2016 / Sunday

Say no to yes-men: the wisdom of Gonski

Anita Senaratna

David Gonski, a well connected businessman

David Gonski, a well connected businessman

Watching David Gonski speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Friday, it is immediately obvious that he is incredibly humble for a man who has made a career out of telling powerful people how to run their businesses.

While most Australians know him as the man behind the Gonski Report into education funding, David Gonski has an impressive resume spanning almost 40 years, including roles as chairman of over 40 boards, from corporations Coca-Cola Amatil and ANZ Bank to arts organisations such as the Sydney Theatre Company and the Art Gallery of NSW. He is also Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, and counts Rupert Murdoch and Frank Lowy as close friends. In fact, in 2008 The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed him “Mr Networks”, calling him “one of the country’s best-connected businessmen.”

Part of this humble attitude probably comes from his approach towards selecting those he works with. “One of the worst things I’ve seen in all my time in business, is the narrowness that the person who runs a company can get to. You have no idea how many sycophants go around a CEO. Not many have the guts to tell someone who sets their salary how bad they are,” he told journalist and author Margot Saville, who was interviewing him at the Roslyn Packer Theatre about his latest book, a collection of his speeches titled I Gave a Gonski.

Mr Gonski has also been vocal on the subject of gender diversity, and has previously said that choosing board members from only 49 per cent of the population is “crazy.” He added that this sentiment hasn’t always been well-received.

“Of course there are some people who are upset. I mean, men have had it very good, we got basically 92 per cent of the positions!” he said, referring to the percentage of men on boards in ASX 200 companies in 2008. The percentage of women in ASX 200 companies is now at 23.3 per cent (up from 8 per cent in 2008), which he said still “isn’t satisfactory.”

“I think it’s healthy to have a bit of competition, I think it’s fantastic to have diverse thinking around the table. I would be very scared sitting on a board with more than one person who thought like I did – I’m including myself in that! Because the fact is, I know how a white man of just over 60 looks at things. I need to be tested.”

Mr Gonski also discussed the differences between Australian and overseas companies, and how he thinks our companies could improve. “In Australia we have a fear of failure which is probably second to none. We basically persecute and prosecute when people fail. I think we have to allow for the fact that if you’re not fraudulent, you don’t steal people’s money that, as Australians say, you “give it a go” and you fail, you should let the person have another go,” he said.

He also took aim at the “short-termism” he had noticed in the way Australian companies made their decisions. “Most companies think that the long term is next Tuesday,” he said, admitting that even he is not immune to this way of thinking.

“I have to admit to you that on my iPhone I’ve got the share prices of the companies I’m chair of and I look twice a day. I don’t know why I do that! I’m not trading, I’m not selling, but it’s a matter of pride. I would like to see those companies do well,” he said. “I think it’s very hard for directors alone to make this change. We as a nation, have to realise that we have an obligation to our kids and grandchildren to look out further.”

His comments led to a question from Ms Saville about whether he thought Australia was doing enough to fight climate change. His answer was much to the audience’s amusement.

“I’m not equipped to say whether we’re doing enough or not,” he said. “One thing I can tell you is that at the end of my garden there is some water. I’ve been watching this water, and I think that the water’s coming up. I’m not going to make any further comment!”

The evening ended, fittingly, on a question about how he felt about the future of education in Australia. It’s a question that could elicit an essay, even a report, but Mr Gonski gave the perfect answer: “I am hopeful.”