by Lauren Miller and Ann Sherry
Ann Sherry is executive chairman of Carnival Australia and was overall winner of The Australian Financial Review 2015 100 Women of Influence Awards. Lauren Miller is the cruise company’s general counsel. Here they talk about how they maintain smooth sailing in their professional relationship through reverse mentoring. They spoke to Clare Morgan.
I started at Carnival as a paralegal while I was still studying at Sydney University, so I’ve been with this business for some time. But the offer to become general counsel was still very early in terms of my career and I honestly wasn’t sure whether I was ready to accept it.
I felt this obligation to tell Ann I was only 29 because I thought maybe there had been a mistake. She just made it absolutely clear to me that she didn’t share my reservations. When someone shows that kind of courage to offer such a senior role to someone like me, I think you just want to rise up and meet the challenge, to show your own courage.
Ann has always guided me in a very empowering way and I think she’s a very intuitive leader. She knows how to get the best out of people and she probably knew that I may not have been as confident. She does give me challenges that stretch me, and then after I’ve done them I think: “Oh well, I did that so maybe I can do the next thing.”
Ann has never treated me in a way that would suggest that I have nothing to contribute because I’m junior to her. Even when I was just a paralegal, she would ask for my advice. I think that is a sign of someone who really values diversity of thought and doesn’t just make an assumption that because you’re still at uni you have nothing to teach them.
I don’t think she actually sees it as reverse mentoring. She’s never bought into the idea that you can only learn from people who are more senior to you. She’s always taking inputs from people around her even when they don’t have a lot of experience.
To be honest, the first year in this role I took a watch-and-learn approach. Ann knew what I was doing and in a catch-up meeting she said: “You’re a bit of a conundrum for me sometimes because I can tell you’ve got something to contribute, but you hold yourself back. So I’m telling you, you need to step up and start contributing.”
While I was still at uni, I found out about an internship with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which was in Ghana, west Africa. And I remember thinking at the time, I would love to be someone who does something like that. Ten minutes later I thought to myself, “Well, why aren’t I that person? I could be.” I must have been about 21 at the time. My mum was horrified that I was shipping off to Africa on my own, but I was determined to prove that I could. Ann very kindly let me take three months off to go and live and work in Ghana.
It gave me such a great sense of perspective about the challenges that we face here. And it really ignited my passion for some of the international development work that we do in the Pacific Islands and the importance of engaging communities in all that work.
I think Ann’s leadership style gives people permission to make mistakes and to ask questions. She doesn’t expect people to pretend to know things, and that is liberating when you’re trying something out for the first time. If you’re not so scared of failure, you give things a crack and usually they work out, or you can ask questions and allow the people around you to guide you.
The fact that Ann trusts me to go away and do something and doesn’t say “Here’s how I want it to be done” is very powerful because I like to think laterally, I don’t think there’s one answer. She’s like, “Here’s the goal, here’s the vision, here’s the outcome. Over to you.” I don’t know a lot of leaders who have that capability because there is a tendency sometimes to want to control or micro-manage.
Ann has always given me a sense that I am capable of doing things that maybe I didn’t think I could, and has set challenges for me and has guided me through that entire process. I don’t know too many other people who have had that in their career.
One of the things that impressed me with Lauren was her capability. The second was her ability to think outside the square. All businesses, particularly old businesses like ours, need people who challenge the status quo and think a bit differently.
And Lauren has the most fantastic demeanour so when all hell breaks loose, there’s just a certainty and a calm that descends over her and infects everybody else. That’s a great gift.
This is a very complex business, and lots of it requires a general counsel’s involvement. It’s selling ships, dealing with governments in the Pacific on infrastructure or contracts, dealing with governments in Australia on regulations. We’re very heavily regulated, from the EPA [Environment Protection Authority] in NSW to coastal shipping regulations federally. Then there’s everything in between: preparation of papers for governing bodies, dealing with individual complaints, managing anything that happens in the customer complaints area, consumer law, travel agents, all of our day-to-day stuff.
Lauren was alarmed when she was offered the role of general counsel at 29. I didn’t know how old she was, but the age issue was not in my spectrum because if you can do the job, your age doesn’t matter.
In a fast-moving environment like ours, knowing everything that used to happen may, quite frankly, be a hindrance, because you get locked into the old ways. The fact that Lauren’s not wedded to one way of doing things or the idea of “this is how it was always done” is a plus. My least-favourite saying is “this is how it’s been done around here” or “this is the way it’s done” or, even worse, “we tried that once”, which means you can never try it again. Even though Lauren’s worked in the business for a long time, she has been part of us pushing boundaries.
One area where we didn’t have much history was chartering ships to governments to provide accommodation in big international meetings. The first time we did it was in Samoa for the Small Island Developing States Summit, a United Nations gathering of the small island states. Samoa didn’t have enough accommodation so they approached us about a charter. Getting from “Could you please charter us a ship on these days?” to getting everything done fell to Lauren and her team.
We had to learn how to deal with the complexities of security for heads of state, work out how to work with the government of Samoa to have a ship alongside – we had to get all the technical stuff sorted, and I literally handed it to Lauren and said, “If you need help, yell.” I think that’s a really important skill, for people to recognise when they need help.
Actually, it’s a really important leadership skill, because the idea that nobody ever needs help is nonsense. It’s the old-style, heroic military model, where the leader can never be wrong, even when it’s patently obvious that they are. In fast-moving corporates, you can never afford to pretend that you know everything.
If I have good people I like to stretch them. Not to the point of breaking, but I do like to get people to do hard things because I think it helps them to build their own confidence and helps me see whether they’ve got the capacity to continue to lift. It also helps with the mindset inside the business, that not all wisdom either sits at the top or sits with the people who’ve been in the business forever.
Lauren and others in our business are not just doing their day job. They’re working in community legal centres, or they’re giving their time to do other things, or they take time out to work somewhere else for a while, maybe on a volunteer basis.
Lauren’s volunteer work in Africa gives context for a much broader set of issues, which is really important in our engagement with the Pacific. You can’t assume the places we go are anything like downtown Sydney, and you’ve got to be able to move in and out of “I’m off to a corporate lunch at Gilbert + Tobin” to “I’m going to Vanuatu to talk to the government about whether or not they’re going to build a dock on this island.”
The 2018 100 Women of Influence were announced on September 4. The overall winner will be announced on October 17.