with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode, we meet Cameron Schwab.

Cameron was appointed CEO of the famous Richmond Football Club at age 24, the youngest in the history of the game.

For the next 25 years, he was CEO of Richmond, Melbourne and Fremantle, when those clubs were at their lowest ebb, both on and off the field. He is the second longest serving CEO in the modern game.

Having taken on some of the sport’s most difficult and daunting challenges, Cameron established a track record of building teams and organisations, unifying groups while navigating periods of genuine adversity and complexity.

Cameron holds an MBA and Master of Marketing from the Melbourne Business School. He has also completed the Advanced Management Program (AMP) at the Harvard Business School and is a Vincent Fairfax Fellow of the Centre of Ethical Leadership at University of Melbourne. He received his Coaching Certification from the Columbia Business School in New York.

Cameron is also an artist and illustrator, studying Fine Art at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).

In this episode we talk about: 

  • The question you need to ask yourself to see if you’re ready for a promotion
  • The lessons he learned from the hardest decisions you can make – firing a close personal friend
  • How to implement systems that drive performance
  • What we can learn from sport and what isn’t so transferrable
  • What we can all learn from fine art about life and work.

Connecting with Cameron Schwab

Books and resources mentioned in the episode


On what you need to ask yourself to see if you’re ready for a promotion

I was asked by Richmond,  “We want you to be the general manager,” which is now, as I mentioned, title inflation is now the CEO. I was 24. I was probably just starting to think it as a possibility in life, that it might be something at some stage I'll get to do. But I hadn't even done a business subject at school. I got going straight from school, worked in sport, and all of a sudden I'm running the business of a football club, not just being involved in one part of it.

I rang my dad up that night. I'm not sure if he was onto it, I assume he was. But he said, “Do you think you can do it?” My dad was one of those great people at answering a question with a question. It's a wonderful thing that he did, all the way through. Never a definitive yes or no, it was always would take it back to me. He was a skilled interrupter. You know? So, he'd listen and then if he saw you going down a track which hadn't been well thought out, he'd bring you back. When he asked me whether I thought I could do the job, I said, “Look, probably not. I think it's way too early for me.” He said, “If you were being offered the job as CEO of the Essex Heights Football Club,” which is the junior club I played for, “Do you think you could do that?” Straight away I said, “Yeah, no worries.” He says, “Do you think that's an easy job, being the CEO of the Essex Heights Football Club?” 

I just then thought about it, and those jobs are never easy, particularly now with parents and all the expectations and finding grounds, finding umpires, have we got enough players this week, all the little elements you have to look after. Then he said, “Being CEO of an AFL…” or EFL club as it was then, he said, “It's never easy. If you were doing this job when you were 60, you'd still find it a very difficult job. It's going to be difficult for you if you do it next year, and it's going to be difficult for you if you're doing it in 30 years time, so you might as well start looking at, if you're ready to take it on, take it on.”

On the lessons he learned from the hardest decisions you can make – firing a close personal friend

I think the most difficult decisions are the ones where they're going to have the most significant affect on the lives of others. There's no question. So, the decisions to remove coaches was probably the most, because you work so closely with them and you're so anxious to build trust and you're so anxious to have belief in each other, you're really forcing yourself into those places where you just really want to believe.

Then all of a sudden you're sitting in front of someone and say, “We don't believe anymore.” I found that probably the hardest.

You can't really articulate because you don't want to kill their belief. I did the Disney training a few years ago where you finished the training with these Mickey Mouse ears. Their line is sometimes people have to find their happiness elsewhere. But often it is the case. I had… I'm just trying to think, four occasions where I had to sit down with a coach and say that you're no longer the coach of the team. We'd really, in most cases, worked really closely together. In some cases, one was a guy who's quite a personal friend, Chris Connolly at Fremantle. We went in with an understanding because of the relationship, that we said that if I ever think that it's time, it's not right for him and it's not right for us, that I had that invitation to have that conversation, well prior to all of the more formal elements of that.

It literally was after a game and I sat down with him I think and I just basically said, “I think the time is now for that conversation.” He looked at me and he says, “I think you're right.” And we maintained a relationship of friendship since. Even perhaps, because it does go close to friendship. If you're going deep with people in a team based environment, and you'd like to think it is friendship, because it's that deeper form of trust where you're saying it's us against everyone else here, and all of a sudden you're not part of the us. That's the hardest bit. That's the hardest bit. And also often knowing that you were ending a dream. 

On how to implement systems that drive performance

  • You want to be in a position where you know you can win now, and you've got, in your considered opinion, enough of what it takes to win, and one of the misnomers of sport is that we think it's club versus club, but it's actually system versus system, our system against your system. Our system builds on whatever our attributes of our thing is. If we're a wealthy club, well we've got probably more opportunity, but that doesn't guarantee anything. Often out of our constraints we create our best opportunities anyway because we think more deeply. Sometimes you can have too much resource available to you. It stops you thinking. You just keep throwing money at the problem. 
  • Analyse your current system. Ask yourself, “Okay, what are you thinking you're feeling? What are you seeing and hearing? And what are you saying and doing?” Relate those back to hope. So, if you're thinking and feeling deep in your soul that it's not there, well you can then say, “How do we make it? What do we have to do to make it there?” If you're seeing and hearing things which are actually counter to all of that, like negative behaviours and negative conversations, and if you find yourself saying and doing things which aren't in accordance with that, that can be like a little situation analysis in some ways. Say, “Okay, in six months time, what do we want to think and feel, see and hear and say and do?” Then you've basically got an articulation of ambition now and you can hopefully then say, “Okay, what do we need to be good at to achieve that?”
  • I'd say that as a CEO or any senior leader, you've only got two levers. I think it's your systems lever and your people lever. Your people are a product of a system anyway, really. You could have a bad people system, but you're going to not get the right people. But the two things are in constant motion. I'm also a believer that goal setting and ambition is a little bit overrated, because I find that right people in the room write systems to operate, they redefine ambition really quickly. Also, organisations don't raise to the level of their ambition. They tend to fall to the level of their systems, including their people system. That's an overarching take on capability. 

On what we can learn from sport and what isn’t so transferrable

  • You're either in a position where you think you can win now or we're such believers in what we're doing, the plan, the people, and it's hopefully just a natural process of growth which will create the outcome that we're seeking, and hope is just the critical element of both. Almost hope which actually is beyond just that hopefulness, if you like, but it's actually built off belief. I'd say if there was one question that even as any leaders would ask, and it's a two part question, but any leaders should ask themselves almost daily in some ways is do I believe in my people and do my people believe in me? Do I believe in my people and do my people believe in me? Then you just simply ask, “Well, okay. What makes me believable as a leader, and what do I need to see in them for me to believe in them?” If you're not clear on those two things, well, you've certainly got no hope, have you?  
  • On Neil Craig: he used to set up his office is that he had a table which was just set aside with a whiteboard next to it, a little round table. So, if you came in to talk to Craigy, if it was just a transactional conversation, as in what I need to do next type conversation or what's happening about this type conversation, he'd have it at his desk. But he'd have this other table which was exclusively for feedback. It was the feedback table. If he wanted to give you feedback or he had to receive feedback
  • There's times where you actually have to say, “Look, this is the reason why I carry this title. I have heard what you've said,” but in the end, you do have to make a call. If it is about the hard decisions, well, often they're one of them. Well, actually one of the difficult things about being the CEO or any senior person in the organisation is this notion of actually just being the boss, is actually, well, I don't tell my marketing person how to market. I don't tell my coach how to coach, my recruiter who to recruit, but at some point you have to make a decision as to whether they're the person to be doing each of those roles. So, if there is a time if there is a body of evidence or an alignment with a decision making framework which is not being adhered to, you do have to make the call. So, just make the decision I think Nick Saban says. You've just got to make the call. 
  • One of my favourite lines in all of this stuff is that your words tell others what you think, your actions tell them what you believe. 
  • there are a lot of people who say they're up for high performance or they're interested in high performance, but they don't have a high performance attitude towards it, because high performance is having regularly conversations, of which by definition are challenging. 
  • I can't remember making a good decision when it was born out of fear. I can't remember making a good decision when there was anger or a lack of humility involved in it as well

On what we can all learn from fine art about life and work

I was looking at a painting recently, and it was a Francis Bacon painting, who's a terrific artist from the 1940s, '50s, '60s, who lived through war, both wars. I'm looking at this painting, and I reckon half an hour in I saw my grandfather in the painting who went to war, who went to war. He died when I was 15. My first sense of loss in life was my grandfather, who taught me how to draw. He taught me how to draw horses with an old tradies pencil. I knew, and what I was seeing in this painting was his silences, the things that a kid never gets to see in an older man who's been to war. I'm looking into his silences, and it was like he was in his bathroom. You know when you're a kid, you go into a man's bathroom and it's the smell of Brylcreem or whatever it might have been that they were… and it was like I was back in his world again. But I knew that my grandfather didn't want to share with a 15 or a 13 or 12 or 10 year old kid what he'd seen or experienced in life.

So, I'm looking at a painting and seeing my grand… it's like he's having a conversation with me again that I can now appreciate in my fifties that I would never have had any understanding of as a young teenager. That's the beauty of actually being prepared to actually go deep into your thinking. The danger in all of this is the business of what we actually do, and the seeming rewards we get from the business, whether it's going through a pile of emails or flicking through Facebook or whatever it might be. The number one competency that any person who wants to have a serious life I think now needs, is the capacity too reflect and actually be prepared to go deep. If that means looking at one painting for three hours one day, therein lies the value. I've never told that story about my grandfather before either, because it comes out.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

I also grew up where people would look at women's football as being something which just no one has any interest in and who are those crazy women playing the game? And all sorts of things were actually talked of them. I think of the Indigenous footballers and the women's footballers who made it possible for white, entitled men like me to change our view, to change our view. We did, but we should have changed it years earlier, because we were caught in some system of dogma of our own making, or of years in the making we carried it forward.

Hopefully what we've done is we've made it possible for something to happen that we never… so, who knows what the next version of that actually is? It's there somewhere. I'm looking for a next generation of people to say, “Look…” you create a little bit of a platform, your generation taking it the next level, so the next level if that's where it's come in that 25 years, just how good can the next 25 years be? Who knows what that looks like? But if it's actually something which is fairer, more decent, is for all the good and right reasons of life, there's a beautiful humility about it, well, I reckon that's a good world. But in the meantime, try and save the planet as well, because that's actually a pretty important thing to do.