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.  In this series of interviews, we pose 5 questions to respected leaders.  These leaders 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.

Clayton McDonald is a Group Executive at Aurizon with responsibility for the Company’s Bulk business.  Clay has extensive experience in the rail and logistics sectors having worked across the Network, Coal and Bulk businesses in Aurizon over the last 12 years and prior to that holding key roles with Toll.  Having led the turnaround of the Bulk business, Clay is now pursuing a pivot to growth strategy across the wide range of commodities and geographies that Bulk operates in.

Red Emu: Tell us your leadership story – how has your leadership evolved over the years and what has shaped your approach to leadership?

Clay McDonald: Growing up I found enjoyment and satisfaction in working within a team environment and achieving team outcomes so i didn’t really think consciously about developing a particular leadership style.  When you demonstrate passion, perseverance and get people around you invested in the outcome you are sometimes recognised by others before you recognise leadership in yourself – so you are provided with opportunities, maybe as the captain of a team or a school for example. That’s what happened to me.  I really enjoyed those things and then was fortunate and privileged to be accepted to one of the formative leadership institutions in the world being ADFA (Australian Defence Force Academy) and the Royal Military College Duntroon.  Those institutions are all about leadership – the fundamentals, the nuances and spending time immersed in finding out how to be a positive leader in different situations and how to achieve outcomes through others.

When I came out of the military, I had the opportunity to apply my craft in commercial organisations and my leadership continued to evolve from learning from those around me, my managers, other leaders, family, friends and formal learning.  With all that input you take some of the traits and approaches you like, add it to your own leadership DNA and build a leadership style unique to you. That adaptive leadership building continues for me today.

Red Emu: You have responsibility for a significant, complex organisation – how do you create clarity for your team and the broader organisation?

Clay McDonald: I think a lot about keeping it simple. A simple message and narrative which is easily understood and supported by clear communications.  Its also important to have a clear purpose which resonates, and which people can connect with.  I try to remove complexity – mission simple.

Another way of achieving clarity is achieving alignment and symmetry in direction from Executive leadership and the board, through the various leadership layers ultimately down to the frontline roles.   When you have that, centralised intent leading to decentralised execution becomes simpler, and everyone understands what you are trying to achieve.

Clarity and consistency of message gives people something to align to and rally around. I find it very powerful when I visit parts of the business and hear the same message and context that I have been giving being echoed back to me.

Red Emu:  What is the biggest sacrifice or trade-off you have had to make in your leadership journey?

Clay McDonald: There is a period earlier in your career when you can become very focused on achieving goals and in my case that meant sacrificing time with a young family.  That’s particularly the case with national roles and the amount of travel (pre-COVID!) involved.  For me, the importance of being a visible leader in the business meant that I wasn’t as visible at home on occasions.

Red Emu:  As you reflect on your career to date, what advice would have been helpful to you when you started out?

Clay McDonald:  I’m reminded of a quote by John Wooden – “Success is never final, failure is never fatal”.  Early in your career you can beat yourself up when things don’t go as well as you may have hoped.  Alternatively, you can celebrate success, but it is only a point in time so its important not to become complacent or lose your humility. Recognise the success, appreciate those around you who have contributed but keep moving forward.  In my case, I think I spent too much time and emotion worried about failure and lamented how I should have done things better instead of also recognising all the things that were going well.  Another great saying, “Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is Calm” acknowledges that great leaders step up in difficult times, and so I think embrace the challenges as these experiences help create lasting leadership capability and substance.

Red Emu: How do you continue to develop your leadership and the leadership capability within your business?

Clay McDonald: As far as my leadership goes, I believe learning is constant and you need to be adaptive.  You learn from others, you learn from ongoing experiences – what worked, what didn’t work, you learn from just having an open mind and being open to development as situations and the environment changes. As you mature, I think you also develop judgement about what’s important.  Leaders set the tone, pace and standard but in this role I also see myself as the Minister of Communications and the Minister of Energy.  We have such high quality people running the business within Bulk that my role is to support them, communicate context, strategy and direction and energise them through the way I engage.  All of that requires constant learning.

More broadly, one of the fundamental roles of a leader is to develop the team.  I have a bunch of leaders who are great at their roles so the opportunity is to continue to develop the way we work as individuals and together as a team – harnessing the diversity of views, skills and experiences to get great outcomes. I believe in the team IQ theory, we are smarter together. Also ask members of the team what they need in terms of development and support from you as their leader. Generally, they know their strengths and weaknesses and where they need help. And finally provide honest feedback on performance. Giving your leaders honest feedback is so important for individual development and clarity and avoiding doing so takes away their opportunity to develop, improve and sometimes progress.