Real Life. Real Leadership.
Terry Agnew is an experienced director and chief executive officer, currently serving as the Chair of the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals, EDGE Employment Solutions (a Disability Employment Service) and until recently, the Curtin University Business and Law Advisory Council. He is also a Director on a number of Boards. Terry’s career spans a range of industries and roles, most recently as Group CEO for RAC for 20 years, from which he retired in March 2019.
Red Emu: Tell us your leadership story – how has your leadership evolved over the years and what has shaped your approach to leadership?
Terry Agnew: I think of my leadership journey as an evolution and one that ties to the concept of lifetime learning.
I didn’t set out to be a CEO, but even as a child I enjoyed reading, science, mathematics, learning new things and taking on new challenges. Once I completed my qualifications in engineering and science, I went into technical and teaching work. That evolved into leading small technical and commercial teams, and then larger roles towards executive positions and ultimately CEO/MD roles, before entering boards and becoming a Chairperson.
Each time I have taken on a new position, I have sought to learn something new or tackle a different challenge. I have supplemented new roles with formal learning through an MBA, at the Australian Institute of Company Directors and at Harvard Business School. Even now, I am drawing on that concept of lifetime learning and thinking about what is next – it is probably around Artificial Intelligence and data for me. It is about keeping fresh.
I devour reading material and enjoy learning from role models and mentors – watching and talking with other leaders or reading their stories has definitely helped shape my leadership style.
Attitude is also important. Whether within organisations or new ones, I have sought challenges or taken a risk. In my 20s I changed roles four times and for the RAC role, we packed up a young family and moved from Adelaide to Perth.
Taking check and learning from your mistakes is also important. We are all gifted feedback through life which can be daunting, but it is what we do with that information that can help us grow and build our resilience personally, and as leaders.
Red Emu: You have had experience with significant and complex organisations – how have you created clarity for your teams and the broader organisations?
Terry Agnew: If I can paint a picture for you, larger organisations can be a bit like a super tanker. They can tell you intricate details about the engine room, each and every meter and dial, but if we asked “where are we going”, “how fast and why are we going there”, they may not be able to answer. Organisations need to know what success looks like and have a clear, simple and consistent way of answering these questions.
The Why? Is around the purpose. It is critical that people know why the team or organisation exists, because that creates relevance, irrespective of the ownership structure of an organisation.
It then comes to engaging people to achieve success. Being a CEO is not just about recruiting good people who are capable, but people who are also of good character with a strong moral compass, and then empowering them to play as a team. Creating understanding around strategy and enabling commitment for those people, is then the bridge to future success.
A key role of the CEO and executive team is to communicate constantly throughout the whole organisation. Why are we doing it? What does success look like? What is our strategy to get there? How are we progressing? And very importantly, everyone in the organisation needs to understand their role and how it contributes to achieving success. From the front line and through to the support line roles, we all need relevance in our jobs. A clever strategy which doesn’t engage at all levels, or provide relevance, is unlikely to be a successful strategy.
Red Emu: What is the biggest sacrifice or trade-off that you have had to make in your leadership journey?
Terry Agnew: I am very fortunate to have amazing support from my family. This even goes back beyond 20 years when my wife and four children moved interstate and away from their lifetime friends and family for a new position for me.
Leadership roles can be demanding in many ways which can impact family time and mean sacrifices in other areas of your life. I constantly keep trying to balance work and family. In the workplace, as a senior leader or CEO you are regularly making trade-offs to ensure the long term success and sustainability of the organisation. Those trade-offs and decisions are really tough when it impacts people and their jobs.
Red Emu: As you reflect on your career to date, what advice would have been helpful to you when you started?
Terry Agnew: Three pieces of advice have stayed with me and been helpful during my career:
- Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously
- A CEO’s job is a lonely job, and
- Surround yourself with great people
I have learnt lots along the way and if I could share any of it with my younger self I would say:
- Be yourself, be authentic
- Be relatable and able to engage at all levels within, and outside your organisation
- Communicate regularly, simply and always take time to listen (effective communications is a two-way street)
- People and culture are key enablers of organisational success
- Recruit for character, not just capability
- Learn from feedback and mistakes – it is critical for personal improvement and progression
Red Emu: How do you continue to develop your leadership and the leadership capability within your business?
Terry Agnew: Personally and when I share my experience, I talk of having a mindset for lifetime learning – it is part of maintaining an attitude of working to get better.
I approach this in different ways:
- I watch and ask others about what, how and why they do what they do. In my current board roles there is a diverse range of people and a wealth of skills and experience to learn from.
- I devour information and continue to read a lot about leadership and leading. Whether those leaders are in business, politics, sport, military or disability sector for example. There are inspirational examples of leadership everywhere, and
- from an expertise perspective, I continue to invest in my own education.
For the individuals and teams I work with, it is important to help people realise their full potential. This might be helping someone understand where a gap might exist and helping them to bridge that gap in various ways.
Developing teams is hard, but when it is done effectively it accelerates an organisation. I have seen first hand more than once, that an effective team can accelerate an organisation beyond simply what a group of individuals could achieve.
Being part of high performing teams, with people of strong character and good capability, who are performing well as a team, are real highlights of my career and leadership journey. And I am fortunate to be able to say that many of those relationships are still with me today.