Real Life. Real Leadership.
We live in a turbulent world. More than ever before, people are looking to their leaders to provide clarity and purpose. Put aside the theory and read on for an insight into the story of an outstanding leader – Doug Swan, Group General Manager, Workwear Group
We live in a turbulent world. More than ever before, people are looking to their leaders to provide clarity and purpose. In this series of interviews, we pose five questions to respected leaders. These are leaders who demonstrate an ability to lead anywhere, from the front line to the corner office, but they have one thing in common – they are highly effective and well regarded. Put aside the theory and read on for an insight into the stories of some outstanding leaders.
Doug Swan is Group General Manager with overall responsibility for running Workwear Group. The business is synonymous with some of Australia’s favourite brands including Hard Yakka and KingGee as well as supporting a global client base with the provision of uniforms. Workwear Group is owned by Wesfarmers and Doug has been with Wesfarmers since 2005 when he started in the Business Development group. After a stint in Investor Relations, Doug was a member of the Coles Integration Team and from there took on a range of senior finance and operations roles in Kmart. Doug joined Workwear Group in 2016 and has embarked on an effort to make the business world class.
Red Emu: Tell us your leadership story – how has your leadership evolved over the years and what has shaped your approach to leadership?
Doug Swan: My current role has been a big change for me. In this current role, I own the result of the business and am fully accountable for it, which has given me new insights into what it means to lead. It has meant that I have had to surround myself with good people. The importance of a strong team is critical, with no gaps across key functions. I have put a lot of work into getting my team right and, on reflection, I can see where I should have put more emphasis on that in the past. Having the right team around you not only allows you to be at your best, but ensures you’re providing the best level of support to the business.
As far as career development goes, I have recognised the virtue of patience. I had reached a point where I thought I was ready for the next role, but I learnt to check myself and really focus on the task at hand, immerse myself in the role, and enjoy it as much as I could, rather than continually worrying about what was next. I don’t believe you can force career progress and doing the best you can in the role you are in is really important. I did that and was lucky enough to be recommended for this role.
In terms of shaping my leadership, I have been fortunate to experience some great leaders during my time with Wesfarmers and those reference points have helped guide me. I have also found it very beneficial over the years to seek external help with my leadership. As a leader, there will be difficult times and an external sounding board can allow for more valuable reflection. It allows you to challenge your own perceptions regarding leadership and to evolve as a leader.
Red Emu: You have responsibility for a significant, complex organisation – how do you create clarity for your team and the broader organisation?
Doug Swan: As a leader I believe having a clear strategy and creating clarity for the whole organisation is really important. We work hard at this, but there is always more to do. Keeping the strategy simple is critical. Our strategy can be simplified down to three words – Connect, Simplify, Grow.
The strategy should be the guard rails within which people work and it should not be overly prescriptive. The way people adopt and implement the strategy is different across our business and I want to encourage the innovation and entrepreneurial approach that our people bring to strategy implementation.
We are working hard on creating clarity for every person in the business so that they know where they should be focusing their efforts. Ensuring everyone is aligned with a simple goal is very powerful. We challenge ourselves every day to make this easier for our people.
Red Emu: What is the biggest sacrifice or trade-off you have had to make in your leadership journey?
Doug Swan: I don’t really feel that I have sacrificed anything, although leadership comes with weight and responsibility. Work is important to me and maybe I could put more emphasis on balance, but if I wasn’t doing this, I would be pursuing something else just as vigorously.
I do think leadership is both a responsibility and a privilege. It’s important that aspiring leaders understand this and don’t pursue leadership as a reward. There are critical tasks that a leader must perform and abdicating or delegating that responsibility is not a choice however how hard or unpleasant that task may seem.
Red Emu: As you reflect on your career to date, what advice would have been helpful to you when you started out?
Doug Swan: I think it would be something to do with pursuing your passion. I started out in engineering but didn’t really enjoy it. However, I was always fascinated by business. This led me to study further and from there I was fortunate to land a commercial role within Wesfarmers. Following my interest in business has held me in good stead. I think my advice would be, to follow your interest, enjoy the moment and the role you are in, and opportunities will come.
Red Emu: How do you continue to develop your leadership and the leadership capability within your business?
Doug Swan: I enjoy learning and look to be stimulated both in my role but also outside the workplace. Observing successful leaders and successful businesses is really inspiring and I draw a lot from that.
I am also committed to giving my team the same opportunities for development that I have had. I look for opportunities to expose them to experiences that will challenge them and assist their development, whether that be through new challenges in their role, exposure to other leaders, or formal development programs.
What I’ve learnt is that leadership development is not one size fits all. I encourage my team to take ownership of their own development and pursue their passions and then I support that in any way I can.