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Gonski on Gonski

ANZ and Coca-Cola Amatil chairman David Gonski has been approached many times over the years for an autobiography or memoir of his storied corporate life. The subtext of the offers though, Gonski suggests, is it wasn’t actually him they were interested in.

"If people disagree with what I say, that’s not terrible."
David Gonski, ANZ and Coca Cola Amatil chairman

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“Someone like me has been assisted, nurtured, helped, by being involved with many people, people more fascinating, more meritorious than me,” he tells BlueNotes.

“I am not saying people are not interested in me but they are more interested in some of the people I know or have worked with – but it is up to those people to tell their stories, not me.”

So rather than a corporate tell-all that rakes through the embers of some of Australia’s hottest corporate deals, fanning the legend of people like Kerry Packer or Frank Lowy or several prime ministers, Gonski has elected instead to publish an edited collection of his speeches – one of which has never been given – providing what he hopes will be thought provoking views on education, philanthropy, Asia and Australia’s economic future.

“If people disagree with what I say, that’s not terrible,” he says. “I will have achieved a lot of my goals if I have raised an issue to public awareness. It is debate I want to encourage.”

The book, “I Gave a Gonski: Selected Speeches”, is published by Penguin and will be launched this Thursday. He credits Penguin’s Julie Gibbs with the idea of a collection of speeches.

The title comes from a slogan by those in the Australian education community arguing for the adoption of recommendations from the 2011 Australian government report into school funding. The report came to be known as the “Gonski Report”, after his chairmanship.

Urbane and self-deprecating, forever deferring to others, he may be. But Gonski knows a good hook: “Yes, using that title was my idea,” he says. “Although some people have suggested the ‘gave’ implies I have finished – I certainly haven’t.”

GIVING A GONSKI

In his new book, Gonski shares some thoughts on what qualities he thinks are needed in a good company director.

“I find being a company director and chairman very rewarding. It does however, have some drawbacks. Expectations are high (at times, naïve) the reputation of directors is not great and large companies are often seen in the general community as being on the dark side.”

“Being a director is, in my opinion, a profession and must be seen as such. Indeed, a failure by a director to realise this could result in enormous legal liability and humiliation.”

“It is not a reward for a long career, nor is it suited for those merely looking for a nice outing or some continued relevance in long age.”

“I have sat next to directors who have taken on roles where they have no interest. They have done it either to improve their CVs and get more accolades, or in one case to be disruptive. In almost all cases they found it difficult, failed to attend meetings regularly and lacked the necessary focus.”

“I think the board has a vital role, to instil in the company a culture of openness and community involvement. As directors, we must be willing to accept we are not perfect and be prepared to work hard to improve.”   

Edited extract from the book I Gave a Gonski: Selected Speeches by David Gonski published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books RRP $32.99. Also available as an ebook.

Dating back to 2010 – although he has spoken publicly for much longer – each speech in the book is preceded by an introduction and discussion of context. Yet it is clear one person has written all these: Gonski’s personality comes through.

“I intentionally begin and finish with personal pieces because I want to emphasise this is a personal book, these are my thoughts – and the final speech is one for my 60th birthday I never actually gave,” he says.

One consequence Gonski hopes the book will have is to draw corporate figures back into public debate. Not, he readily acknowledges, on giving the thumbs up or down to governments but genuinely participating in important discussions.

In Gonski’s case, education is an increasingly important theme, one he says he has become more and more involved in over the last decade. (He is currently chancellor of the University of NSW and has been on school boards.)

All the royalties from “I Gave a Gonski” will be distributed to the Aspire Program which assists those who suffer educational disadvantage.

“I think I have become much more involved with education in later years because it is so crucial, it is a very important part of my life. And I am particularly concerned about the socially disadvantaged and their access to education.”

While this collection is not an autobiography, the authorial voice is clear and the subject matter so aligned with that voice that a clear picture of the chairman, director, lawyer and philanthropist comes through clearly.

Particularly in the opening and closing speeches, On Human Rights in Australia and On Turning Sixty, but also in speeches on education, being a professional and gender diversity, the personal is clearly on display.

“I have said in the text, one of the things I believe very strongly is the sense of a whole person – in life but also in business. And even in terms of shareholder returns, we need to have a broad outlook,” Gonski says.

“I am in favour of specialisation but in some ways we have become too specialised – after all, I specialised in mergers and acquisitions. But when we become narrow we lose perspective, when we are broad in mind we become more tolerant and more sensitive to what is happening.”

That is one reason one of Australia’s busiest and most connected businessmen – the one fixture in the AFR Magazine’s annual power lists – continues to give graduation speeches regularly.

“This idea of being broad in mind is something I always start with in these addresses,” he says. “It is behind my thinking on gender, on diversity. When we look at people for jobs, we look at focus, hard work, these are good things – but I think we also need to focus on broadness.”

Gonski has no hesitation in arguing his views on diversity and openness ultimately contribute to shareholder returns: “As I say in the book, unless you have active debate and people with a range of backgrounds questioning, you risk not only a narrow view but also a wrong one. Honest debate is what makes for better decisions.”

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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