Picture, for a moment, two opposing images of leadership: First, the captain of a rowing team, effortlessly coaching from the bow, as her crew paddles in unison. Second, imagine the captain rowing the boat herself, despite the wind, waves, and absence of a cooperative crew.
Catherine McGrath, CEO of Westpac New Zealand, will tell you honestly that the image of the ‘natural leader’ is unrealistic, and the ‘Do it alone’ captain is not sustainable. During our recent conversation, this well-respected banking executive explained how great leaders can’t build things alone. Instead, they must be attuned to both their desired and unintended impacts, to drive results for themself and their organization.
Tune in the team, to make the right impact
As we began our long-distance chat across 17 time zones, Catherine mused that her parents likely saw their daughter as the ‘do-it-yourself’ leader: “When I was a kid, I loved constructing things with blocks.”
This builder’s instinct became a pattern, when she pursued a double degree in law and commerce, and later, sought roles transforming banking, insurance and media companies. “I really enjoyed finding complex problems, turning around the business, and helping them grow.”
But as Catherine built her career in the UK, and embraced challenges in unfamiliar industries, she learned the importance of self-awareness and purposeful leadership to achieve results. “I was sometimes the sole female, under 30, who wasn’t a Brit, with absolutely no experience,” recounts Catherine. “I learned to carefully think about each problem, by focusing on how I would lead people, and the impact I had on them, so we could succeed.”
However, Catherine’s openness to feedback sometimes revealed unsettling truths: “I remember the first time I led a team, and six months into the project, they completed a 360-degree assessment of my leadership. I thought I was doing a reasonably good job, but the feedback was just horrible,” recalls Catherine.
Rather than brushing aside the findings, Catherine called a meeting to help her understand the gap between her perception and the group views. “The guys were amazing at pointing out both the positive and negative impact I was having. Looking back, I was lucky to get that feedback early in my career to help me work on things that I needed to improve and become aware of my blind spots.”
Catherine emphasizes that this process of being a self-aware leader is never complete, especially when you transition between companies, teams and cultures: “Just to be clear, it’s still a work in progress, but I think I am far more conscious of the impact I have, and I really focus on trying to make the desired impact, as opposed to unintended outcomes.”
She mentions a recent conversation with her senior leaders that, “Didn’t land the way I hoped, so I sat down with the team a few days later to say, ‘I’m sorry, because I had an impact I didn’t intend.’” Although some leadership gurus might be surprised that a CEO is ready to apologize, Catherine would respond to that, “Being willing to admit you had an unintended impact and do something about it is, in my experience, quite powerful. Owning that you got it wrong can then create a positive ripple effect.”
She points out, that, to bring people along with you, you must listen to those same people and create a culture where they will speak up. “The more senior you get, people are likely to tell you what they think you want to hear, not what you need to hear. I’m fortunate, my team will tell me when something isn’t quite right. We arrived at this point because I’ve said, ‘When you think I’m wrong, you need to tell me in the same way I’ll tell you’.”
Be purposeful about goals and diversity
Being purposeful with one’s career is another skill Catherine refined over time. “Sometimes in the past, someone I knew would tell me about a new position and I’d just say, ‘Okay, that looks interesting - Let’s go,’” says Catherine. “I’ve since learned that, when you are more strategic about what you want, and the experiences you want to pick up, your career is far more enriched.”
For instance, Catherine credits a former senior leader who told her frankly that, ‘If you don’t learn about technology, digital and data, you’ll lose your relevance.’ Catherine recollects that, “It was a painful discussion, but he was absolutely right, and it helped me become focused on developing my experience.” Today, she often tells her mentees not to think only of their next job, but also the one after that, so they can prepare to move in that direction.
She adds that this self-awareness also relates to one’s personal priorities: “Everybody must decide how work fits into their life. By working out how you want work and life to fit, you can set some boundaries so you’re not perpetually feeling guilty about one or the other.”
Similarly, she urges employers to be more purposeful in constructing diverse and inclusive workplaces. She notes that in 2019, before her arrival at Westpac NZ, the Bank published its first Gender Pay Gap Report. “This was very brave, to be among the first companies to be transparent and say what they planned to do about it,” says Catherine. She points out that Westpac NZ recently reached 47 percent female representation in its top three management tiers.
“Both this transparency, and high-profile role models, will help in a world where there has been less equity progress than we might have hoped,” says Catherine. She observes that, early in her career, New Zealand had a female Prime Minister, a female Chief Justice and one of its largest companies was led by a woman. “I saw people like me in those senior roles, so believed I could get there too. Maybe that’s why today three of the four largest New Zealand banks are led by woman CEOs, all of whom are New Zealanders.”
With role models in sight, Catherine encourages women to strive for senior posts by concentrating on the skills they must develop: “Be open to feedback and learn how your leadership impacts others. It’s about your intentional interventions, including technical and people skills. For me, it’s an ongoing and permanent journey, but I think I’ve become a better leader and I’ve still got plenty more to learn.”
More about Catherine McGrath: In 2021, Catherine became the CEO of Westpac New Zealand, one of the country’s largest banks serving personal, business, institutional and agribusiness clients. The appointment crowns a 25-year career in financial services organizations in the UK and New Zealand, most recently at Barclays, the British universal bank, where for eight years she served senior roles, including Head of Channels and leader of the bank’s Open Banking implementation. Previously, Catherine held top posts at ASB Bank, a leading New Zealand commercial bank, in strategy, lending, deposits, transactions and payments, and held various positions at Lloyds TSB and National Australia Group in the UK, as well as ITV Digital, a multi-channel television company. Catherine earned Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Commerce, Accounting and Business Administration degrees from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She was admitted to the New Zealand Bar in 1994.