At the end of her first year with Westpac, Carolyn McCann (below), GM Corporate Affairs and Sustainability, has exciting news to announce around what Westpac Group is doing to increase the wealth of opportunity in our communities…
Counting AFL Commissioner and non-executive board director Sam Mostyn, as well as Christine McLoughlin and Westpac’s Christine Parker and business chairman James Strong (who passed away in 2013) among her mentors, Carolyn McCann thought when she left school she wanted to do law. A second degree in communications got her off to a much more satisfying career start and she joined a large consultancy group putting together integrated communication and investor relations strategies for publicly listed companies, as well as working on various mergers and acquisitions.
One of the first projects Carolyn worked on was the Woolworths float in 1993. It was billed at the time as the largest share float in Australia’s history. Another standout project for her was the merger of Suncorp-Metway and QIDC, working with Queensland Government Treasury. It was all work that provided her with a solid understanding of how important communications are to the success of any big public venture.
Eventually, the buzz of project work led Carolyn to an in-house position with NRMA Insurance Limited as it was known then.
“I was worried about going in-house,” she says, explaining she didn’t think there would be the same "breadth of work”.
However, she also recognised that you become aligned and loyal and really committed to an organisation.
“You feel the ups and downs, especially in the reputation space,” Carolyn says, explaining that in those earlier roles she developed a philosophy to “inject myself early in discussions and get a seat at the table because in the reputation and sustainability space I think the best work you do is invisible.
“Being there early on is when you can really have influence and stop an issue from occurring,” she says.
Carolyn remained as head of communications with the company for 12 years growing and morphing in the role - as the company also did. Before leaving to join Westpac she was Group General Manager Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations Insurance Australia Group (IAG).
Voted the world’s most sustainable company this year at Davos, Westpac is still the only Australian in the top 10 mix. Carolyn believes the organisation’s continuing success and jump from number 10 to number one in a year has come down to having a broad focus - inside and outside the company - and remaining “mindful of the unintended consequences of any decision made”.
“A business of this size is going to have issues to manage,” continues Carolyn, who’d like to think 70 percent of her communication work is proactive and 30 percent reactive.
“If you inject yourself early and have the right people in your team who are close to the business and involved early in the big projects and the big decisions then you’re in a prime position to short-circuit any potential issues,” Carolyn explains.
The term Corporate Sustainability proposes the existence of a Triple Bottom Line in which business goals are inseparable from the societies and environments within which they operate. Companies that fail to account for the social and environmental impacts of their business will find themselves unsustainable.
“The bank is part of the economic fabric of society. If the community is prospering then so will the bank. I think that makes commercial and common sense,” says Carolyn.
It’s certainly a viewpoint well supported by Westpac’s recent launch of the single largest private education scholarship program in Australia’s history, the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation. The charitable Foundation will have an exclusive focus on the education and advancement of Australians. A one-off contribution of $100 million will fund around 100 scholarships and awards every year in perpetuity to Australians from all walks of life and who have the potential to shape Australia’s future.
“I don’t believe growth and shareholder needs and being community minded are mutually exclusive ideas. The achievements that have made me most proud working here [at Westpac] are not just the calls we get from the community but the calls we get from the Institutional bank when they say, we’re thinking about financing this project, do you have a view from a sustainability perspective.
“Those collaborations with people in the business are worth as much, if not more, than some of the community programs because what it says is that everybody understands the importance we place on being sustainable,” says Carolyn, who is a little more circumspect around her own personal sustainability.
“Busy,” is the first word that tumbles from Carolyn as she articulates her own philosophy around work life balance.
“I put a lot of energy into the role and I’ll always volunteer when new projects surface.
“I really see it as work-home balance, rather than work-life balance, because for me work is an important part of life,” Carolyn continues.
“I wouldn’t have the home life I have if it wasn’t for work. It’s less stressful for me to be on the computer for an hour or so more than to log off feeling I’ve left things undone.
“I have to feel I’ve delivered value and I set high personal benchmarks. To achieve those benchmarks I’ve set my life up to have a supportive network around me. I have a wonderful husband who works primarily from home. We have two children, 3 and 5, and his set-up allows me the flexibility I need,” Carolyn acknowledges.
One of Carolyn’s must-dos is to keep her weekends free for family. She also admits she really can’t do without a bit of laughter in her day: “I take the job very seriously but I don’t take myself very seriously. I want to make sure the people I’m working with can have a laugh.
“We [Westpac Corporate Affairs] deliver a lot at the same time, and we have to provide tough, fearless advice. Being able to have a laugh together is so important.”
Carolyn admits her expectations are high and she can be demanding: “I try to have the right mix of positive feedback for the team and the right stretch and I remain mindful of letting the people with whom I work own their own successes.
“The team environments I enjoy the most is having really smart people who challenge and debate, but then accept the agreed path and get on board to execute,” she finishes.