17/08/2016 - 13:19

10 minutes on leadership with … Peter Klinken

17/08/2016 - 13:19


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Leadership WA chief executive officer Robin McClellan spent 10 minutes with the state's chief scientist Peter Klinken, who wants Perth to be a centre of innovation and creativity.

Robin McClellan with Peter Klinken, who says leaders need clear vision and a clear communication style.

Leadership WA chief executive officer Robin McClellan spent 10 minutes with the state's chief scientist Peter Klinken, who wants Perth to be a centre of innovation and creativity.

RM: Dr Klinken, you have been talking about innovation and collaboration, and how we, as a state, can do a whole lot better. How have you developed your views?

PK: It has been a long journey. I’m now an old man – you hopefully learn along the way – and I’ve been an incredibly fortunate person. I feel very privileged, very lucky, but a lot of things that I experienced have made me the person that I am. One of the things I reflect on now is that I was born in Singapore and my folks sent me to a Catholic school, where I was the only Caucasian.

At the time, I wasn’t too thrilled by that. I experienced racism, bullying and teasing – a whole bunch of unpleasant things. But I probably learned resilience and the ability to adapt, and those sorts of things have stood me in good stead.

So I don’t tolerate racism, I don’t tolerate bullying, I don’t tolerate that sort of behaviour because I’ve experienced it. I think it also made me appreciate other people’s perspectives. So, even though as a young person growing up I wasn’t too enamoured at the situation, I look back on it now and actually I was really lucky to go through that experience.

Then, in 1965, my folks decided that I needed to go somewhere else for my secondary schooling. The options were somewhere in Europe (because my father’s Danish) or to the UK; then someone suggested we have a look at Australia.

My family came to Australia and fell in love with the place and I feel incredibly fortunate they made that decision.

I came here as a 12 year old and felt welcomed, not only by the people of this country but also by the land. That might sound a bit strange. I couldn’t articulate it or express it; I felt the land welcomed me.

Now, as I’m becoming an old man, I understand that better. I feel a very, very strong connection to this land and have embarked on a journey more recently – with the help of Leadership WA – to understand that. Aboriginal people have a strong connection with the land. I’ve reflected on what is this strange feeling that I’ve got and how does it relate to what they feel? Their connection with the land is powerful; it’s probably the most central connection that they've got – land, family, culture, and spirituality. They’re all interlinked. And for me, in recent years, it has been a joy to experience that.

So in terms of leadership, I never sought out leadership positions. For some reason or another I was tapped on the shoulder to go into various roles and, I guess, I performed adequately. That’s the Peter Principle, isn’t it? That you go up to a level where you finally stuff up and then they say ‘That’s enough’. So that’s just something that's been handed to me, and I feel very privileged and honoured to have been asked to take on a number of tasks.

I think one of the funniest things – having set up the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research (later The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research) – I was asked by one of our donors: ‘Pete, you’ve done this for about 10 years now; what sort of training have you got in this area?’ And I said ‘None’, so he said ‘Well, I'm going to send you off to Harvard Business School.’ How good is that? So he paid for me to do a short, intense course in strategic management for not-for-profit organisations.

There were two things I took away from that; one, a lot of stuff I was doing intuitively actually made sense, so I guess there was something in my DNA that enabled me to do what I was doing but, secondly, there was a very simplistic framework they put together. They said there were three key elements that you need to consider when making decisions in the not-for-profit sector. Does it fit your vision? Have you got the capacity to do it? Have you got the support for it? If you actually map that out every time you make a decision, you have ended up in the sweet spot and, if you’re in the sweet spot, go for it.

If you haven’t landed in the sweet spot, work out if you need to have more capacity or whether you have the support you need to actually enlist that. Or, and quite challengingly for not-for-profit organisations, are you being seduced by money to go outside of your core business? Are you doing what they call mission creep? Because it’s sort of close to what you’re doing and because you survive on the smell of an oily rag, you get attracted to the money and that takes you away from where your core is. So I thought that was really very valuable.

After stepping down as director of the institute, I spent two months in research. Suddenly I got this weird email asking me if I wanted to come in to the Department of the Premier and Cabinet for a catch-up on a Friday afternoon, and I said I couldn’t make it because I was going surfing for the long weekend. So they asked me to come in on the Tuesday. On the Tuesday, they said the premier would like to appoint me as the chief scientist.

RM: That’s it, that direct?

PK: Exactly. It’s not a job you apply for, just ‘He’d like to appoint you’ and I said ‘He doesn't know me very well, he might change his mind if we actually met’. They organised that. So a couple of days later the premier and I interviewed each other and we came out of that with a mutual agreement that we felt we could work together. For me, the most important part of that was I wanted to know his view on science, and he said: ‘Science has been critical for this state in terms of mining, energy, oil and gas and agriculture. Science is a huge part of the future. I don’t really understand it. Give me a plan.’

Wow. What could be better than that?

We later identified five key areas and we really now need to have a long-term plan. We’d like to go out to 2050, so it’s a generational plan, and then fill in the gaps underneath and work out how everyone fits in along the way. That’s the big picture.

RM: You’ve moved from a world (medicine and science) with clearly visible outcomes. Now you’re thinking about the entire community. Also your key stakeholder, the premier, is someone being pulled in a lot of different directions; whether he has time, whether the system can incorporate even thinking about the issues let alone funding things. So how do you make that leap?

PK: It sounds like you’ve been following me, because those are exactly the issues. So, if we go back to medical research, for example in leukaemia, you can say we know that there are defined leukaemias; some of them have got a good prognosis, others are not so good. How do we work on them?

We know that it’s going to take a while but we’ve got to understand the problem so we can come back with new solutions, right? My mantra, as some people know, is ‘New cures, new solutions, don’t fall magically from the sky’. You’ve got to do the research, the hard work, to understand the problem so you can come back with solutions.

My relationship with the premier, I think, is a really good one, a productive relationship. He is incredibly busy and has got so much on his plate, so the challenge is to make sure that every meeting I have with him is productive and is brought down to key issues. So, whenever I go into meetings with the premier there is a bunch of dot points about the key things I want to achieve from the meeting and what I need to inform him about. So I have to be very, very sharp in my thinking and precise in my words. I don’t want to waste time. That has been a really good experience for me.

The other very important aspect to all of this is actually meeting all the people within government and also other ministers and members of parliament, and getting consensus with them – informing them, telling them what’s going on, so that you develop a groundswell. So the premier starts hearing stuff not just from me, but from other people, and then suddenly going, ‘It looks like this has got some general support, so we can move ahead with that’.

So learning how to engender wide support has been part of my job, and one that I enjoy; it’s not part of the job description, but that’s just a reality. If you want to make a difference it’s all about relationships.

RM: All about collaboration?

PK: Correct. But you’ve got to have a good idea that people actually latch onto. Clarity is one of the key issues that I stress at leadership presentations. A leader really has to have a clear vision where they’re going, but they need to communicate that in simple language.

RM: Now tell us what you do for you; how does the chief scientist take care of the chief scientist?

PK: The chief didn’t do a very good job of looking after himself for the longest time. This is the way I look at life; in a simplistic way, you try and work out who you are, right? There’s you, your family, friends and work and, at different stages of your life, each of those four pillars take on different levels of significance and importance. When you’re young, you’re growing up, it’s all about you. You spend all of your time trying to work out who you are and where you fit into the big picture. As you grow older, more responsibilities come on; you’ve got a spouse or a family, which take more importance. You’ve only got a certain amount of energy, so something gives. So you start to spend less time worrying about yourself and looking after others.

Then you’ve got work. So I think the mid-30s to mid-40s is probably a crazy time, when I look back on it, because all of these things you are juggling, right? You’ve got your responsibilities to your spouse, family, work, your career is going crazy, so what gives? For a lot of men it’s their friends; they don’t really spend the time maintaining contacts with their friends. Women are much better at maintaining those social contacts. The other thing that you give is yourself; you give up on yourself, you don’t spend as much time looking after yourself.

When I do leadership talks one of the points I stress is that if you don’t look after yourself, it’s very hard for you to look after other people. So you need to be in good shape so that you can actually help others.

And I’m just reflecting on my own experiences where I didn’t look after myself as well as I could have. There are lots of pressures on leaders and they need to have outlets.

So what are the chief’s outlets? He is thrilled that he can go down to Margaret River and go back to his youth, go surfing, diving and spending time in the bush. We’ve built a house down there and, just about every weekend, I hop on the road Thursday evenings – I take Fridays off now – head down south and have a lovely long weekend. For me it’s what I call my cleansing; so much of all of that garbage that accumulates in your brain just evaporates when you’re in that environment. I feel so connected to the land down there everything else just disappears. I walk around this property that we’ve got and just look at the tracks and see how many kangaroos have been visiting, whether any foxes or other wildlife have come through – those sorts of things just take me into another world, and it’s lovely. It’s almost a spiritual thing. I’m not a religious person, but I’m a spiritual person.

RM: You mentioned that that comes in part from connection and better understanding of Aboriginal culture and connections, and that Leadership WA was a catalyst for that. Can you tell us about that?

PK: I didn’t understand this feeling that I had for the land. I dive, catch fish and am a bit of a hunter-gatherer and there’s something primitive about me. I love going off the coast and catching abalone, I love spearing a fish and coming back and feeding my family. You know, I feel like I’ve done my bit; it’s really cool. But you’ve got to know where the fish are, you’ve got to know where the abalone are, and you’ve got to understand the land to be able to participate in that. It has grown over the years and I’ve just felt intuitively that Aboriginal people understood this, they really did.

I was incredibly fortunate last year to be invited to come and speak to Leadership WA. I was sitting waiting for my turn to talk and a young man got up and … gave a little presentation on Aboriginal society and history around the area that we were – at Fiona Stanley Hospital. Later, over morning tea, we had a chat, and ever since then I’ve had this terrific relationship with him (Jason Barrow, from Kurongkurl Katijin at Edith Cowan University).

So we made a date at that morning tea, we made a connection I went and visited him. He introduced me to the Indigenous Centre at ECU and they’ve been my coaches and mentors since. In fact, this morning I’m heading there to open their annual ‘Old Ways, New Ways’ session. They bring in 300 kids from all over the state and show traditional Aboriginal culture and how it links in with modern society. I just love it. I think connection is just beautiful.

RM: There are so many things we can learn from each other. It seems the challenge is how do we create as many avenues and receptive audiences as possible?

PK: Absolutely correct, and I think you’ve just hit the nail on head for me. We can all learn from each other. So one of my favourite sayings, and this is going to sound a little bit weird, is: ‘A stopped clock is right twice a day’. My interpretation of that is you would think a stopped clock was absolutely useless, it’s a dud piece of equipment – but it’s right twice a day. So the way I explain that is that it’s important to listen to everybody; you can never tell where some gems might come from. Never be arrogant enough to think you know it all, because a stopped clock is right twice a day.

RM: One of the things I’m trying to get my head around is, if you look at someone like you, and you’ve accomplished so much and you’re obviously very fit and engaged with the world, what does a typical day look like? How do you squeeze all that in? Do you get up at 1.30am?

PK: I get up about 5am now, have breakfast, shower, stop off at Cimbalino in Cottesloe at 6.30am, when they open, to pick up my long mac. While I’m sitting in the car waiting for them to open, I'm going through my emails that have arrived over the night. Then I get my coffee, get energised and drive into work. I’m normally in at work before seven, and start checking emails and trying to remember what I’ve got to do that day. I will have up to 10 meetings in a day and, going from one meeting to the next is a challenge. My memory is not quite as good as it used to be, so I need to be on top of that, I need to make sure I’ve prepared well enough for that meeting. Sometimes I’ve got to give presentations: ‘Where are my notes and what am I actually talking about? Who am I talking to?’

So my day can end up finishing at 10pm. Because this week I’ve had three functions in the evening, so I don’t get home till late, then crash and start all over again.

RM: Do you ever eat?

PK: Mostly on the run.

RM: Do you build in exercise, or is that just for weekends?

PK: Exercise is really important for me because I can’t surf and dive if I’m not fit. So during the day I find a way to squeeze in some exercise. I’ll race off to the gym and either do a weights session or an aerobic session. And, as an old man now, I really need to do the weights because muscle just drips off me so easily. Men, when they reach 40, start losing 1 per cent of their testosterone a year, right, so I’ve probably lost a quarter of my testosterone by now, and testosterone really maintains your muscle bulk and keeps you upright and strong. I found that I was slumping when I stopped exercising; I was stooping and my back was getting sore. So I make a really, really conscious effort to go to the gym. I keep fit and, when I go surfing down south, I catch a couple of waves, get in a couple of barrels, I think ‘Yes, that’s why I train. That’s what that did’.

What’s even better, is when I’m on a wave and I can see a young surfer paddling out and he’s throwing his arms out yelling to me about the wave that I’m on and, when I get back to the beach, he says ‘You shred, yeah, brother, you shred’. And this is an 18-year-old kid. And I’m saying to myself: ‘I'm four times older than you, but that’s okay.’

RM: ‘You shred’, that’s perhaps a good note to end on. I love it. Thanks for everything you do for our state, our community; the example you set and the hope that we can make it a better place.

PK: We will make this a better place, there’s no doubt about it. We’re incredibly privileged to live in this wonderful part of the world in this wonderful society. There are things we can do better, and I'm really pleased that those discussions are being had. Western Australia is at a unique inflection point now where it can make a conscious decision to step up and turn this place into something really, really special. I’d love to see Perth as a centre of innovation and creativity. How cool would that be?


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