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Leadership WA Spotlight Series

Gary McGrath is the General Manager of Business and Corporate Banking WA at Commonwealth Bank. He has also worked as a manager at Westpac, and as the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at American Express. He has worked in Perth, Singapore, India, Indonesia and Hong Kong, and is on the Board of the Ability Centre and Hockey Western Australia. Gary is a graduate of the 2011 Signature Leadership Program.

As someone who has occupied multiple senior leadership positions in different parts of the world, Gary McGrath understands the importance of leading and bringing people along with him. And given there are almost as many leadership styles as there are leaders, we asked Gary to define his.

“Certainly inclusive. I try to work with the team and lead from the front. That means spending time with customers, valuing a diverse range of people’s thoughts and listening more than I speak.”

Listening is key to Gary’s role. As the General Manager of Business and Corporate Banking WA for Commonwealth Bank, and someone who deals with high risk decisions, trust is a vital asset in bringing people along.

When investigating the viability of a project for a client, there is more done than just crunching the numbers. The subjective and interpretive side is equally important. This is where the trust comes in.

“Understanding the client’s business means spending times with our clients and exactly understanding their processes. We need to get a deeper understanding beyond just numbers on a page. We need a deep understanding of where they’re trying to take the business, and why they need our support.”

Gary believes a key way for clients to future-proof their business is through innovation.

“You’ve got to embrace that change is constant. You need to change, you need to change how you operate, and sometimes you need to tweak and change your business as well.”

“Once you embrace change as a constant, you can ask, ‘Okay, what innovation can we actually bring into our business?’”

The tricky part, though, is that the right kind of innovation can look different for every kind of business. Depending on whether a business is large, small, new or established, a different approach may be required.

“Change doesn’t necessarily mean a fundamental change of business. It doesn’t mean a fundamental change of swapping from one industry to another industry. It can be just about how you work and how you deploy your resources in your company.”

“You can call it innovation, but the changes can be minor, just around the process changes or people changes. But I do think there needs to be an agenda to change.”

Gary even highlights the risk of not embracing change.

“Some companies cite the same way they’ve operated successfully over the last 25, 35 years. They ask, ‘why change?’ Well, it’s the incremental opportunity that perhaps is there and they haven’t taken.”

But how does one negotiate the tricky task of not just embracing change, but the right change?

“You need to listen to your clients and your staff. They will show you the rationale.”

We asked Gary if he credits his leadership style to any one mentor in his life.

“One specific gentleman I’ll name is Ken Chenault, he was the CEO for American Express for 18 years.”

“The main lesson from him was one of humility. He carried himself very well as a figurehead, and was very humble. He made sure he spent time in his businesses, he was down to earth, he would talk with anybody from a call centre operator to somebody in the finance team to the senior executives.”

“He also had a determined focus. He kept his management team focussed on a monoline, which was the credit card business. And he wasn’t distracted over that period of time and created a very successful company.”

We asked Gary how to remain focussed while being open to embracing change.

“It’s true, growth for the sake of growth is not always good. You have to come back to your core strategy and value proposition. If you’re innovating within that, fantastic. But there are other things that you would walk by and go, ‘That’s not our business. Somebody else should do that.’”

Gary is on the Board of the Ability Centre, a not-for-profit disability service provider that has been supporting Western Australian families for more than 60 years. He is also on the Board of Hockey Western Australia, the peak body for the sport. While Gary believes it is important to give back to the community, he knows where his skills fit best.

“I couldn’t train a hockey team, but as a chartered accountant, I can help from a finance point.”

“One of the best things about Australia is the number of volunteers. They’re so mixed and there’s such a volume of them.”

“Whether it’s volunteers in sport and clubs or charity organisations or carers in Australia, there’s a lot of people who are not being paid for some outstanding work they’re doing.”

Gary graduated from the Signature Leadership Program in 2011.

“The Signature Leadership Program really grounded my understanding of social community issues, not just in Perth but across Western Australia.”

“It fast-tracked me to understand more about the condition of Western Australia, the opportunities and the challenges.”

For Gary, the personal and professional network one develops in the Program was also a highlight.

“There’s not many times that you’re going to be gifted 40 friends, who are business people who you’ll learn from over a year and then keep in contact with them.”

“I think it’s a fabulous opportunity and highly recommend Leadership WA to both my current teams and also anybody else who really just wants to deepen their understanding of Western Australia and also deepen their network in Western Australia.”

Applications are now open for Leadership WA’s Signature and Rising Leadership Programs.

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