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 for a peek behind the scenes.
I was drawn to the idea of Project Uplift from the moment I heard about it, before the project even had a name. During his tenure as NSW Treasurer, Mike Baird had asked me if I’d like to walk the Larapinta Trail and be a mentor to some young people. I knew I had to do it, but I think I underestimated what would be involved from a physical standpoint!
I thought, ‘I’m naturally healthy, I love being outdoors, I love walking, I love young people, I’m well and I’m fit and this is going to be fabulous’. It was instinctive. I just knew I had to be involved.
However, in reality I’d just got off a plane from China and I was severely jet-lagged. I hadn’t done anything in the way of active walking with packs recently. The heat just bowled me over, and I quickly realised that Project Uplift was going to really test me. We were in a physically demanding environment and I was the oldest person there. It was tough. I wasn’t actually nearly physically fit enough for that particular trip at that particular time.
I was physically drained. I had to deal with vomiting and severe rashes, as well as the usual aching that comes with walking so far. My body reacted badly to the heat.
So to overcome that, I said to myself, I’m going to practise all of these things that I believe in, the things that I talk about at work. I’m going to practise patience, kindness, generosity, the spirit of being here for others. I knew I had to also practise giving these young people 100% of myself. At the end of the week, I came away from it and I felt refreshed. Inspired. I practised something I really believed in and I saw how powerful it was. It was very special. It was life changing.
In the burning heat, with everyone exhausted, they played cards, non-stop, for two or three hours. They laughed and joked and teased each other and played for hours. Gail Kelly
Making the connection
I’m so inspired by these young people. They are just wonderful. In their own ways and in their own time, each one of them shared their stories – maybe with just one mentor, in a small group or with everyone. There was no pressure at all, but the moments to share so often presented themselves.
Each one of these young people has experienced very difficult circumstances, in different ways. They’ve dealt with isolation, trauma, neglect or abuse. They’ve dealt with anxiety, depression or homelessness … extraordinarily difficult life issues for young people to deal with. And yet the spirit of optimism, the spirit of willingness to learn and grow, and the spirit of bravery within them – that was special to see. The bravery and courage and perseverance of these young people was just astounding.
They learned from each other, as well as from us. It was an environment where you wanted everyone to feel safe and each one of us did. They built bonds with each other. They came to feel safe. There was a real privacy around the environment and a trust. We spent seven days together with just each other, sleeping alongside each other in swags and tents and in a very open environment. We walked together, ate together, laughed together and cried together.
It was a very close, intimate and safe environment for everybody. We got to see the magnificent quality of the young people in our country who face difficult personal circumstances, and cope in amazing ways. We got to see their goodness – there’s no better word for it that I can find. It was inspiring and, to be honest, very humbling.
Walking the trail
You have to give yourself entirely to a moment if you want to be enriched. Once you’re truly in the moment with others, like I was, you know you’re going to learn something from that person – whatever their age.
I learned from the kids and I learned from the other mentors around me. Every evening we would gather around the campfire and share our experiences and ideas. It evolved over the days, and it was quite something to look forward to every evening.
We’d think about it throughout the day. Mike [Baird] would have set us a theme – something like relationships, courage, humility, choices, grace or forgiveness. We were asked to think about it over the course of the day, while we walked through the heat, to talk about it with our walking partner or partners. Then, when evening fell, Mike would ask one of the mentors to lead a conversation about the theme and relate it to something that happened in our own lives. So these lessons, these themes, they became real. We would each share a little bit of ourselves and see where the conversation went from there.
In their own ways and in their own time, each one of the young people and the mentors shared their stories. Gail Kelly
Remembering to listen
A couple of the young people came out with the most inspiring comments. One young person said, ’My past is not my future.’ That’s a good thing to believe. Another one said, ‘I’m going to start by learning to forgive myself.’ That was just so very uplifting.
One of the issues for many people is the sense of personal guilt, a sense that, I’m having a tough time because I failed. I failed as a person. Sometimes that’s just how people interpret the circumstances that they end up in.
But these young people started to feel trusted and safe and supported. They felt like they could express their fears – and their talents, and share their dreams. It was a very affirming and encouraging environment. Mike is a naturally affirming person; a very positive and remarkable leader.
We spent an amazing time together that week. Every single person went away with something that was, without exaggeration, life changing.
Memories for life
There are so many memories I will take from Project Uplift, but my strongest one occurred towards the back end of the Larapinta Trail, at the end of the week. The trail had got hotter and hotter. It was our second-to-last track – and it’s one that actually gets shut down at the end of September for the rest of the summer because it gets so hot. We were up on top of a mountain in temperatures above thirty-seven degrees, maybe forty degrees with no wind. We’d done a trek that morning and come back to a breezeless camp around two-thirty in the afternoon. It was just unbelievably hot. It was baking heat; relentless, baking heat.
Each one of us wanted to regather our strength somewhat, to find a quiet spot on our sleeping bag or under a tree. But Mike bowled in and he said to everyone: ‘Right. At three o’clock, who’s in for cards?’ All the young people jumped up immediately, but the rest of us needed that time. Mike took just half an hour to himself and brought all the young people together at three o’clock. In the burning heat, under the tents, with everyone exhausted. They played cards, non-stop, for two or three hours. They laughed and joked and teased each other and played for hours.
It was really something. I thought, ‘This is a special man’. Mike didn’t take the afternoon to himself. He used that time to be so affirming and encouraging and fun with these young people. They all had such immense fun. Sitting in my own little quiet spot, drawing on my inner strength, listening to them and watching them … I thought, ‘Wow, this is a very special moment’.
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