Simon McKeon, named Australian of the Year in January this year, likes to think of himself as a jack-of-all-trades but few people who know him would dispute that he is a master of the corporate, not-for-profit and government sectors.
He is chairman of CSIRO, Australia’s key government agency for scientific research and development, while also being executive chairman of the Melbourne office of Macquarie Group, often regarded as the country’s leading investment bank. He has been active in public debates over climate change and engagement with the developing world, and has relentlessly pushed the business sector to become involved in social causes.
Along the way he has notched up some impressive sporting records, as well as dealing with serious illness.
McKeon spends much of his life on the move, talking and listening, but Alex Malley, CEO of CPA Australia, recently caught up with him for long enough to explore his views and motivations.
Malley: Anyone who looks at your CV will no doubt be impressed by the breadth of your activities. One thing I am interested in is how your story got started, and whether there were particular lessons you learned early that have resonated through your life.
McKeon: You’re right, everyone’s story has to start somewhere, and mine started in a working-class suburb of Melbourne called Dandenong. There was never an issue in my family about there being food on the table, but you only had to look over the back fence to see that there were plenty of people who had to do it tough.
The extraordinary thing in that environment is the way in which everyone, including local businesses, pulled together to give back to the community. It was done without flamboyance, and the idea that everyone had obligations to others was something that I grew up with and has stayed with me. And I learned that the merging of business, social and community life can be a lot of fun, as well.
Malley: And was that what led you into your career, first as a lawyer and later as a banker?
McKeon: For a long time I didn’t have any sort of career plan, although I knew what I didn’t want to do. Mainly, I just walked through doors that were open and looked interesting. I don’t think of myself as a specialist in anything, but as a sort of jack-of-all-trades. An advantage of investment banking is that I have been able to build connections with a wide variety of people of all types and levels. A lesson I learned in Dandenong is that you have to stay grounded, stay out of the ivory tower, and connecting with a lot of different people is a way of doing that. One of my few real skills is to find connections between the dots, and my contact book is pretty big.
The successful businesses will be those that don’t focus solely on making profits, but are willing to get involved in the heavy lifting of tough societal problems. Simon McKeon
Malley: One of the big changes in your life is when you decided to work part-time and take up a position on the board of the charity World Vision, which works to assist people in developing countries. That’s the sort of thing that some people in business do in the latter stage of their careers, but you did it in your late 30s.
McKeon: I had done some work for smaller not-for-profit organisations, but when I started with World Vision I realised that it was a big operation, and the only way to do it properly was to wind back my other activities. The surprising thing was how much support and interest there was from senior people in business.
That extended into taking executives on trips to see the conditions in developing countries and what World Vision was doing, and I believe that the experience of seeing things for themselves had a profound effect on them.
Malley: One problem for people in business is that they often have to have a narrow focus, concentrating on the short term and bottom line. You rarely get the chance to step back and take a broad view.
McKeon: That’s very true. But I agree with [authority on corporate competition strategy and Harvard Business School professor] Michael Porter when he says that the successful businesses of the future will be those driven by people who are more connected with the grassroots of society. How you do that is a question for each person’s circumstances, but everyone should give some thought about how to do it, and how to make some genuine emotional connections.
Malley: For you, a big emotional change was when you were diagnosed about a decade ago, out of nowhere, with multiple sclerosis. You were partially paralysed and even blind for a while.
McKeon: I was, and now I put myself on the “miraculous” end of the recovery spectrum. It’s certainly the sort of thing that lets you know that you shouldn’t take even one day for granted. Getting over something like MS makes you think you have another chance to make a positive difference. I’d already started working with World Vision and doing more community work, but the feeling after the MS was that I should take it up a gear.
Malley: Is that what led you to take up the role as chair of CSIRO? It seems like an odd position for someone who started in the job by saying they had very little scientific knowledge. But you quickly made it clear that one of your goals was to push the public agenda towards action on climate change.
McKeon: CSIRO is a remarkable organisation and I’ve had a very steep learning curve. But it has a lot of outstanding people and that gives it a lot of credibility, especially on issues like climate change.
A problem in Australia is that many of the media outlets frame the issue in very sensationalist terms. I know that they have to sell newspapers or air time but surely there’s a better way to conduct the debate than in a series of beat-ups, where the story has very little to do with the relevant facts.
CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Academy of Science have all put out reports supporting the science of man-made global warming. Both sides of politics have basically supported that, although there are differences over how to respond and issues such as the rate of change. But if you looked only at the newspapers you would think that the basic science was still unsettled.
One problem is that global warming is not like a raging bushfire. You look out the window and it’s a nice day, you turn on the tap and water comes out as usual. The challenge is to get past that and do a better job at explaining the issue, the long-term consequences and the solutions.
Malley: An interesting thing from the perspective of CPA Australia is that we decided several years ago our contribution to the debate would be about raising the level of consciousness over the importance of sustainability, in our role as strategic advisers and finance professionals.
We produced the first report on sustainability from an accounting body in the world, and we said that if we are going to talk about it, we have to live by it. Ultimately it is the accountants in an organisation who measure and report on a company’s activities, and that gives us a crucial role.
McKeon: Yes, and one of the stories that isn’t told enough is the degree of preparedness amongst Australian companies. Many have plans in place to measure and reduce their carbon footprint, and they have strategies to live in a world where there is some sort of carbon emissions regime. Since [the G20 meeting in] Copenhagen, a lot of companies have stepped back to see what is going to happen next at the political level but the issue remains firmly on their agenda.
One issue that comes up time and again is the idea that Australia is too small to make any difference in reducing global warming, no matter what we do. By that thinking we wouldn’t do very much in the world at all, such as giving aid. Surely it makes more sense for us to take a leadership role in the world. Change has got to start somewhere, after all. And Australia is the land of “let’s give it a go”.
Malley: So you see a role for strategic leadership in the debate?
McKeon: That goes back to what we were saying before about the role that business can play in the community. The successful businesses will be those that don’t focus solely on making profits, but are willing to get involved in the heavy lifting of tough societal problems and that includes public debate. Senior managers have to be willing to put their heads up over the parapet and say, “what about this idea, or what about this solution?”.
Sure, every now and then they will fail and maybe look a bit red-faced, but the important thing is to contribute in whatever way you can. Eventually that will lead a better public perception of business, away from the view that companies are always self-serving and fixated on short-term profits.
Malley: The idea of people from the corporate sector contributing to public debate is a very important one. For you, has that been a big part of being Australian of the Year?
McKeon: To tell the truth, I often feel a bit guilty about receiving that award, because there are plenty of people who make bigger contributions to society than me. But it gives me the opportunity to publicly speak about the things I see as important, and to talk to a wide range of people and groups. And to listen to their views and opinions, as well.
Malley: But a downside is that you lost the record you held with crewman Tim Daddo, the world speed-sailing record.
McKeon: Yes, we lost it to the French! But we hope to get it back after this pretty packed year is over.
Malley: Many people would consider that a pretty unconventional pastime, or is it just a part of your competitive spirit?
McKeon: Maybe it’s part of trying to get the work-life balance right. I think many people in corporate life don’t think enough about that they think they’re too busy. But “busy-ness” in that sense can be an illusion, and a bit of a trap.
If you think you’re too busy it might be time to think about how you can spend your time better. And maybe it might be time to make some unconventional choices.