Watching David Gonski on stage at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the first thing you notice is that for a man who’s made a career out of telling powerful people what to do with their companies, he is incredibly humble.
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- he has been chairman of over 40 boards, ranging from corporations like Coca-Cola Amatil and ANZ Bank to arts organisations such as the Sydney Theatre Company and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 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” and called him “one of the country’s best-connected businessmen.”
Part of this humility probably comes from his approach towards selecting who 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 Margot Saville, who was interviewing him on stage about his latest book, a collection of his speeches titled I Gave a Gonski.
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.”
But he admits 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 currently at 23.3 per cent (up from 8 per cent in 2008), which Gonski 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,” he said.
Gonski also discussed the differences between Australian companies and overseas companies, and what he thinks Australian companies could improve on.
“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- particularly finance companies.
“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.
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 Saville about whether he thought Australia was doing enough to fight climate change, which he answered with his trademark humility 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 night ended, fittingly, on a question about how he felt about the future of education in Australia. It’s a question that you could probably dedicate an essay to, but Gonski gave the perfect answer in three words- “ I am hopeful.”