Rohan Smith, Troy Rovelli, Terry Reader, and the players, of course, have done because all of our players work. They work full-time in a whole bunch of different jobs. Then they come out on a Sunday and they put their body on the line in the competition, which is a tier below the NRL.

On any given Sunday, we're playing with three, four guys who are full-time NRL players. That takes its own special ability from your coaching staff and your CEO to get these guys. One of the guys has been a roofer. He comes off a roof at the end of a day in the Brisbane heat and then goes and trains that night, and on a Sunday, goes out there and puts his body into a ridiculous position. Monday morning, he’d be back on that roof in 30-degree temperatures.

It's trying to bring together all of these guys and all we do is look on and cheer from the stands. They’re the guys that do the hard work. But for any of your employees, just try to understand what's going on in their lives. I'd always try to ask, what does this player do for a living? What's their upbringing? What's that situation they were brought up in et cetera? Because I find that stuff really interesting and knowing just what your people have come from, what they're capable of, and the best way to engage with them.

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Brendan: I didn't know about the Broncos scenario. That's really interesting. How important did you see that being on the ground that an organization like the Broncos provided that support and maybe some of the financial side of things? They saw the importance of making sure the right people are on the ground and they can actually put a person who they consider to be the right person there to help guide that ship. But to (it sounds like) set up some sort of succession planning which is well underway. How important was that process for the organization being Norths?

Michael: The Broncos contribution was vital. It was vital, but Paul White said to me at the time when he asked me to get involved there, he said, a strong Norths is good for the Broncos. I said if Norths are going well, that enables the Broncos to go well. It was very good at the Broncos to provide that impetus and their contribution can't be underestimated. Then ironically, we played last weekend in the Grand Final against Wynnum Manly who's another Broncos feeder team.

Wynnum had five players on the field that day who were Broncos contracted players, NRL players. We counted ourselves last week as having 17 Devils. Danny Levi who plays for us is a Broncos contract apply, but only because he was a Devil first. The Broncos took him from Norths.

Ionically, the Broncos provided such great impetus to get us rolling again at the end of 2017. But in the end, we won that Premiership without any of their full-time players with the exception of Danny. That was also something we learned. The Broncos are very important to us, but we knew that we had to take control of our team. So, we didn't want to have to worry about which players came back to the Broncos from us to play on any Sunday.

We want to look after business first. The Broncos players who came back were a bonus to us. That was the vision of Rohan, Terry Reader, Troy Rovelli. They said, let's look after our own business and let's use the other stuff as a bonus. That was unbelievably vital for us. Because of COVID this year, a number of those players didn't qualify to play for us. In the end, we were left with 17 pure Devils for the Grand Finals.

I think it's a matter of a lesson to say, there's always great help out there. But if you can always look after business yourself, you can do the best to—let's face it, there's no greater interest in self-interest. We spoke about politics before but to look after our own thing first and then use the rest as a bonus. We learned that from the Melbourne experience when we had Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, and the rest. In the end, though, the strong core was what gets you over the line with people in your own business.

Brendan: You mentioned earlier too and I think because of the level of humility you have, and team first, you're President of Norths so they play a role. In your role as President, you’re referred more to the link between the CEO and the coach being Troy Rovelli currently and Rohan Smith as a coach. But how did those three pillars—that's what I would call the President, CEO, Coach, what was that interaction like in order to make decisions on people understand who are the right people versus who are those people that have an ego and not team first? Tell us a bit about that experience.

Michael: I think for me in the role of not-for-profit boards, our positions at Norths are voluntary as directors. We don’t get paid for that. I spent eight years up until the end of last year as president of QMusic. QMusic is a not-for-profit. It's the peak industry body for contemporary music in Queensland. We call ourselves an Industry Development Association.

Basically, to help people who may be interested in music go from a hobbyist into someone who can make a living out of it. The greatest example is one of your old Nudgee college mates in Pete Murray, who on the release of his first album, he said, if it wasn't for QMusic teaching me the ropes I wouldn't have got there.

As someone who spent a decade now on not-for-profit boards, my view from that role is you have to have confidence in your people. There is no point in you being a president who is operational. If you don't have the people there to be operational, you trust your CEO, your coach, as well (obviously at North Devils) then you’re doomed from the start.

I've never gotten involved at all in which players are going to sign, which players will we let go. That's not me. That's for Rohan and that's for Troy because to me, if I'm needed to get hands-on there, we haven't got the right people in place. I have full confidence in Rohan and Troy. I learned a lot from them, even though I'm in that role on the board. I learned lots from those guys about that.

To me, in any part of business, if you don't trust the people in your business and you've got to be too hands-on, you've probably got yourself, one, too much work extra, and two, not the right people. For me, my role as a President is to help where I can. What can I do to help our executive? That's always a way I viewed those roles on those not-for-profit boards.

I'm there to help in any way I possibly can. Yes, I'm there to be a part of that leadership team. I'll always provide that, but also let me know how I can help you. I can't emphasize enough the importance of getting good people into those roles because if you don't, you've just got nothing but trouble and you're going to have to work away around that.

I've never been hands-on in the sense of being operational on those things, Brendan, because I don't think that's a great way to go. But I'm very across what we're doing, I'm very across Norths, who we're signing and why we're signing, but I will never, ever interfere in that because people who know a hell of a lot more than me are in our employ and are far better to make those decisions than I can.

I must also say one thing, you've also got to be rational. Like you said before, we bleed blue and gold in our family, but you've got to separate that. You cannot possibly let that emotion cloud your decisions because that's just a terrible recipe for trying to run anything. So I'm always very mindful of trying to disassociate myself from that—the emotion, the excitement to get at winning with the need to make decisions based on rationality.

One of those really important ones as we said before is to be a club or a business (whatever you are) that puts ego out in the back and puts the team first. You might have a player or a potential employee who can be brilliant, they can be brilliant. If they're not going to fit in with your culture, sorry, they can't come because they'll do more damage than they'll do good. You just got to take emotion out and make decisions based on rationality and what's best for that whole overall culture.

Brendan: How important is people knowing their role—which is something you alluded to—in order to achieve performance? How important is that link?

Michael: It's huge for me. Great teams work together because everyone knows their role. It's no different whether you're on a football field, in a corporate boardroom, or wherever you may be. You've got to know your role. Darius Boyd is a friend of mine and a client of ours. Darius Boyd being a former Brisbane Broncos Captain and a Queensland player, Australian player.

Darius once said to me that the easiest football he played was when he played for Australia. Now he played 23 tests for Australia and they won all 23. Darius would say, I don't want to sound arrogant, which he is the last person to be arrogant, but he said, when I played for Australia I was playing with the best of the best and everyone knew their role.

He said, all I had to do was concentrate on my job because the bloke next to me and the one next to him, they all did their job so well I can focus on my role. He said, that to me, the easiest football I played. The further down you went to a club level, I knew maybe the guy next to me, he was young, and he hadn't been there. I had to worry about him. There's a guy over there I had to worry about as well. Yes, they were doing their jobs, but it was a confidence in making sure they could do their jobs to the best level possible.

That's a story that's always stuck with me because when you think about it, that's a great point. I was part of two teams that covered the Olympic Games. I covered the Olympic Games in Beijing as part of the news core team and we had maybe 20 journos there. I found that outstanding because I was over there with 20 of the best journalists in Australia from my viewpoint. I found my job really comfortable.

I learned heaps off those journalists, but I also felt quite relaxed because I knew the strength around me. To be honest, I wanted to actually make sure that I didn't let the team down. So I tried extra hard to be frenetic when you cover the Olympic Games, pretty much full weeks of no days off and after 16-hour days. I didn't want to let anyone down around me. I get that point of Darius, know your role, do your role, do it to the best of your ability, and that makes things work as well as they can.

Brendan: We will go on to the next pillar. There are so many great points you've shared around people, but that be inspiring. But what I've got to share with you first is that it's almost like you've had one of the best jobs going around at times because you've covered all the sporting events, you follow Australian cricket teams around, you've been able to be in the trenches.

You could probably have a drink any time of the night you want. You could eat whatever you wanted. You haven't had to perform on the pitch. It's like living this sporting life but not having to do the performance there.

Michael: Yeah, I bet you know. That is so true. I admire these players who do because they're under a searing spotlight. I'll tell you one thing, Steven Waugh, in his memoirs, which he handwrote, by the way, all 700 pages or whatever. Steven in his memoirs wrote about journalists. As I said, before, Steven could be a bit fractious. He likes to put his point across. He can also be fantastic to deal with, but he likes to test journos out.

He wrote in his memoir that he underestimated for journalists some of the similarities and what they did with players in the sense that—I was over there, I was reporting for The Courier-Mail, the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, the Herald Sun in Melbourne, The Advertiser, and sometimes The Australian. If I got beaten on a story by my competitors at the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, or ABC Radio, I knew about it really fast.

As Steven wrote in his memoirs, there was a competitive element. If we missed a story, if we got a team wrong because you'd always had to actually predict what the final team would be, who would play, and who wouldn't play, they were high stakes because let me tell you, you didn't want to get woken up at 3:00 AM with someone on the other end of the phone being less than complimentary about the fact your story wasn't as good as your competitor’s story. So yes, we could have a beer and it was fantastic.

I don't miss it because they were hard yards. I think the most I worked in one stint was about 84 straight days with no days off and often long days on those ones. That's where you got to keep your wits about you because it's always competitive, you just got to have the stamina, and you've got to stay across things. You've also got to learn to deal with the fact that you got to get beaten on stories.

You will get beaten. How do you handle that and how do you atone to it? Because that's what your editor wants to know, how do you make up for it? Yeah, it's that challenge of stamina, but I loved the beer when I was there. On a long day, it helped to get you through, I must say.

Brendan: Yeah, it's a bit tongue in cheek. You've been at the top of your game for a long time. That requires a certain element of discipline, but at least you probably don't have the outside, thousands of punters thinking they know best about your performance. You're a little bit behind the backgrounds. Like you said, there's a lot of pressure on these high level sports, politicians, or these public-facing people.

Michael: Especially with social media and it changed it drastically. I don't know how these young athletes fix it because social media is such a part of their lives. Darius Boyd, he has the luxury of not having social media because he doesn't think he could handle it. Darius knows his strengths and weaknesses. He has LinkedIn, but he won't do Instagram or the others.

Darius came from an era where he was the last of the pre-social media. These guys today, they can come off the field, they can pick up their phones, and they can have abuse leveled at them from the moment they sit down and have a look at it. It's easy for us, older guys, to say put your phone away. I think it's less easy for younger people, especially your employees who might be in that generation. It's part of their lives.

I was trying to work out a way to make that work. If CEOs who get active on social media as well, I used to put the front page of the crew a mile up on my personal Twitter page every night when I was editor. I could guarantee, I'd have 10 abusive tweets within about half an hour, but that was low-key compared to what these athletes go through today.

It's one that I always try and look at and I must say, I don't always feel I'm the best person to do it because I don't understand that world as well as those younger guys and girls living in it today. They understand it far better than me.

Brendan: Yeah, I think you and me both. It's certainly tough to handle. Again, social media is another topic, that's a massive one in itself. Let's move on to be inspiring. Another pillar you've chosen in your top three. What does that be inspiring look like? What have you had to do in people within the Norths Devils organization around be inspiring?

Michael: I think in any organization, a leader has to create an environment of innovation, of excitement. They have to inspire. Whether they inspire from the front, in their own way, or whether they create the environment in which people feel they've got a voice, feel their ideas will be listened to, and feel that they can learn from others, to me, that's so important in what you have to do. So create an environment of respect.

It comes down to respect so people know that they will be listened to, but respect with boundaries so that we know what the boundaries are, but we want your ideas. In a team environment, everyone takes credit when the team does well, to me. If you've got people in there who get jealous because someone else had the idea that was successful, they’re probably not the people that I'd want around me. In the end, the team benefits from everyone coming forward and being able to feel as though they're in an environment of collaboration.

That's it. How do you as a leader create that environment? Put your ego a bit to the side. Like I said, I had no problem as an editor. I hired a deputy editor who remains a good mate of mine who was far better than I was. He was a gun, but I just knew he'd make us better. I had no problems knowing that to me. He was better than I was at my job, but I needed him there. He was outstanding and he continues to be good at his work now.

You got to have that environment. Put your ego aside, create an environment, be inspiring. They can’t all come from you. You can set the framework for it, but you need to know that there are people there who will contribute and you need the views of so many. At the Norths Devils, I credit Rohan Smith with what he's done there for players buying in and players being able to feel as though that they're all in something together.

One of the easy ways that Rohan does that is he plays a style of football in which he lets the players back themselves when he thinks that they see something on the field that they want to do and they do it so often. If they make a mistake, they make a mistake, but he has trust in his players. He lets them take risks on the field and sense of trying things that other coaches just do not. They just don't.

For that reason, Rohan has attracted a whole bunch of players who think, I like this style of footy because I get to [...] my arm on the field within reason. Rohan has attracted great qualities of players who want to be part of that. That's an inspiring culture being able to set that up and get good people in there because the sum of the parts is what's better than just the leader themselves.

Brendan: Was there a particular moment in the season where you felt really inspired, something you saw, something you witnessed through this journey in the last 12 months particularly?

Michael: Yeah. Because I'm, as I said, a fourth-generation supporter, we haven't had much success. In recent years, you tend to get that thing where you're always bracing yourself thinking, oh goodness, what's going to go wrong? What could go wrong? I'm always a bit nervous like that when there's a game on. 

We went up to Townsville to play in July. We went to Townsville and Townsville had won five games straight. Townsville's got a bunch of North Queensland Cowboys players that are playing at home and we'd never won before in Townsville. The club had never won there before. So I went up there thinking this is going to be a really challenging game, but we won that game pretty easily.

After that, I relaxed and took a deep breath because I could just see what was happening on the field. Those guys were locked in. Those guys are playing for each other. That was a big challenge. They embrace the challenge. They love the challenge. That's when I stopped worrying.

It reminded me of a time when I covered cricket. I mentioned Matthew Hayden earlier. Matthew is such a wonderful batsman, but Matthew had been on the fringe of the Australian team for some years. A lot of Queensland remember that there were people holding up signs, give Matt a bat, get Matt back in. It was like a whole state was pushing for Matt Hayden to play cricket again. He got his recall to Test cricket in the last Test of the summer in Hamilton, New Zealand.

We’re over there playing against New Zealand. Matt's recall was so deserved. New Zealand batted first on the first day and we're all out with two overs to go on the first day. Guess what, Matthew Hayden comes out to bat with two overs left until the end of the first day. Now, what can happen in those two overs? Anything positive? Nothing. What's the downside? You could get out.

What happens to Matt after all those years of waiting? He gets a fantastic delivery from the New Zealand bowler, he nicks it behind, then he's out within two overs. I personally felt crushed. I don't really ride the emotions of players as a journalist because it's all about the story and being professional. For Matt, I was gutted. All this time and that's happened.

Later that night, I went back to the team hotel, I punched the lift doors to go up in the lift, the lift door was open, who's in the lift? It's just Matthew Hayden. I said to Matt, mate, I am so sorry for what happened this afternoon. I feel devastated for you in which Matt, in the most relaxed way, went, mate, seriously, don't worry. They're not going to give me one chance and that's it. I'll get a chance and if I'm good enough, I'll take it, but it's not going to end this week alone.

Then we went and had a long chat about other things. When I saw how relaxed he was, I stopped worrying for him because that was someone who was very much at peace, who's very skilled, and he went on to have one of the fantastic careers in Australian Test cricket history after that moment.

I guess that just seeing people who you know are in charge of what they're doing, who are confident without being arrogant, who understand the challenge and embrace it, and then I could stop worrying for them. That was like us this year at the Devils. In any part of your work, when you see that type of thing, and I see it in our workplace with clients, it's something to be an aura, but it's a great thing. I love when I see that. Those moments don't happen often, but when they do, they're worth savoring.

Brendan: I love that. I actually found that story very inspiring. When you're talking about Hayden, it just says a lot. I've read his autobiography like a lot of cricketers and what a champion.

Michael: The pressure that he had on his shoulders, Brendan, because it was like the whole state was with him. If Matt failed, we felt we all failed. He took the pressure on those massively broad shoulders and away he went. One thing I loved about Matt was he wasn't afraid to get motivated by getting in scraps on the field with others. Matt was one of the few guys who wouldn't mind being chirpy when he batted.

Now you think about it, there are two batsmen out there and 11 fielders. It's not the place to be chirpy really because you're outnumbered horribly. It didn't worry Matt at all. He used that to get himself going. He also inspired his teammates who might have been not as forthright as Matt, but I always loved the story about Matthew Hayden when he faced Shoaib Akhtar, the fastest bowler in the world. Pakistan, Shoaib Akhtar, lethally fast and very dangerous.

He would bowl to Matthew with the new ball. Matt reckoned that he had three overs in him of pure pace and then he fell away. Matt used to openly count down from 18 to 1, the number of balls that he thought Shoaib could bowl before his pace fell off. Shoaib would steam in off a very, very long run and bowl this ball at 160 kilometers an hour. It would whistle past Matt's nose, and he’d go, 17 mate, 17 to go, that's all you got, which would just send Shoaib spare and really fire Shoaib up, but he'd also lose a bit of his way.

That's guts to me, that's guts, but that's the way that he worked. I know his teammates would say he'd be at the non-striker's end. He said, we'd be facing and Shoaib would almost knock our block off. In the end, you'd hear the stupid Queenslander guy, 11 to go, mate, that's all you got. I say all these different approaches that people have to what they do in their jobs.

What works for Matt didn't work for other people, but I love the confidence. I'm attracted to that confidence and that I'm going to back myself and I'll get it done. I love that. I love that about Matthew Hayden.

Brendan: Another brilliant story. Not one I remember hearing actually, but that's cool Queensland confidence, isn't it?

Michael: I love that sort of innate confidence. I love it. If you fail, you fail, but for whatever reason, I've always been attracted to that. Not everyone can do it. You have to be that type of person. You got to be comfortable in your own skin. Know what works for you, know what doesn't work for you. That worked for Matt, that worked for Steven Waugh as well.

Steven was someone who also spoke for the opposition when he was batting. Other batsmen could never do that. It's the same in business. You know what works for you, you know what doesn't.

Brendan: Yeah, absolutely. You sort of led into a little bit with Hayden’s story about cool under pressure. Again, have you got a moment, a story, or something you recall an instance where you've been with a leader (sporting, political, or whatever) and you just think, holy hell, this is a crazy moment, and you've just been really astounded by that calmness, by that coolness under pressure? Tell us a bit about that, buddy.

Michael: It's another quality that I'm really attracted to. We worked with a lot of school principals in the greater southeast. A number of those principals where they got serious, serious issues at their schools. I can't name them, but talking issues on the front page of newspapers in the media. The way that some of those school principals we work with have handled that, I found inspiring.

They are good people, and Brisbane is blessed to have a number of very good school principals who keep things very tight when things around them are challenging. I would also single out Darren Lockyer who is a client of ours at 55 Comms and someone I've worked with a bit over time. Darren Lockyer, to me, is probably the ultimate cool head under pressure. You go back to Queensland, won eight State of Origin series in a row.

We were going to lose series number one that started that dynasty except that Locky pounced on a way that would pass in the final minutes of the game in Melbourne and Queensland won a game. That from Locky was unbelievably cool. Never once flinched. He was a man who just found ice in his veins, I don't know how, when pressure was on. His guy now who, working with him away from the playing arena, asks great questions, thinks about things, and always lets rationality overcome emotion.

That's a bit of talent. I would love to have had any amount of football ability to play a game alongside someone like Darren Lockyer [...] I was hopeless. I couldn't do that. But just the way those guys do that, Locky is someone in particular. One skill there, I'd say this about Darius Boyd as well, great question askers. They don't pretend to know everything.

In fact, they will ask you what they think are the most basic questions so they understand that situation. But those two guys in common have got great, cool level heads. That's one thing that I just find really quite uplifting when things are tough.

Brendan: When you refer to Locky and then Queensland State of Origin, that dynasty, it was really many, many moments through that period of 10 or 11 series that we got over a period of time where it was just continuing cool under pressure moments, wasn't it, compared to New South Wales?

Michael: That is 100% right. Even though we won eight straight, a lot of people forget that a lot of those games are really close. In those eight years, there was only one clean sweep, that was it. I sort of feel for the blues in a way. I can't believe I'm saying this. But I felt in a way that they were ridiculed for losing eight in a row.

The fact was, they just weren't as good in the pressure moments as Queensland were. As simple as that. Queensland had Cameron Smith, Darren Lockyer, Jonathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Darius Boyd, ultra-cool under pressure. They just had this—not even once in a generation to me—once in 50 years group of players who could execute under pressure. In fact, they loved it.

The tighter it was, the more they loved it. That's a really unique skill that you want when it's tough. To rather have a game when you lead by two points than a game when you lead by 20, that's a real skill set. That series was a close series. Even in business, we tend to look back on things sometimes in business.

We probably underestimate the battle on things. You get a victory in business. You think that's great, but I think sometimes you can underestimate the battle and what you learn from the battle because you learn so much that you can take into other situations.

Brendan: This inspiring journey that Norths Devils are on, been on, and culminating the journey in the Grand Final win, you're President, as we've said multiple times, when have you had to be cool under pressure in this journey?

Michael: In this journey, I guess, try to [...] up the expectations of people who are desperate for us to win again, trying to say it'll come when the right things are in place. You can't wave a magic wand to get that done. There's always pressure to win, especially when you haven't won for 20 plus years. But then also, we lost a knockout semi-final two years ago when we were fifth versus eighth, and we lost that game and were knocked out of the season.

We'd won 15 games and lost 8, and then when we lost at home in the semi-final. We'd been promising for some time that we were on the path. We were confident with the path. When we lost that game, there were a lot of supporters who understandably when here we go again, we've made the finals for the first time in seven years as we did and we got knocked out straight away. So here we go. It's just a normal journey. Probably that, having to hold the line there again. I know that was a setback, but we've got to learn from that. 

Probably in my journalism career, no doubt, during the floods of 2011. When we had to send reporters out to tell the stories of devastation, heartbreak across southeast Queensland to be able to have all those things around you to ensure that your journalists are okay. Funnily enough, three weeks after that, we had the floods of January 2011 and three weeks later we had Cyclone Yasi, which came through North Queensland and was a genuine category five to be feared. 

We had reporters all through North Queensland. I still recall being very concerned for one of our photographers and one of our journalists, both great operators, who were in the eye of the cyclone at Tully. So we had them staying at Tully and the eye of the cyclone was approaching Tully. It was pretty hectic. We lost contact with them and thought, oh my goodness, I hope they're okay. 

Then most of the journalists we'd had on the phone and you can barely hear them because of the noise in the background. Then all of a sudden, it might have been about a quarter past 12:00 AM, phone rings, it's our man in Tully who said, hey, guys, just want to ring you, I'm okay, I'm going good. There was deathly silence behind him. The reason it was deathly silence is because he was in the eye of that cyclone. He was in the midst of all of the calm all around him, the winds of up to 300 kilometers an hour. Just reporting on guys, still good, I tell you what, I've never been in the eye of the cyclone. It's freaky, this is fantastic. It's great. To which [...] heart palpitations.

When you've got people out there that work for you and they're out there in danger, whatever their business might be, I think they are moments that test you because it's out of your control. You can't control any of that. For someone like me, you just got to know when you can't control things and accept that.

Especially at the Devils, we can't control what happens on the field. Accept you can't control it, know that people out there are doing their very best, they're there because they're trusted and they can do it, and have comfort in that. There's no point getting worked up about things that you have no direct control over. I'll remember that phone call forever out of the deathly silence of Tully became our reporter in the middle of the cyclone.

Brendan: Have you ever considered writing your own memoirs?

Michael: No, definitely not. I’ve forgotten most of it. Just a couple of stories, Brendan, we keep just a couple of them. I've been fortunate then.

Brendan: You've had some fantastic experiences and just the insight.

Michael: Yeah, and I think that's the life that journalists are lucky to get. They see things up close, but you're never part of that world. I would never say that I was mates with Australian cricket players. I was a journalist. I was not their mate. After my journalism career was finished, I would still count Matthew Hayden as someone I admire and speak to every now and again to catch up and see how he's going and how his family is going, but you've got to live in your own world.

You're there to represent readers, you're not there to be mates of people. As long as you know where your world is, to me, that's really important. The moment you start to mix and hang out with that person and that person because they're famous or whatever, to me you start to really cloud things. You got to stay in your lane.

Brendan: Before we go into one of the penultimate questions, I don't know if you've done this deliberately, but the three pillars you've chosen to me are absolutely unbelievable because they're all so interlinked. It's almost like the project management triangle. You mock around with the people. That's going to impact on inspiring and cool under pressure. The people underpin everything. Those cool under pressure moments are actually those inspiring moments. To be inspiring, you need to be cool under pressure. It's a beautiful synergy. Well done.

Michael: Thanks. [...] by design. It comes back to people. Just enjoying people, that's life. Enjoy people and it's all about getting it. I don't care what line of work you're in, whether it'd be business, sport, charity, or whatever, to me it's about people. The best leaders I've seen are the people who get on best with others around the place, and people you want to hang out with and listen to. To me, it's always been very heavily people-based.

Brendan: This is a question I ask all my guests. I need to ask you because a lot of the stuff you've already said has next to no value. I say that tongue in cheek, mate. It has enormous value. If I can push you, what is that one thing when reflecting on all of this experience that has had the greatest impact on your own leadership journey?

Michael: The generosity of others and mentors, I must say. To me, I have been so blessed with people who have helped me out. I'll always be grateful for that. What those mentors have taught me is, people always got more to learn. You've always got more to learn. You've never learned everything.

I guess from that viewpoint, never think you know everything. There are always things to learn. My mentors taught me that, not directly, but I always learned something from them. I thought I'd never thought about that before or thought about something in that particular way. That happens all the time to me.

I guess it's always seeking something else. It's always seeking something. When you’re a young journalist, one of the first things you’re taught is to check everything, check. There's an old saying, if your mother tells you she loves you, go and check. Not meaning you, mum. It’s all good. You can also become too cynical in that stage to me, but you're always learning. That is for me, always learn. Always know there's more to learn. Find good people who can help you learn those things.

Brendan: Well said, mate. Remiss of me not to mention your podcast linked to 55 Comms called Sourced. Tell us a bit about the podcast. I've listened to a few episodes again in preparation for today. I love it.

Michael: Thanks, Brendan. The podcast is really just to shine a bit of light on the world of communication for particularly media. This comes from questions that I often get asked all the time as a former newspaper editor, why is that a story, why is that not a story into other things? It's a chance for us to talk to communication professionals about how you engage with audiences.

How do you get the attention of audiences? Because in the end, that's what our business is, is to try and engage audiences and get them to maybe behave in a certain way. There's a whole bunch of different ways that people have insights into that.

Our podcast is very deep. We mentioned Deb Riley, The Game of Thrones's production designer. Deb was a great guest because she spoke about engaging audiences through working on Moulin Rouge with Baz Luhrmann, the cinema, working in the Olympic Games’ ceremonies in Sydney, so live action, and then working with the small screen or the big screen with Game of Thrones.

How did Deb best get the attention of audiences and engage them? That's what we try to do. How do you get people to take notice and maybe act in a way that you'd like them to act? That's what it's about.

Brendan: A fantastic story, which again, a bit of a plug for that episode with Deb Riley. She shared a story about her, Baz Luhrmann being a mentor, and how he helped her learn sculpting to help on one of the sets, which was again, I found absolutely fascinating. The other thing I found fascinating in that conversation with Deb Riley was just, I'm looking through my lens of leadership and teamwork, particularly in culture, and the amount of teamwork that's required in a role like hers because there are so many different parts all moving at different speeds and stuff up. Bringing all that together is just fascinating.

Michael: It is. That's a great point you made, that Baz Luhrmann one about what he and Deb did together when Deb was young working on Moulin Rouge. Baz created that environment where everything was possible. Deb was wondering whether she had the skill to sculpt. Baz gave her the confidence to think, let's give it a go, we can do something like that.

He's a great example of creating an environment in which people feel confident enough to try things and to learn. Look what Deb has gone on to do. She tells a lovely story in that podcast as well of when she got the job as a Game of Thrones production designer, massive, massive role, which she nailed, but she was little known at the time. She was little known, but Baz knew her.

When Baz saw that she got that role, he sent her a message. That message was a lovely message to Deb, which again, filled her full of confidence, but was a great sign of the leader that Baz Luhrmann must be. I don't know him from [...], but Deb painted a great picture of what he must be.

Brendan: As you said, around your own impact and what's impacted you mentors, they make a hell of a difference.

Michael: They do. Baz, to hear those stories, just inspires you a bit more. That was a great part of that.

Brendan: Michael, this has been an absolutely fascinating conversation. I love being reconnected. Again, I don't want to break that connection. Just your insight today, what you've been able to share, I think my biggest challenge after this episode and listening back is, I always keep and identify three takeaways from the episode. I don't know how I'm going to narrow it down to three, mate, it's going to be pretty tough.

You've had wonderful experiences, wonderful observations. Like a true leader, you've turned those observations, you've utilized the ones that most resonated with you, and you've taken action. That's obviously been seen through the creation of your business, what you did as the editor of The Courier-Mail, how that's linked into your role at St. Patrick Shorncliffe as the President of one of the organizations there, and obviously also a President now, but being a part of the senior leadership team at Norths Devils.

Congratulations on all you're doing. You're obviously a great person. I know that you are inspiring people. You must also be pretty cool under pressure. I want to say thank you very much for being a guest on The Culture of Things podcast. You're certainly cool under pressure today, buddy.

Michael: Thanks, Brendan. I really enjoyed it. I've given it away. Thanks so much for having me on and just to be able to reconnect with you. To talk about some of those things from the past was great fun. Thank you, really enjoyable. I've really enjoyed your podcasts in recent time. It's been a pleasure to be part of it. Thank you and I look forward to the episodes to come. Thanks, Brendan.

Brendan: I appreciate you and my pleasure. Thanks, buddy.

It’s always great to reconnect with an old mate from your childhood. Michael’s a fellow Queenslander, a fellow St Joseph's Primary School student, and a Bracken Ridge lad. He might have gone to a dodgy high school, but he still turned out alright. Throughout Michael’s journalism career and his current media business—55 Comms, he’s had fantastic opportunities to be up close and personal with a wide range of leaders across sport, industry, and politics.

As Michael shared, he observed many leadership attributes and has acted on the ones that most resonated with him to form his own leadership style. Underpinning this, are the three key leadership attributes he shared during the conversation—connect with people, be inspiring, and be cool under pressure. Michael shared his three key leadership takeaways. Now I will share my three key takeaways from my conversation with Michael. 

My first key takeaway: Leaders never compromise on people. They ensure people already on the team and people who join are aligned with the core behaviors of the team. They never focus on choosing the most technically talented person, they focus on choosing the behaviorally aligned person. They know if they’re not behaviorally aligned, they’ll do more damage than good, so don’t bring them in. Be ruthless and never ever compromise on people.

My second key takeaway: Leaders trust people to do their job. This isn’t about leaving people to do whatever they want because you fear being called a micromanager. It’s about ensuring your team has absolute clarity of their role and responsibilities. Every individual in the team has absolute clarity on their specific role and responsibilities. When that’s in place, it’s important to remind people what their roles and responsibilities are, but you should leave them to decide how they get on and do it. This demonstrates trust in the people to do their job. 

My third key takeaway: Great leaders have great mentors. A great mentor will nurture the mentee aka leader, and encourage them to learn, develop, and upskill. A great leader will seek out mentors who give them the confidence to learn, develop, and upskill. Leaders know there is always more to learn, more to develop, and more ways to upskill. That’s why great leaders will always seek out and find great mentors.

In summary, my three key takeaways were: Leaders never compromise on people, leaders trust people to do their job, and great leaders have great mentors.

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.