In this Best of Series episode, we hear from former CEO of Water Corporation, Sue Murphy, on leading transformation, and how to be honest, fun and make a difference in your work.
We interviewed Sue back in November 2017, when she was the CEO of Water Corporation in Perth, having led the organisation since 2008. Sue finished up there in 2018, having joined Water Corp as the GM of Planning & Infrastructure in 2004.
Preceding this was a 25 year stint at Clough Engineering, where she started as a scholarship recipient after completing an Engineering degree from the University of Western Australia, where she was one of only two women out of 300 students.
Sue is now an accomplished Director. She has sat on the board of The Fremantle Dockers and the Water Services Association of Australia, and currently is a Director of the West Australian Treasury Corporation and MMA Offshore Limited. She’s also come full circle and serves on the Senate of the University of Western Australia.
In this episode, you’re going to hear Sue talk about:
- Building people-first organisations through empowerment;
- The joy and experiences of working on construction projects;
- Why the path to leadership should only be for those who aspire to it; and
- Leading transformations and bringing people along on the journey.
Connecting with Sue Murphy
You can connect with Sue via LinkedIn.
Books and resources
Why should anyone be led by you? – article by Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones
“Life’s too short for instant coffee and cheap shoes.”
General discussion points
- Construction is a great way to learn a lot of things, mostly about managing people. Because when you’re on a construction site, hierarchy has little status; respect has to be earned.
- I found the joy of a construction project is that all the discussion you have later in your life about mutual goals and common purpose. You don’t even have to have that conversation because you’re working in a God-awful place generally, and you’re trying to finish the project on time and on budget and you all want to go home. You don’t have to articulate a common purpose, it’s clearly there.
- I was involved with lots of projects and with some great people and each group of us that worked together came out feeling that we knew each other inside out and we became wonderful friends still to this day.
- Never rip off a client when you can, because they’ll look after you when you need it.
- On what to do if you’re stuck in your career: My first question would be why, why do you feel stuck and if your passion and your thrill comes out of doing the work you do, can you not try to negotiate a wider range of projects in that area or something like that to give you the satisfaction that you want because too many of us follow other people’s dreams not our own.
On the best advice received from a mentor
- Harold (Clough) was very strong on giving people empowerment. His philosophy was employ the smartest, most sociable kids you can find straight out of university and let them loose and see what can happen.
- Harold always argued you can fake it for a few hours when you work with someone and make them think you’re clever, but when you work side by side with someone in a joint venture on a construction project for months and months at a time, real talent shines through. His motto was to plagiarise shamelessly. We learned procedures and policies and design skills and all kinds of things from our partners, but over the years we also taught a lot back.
- I think the best advice you can give any young person is don’t plan too much, just say yes to every opportunity that’s opened up to you.
- Harold Clough was a wonderful mentor. You’d go and see Harold when a project was going bad (he owned the company outright). He’d give you a hug and say, “You smart, young people always come up with clever ideas.” and you’d go away and you’d think, “Oh my God, it’s his money and he thinks that I can do this.” You’d work every hour God’s sent to make it happen.
- I learnt that it’s not what your background is that matters, it’s how well you can relate to the people around you. Don’t come in and enforce your own self on everybody around you; learn about the people around you and you learn what matters to them.
- I’ve seen a lot of men and women who were technically very good at what they did, and who aspired to be managers and leaders for all the wrong reasons. They aspire to it because they thought it was the next step in their career or what they should do, and what they ended up being was a very adequate at best, manager and leader and very frustrated because they liked to do the tasks.
- To lead and manage people it’s about giving them the power and the freedom to be the best they can possibly be. If you want to actually be the best engineer in the world, then you’re probably not going to be a very good manager.
- I think you waste time and effort trying to be all things to all people. You actually can’t be all things to all people. You’ve got to work out what actually matters. What matters will move with time. There are times when your focus should be external and there are times when it should be internal..
On interviewing and recruitment
- I’m looking for someone with a sense of humour, who is not up themselves and that I could actually imagine enjoying time with. They have to have all the competency and skills and the basics. They have those before you usually meet them anyway. Part of it is about … they talk about the no dickheads policy, I actually think that’s quite important, but apart from that, it’s about a bit of passion and a bit of spark. They don’t all have to be firing on all cylinders all that time. In fact that can be a bit irritating if they were but being able to articulate a bit of a passion.
- I like to have a chat as you walk out the door, I don’t like to shake hands and the candidate gets ushered out by the head hunter. I’d rather walk them down and say, “That was really good. What are you doing this weekend?” just see how it goes. I also like to get my PA to bring them up, the old PA discussion it’s really important, “What did you think of those three, which one could you imagine working with?”
On leading transformations
- Most people go wrong because if you’re leading a transformation you know what’s going to be better. You can see so clearly why you’re doing what you’re doing and where you’re going. Transformations fail because nobody else can see that. You’ve got to be able to articulate, “What’s in it for me” to everybody. You’ve also got to get to a point when you’ve explained and explained, you know who is not with you and lose them. You’ve just got to make them go away in some shape or form depending on whether they either need to be part of another team if it’s a team-based thing or leave the organisation because if you don’t, not everyone’s going to make every change.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s not a big deal. Don’t believe your own hype, but don’t believe that you’re that bad. When things are bad and projects are going poorly and everything is falling apart, just step back and look at it and laugh at the absurdity of it all because it’s never as bad as you think it is.