As the former CEO of Westpac and an influential leader in all aspects of her career, Gail Kelly has always aimed to instil a keen sense of generosity and community spirit through her work.
Ranked in Forbes’ Top 20 most powerful women in the world three times over, Gail declined an invitation to a high-profile Italian banking conference to trek through the Australian outback with a team of inspiring youths put forward by a group of charities. These youths had been disadvantaged over the course of their life, yet still showed enormous courage and resilience.
Thread Publishing speaks to Gail Kelly about the lead-up to the Project.
I still remember where I was when I first heard about Project Uplift. Mike Baird arranged a visit to come and meet with me in my office. He wasn’t the Premier then; he was in his former role as the NSW Treasurer.
Usually, of course, you want to try and make sure you’re properly prepared for a meeting. But he and his office wouldn’t tell me anything about this conversation. He just asked if he could come and see me and I said, ‘Of course’. So Mike arrived with one of his advisors and we got settled in my office. Then he raised a very interesting idea.
This happened some time in November 2013. Mike already had everything all planned out; he had all the dates settled in for September of the next year. He wanted to fit it in with the parliamentary schedule and the agenda of the NSW government; he was determined to be able to do this.
I was immediately captivated and I knew I absolutely would love to do it – but when I checked my diary, I saw that I was blocked out for that entire week in late September. I was supposed to be at a McKinsey & Co conference in Venice, one that is only held every second year. It’s for banking CEOs only and it’s a really excellent conference. It had been in my diary for quite some time.
I sat and I looked at it … then I looked up at Mike and I told him yes, I would love to go. Despite missing out on the conference, it was a relatively easy switch to make as it’s not often that I can replace one activity for the entire week for another. Usually my days are more fragmented than that!
People are made of stories, not atoms. Gail Kelly
Creating the time
When the change of Premier occurred in April, about six months after that first meeting, I remember wondering if the Project was still on. Obviously, Mike was now the Premier. His schedule would have changed and the demands on his time would have changed. I called him and he assured me that it was absolutely still on, that the time was blocked out in his calendar and nothing was going to change it.
Even if I was at the McKinsey conference, I would have been available on the phone and the computer. I would have been able to catch up on things at work at night, after the talks. Being on the Larapinta Trail, I would be really, really, one hundred per cent away. It was a big decision to make, since September is our busiest time of the year.
But Westpac is a wonderful organisation with a lot of incredible people in it. I could be away for something important – something so instinctive – and it would be okay.
Project Uplift in focus
What attracted me mostly to Project Uplift is that I liked the idea of a small group of mentors – older people with different life experiences – coming together with an equal number of young people. I knew that the richness of the experience would go in both directions. I knew that I would come back from the Project absolutely inspired and having learned something more about myself, more about our country and more about the circumstances in which these young people lived. They are circumstances that affect many, many young people in our society.
I also knew that I would really connect to the power of making a difference at an individual level. This was one of those things, those moments to take. There are many, many ways in which you can make a difference at a mass level – that was part of my role at Westpac. But this was at an individual level. So many times, making a difference starts with one person. I had to do it.
Gail Kelly stepped down from her position as CEO of Westpac on February 1, 2015. In 2002, she became the first female CEO of a major Australian bank or top 15 company and, as of 2005, was the highest paid woman in an Australian corporation. She then assumed the position of CEO at Westpac in 2008.
The mentors on the inaugural Project Uplift trip were: Premier Mike Baird; former Premier Nathan Rees; Westpac CEO, Gail Kelly; Pickles Auctions founder, Tim Pickles; Director Elizabeth Ann McGregor OBE from the Museum of Contemporary Art; seven-times World Champion surfer Layne Beachley; INXS rock star Kirk Pengilly; and National Student Leadership Forum founder and author, Jock Cameron.
Written by Thread Publishing (threadpublishing.com). Connecting the world one story at a time to bring humanity back into business. © 2015