06/05/2010 - 00:00

Akehurst celebrates new-found mojo for management

06/05/2010 - 00:00


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John Akehurst has been at the centre of two momentous takeover battles in WA and says a personal transformation has been instrumental to his success.

Akehurst celebrates new-found mojo for management

TO those who knew him in his earlier years, John Akehurst probably seemed the stereotypical chief executive.

The man who once sat at the helm of Woodside Petroleum was, at the time, a self-proclaimed perfectionist bully.

Mr Akehurst still holds powerful board positions, having chaired Alinta and Coogee Resources in recent years, while he currently serves as a director of the Reserve Bank of Australia, CSL and Origin Energy.

However, he has struck a work-life balance that enables him to spend only about half his time on business.

“I got a life,” Mr Akehurst says of his time after leaving Woodside. “There is an enormous amount to do without charging off and becoming a corporate titan again.”

Corporate titan or not, Mr Akehurst still carries significant clout in Australia’s business world.

He credits his personal transformation with facilitating success in his professional life, such as the period when Woodside fended off two takeovers from its major shareholder, Shell.

“I don’t believe I would have been able to perform throughout that period nearly as well without the transformation of mindset,” Mr Akehurst says.

That personal transformation resonated through to his successive professional roles. Mr Akehurst says he enjoyed his stint as Alinta chairman managing the fallout from a highly controversial management buyout and takeover battle.

“I think I would have hated that had it not been for the transformation work we did at Woodside,” he told WA Business News.

The story of Mr Akehurst’s change is as surprising [to him] as it was unexpected.

His development of his uncompromising attention to detail was not a result of the high degree of pressure symptomatic of his role at Woodside.

Rather, it was his upbringing that led him to develop his aptness for precision.

“If I look back to my formative years and my childhood, my dad was an absolute perfectionist. He was a chief draftsman at a steel manufacturing company. People at the office used to call him old hawk-eye because nothing got past him,” Mr Akehurst reminisces.

“Of course this played out in our relationship. When I was seeking out his approval, he was finding the detailed things that could have been done better in everything that I did.”

Mr Akehurst believes his management style grew out of constantly aiming to meet the expectations of his father’s hawke-eye, with the dots easily connected between his upbringing and his career.

“You put attention to detail with reasonable intellectual capability and you get someone who can be rather demanding and very clear about how things should be done,” Mr Akehurst says.

He believes these traits facilitated his rise in the oil and gas industry.

“While I was going through Shell and getting more senior positions, this was a fantastic asset; a lot of the time I was able to get a lot of things right. I was able to visualise how things were going to develop and then manage the risks that were associated with that,” Mr Akehurst says.

In 1994, he was sent from Shell to steer Woodside Petroleum, first as chief operating officer and then in the chief executive role from 1996.

He guided the company through the rough seas of massive downsizings, hostile takeover bids and ultimately led it to international waters (see page 14).

At that time, Mr Akehurst says, his perfectionist nature was still valid in his approach to the role.

“When I got to being a CEO, even when I started at Woodside, it was still an advantage because Woodside then was in relatively bad shape; at that stage we were downsizing the company, firing 30 per cent of the people and reducing the operating costs by 40 per cent,” he says.

“So once again knowing precisely what we wanted to do, attention to detail was very useful.”

By the year 2000 the performance of the company had improved; the stock price was up from $3 to $15 and Mr Akehurst had embarked on what oil and gas industry commentators described as the ‘internationalising’ of Woodside – moving the emphasis away from the North West Shelf and into new territory in Africa and beyond.

“Things started to go a lot better, the company prospered. Then as management we were faced with what do we do, where do we go,” Mr Akehurst says.

“We recognised that a lot of what was not working as well as it could was to do with interpersonal behaviour,” Mr Akehurst says.

“You could have a good process but if people’s attitude and behaviour was counter-productive, then a lot of value is wasted.

Under Mr Akehurst’s guidance, Woodside called in consultancy firms, in search of a course that would instruct people – and Mr Akehurst himself, as it turned out – how to change their behaviour, effectively changing the culture of the organisation.

Enter consultancy firm McKinsey, or more precisely, Michael Rennie.

Mr Rennie, and consultants Mark Barnaba and Jeff Rasmussen, were charged with leading the business improvement program at Woodside.

After discussing the future for Woodside, it became apparent to Mr Akehurst that the vision of the time – to be the best operator of oil and gas facilities in the world – had become redundant and was setting limitations on the management team he was spearheading.

Mr Akehurst’s long-standing modus operandi was, at that time, in its last days.

The Woodside management team was given over as the pilot-test group for what was then a pioneering McKinsey behavioural transformation program.

“That is what had a very profound effect on me as an individual, as well as many other people in the company,” Mr Akehurst says.

“It was about individuals feeling far more empowered to go out and do things and the managers at all levels feeling supported in trusting their people to do things without checking on them all the time.

“It kick-started a lot of areas of improvement.”

The program was instrumental in changing access to authority for staff and the general running of the company, but for Mr Akehurst it was a watershed moment.

“It resulted in me feeling far more able to be open and authentic. Instead of having to behave as I had been taught senior executives should, I could behave like me, which is hugely liberating,” Mr Akehurst says.

“The difference now is that I am more confident about my emotions and I am much happier to show them.

“I could stop being such a perfectionist, which was actually constraining the business at that stage; it had grown to a stage where it now needed a gentle hand to steer.

“We had gone to the conductor of the orchestra rather than the guy with the chainsaw or the sergeant major.”

He says some changes to the business culture meant the alterations were subtle in their approach but bold in their outcomes.

The transformation program was not without its critics, however.

It attracted ridicule from some Woodside staff and from outside the company, but Mr Akehurst has a simple explanation for this.

“The people who found it most challenging were the people who badmouthed it,” he says.

Despite the criticisms of the program, he believes it was responsible for a lot of Woodside’s positive business outcomes.

“It was crucial to the ongoing success of the company. From then on performance indicators picked up significantly because decision making was pushed much further down into the organisation,” Mr Akehurst says.

Mr Akehurst may be recognised for orchestrating Woodside’s fierce defence of two takeover bids but he puts a large part of the success of that campaign down to the McKinsey program.

“The day we finished our leadership team workshop was the day we found out Shell were making their first takeover proposal,” he says.

“It catapulted us in to a much higher profile and a much more stressful set of circumstances.

‘‘The second bid was quite hostile, and of course Shell was sitting on our board as a 34 per cent shareholder, so all the interpersonal dynamics were very challenging.”

It was two years after leading the counter attack on Shell’s hostile takeover that Mr Akehurst was asked by his board to tender his resignation.

Nine months after that he left Woodside for good.

Now, aside from his continuing activity in the corporate world, Mr Akehurst is heavily involved in philanthropy.

He sat on the board of youth suicide prevention organisation Youth Focus for 10 years and is now on the board of the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases, headed out of the University of Western Australia.

Seven years on from leaving his post at Woodside, Mr Akehurst says life is “full of intellectual stimulus, relationships and love”.

“I have a great relationship with [wife] Rachel and the kids, that is the principle passion and my granddaughter is centrally (currently) the new excitement in my life.”




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