Cassandra Kelly: Committed to changing the world

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

“People need to step in before they step up” are the words that Cassandra Kelly lives by.

The co-founder of strategic advisory firm Pottinger and women’s development initiative Glass Elevator is committed to changing the world in the ways she can: offering her wealth of knowledge and strategic advice to people of all ages, stages and backgrounds.

Kelly moved to New York in September 2015 in search of new ideas, mental stimulation and to broaden her horizons, but mainly because changing the world from Australia had its limitations in terms of the audience she could reach. She aptly summarises that “being where more of the population that you’re trying to impact is certainly very helpful.”

For a woman who adamantly states that her unfinished business will never truly be finished, it’s clear that there is much more in store for Kelly and her legacy – hers is a name to remember.

Could you start by giving me a bit of a snapshot of your life in New York? What brought you here?

My life in New York? I just walk out the door and I still pinch myself. After nearly two years, I still cannot believe that this is my home. I have made some wonderful friends, I have had experiences I would never have been able to have and I feel like I belong. Although I am known for my work in strategy, policy and M&A, the only way that you can get leaders to make smart decisions is by working directly with them to ensure that they align their actions with the outcomes they want. This means that I do a lot in the leadership coaching and thought leadership space. I work with boards and management to help them grapple with risk, opportunity to enable better outcomes. I moved to New York because I wanted to minimise regret: I wanted to play my part in contributing to a better world for us all. I wanted to reach more people, to help them wake up should they have been sleeping or to act should they have been wondering how they could contribute.

Was coming to New York a shock from what you were used to?

I’ve lived in Sydney, Johannesburg, London and Tokyo, so coming to a global city wasn’t a new phenomenon for me.

Out of all those cities you’ve lived in, do you think that New York is the most conducive to being able to achieve what you want to achieve?

I’ve loved aspects of all the cities I’ve lived in, but something about New York is different. I think it’s a really kind city, and has some of the most generous, kind-spirited people I’ve ever come across, and most of the people that are here are global thinkers. In short, most days you run into people who not only want you to win but want to help you to. I feel very much at home in New York; I’m with people that are like-minded. It’s an exhilarating place to live.

How would you summarise what you’re trying to achieve?

I get up in the morning to try and help people make good decisions, and to encourage them to “step in” to their lives. I think that people need to step in before they can step up. A full life isn’t lived by those who buy tickets simply to watch the game. I want people to understand that they can be leaders should they choose to be. Leadership isn’t the unique domain of those who lead organisations, or political organisations or departments; leadership is walking out your front door every day with the purpose of bring your best to the day; and making a contribution. If you don’t step into your life, you are highly likely to feel like you don’t have any control of your destiny and that makes sense because you have handed over your power. I want people to be accountable and to collectively own today and tomorrow.

You co-founded Pottinger, a strategic and corporate advisory firm. What’s your role there?

I was the CEO at Pottinger from 2003 – 2015 before transitioning to being Chair, and I have just recently stepped down from that role also. In doing so, I have made space for new possibilities for that team: fresh thinking, fresh ideas, and fresh leadership. And of course, in my new role of Senior Advisor at Pottinger, I have more time to be able to do all the things I want to achieve.

It became clear a few years ago that our clients were becoming more transcontinental, and I noticed is that Australian and American companies were having analogous issues. Board members in the US were very receptive to having me come in and talk about the same things I was talking about in Australia.

The focus of the work I have been doing in the US is helping boardrooms and CEOs disrupt themselves and to see innovation as business as usual, not some scary new thing.

Are boardrooms and CEOs receptive to change?

It depends. When I speak with these executives they will often answer that they are of course receptive to change. Yet, when the situation becomes real, too many leaders of incumbent companies entrench themselves even further into the status quo when faced with a challenge or potential disruption. In the face of uncertainty, it is easier for many to presume that the disruption or change is merely temporary and so the choice not to change one’s course or approach seems reasonable if not advisable. Boards are inherently quite risk adverse – having the mindset of working “quarter by quarter” to satisfy markets – it’s difficult to look at long terms decisions and culture. This perpetuates some of the behavior.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of the way board meetings are held. Doing something differently allows free thinking, compartmentalisation and a more narrowed focus, from an operational point of view.

Do you have any one case study or success story that you’re particularly proud of?

There was one seminar I conducted here with a board comprised of C-suite and board members from some of the largest companies in the world. I was asked by the CEO to give a speech to leave the board members “never thinking the same again.” The pressure was on! I thought that if I was able to impact them in this meeting, then I could impact them back in their respective organisations and so the ripple effect was significant.

I remember we met at a country club (very different to how you would meet in Australia) and everyone was terribly polite, and I did my speech around disruption, hoping that it had resonated with the audience.

Following my presentation there was time for questions, and the participants began to ask each other questions. Some of America’s most successful executives were chatting amongst one another as peers, sharing their experiences: successes and mistakes.

I got an email the next day saying that I nailed it, and I was invited to the post mortem where some of the things I had said were being repeated. I think for me that was one of the best moments. To have a lingering effect on people – that for me is everlasting.

Do you think Australians are more inclined to evolve and be innovative?

I think there’s innovation and there’s improvement. There are some countries around the world – for example, Japan – that are renowned for improving an existing invention. They don’t have to be the inventor to be revered. I think that Australia has been a country that has been unfailingly innovative – just take a look at some of the inventions that have come out of Australia!

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because we had to be innovative; being far away from the rest of the world, we couldn’t borrow solutions. I think our multicultural society adds to that as well. There’s a big cross section of thoughts and ideas going at any one time.

You co-founded Glass Elevator – an initiative that helps contribute to the development of women. How did it come about?

Glass Elevator came about after I read a McKinsey report that stated they were losing an alarming number of women employees in an executive level, which I thought was really horrific. It’s bad enough that we lose women in the workforce anyway – but to think that they go through all the hard work to get to that level and then they leave – how much knowledge and capability is built up – that contribution to society could be lost.

I was in a position in my career lifecycle where I had the address book and reputation amongst senior executives and board members, and I was able to ask them to help me find their high-performing women, because statistically, we know they’re at risk, so I could then connect them to my network.

One of my signature dishes is action, and that’s how Glass Elevator was born.

Why do you think that is?

A lot of data comes back to say that women find the culture of these workplaces to be undesirable. It isn’t that they are not prepared to work hard or long hours, but that they want to be in businesses where they are proud of their contribution and enjoy working with the colleagues alongside them.

What does the model look like?

The foundation of the Glass Elevator lunches is to have small business lunches in Australia where we get 10 women from 10 different companies that are known high performers at an executive level and are and nominated by their CEO.

We invite a prominent figure in the Australian business landscape and ask them to chair a discussion and ask questions with the goal of getting women who have never met each other to share their insights on a topical issue. These incredible women are often left feeling inspired, having made new friends and connections.

The response so far has been quite amazing – it really does have a “pay it forward” mentality.

Where do you hope to take it?

We’ve had a lot of people asking about it and wanting to do more with it, bringing it to the US in particular. I have a few options – there are just a lot of moving parts!

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership in 2017?

The willingness of the establishment to let them in. We don’t need another business case or study to prove this – we need to redefine the concept of meritocracy and actions to reflect that.

What’s next for Cassandra Kelly?

I feel like I am living an extraordinarily privileged life, that has come through a combination of hard work and luck. My unfinished business is encouraging people at all levels and stages of their lives to step in. I’ll never be truly finished with this, but it’s definitely the next urgent thing for me. To spend more time on talking to people about having the courage and sense of obligation that will drive them to make an increased contribution. The responsibility stops with each and every one of us.