Penny Egan FCPA didn’t embark on her business career until her late 20s, and believes her varied life experience makes her a better CEO. She has moved effortlessly from CFO to CEO and now heads a dynamic board that is driving CPA Australia in a broader direction.
After leaving school at 14 and working at a petrol station at 27, never in her wildest dreams did Penny Egan expect to educate herself and work her way up the corporate ladder to now run Cancer Council Tasmania and be chairman of the board and president of CPA Australia.
It’s a major achievement for Egan, one that conjures raw emotions of pride and wonder in the woman who has played a key role in bringing CPA Australia to the forefront of strategic thinking and leadership engagement.
Egan now oversees a board that is taking the CPA membership from ledgers to leadership. She recently discussed her career journey with CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley.
Alex Malley: What was Penny Warren thinking when she was a typist at the Bank of NSW when she was 15?
Penny Egan: She thought she had a pretty good job because when I left school going to work in a bank was always going to be a secure position. It’s a great job in a small town. So I really didn’t think much more of it than that. Becoming a bank teller seemed to be quite a good objective at the time.
Malley: What did you learn in that role?
Egan: I learnt that I liked being with people and engaging with people. Interestingly, I loved counting the money! It was a challenge each day to balance the books or get a “slicker” as we would say in the bank.
Malley: And what was your heart and mind saying about the future, anything? You were still quite young.
Egan: Absolutely nothing. I left school at 14 and when I was about 27, I was working at a service station pumping petrol, I had an epiphany between the diesel and the unleaded: I thought I best do something with my life. I still wasn’t sure what that would be but I knew I had to gain some qualifications. The University of Tasmania was offering an external studies course in business and I thought, well I was okay at maths at school and I had worked in the bank, so that’ll do. That took me on the journey. CPA Australia came into my life as a student and they’ve remained in my life forever.
Malley: On many occasions you’ve spoken lovingly of your parents, so tell me about your home as a child and the environment they created for you. What were the values they taught you?
Egan: I had a lovely time growing up. I have one elder brother and an older stepbrother, we had a lovely upbringing, great parents. They taught us good principles: working hard will be rewarded, be nice to people and make sure that those things follow you through in life. They were wonderful, supportive, warm parents.
Malley: So what drove you to make that decision to leave school at 14?
Egan: At school we weren’t overly encouraged to think beyond grade 10; there wasn’t a large focus in the schooling curriculum at that time that I can recall. I’d made the decision that I wanted to be an airhostess. I went to the Technical College to learn how to type and do shorthand because I had done maths and science all through school, so my job propects were not that great. I figured I didn’t need further education for this amazing career I was going to have as an airhostess.
Malley: You’ve had an ambitious career. You’ve held roles including CFO of the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services and Forestry Tasmania. How has your skill set grown over those various experiences?
I can't change things on my own and at the end of the day, it's not about me, it's about the organisation.
Egan: My accounting days have held me in great stead and I’ve learnt a lot about leadership, governance, and working with people. I’ve worked with boards, I’ve been on boards.
As a CFO in a couple of large organisations, you do look after the finances but you also deal with a whole range of other matters and you get to know the business. Often when I was CFO, at the back of my mind I’d think, if I were the CEO, how would I have responded in that situation? What would I have said? How would I have dealt with that media enquiry? How would I have dealt with that staffing issue? How would I have dealt with the board on that problem?
Malley: At the core of leadership is the capacity to influence. There is no rulebook on how that happens. When you want to influence change in your environment, what works best for you as a chairman and CEO?
Egan: One is being articulate and clear about what you’re trying to achieve. And two is then bringing people on that journey. You might not get the buy in at the start so it’s really important that you sell the message and your vision. Don’t be afraid to take a step back if you need to change it slightly.
You might not have it exactly right but it’s bringing people with you and of course that includes the board. I can’t change things on my own and at the end of the day it’s not about me, it’s about the organisation. So you need everyone to be part of that outcome and therefore they know that they have actually contributed to what’s going to happen.
Malley: What skills or qualities do you look for in the leader of an organisation?
Egan: I look for someone who spends time to get to know the business before they start putting forward what their vision might be. Therefore I look for someone who has a vision, who can articulate that vision and who can bring people with him or her on that journey. That wouldn’t matter whether that’s BHP or Cancer Council Tasmania. I look for a leader who has good listening skills and people skills because at the end of the day you don’t want to turn around and find there is nobody following. >
Malley: You are the president and chairman of CPA Australia and I want you to share with our members the emotion you felt when they placed the presidential chains around your neck, only the third female and hopefully that will continue to blossom the numbers of female presidents.
Egan: I felt really proud, Alex. When you have been around that board table for as long as I have … we are a large organisation and you know I have to pinch myself that this little girl from Tasmania who wanted to be an airhostess is president of the seventh largest accounting body in the world. It was a proud moment to have my family there. I’m getting teary thinking about it.
This organisation is doing such great things, it’s connecting with some amazing people and it is because we are not just accountants – we are leaders in all that we do in business and the profession. CPAs do great things and there are many inspiring stories coming from our membership.
Malley: Over the past few years the board has taken CPA Australia in a different direction to promote the principles of leadership that the members exhibit. It’s been a very definitive path the board has taken.
Egan: Absolutely. We are a professional accounting body and that will always be our basis and we should all be very proud of our profession. But the ability to leverage off that is enormous.
Our strategy has a focus on broadening the audience of interest in CPAs and CPA Australia. We have such diversity in our profession and leadership can be summarised in three letters – CPA. That designation after a member’s name, that’s an honour for this organisation as much as it is for the member.
Malley: Has that driven the strategy to externalise the brand? To really promote that brand alongside leadership in the market?
Egan: Yes it has. You go back a few years, we had a future but I’m not sure any of us would have dreamt we would be where we are today. We’ve raised our profile, extended our reach. We’ve been about the big issues in accounting and business.
When one promotes the combination of accounting and leadership, along with a brand and the content that you marry that with, you’ve got a different ballgame – we are the ballgame.
In recent times, we took a step back and asked ourselves, “How do we move this organisation forward? How do we make the organisation more agile? How do we move forward as a board?”
We engaged two external directors, which was something new for the organisation, we sought out a skills mix that could deliver the new strategy. We also engaged a new chief executive. So there was a different energy and drive – we had a clear vision.
Technology came along at the right time, too. We’ve embraced the technology, matched it with our brand and that has been enormously successful for the business.
So four or five things have happened over a five-year period that came together and ensured that the board and management could work together. There was a strategy agreed by the board, the trust came with that and management have been able to go forth and implement it.
Malley: It’s an interesting challenge between the board and management: the board sets the strategy and the monitoring of its execution. That’s another challenge that you’ve brought to your career, the chairing of boards.
Egan: Yes I have. At times it’s not easy. Chairing this board is a pleasure because we have great skills around the board table, and we have some very experienced members in our organisation. But it takes a lot of trust between the board and management to still make that work and that’s been a positive journey for this board over the last few years. That doesn’t come overnight, but when you have that trust between the board and management, as we do, then you have a good recipe for success.
This board has empowered management to just do it, and the organisation and our members are reaping the benefits.
Malley: You’ve also been part of a dramatic change with the manner with which we speak to young people. Some years back the board were concerned that the image of the professional accountant had slipped in the minds of young people. We weren’t attracting the best of the best of the younger generation. How has CPA Australia changed that?
Egan: It was understanding what engagement meant and how that looked. With the great changes in technology we’ve been able to better engage with our younger audience. We have found the right mediums that keep us connected. We can touch them and importantly they want to touch us. They are our leaders and our members of the future.
Our multi-media initiative The Naked CEO is a good example of our innovation. It’s a website that has grown exponentially and now has unique views of young professionals well over the one million milestone.
For our established members we launched The Bottom Line TV series on the national Nine Network Australia. The leadership conversations in each episode reflect the conversations our members have every day as leaders in their business, or the government and not-for-profit sectors. This positions CPAs in their true light of leadership and reminds the broader audience that CPAs are relevant in all sectors of the community.
In addition to the benefits that these innovations bring, the enhanced external profile has positioned CPA Australia with its government relations as a compelling, influential voice on policy development, thought leadership and matters of public importance.
We are a national and international commentator and regular speaker on issues that some traditional businesses may shy away from – our recent submissions to the [Australian] Senate’s inquiry into ASIC (the Australian Securities and Investments Commission) is one example of our capacity to talk to the substantive issues.
That’s why we have such belief in our strategy as it works to make CPAs ever relevant across all spheres of the global community.
Malley: They tell me you’ve seen the top of the world.
Egan: For the past 20 odd years I’ve been an avid bush walker and four years ago my husband and I trekked to Mt Everest Base Camp. It was always on the list; Nepal, the Himalayas, another thing you thought you would never achieve.
You realise how lucky you are when you come home, how well off we are – from health conditions to the ability to find careers to being able to turn the tap on and pour fresh water. It was a great experience and not my last.
Malley: Thank you Penny, I know our members will take a lot from your story
Egan: I hope that my story helps people to understand that you can achieve great things in life and it’s not about male or female, it’s what you put into an organisation and the value that you add to that organisation. Always build and retain your credibility, then you can achieve great things.
The Cancer Council
Malley: Your most recent appointment is chief executive of Cancer Council Tasmania, what’s your story behind that role?
Egan: Both my parents have passed away from cancer and also my husband’s wife, the mother of my three stepsons. Now I am in a position where I’m helping other people on their journey with cancer. I’m using my business skills and my background to run an organisation. It’s the right cause, I have the passion and I have lots of energy.
What a wonderful time in my life to find myself in this position. So I tell people it feels like a round peg in a round hole! This feels so right and an absolute privilege.
Malley: You’ve been in this role now for close to a year, what do you want to achieve for Cancer Council Tasmania?
Egan: My vision is for Cancer Council Tasmania to be the pre-eminent not-for-profit organisation in Tasmania. I want a sustainable organisation that’s there for a long time after I’ve gone and I want Tasmanians to be able to say that we supported and helped them through a very difficult time in their life.
Saying thank you
“I wouldn’t be anywhere on my own. There are people who have helped me through life and supported me, giving me opportunities in business. Actually taking me out of my comfort zone but they felt they knew I could do it. Interestingly, I even thanked a couple of people who didn’t support me because they put fire in the belly. I thought, ‘I’m going to prove to you that I can do this’.”
Advice for young players
“Continue to learn. Don’t ever think a job is too hard. Never be afraid to go outside the square, outside your comfort zone. What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
This article was published in the April 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.