Media & Speeches

Jennifer Westacott’s challenge to graduates: live your gifted lives with purpose, generosity

This opinion article by Jennifer Westacott was published in The Australian on 9 May 2018. 

You are joining a business community that is the foundation of prosperity. Business is overwhelmingly a force for good. It is the engine room of growth in the Australian economy and across Australian communities.

Whether it’s the local store, the large mining company creating a massive ecosystem across regional Australia, or the technology company driving the new jobs in a more diversified economy.

Business is the 10 million of the 12 million working Australians.

It’s the almost six million Australians who own shares in Australian companies. It’s where their superannuation is invested, and their retirement depends on those businesses continuing to grow.

More than $380 billion in everyday Australians’ superannuation investments are held in Australian listed companies. It’s the ecosystem of small, medium and large business that together generate $555bn of economic ­activity, a year.

Business contributes more than $70bn a year in company taxes that help fund the services we all want and need. The most recent Giving Australia report shows business gave $17.5bn in 2015-16, made up of community partnerships, donations and non-commercial sponsorships.

Businesses big and small deliver extraordinary outcomes every day. They create jobs, innovate, export and support thriving communities. Businesses makes things possible, and help create the opportunities that can enable all Australians to reach their full ­potential.

But you are joining the business community at a time of enormous upheaval. Business faces the challenges of technology; the challenges of the empowered con­sumer; and the challenges of unprecedented connectivity and digitalisation, where business models are undergoing disruption and change every day.

Companies that fail to adapt to that change and have cultures that resist transformation will be short-lived.

And, of course, we are also under pressure from the consequences of our own conduct. This has led to serious reputational damage, a crisis of community confidence and real damage to people in the community.

Those who have always been against private enterprise but rarely have a substitute for it are emboldened. They simply don’t — and never have — accepted the legitimacy of business or the vital role we play in society.

Tragically they will potentially unleash a wave of destructive self-defeating policies that will harm the poorest people in the community, not the richest.

That’s why as you leave today, you must be the people who drive the types of organisations that will be more resilient, more enduring and build trust and respect across the community.

So, what does that reclaiming of the social licence to operate look like? First, companies, indeed all organisations, need a true sense of purpose. This is a guiding sense of direction. It defines our intentions. It drives why we are in business.

Producing the goods and ser­vices that enrich a community, delivering a fairer society and allowing all Australians to thrive is a clear purpose. Companies with true purpose, not mere slogans, succeed. A purpose is not a return on equity. A purpose is not a financial target.

Companies that endure:

  • Are transparent about the use of their data and the application of their technology.
  • Focus on the needs of their customers.
  • Build trust with their customers and the community.
  • See shared value as something more than corporate social responsibility.
  • Value their employees as assets, not numbers.
  • Value their suppliers as partners, not contracts. Whether you are in a team or ultimately in a leadership role, you must be the person that strives to ensure your organisation stands for these principles.

But to do that you must think about the person you want to be. The best advice I can share with you today is to lead a life of purpose in your work and in your life.

People who focus only on position, without a clear sense of purpose and achievement, often fail. Always ask yourself: “What am I doing, why am I doing it and who will benefit?”

Never be the person whose ambition is position, the person whose only focus is an organisational chart and where you are on it. I can assure you, you will falter.

Be the person who wants to use a position of authority and influence to make positive change, to get things done.

Think about what you want to influence and the change you want to bring about.

Consider not only what you want to achieve but how you will achieve it.

The most valuable member of a board, a team, a government, is the person who says: “What is the right thing to do?”

Don’t dwell on a job title or job specifics. Consider how best to nurture your skills and capabilities, your values and relationships, through a life that will most likely involve many jobs, some of them unimaginable to us today.

Another piece of advice from my own experiences is to think about what your qualification and capability allow you to give back to the community. Apply what you have acquired at university to the world of work and to society.

Purpose is more than just turning up to work each day. Many organisations now have community activities as part of their performance system and that’s a good thing. But it has to be genuine and serious.

So, use the skills you have in the business community for a greater purpose. Be part of community activities, whether it’s a sporting club, whether it’s being a treasurer for a local charity.

But you can’t make any of these contributions without a strong set of values. It is paramount your decisions and all that you do should also be consistent with your ­values.

Values matter — ethics, integrity, honesty, courage, compassion and commitment. Embrace them.

One of the people I admire most is the Queen. She has held fast to a set values that have guided her reign. Instead of being locked into a rigid way of thinking, she has been able to adapt and change but within a core set of values and principles.

Cultivate the gift of curiosity. The inquiring, questioning mind is the most powerful tool any organisation or team can have. And it is the greatest single force behind discovery.

Nourish the art of collaboration. University of Technology Sydney chancellor Catherine ­Livingstone and I worked together for three years at the Business Council of Australia, knowing that the organisation and its purpose was bigger than us, knowing that shared success is the best success. Together we achieved so much more.

Nurture the colleagues and friends you have made at this university. Not as a contact list but as a network of people with whom you work, who you support and who support you.

Trust me, you will find yourself reaching out to those people for expertise, guidance and friendship more often than you can imagine.

And never forget that supportive and caring family relationships will be the most important force for good in your life.

Most important, complement all of these things with what I believe are the most important ­attributes to have in life — the things that will protect you when something goes wrong, and things do go wrong — the qualities of ­humility, of courtesy and of integrity.

I want to congratulate you today on all you have achieved and what you will achieve.

I was the first person in my extended family to go to university. I had no idea what to expect. It changed my life. It gave me a quest for knowledge.

It gave me an inquiring mind. It gave me the capacity for critical thinking and analysis. It gave me a global perspective which, for a young person from a housing commission estate who had never travelled, was nothing short of profound.

But the most important thing I gained from my time at university was confidence and self-belief.

You, too, have a world of opportunities before you. You are the luckiest generation that has ever lived and you are graduating at the most incredible time in human history.

You are here today to celebrate what a truly great society does: it gives back through education, through empowerment.

But we should never take that for granted.

It is possible because we are prosperous, because we can afford it, and because a private enterprise-driven community enables us to share opportunities with all Australians.

If as a society we let go of that fundamental mantle, then that prosperity, that way of life, that freedom, will be under threat.

Jennifer Westacott is Business Council of Australia chief executive. This an edited version of a graduation address she delivered at the University of Technology Sydney on May 3.