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Ann Sherry Carnival Australia

07 March 2011

\"There hasn't been a grand plan with my life - and I'm not risk averse. In fact, I'll often go where others fear to tread. When it comes down to it, I'm opportunistic really. Where an opportunity presents itself and it looks like it could be a great one then I'll jump into it.\"

Ann Sherry is not one to miss an opportunity or skirt the issues. Taking on the CEO role at Carnival Australia in the aftermath of Dianne Brimble's death would go some way toward proving the latter. Speaking with her about her career confirms both propensities.

Frank, transparent, open to robust discussion and investing in ideas, Ann's walk- the-talk nature extends to believing that all good businesses need to be innovative. The part that's hard in that process is having the capacity to hold the uncertainty of whether the idea - \"the piece of innovation\" - is going to work, or not, and being able to weigh-up the risk of failure against the high return such innovation may deliver.

Trade-offs

\"There's always a risk reward trade-off. Often people don't do that trade-off very well. They don't consider the upside. They only consider the downside. There are lots of people who are offering advice that talks you down. I learned really young -there's no downside. Sometimes things don't work, but there's really not much downside to that.'

\"Good ideas don't take lots of investment, but they do mean pushing against the status quo, asking questions. The passive resistance of people to change, which is entrenched in large organisations, is often about their view of what is possible, about not wanting to change or push boundaries.\"

Coming from a woman who has consistently taken on the aftermath of scandal in the organisations she has joined at senior and top levels, you would have to say, Ann relishes a challenge.

\"When I came into Westpac from the public service in the early 1990s, it was in HR and Bob Joss had been appointed CEO. I didn't have any formal HR qualifications but I had the various elements, the 'componentry' from my background in the public service - diversity, community engagement, OH&S - to do the job. It was a left of field opportunity, I couldn't say no to.

\"But there was scandal at the banks when I joined. They were on the nose with customers and employees were often embarrassed to admit where they worked. Much of my role at the time was about turning around how the organisation saw itself, and how those working inside it saw themselves within it. In some ways my position now has the same elements.\"

No carnival

Ann came to Carnival with an explicit agenda: to change the organisation, to rebuild reputation and to get momentum back into the business. Cruising as a domestic product was stagnant but with great potential. (Albeit a potential that would remain largely unrealised until the reputational issues - the internal and public perceptions of the organisation and the industry - were dealt with.)

\"Lack of discipline got us into the trouble we were in. Ships operate a long way away from head office. They are very disciplined operations. But in the early Naughties, as it's termed, there was a lack of clarity around certain areas that were not to do with running the ships. A lack of clarity on protocols around crimes at sea, around drug screening. When there's a lack of clarity things break down, because if no-one is sure whose job it is then it just falls between the cracks.

\"We've subsequently gone on to negotiate with Police Chiefs in all jurisdictions we sail in, establishing protocols with them that mean we do not lack clarity.

\"Around all our processes we have very clear systems to manage areas that the case highlighted as break points. Issues happen all the time and we manage them constantly but our style of managing them is completely different now. We work on clarity, transparent process and clear communication.\"

Turnaround

In the three years since taking on the role, Ann has spearheaded the turnaround in public perception and within the organisation has been able to capitalise upon something she discovered very early, staff enjoyed working for the company.

Carnival has grown 18 percent a year; there is a 50 percent repeat rate by customers. The product has been refurbished and, from one ship cruising the waters domestically, there are now five with another ship coming in December.

\"We have a 100 ships globally. Two months into the job I attended a budget meeting and pointed out that I couldn't grow the business and turn it around without capacity.

\"We've moved from just over 100,000 passengers a year to 400,000 and in 2020 we'll have a million Australians a year travelling on cruise ships.\"

High expectations

At the core of Ann's being there lays a dislike of unfairness and a hatred of low expectations, which in her case touches very close to home. Her greatest challenge in life, she freely admits, has been having a child with a disability. Not, as some might assume, because of intrinsic difficulties around that fact but because of attitudes - \"societal attitudes, people's low expectations\".

It is the same in business.

\"I've been butting up against people's expectations for years: Oh you're female; Oh, you came from HR; Oh, you're from the public sector.

\"I find all those things that limit expectations for women in business in particular so frustrating, because it's so illogical, although people present it as a logical argument.\"

Leadership

The great and the small in expectations make recurring appearances throughout our interview in various guises. When asked about the move from HR to CEO, and if it is an unusual step, Ann answers that it shouldn't be. The fact for her is that HR roles have narrowed over time and those in the roles are not seen as logical successors to CEO because they lack the financial competencies - and that is a \"tragedy\".

Why?

Because if you do know the business, you are engaged in it, and you have an understanding of how to get people engaged and motivated, then \"it's a million times easier as a CEO\".

\"As a leader I believe it's important that people want to work for you and that you can get things to happen that once people would have thought were impossible - because possibility turned into the actual is empowering for everyone. People also need to know what you stand for and being able to translate that right through an organisation is important.

\"People need to be clear about who does what and about delivering the goods at the end of the day. There are things that are mine to do and I do them. And there are things for others to do and I delegate them.

\"I have high expectations of people who work for me that they'll pick up their job and get on with it. If they're doing it well or not they'll get feedback. If they're not doing it well, I won't take stuff back and do it. That disempowers them.

\"Learning to fail fast can be a really beneficial dynamic. Things go wrong, sort it and move on.

\"I'm big on getting people to reflect on what has gone well and what hasn't. Often, we can get into a pattern of failure, a pattern of not doing things well and then it's about 'listening fast', which is not about being defensive when someone says something isn't working but is about finding a way to take the lesson and learn from it.\"

Controversial circumstances, successful turnarounds, a diverse career forged against the illogical - this CEO has earned some amazing stripes worth talking about and learned some great advice worth taking.

Key Achievements

Corporate engagement with indigenous Australia.

Turning Carnival Australia around.

Driving and managing change at Westpac.

Personal Passions

Family

Changing the way we engage with indigenous communities

Being good at whatever you do

\"The great myth: work life balance. I have a rich and full existence (involvement in not-for-profits, the farm, my family, a new renovation) and yes, lots of that existence is taken up by work, and I don't mind that. In this business [cruising], work and pleasure sometimes feel as though they blur.\"

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