David Gonski, the chairman of everything

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

DG             David Gonski


DG             My principal tip is to listen. It is amazing how many people go to meetings, be they chair, director involvement, to hear their own voice and not to listen to others.

AL               My name is Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   David Gonski has been called the Chairman of Everything. He has chaired Coca-Cola, Hoyts, Film Australia, NIDA, the Australian Stock Exchange, the Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Grammar, the Australia Council, Investec, Morgan Stanley, and the Future Fund. He’s currently the Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, the Chair of ANZ Bank and the President of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Trust.         

                   Born in South Africa, David’s family moved to Australia in 1961, when he was seven years old. He attended Sydney Grammar and the University of New South Wales, where he won the University Medal. He joined Freehills and became their youngest ever partner at age 25.

                   There’s a Zelig-like quality to David. He was the co-executor of Kerry Packer's will and has written half a dozen reports for governments, including one for the Howard government on corporate philanthropy, and school funding reports for the Gillard and Turnbull governments. He and his dermatologist wife, Orli Wargon, have three adult children. And for a frighteningly busy man, he has a talent for looking calm. David, thank you so much for joining me on The Good Life podcast today.

DG             It’s a pleasure to be here.

AL               Now, your family moved from Cape Town to Sydney in 1961. What prompted that move?

DG             The move was prompted by my mother, who is still living and still very strong and active. She felt, with the Sharpeville massacre in the late 1960s, that things were looking very bad in South Africa. And with three boys all under the age of seven, she didn’t want us fighting on a border to protect a whole feeling and concept that she didn’t like, the apartheid regime.

                   She was also very affected by the fact that Cape Town University decided not to allow black people to enrol at the university. She thought that was wrong. And she pushed my dad, and the rest of us followed because we were all under seven, to come to this country.

AL               Why Australia?

DG             She felt very strongly that it had to be a country that didn’t have enormous discrimination. And the concept of Australia with its climate and openness was very similar to what we had grown up in. I might also say, my father perceived that as a brain surgeon, he would be able to do quite well here. He was admitted to be a brain surgeon. And that was also quite a factor.

AL               You attended Sydney Grammar. Were there particular teachers who made a mark on you during your education?

DG             It’s interesting. There were a lot of teachers that made a mark on my education. The one that I’ve often thought made the biggest mark was a man called John Duffy, who actually died a couple of years ago. John was an abrasive man who loved his sport, who actually lived for sport, etc., and I was what today they call a nerd. I hated sport, I didn’t live for it, and I was a person who was, in those days, very soft and quiet.

                   But he, in mathematics, understood what made a decent mathematician. And what he did for me was to open my eyes to the fact that I could do it. It wasn’t that his explanations were good, which, by the way, they were, he was an outstanding teacher, but it was his faith in me.

                   And we were the most unlikely duo. He taught and ran the First 15 football team. And I remember I was on the debating team, and we got no one to our matches and, of course, the First 15 had hundreds. So he decided to fix it. He brought them all to us. The only problem was I had to go to his matches.

AL               And you’re from this family where you’re surrounded by doctors, you’re married to one, you have a sibling who is a doctor, a father who is a doctor, but you chose law. Why was that?

DG             I started obviously in a life where my father was very keen I should be a doctor. I was the eldest son. I used to talk a lot of medicine to him. By the time I was eight, I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to be. It wasn’t just that I feared blood, but I actually found it a little limiting.

                   I wanted to be involved in the world and I loved the idea, well, first, in my case, of being an architect, of changing the environment. But when I realised I couldn’t draw, I realised that law and indeed the whole concept of thinking outside in society and how to be involved in it was a much broader pursuit.

AL               Did you find you loved the law? I remember when I was a High Court associate, the associates were split between those who loved the outcomes that one could get from law and those who truly just loved the statutory interpretation, the process as much as anything.

DG             I absolutely love the law. I’m not sure I absolutely love practicing the law. To me, the whole thinking of the law, the way that you come to look at a problem, how you analyse it, how you are dispassionate in many ways and yet can be very feeling in other ways, and you come to a conclusion which often you feel is correct, which is a wonderful thing in life, that really appeals to me. I love reading about the law, and I’m afraid I still love that aspect of life. The concept of actually practicing law, that was a different situation.

AL               You’re incredibly specialised. You like to say that you focused your career around two words in one Act. To what extent do you think about that degree of specialisation when you’re advising young people as to whether they should go broad or narrow?

DG             I have now done 270, maybe even more, graduations at the University of New South Wales. I love them and I have graduated more than 70,000 people. So there are 70,000, to say nothing of their friends and family, who’ve heard me say on that occasion my most profound piece of advice, which is fight narrowness, be broad. And I always give myself as an example.

                   In the first few years of my life, as you rightly say, I was an expert in a new section of a new Act of Parliament. And as a youngster, I used that section to become a young partner, etc. But it was mighty, mighty narrow, and indeed made me feel much more heroic than I actually was. Because I was the expert in that, whereas I knew nothing about nothing else, as they say.

                   And I must say to you that I felt very, very narrowing. And that’s one of the things. I started to step out and look at the Arts. I started to step out and look at education. And I’m very pleased I did because I don’t want to be a narrow person, and I believe great people, if there are great people, are usually broad in their thinking and broad in their perspective.

AL               Let me push you on that a little because there’s a grass is always greener aspect to the way in which you’re telling this story. There’s no way you could’ve become a partner at Freehills at age 25 if you weren’t the best in Australia at one thing. Isn’t the right advice to young people to become great in one thing that is important to the world, and then also have some accoutrements, some breadth as well?

DG             I am not against specialisation and I always say that at the graduations. I believe strongly that you should make sure that you know an area. But what I’m talking to you about is broadening one’s mind, making sure one doesn’t become narrow. And if you say practicing law, it’s all very well to be an expert in one section, but how do you get clients?

                   How do you convince clients that what you’re saying is right? How do you hold the hand of the other side of a transaction to convince them that what you’re saying is the way to go? Life is not just a narrow concept. It involves much more broad concepts, ideas and, of course, people.

AL               So like your high school classmate, Malcolm Turnbull, you moved from law into business. What brought about that transition?

DG             At about the age of 33, loving, as I said earlier, the law, I realised that legal practice generally was a situation where something terrible happened, so they rang you up and they expected you to fix it by tomorrow. And by the way, if you did fix it by tomorrow, you never saw them until the next tragedy. And if you didn’t fix it, somehow it was your problem in the first place. I didn’t like that narrowness.

                   I could see that business was very interesting and much broader. I liked the idea of being involved with people at the beginning of something which may not get into trouble, by the way, but if it did, to be involved in what happened and try and fix it as we went along.

                   And so when I left the law, I didn’t take a very big step out. I set up a new advisory group. And the advisory group basically believed in holding hands of the client. So we were there all the time, not just for particular parts. We saw the bad, we saw the good, and it was a much better life for me.

AL               You’ve spoken admiringly of the club in America which is open only to those who have made a billion, lost it, and then made another. I wanted to ask you about an episode in the 1980s, when Westfield Capital Corporation lost some $300 million on a deal which involved investing in Network 10. How did that quite spectacular and quite public failure shape you? How did that make you a better manager and leader?

DG             It shaped me in many, many ways. It’s a good question you ask. The first thing I would say is whilst of course I wasn’t happy, and it was a bad time for everybody, by the way, not just for the Westfield company, that we had lost money on our investment, but what I was massively proud of is how actually we got out of the investment. And by the way, the thinking behind that came from Frank Lowy, the concept, but the way it was done came from me. And I’m proud of that.

                   Why? Because we had structured it beautifully. We could have walked away from Channel 10 having made the loss that you talk about. But Frank said no, the reputation of Westfield, the reputation of Frank Lowy, and to that extent, of David Gonski as well, requires us to do the right thing.

                   And what we did was actually money was injected into the company that wasn’t doing so well, to make sure that staff were well looked after, that the bankers got their money back, and that shareholders got more than they would have if we had just walked away. And I was very proud of that.

                   And by the way, Westfield, of course with Frank at the helm, went on to score enormous goals. He’d like me saying that because he loves football and soccer and stuff. But they went on because he built by that the reputation he deserved, namely, that he was more than just a penny pincher, more than just a businessman that made a mistake and was just going to let it die, because he actually stood up and said, Westfield’s name, my name, Lowy, was very important.

AL               And I guess this is around the time when Christopher Skase is fleeing overseas to avoid creditors, the Alan Bond collapse.

DG             Absolutely.

AL               And the question of corporate reputation is pretty critical.

DG             Absolutely. There were dozens of people. You named a few of the better-known ones. But Lowy showed, and I hope my structuring helped, that he was much more than that.

AL               And is that what shaped you to think that you would be better as an advisor to managers than a manager yourself? Better as a chair than as a CEO?

DG             I think that I knew that well before. Many people left the law in those days to set up cash boxes. These were the private equity groups of that time. And so did I, but I knew I couldn’t do it myself. And that’s why I associated myself with Frank Lowy. I love, and still love, the way he thinks about business, the way he looks at business, and I don’t have that instinct that he has.

                   What I do have, however, I think, is the ability to work out how to get there, to get people to come together, which, by the way, he has strongly as well. And that’s, I think, improved my ability to be a chairman, a director. And of course, it also allowed me to build up quite a good practice in advising people on how to do things.

AL               So most of us have neither been a CEO nor a chair. What’s the difference between the two roles?

DG             I think there’s a very big difference between the CEO and a chair. A good chairman, in my opinion, chooses firstly a good person to do the CEO role. In other words, you have to make sure it’s the right person at the right time for the right job. And the second thing is that a good chair watches that CEO. I call it a schizophrenic relationship. On the one hand, you’ve got to help the CEO, let them fly, let them do well, but on the other hand, you mustn’t get too close and you must watch carefully because you are the watcher of what’s happening.

                   The most difficult thing for a chairman is to know what a chairman has to do and where the CEO’s role should start, and indeed how far that CEO role should go. I’ve seen many believe that the chairman is the boss of a company. In my opinion, the chairman is the chief supervisor of a company. To say that the chair runs the company is a naïve statement. The CEO runs the company, but the chair is there watching, nurturing, and indeed making sure that the function of the CEO and indeed the other chief managers is being done correctly.

AL               And so how often do you chat to your CEO in the various chairing roles you’ve had? Is it a daily, a weekly process?

DG             Well, firstly, in answer to that, it depends on what’s happening at the time. I have a rule which most of my CEOs think is a good thing, or at least they tell me that, that we have it in the diary, speak every week. Now, by the way, with most of them, often that is a useless appointment because we’ve been speaking for days before or minutes before or whatever. But it is imperative, wherever we are, that once a week, we touch base.

                   And I know that I, and I know a number of the CEOs that I work with, store up things to talk in that. So it actually saves time in a way. If you need to talk about what we’re going to do on this particular thing or sponsorships or whatever, we can deal with it in that hour that’s there. But I think the answer to your question is, a great relationship of chairman and CEO is wanting to talk to the other, not being afraid to do so, not feeling that it’d be an imposition, and at the same time, knowing when to do so.

AL               What marks you out as a chair? What would people talk about as the different qualities that you bring to the role of chair?

DG             I hope that as the chairman, the people who sit on my board believe that I’m a hardworking person that does his best to let them be well informed on what’s happening, does his best to make sure they all have an opportunity to speak, does his best to make sure the board functions and makes resolutions, doesn’t just be a big talk fest that never comes to a result, and at the same time, nurtures them but isn’t arrogant enough to realise that I’m any more than the conductor, hopefully of a very good orchestra.

AL               In terms of how to make meetings work well, you’ve run many more meetings than most of us will. Do you have any tips or tricks for not losing our lives to ineffective meetings?

DG             Yes, absolutely. My principal tip is to listen. It is amazing how many people go to meetings, be they chair, director involvement, to hear their own voice and not to listen to others.

                   I find, and it was a tip given to me by someone who is dead now who was chair of many companies in Australia, he always listened and he took the view that you absolutely must be allowed to say your point once. Sometimes, if it’s a great point, you can say it twice, but you are never going to be allowed to repeat what you said a third time. And you have to listen, coordinate, make sure that the meeting is moving forward, not just getting bogged down.

                   And I think there is an art to being a chairman, by the way. And if you said to me, where do you learn it, I learnt it on this long highway that I’ve been lucky enough to be on. I’ve picked up ideas from the people that I thought did it the best. And my chairman style is definitely a composite of the people I’ve admired as I’ve gone along.

AL               Who are the chief mentors and role models that you’ve learnt from?

DG             I think I would say I have three principal mentors in my life. And I exclude my father, who was a great influence in my life, as a great professional and a great man. And I miss him. He’s been gone some years. But the three I would say on three different areas.

                   First, there is no doubt that Kim Santow, who became Chancellor of Sydney University and was a well-known judge and fine solicitor, he nurtured me from my time actually at university, because I met him when I was at university, through my articles of clerkship. He definitely shepherded me into partnership. And as a young partner, he shepherded me into being, I think, a wiser partner than I otherwise would’ve been. He pushed me into doing things outside of the law in terms of giving my time to charities. It was his idea and I’m really grateful to him for that.

                   The second one was Frank Lowy who I mentioned earlier. Frank helped me to develop a business sense which I certainly, even though I did a commerce law degree, didn’t learn at university. I learnt a lot at university, but not that sense of why would a person be putting that, where is this transaction going, is this actually a fruitful transaction. Frank helped me.

                   And then finally, there is a man called Fred Street that very few would have heard of. He was a very, very successful businessman in his day. He taught me philanthropy, his concept of how to not just give money but to follow it, to try and achieve things.

                   He always used to say to me… He’s still alive and wonderfully good for a 93-year-old, a terrific man. But he always used to say to me, people spend a lot of time making money, they’re careful where they invest their money, but if they want to give it away, they don’t put the same regime into where it’s going, how it’s being spent. And he really changed my whole attitude to philanthropy for the better.

AL               Well, let’s go into philanthropy then. Can you tell us about the pleasures of philanthropy? So this is something that I’ve enjoyed you touching on in your writings.

DG             I think there are many pleasures to philanthropy. The first thing I would say to you is it links in with what talked about on broadening. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the work I’ve done on this planet has been very limited. But interestingly, the work done in giving my time and my money has been much broader.

                   The concept of being involved in education, for example, giving money to a particular education drive for the indigenous people or whatever, has taken me into an area I would never have been able to go. Being an expert on mergers and acquisitions just doesn’t go there. So I’d say that’s the first thing.

                   The second thing is I have a driving ambition in my life, coming from a family so involved in medicine, where there is an immediate positive effect for people. I’m not totally convinced, and by the way, this is not deprecating what we do in the law, but commercial law doesn’t have that immediate effect for the positive effect in society, whereas philanthropy can have it.

                   When I look at… I remember one of the things that really formed my thing was to get involved with the Royal Flying Doctors and to discover with my wife and daughter, both of whom are doctors, that there was a need for dental services in Western New South Wales.

                   I have to admit I’d never been to Bourke, I’d never been to Lightning Ridge, but I went with them. And through what money we were able to give, we were able to start this tooth project, which had a big effect on us as a family. We were proud of it. It brought dentistry to areas that needed it, for indigenous and nonindigenous people, and it opened our eyes to what life is outside of the slick life that actually we are lucky enough to have ourselves.

AL               To what extent is your giving shaped by where you think is the greatest need compared to where you think you have the greatest comparative advantage, where you can bring some skills alongside the money?

DG             It’s an excellent question. We have pretty well always followed in the philanthropy of our family, where we can give our own time and our own expertise. Hence, when I talked of the tooth thing, we actually were out in Western New South Wales to look at skin problems, because my wife is a dermatologist and my daughter is doing paediatrics. We wanted to look at skin in children.

                   But my wife came to the view that money was not needed out there for that. The system was not as bad as perhaps one would have felt before we went there. And we got expert advice from people out there. But dentistry was another step. And so we were following basically where we had some expertise.

                   And usually, by the way, we would marry what expertise we’ve got with an organisation that we felt had great expertise, in the case I just spoke about, the Royal Flying Doctors, who were amazing. Amazing group. In the case of what I’m doing in education now with Schools Plus, a great organisation and really started under the previous governments, and I must say to the credit of the present one, they kept it going.

AL               And this is a way of being able to give money to government schools, isn’t it, as recommended by your review?

DG             Exactly, and in particular, to disadvantaged government schools. And the work Schools Plus is doing is fantastic. And we, and a group of people who are called Pioneers, which by the way is not an insult when you’re my age now, have come together to fund disadvantaged schools.

                   And I am amazed, at the ten we sponsor every year or the clusters we sponsor every year, what good is being done. And it's fantastic, following what my mentor said in terms of philanthropy, to have KPIs, to be watching carefully, to be using what we’ve got to make sure that the money is used wisely, but also to nurture and watch the experts in the field make the most out of what we can give them.

AL               You’ve spoken in the past about the cascade of letters that you received on your father’s death from people whose lives had very literally been changed by his work. How did that shape your thinking about philanthropy?

DG             I think it certainly changed my thinking on life. That was the first time. That was 12 years ago, so I was just over 50 years old. I had always felt that people who worry about their legacy are really on a different planet, because surely they should be worrying about the world and so on.

                   But as I got these letters, and by the way three boxes, the boxes you file, not big boxes, of wonderful letters, which I must look at again, but just kept coming because of the brain surgeon’s effect on life and families. And I just wondered what letters my sons and daughter would get on my demise as a corporate person.

                   And legacy does mean something to me. And I love the fact that I feel better now, 12 years later, about my potential legacy. Some may say it’s not perfect. Well, that’s up to them. But the most important judge of oneself, I think, is oneself. I don’t think many people really are too worried about anybody other than themselves, so you may as well judge yourself. And you have to be proud of yourself. And that means improving one’s legacy.

AL               How much does your faith shape your philanthropy?

DG             I think my faith as a Jewish person is very involved in my thinking. Jews have a very strong level of philanthropy. It’s embedded in one’s culture. If you look at the big donations, say in New York, it’s the Jewish groups that have given that money.

                   It’s quite surprising that with the shylock type approach to what Jews are, that basically we have this strong philanthropy, which is quite forgotten sometimes when one talks about us as pariahs in business and so on. I’m very proud of that and I’ve got to say it’s something that I feel very strongly, as I get older, that I want to develop more and more.

AL               Are you drawn to particular Jewish causes? Or is this more a matter of your faith in forming your secular giving?

DG             No, look, everybody has their own, by the way, their own ideas. And I strongly believe, in philanthropy, there is no right or wrong. Obviously, if you’re giving your money to a terrorist group, that is wrong. But there is no right or wrong. You have to be comfortable with it. So it’s not for anyone to be criticised by me in how they give, nor is it for them to criticise my own.

                   My own view is I love Australia. As you mentioned earlier, I came here as an immigrant, an immigrant that has been given an enormous amount by this country. And so our family, predominantly, give to causes within this country. And we believe very strongly in any sort of thinking that is open and alive to the rights of all people. In other words, it doesn’t have to be a Jewish cause, but on the other hand, I don’t believe in people who criticise either the Jewish cause, or for that matter, other causes that are right.

AL               Now, you’ve touched a couple of times on your love for the arts. And it would be remiss of me not to delve into that a little further. Have you always been a lover of the arts, ever since your mother bought that Charles Blackman lithograph?

DG             Well, it depends how you define a lover of the arts. I do like the arts. I have to admit, I’m much more at home watching a play than I am sitting in a football or AFL or whatever-it-be thing. It’s not my great love. I do like the arts. I feel there’s something that’s lit within me.

                   Yes, you’re right, my mother had that keenness. She used to drag me to the art gallery. And I remember the ice cream was an excellent inducement. But actually, and I only told her later, seeing the art was pretty good too. And my wife and I have been very lucky that we can go and see a lot of live theatre, that we can go and see a lot of art galleries. Are we experts in art? No. That’s a choice that we have made, that we haven’t spent a lot of time studying it, but we enjoy it.

AL               And you’ve had time to be up close and personal with people like Arthur Boyd and Edmund Capon. What is it…? How has that shaped how you explore an art gallery? What do you do when you walk into an art gallery? What do you look for?

DG             Well, before I answer that, let me tell you about Arthur Boyd. Arthur Boyd really did change my life. And you might ask why. Well, we were involved in his property, called Bundanon, which he graciously gave to the people of Australia. And I have to say, Paul Keating had the foresight to take it and also to put enough money in so it wouldn’t die.

                   And as the chair of Bundanon, in Arthur’s last few years, I spent a lot of time with him. Arthur took me out on this property. And instead of, as some people do, saying how wonderful the cattle is and so on that was there, he said, can you see green? And I know that some men can’t, so I was very proud. I said, yes, I can see green. He pointed out into the bushes. He said, how many greens are there?

                   Now, I’ve got to say I must have been, I don’t know, early 40s, so it’s maybe 20, 25 years ago, and I honestly had never asked myself that. So I got going, and I found six. Arthur showed me ten. And this was a change in my life.

                   And when I go into an art gallery, I often play the game with myself, to look at the picture and then to say to myself, what do I see in it? And it’s a great game, a great wonderment, because often you see things that, when you first walked up to it, you didn’t see at all.

AL               Do you move fairly quickly through a new art gallery?

DG             Yes, I do. I am not a person that ponders and stands still. I do move quite quickly. That’s not through lack of interest. It’s my own way of doing it. I love standing there, talking, whether it’s to my wife or to somebody, perhaps like an Edmund Capon or a Michael Brand, because I learn things. There are things in the painting I may not have known, or indeed its heritage, its provenance, or whatever.

AL               Yes, the game I always enjoy playing with my young boys is if you could take one painting in this room home and put it on your bedroom wall, which would it be, and then the why conversation that follows from that. It seems to focus their mind, rather than just being overwhelmed by the room.

DG             Well, I have now judged 13 Archibald prizes and I’m absolutely convinced that I’m not the greatest judge who’s ever been there. But what I love about that, we always have two artists on the committee, is listening to them and then questioning in your mind, because they’re not always right, but they see things in the paintings that in first blush, I still, after 13 attempts, don’t. And I love working out whether it matters.

AL               That’s a bit like the comment that Robert Hughes makes in his autobiography, where he says that every art critic should at some stage have attempted to paint or to sculpt or to draw, but that the creative act teaches you something that you just can’t get from looking at a lot of art.

DG             I think that that’s a very wise thing that he said. When I think about people who criticise all sorts of people, not being able to do what they do, I think it would be quite a limitation in terms of how many critiques there would be around.

AL               And your other deep involvement in the arts is in the theatre. In a Netflix age, what’s special about going into a room in which the actors are physically present?

DG             I honestly believe that there is electricity in a room where the actors are physically present. And I want to tell you that proof of that is, as Chair of the Sydney Theatre Company, I once had to sit through a play three times on three consecutive nights. And I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it.

                   By the way, it wasn’t the easiest play either for me. And as time went on, it was quite amazing. I started to get very deeply involved in the play, starting to look for the differences. And there were differences, differences that I could note. And I have to say, it was quite an experience.

                   So I definitely believe there is a difference, a wonderful difference, of having it done immediately, having it done by people, watching the sparks between the people, and indeed feeling the breathing and whatever of the audience around you. And by the way, on those three nights I really learnt for the first time that audiences are different, that actors actually, and there are better people who can talk about this than me, actors have different experiences each night.

AL               What have you learned from Cate Blanchett in your time at the Sydney Theatre Company? How has that shaped you as a consumer of the theatre?

DG             Cate was very important in my understanding of the theatre. And I want to also say, her husband, Andrew, must never be forgotten. Andrew Upton was quite a big part of my thinking. It was terribly exciting for me to have, as my CEO or one of my CEOs, Cate Blanchett.

                   By the way, something also you have to learn as a chairman, when your CEO is a world name and you are a name that no one has ever heard of before, it’s quite an experience to work out how to manage it and so on. She was just wonderful.

                   And I learnt an enormous amount, firstly, on what matters, on what should be put on, how one gets excited about perhaps a book or the play before it actually happens, how you determine which play to put on, how a star, and Cate is a star, can use her power to basically elevate an entire theatre company by getting people from overseas to come, and then the locals rise so fantastically to be as good as that overseas star on the day.

                   And finally, her modesty was quite inspirational to me. For her even to talk to me I thought was quite amazing. And she did for the three years that we worked together. She was terrific.

AL               I am pleased to hear it, which draws me into the question of humility. And a range of people have commented on your humility as one of your core qualities. Asking people about their own humility always seems a bit of an oxymoron, so let me come at the question in a different way. When you’re dealing with managers or leaders who you think could do with being a little more modest, a little more humble, how do you try and inculcate that in them?

DG             Can I start with a bit of a story? As I said earlier, my father was a big influence on me. And as a brain surgeon, he had this wonderful statement. What he said was that it didn’t matter whether you were the President of the United States or indeed the doorman at a small picture theatre, on his table, basically, your brain looked the same. And I’ve never forgotten that. We’re all human.

                   And one of the things, and maybe it’s because I’m lousy at sport and I have very definite parts of my life that I’m not great at, maybe that realisation is what I would say has meant that humility hasn’t been any difficulty because there’s nothing really to be that proud of, and there is a realisation that anybody you talk to can do something better than you can. One of the people who I was lucky enough to drive me as a hire car driver told me about some of the things he’s done in the sporting world. And I just sat there in awe, because I knew I couldn’t.

                   Coming to your question, there are many, particularly men, who are full of praise for themselves. I’ve actually, over the years, become very suspicious of that. The great person, in my opinion, doesn’t need to tell you how great he is. The great person actually does things that you think are great and doesn’t need to remind you. And indeed, I’ve developed over time a similar feeling that those who talk a lot about how pious they are generally are giving you a hint that they’re not quite as pious as they’re making out.

AL               You’re extraordinarily well known for your ability to manage a vast workload. What are some of the ways in which you do that? Are you a ridiculously early riser? Do you have a penchant for saying no to things in order to keep the diary free? What are some tips and tricks people can learn from David Gonski in managing a hefty workload and staying calm?

DG             I think the one thing I’ve been blessed with, and by the way, many professionals have this as well, is I am an excellent time manager. I don’t dwell on things. I move from one, be it client or company now, to another. I have developed, as many lawyers and doctors do, a mind that can immediately switch off the one thing and move to the second.

                   I feel for people who can’t do that, because you can’t move forward. You’ve got to basically keep moving and basically work out in your mind, very clearly, what’s important and what isn’t. And if you are a good time manager and a good prioritiser of what is important in life, you can fit whatever you feel is important into your day.

AL               Do you say no a lot?

DG             I do. I do say no. Many people who look at how many positions I’ve held over now 43 years, by the way, say to me, oh well, he’d say yes to anything. And that’s not true. I’m actually quite discerning. And I’ll tell you one other thing, that as you get older, you learn what you’re good at and what you’re not. And as time has gone on, I’m very clear where I can add value and very clear where I know I can’t.

AL               Do you work quite consciously now to act as a mentor to others?

DG             I regard it as an obligation of someone who has been so lucky to have great mentors. And not just the three I’ve had. There have been lots of people who have been prepared to hold my hand, sometimes in periods where I needed my hand held. I think it’s one’s obligation.

                   And by the way, it’s fantastic when one of your people who you’ve mentored does well. I personally feel… Sometimes, I feel it’s even better than if I did it myself. I just get such kudos from it. And somebody asked me the other day, does it matter whether they remember you or not? Not particularly. I think if you remember them, you remember them sitting there, asking the question, and then they went on and did brilliantly, fantastic.

AL               What is it to be a good mentor?

DG             I think, again, being a good mentor is listening. It’s the same actually as being a good chairman. I find most of my mentees, and I shouldn’t give this away, they might not come anymore, most of my mentees know exactly the answer to their questions. But by articulating or getting them to articulate the question, and then to answer it, is a great mentor.

                   So I’d say a mentor listens. A mentor helps where the questions are not forthcoming. A mentor also might say, that doesn’t sound like a proper answer. Not that it’s wrong, but that you haven’t articulated the whole thing. There’s a bit left in the chest, so to speak. Let’s have it out on the table. And if you get it right, they will answer the question much better than you could.

                   And the only other thing I would say is I think having a mentor who has been a little bit older, who has seen the particular area you’re inquiring of before is amazing, because it gives you that feeling that you can do it. And even though you might think their answer is wrong, it's helped you to work out what your answer is.

AL               David, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

DG             If I was able to advise what I was like when I was, let’s say, just leaving school, I would say, don’t be in such a hurry. I didn’t, as many kids, and I might be here treading on the toes of some parents, I didn’t take a gap year. I did very seriously look at going to Harvard when I finished my undergraduate studies, and decided a partnership at a very young age in a law firm was a better thing to do.

                   As I look back now, I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry. I think smelling the roses, maybe in a gap year, spending a year or two in Boston, would’ve been fantastic and would’ve made me probably a better person. Having said that, youth is always in a hurry and old people always tell them to slow down.

AL               And you did get to marry a woman from Boston, so presumably you get to spend a little bit of time there.

DG             No. My wife, as you rightly say and you’ve well researched, was born in Boston. But she came to Australia when she was three and we got to know each other because she lived next door.

AL               Right, okay. So the Boston connection for Orli is no stronger than yours then.

DG             Correct.

AL               What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?

DG             I think that I used to believe that the people that I looked up to, and by the way, even when you get old, you do look up to people, were more perfect than they basically are. I think it’s terribly important to be realistic in life. And that is, yes, absolutely have your heroes, absolutely look at people and say they’re wonderful, but be realistic. No human is perfect and indeed you can learn, even from your heroes, from their imperfections.

                   And by the way, it also cushions you where, if you have a hero worship for somebody and then you find out they’ve done something wrong, and it doesn’t have to be terrible, just something you just didn’t think they’d do, it hurts so much. If you’re realistic, you protect yourself.

AL               When are you most happy?

DG             I think, actually, I’m most happy walking with my dear wife and, if we’re lucky, our little grandson, whether it be in the streets of the suburbs or in a park or even doing a hike somewhere in Italy. I like walking. Usually, I don’t fall over. No one really pushes me, particularly at my age, to go any faster. I love talking to people as I walk along. I love looking around at life. And I love also the fact that my brain can turn itself over quietly, without being rushed.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

DG             I think the most important thing I do is that I’m active. I honestly do not subscribe to the view that one should totally retire. And unless illness comes my way, and obviously that can happen, I would like to keep active. Because an active mind and, as I said earlier, a broad mind is a terribly exciting thing and something that keeps you going.

AL               Do you find that travel is important to that in terms of staying fresh and not being the curmudgeon in the corner who is talking about the good old days? What are the ways in which, particularly in business, you manage to stay up to date with the cutting edge?

DG             I think, look, travel is important. We shouldn’t be isolated. And obviously being in Australia, we’re a long way in terms of kilometres from a lot of things that are happening. But today, with all the things, whether it be this podcast or all sorts of things that you can listen to, that you can read, that you can watch, you can keep yourself active and informed with sitting in your own living room.

                   And I just think people should, and particularly I should, and that’s the person I should give advice to, should be testing myself in new areas of my thinking, of reading as widely as I can, and also, and as a Chancellor, I’m very lucky I can do this, going to lectures, be it at the university or whatever, in areas that test my mind and that are not just the things that I’ve become accustomed to doing daily.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

DG             Chocolate. People are amazed at how little I drink, and I am not a great eater because I’ve noticed my weight goes up almost exactly. But the interesting thing is, having a little bit of chocolate every night has made no jot of a difference to my weight and an enormous difference to my outlook in the world.

AL               Dark or milk?

DG             I am actually absolutely open to all persuasions of chocolate, although if my wife is listening, as a doctor, she would say the darker the better.

AL               And finally, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

DG             It’s a very good question, and there are many. But I have to say, because of my South African upbringing, reading Mandela’s book, which I’ve now gone through twice. The second book, by the way, that he wrote, I wasn’t as excited about. But the first one affected me enormously because I had been to see his cell at Robben Island. I don’t know whether you’ve seen it. It’s tiny. You could barely, for certainly his size, lie on one side of the thing fully. He would’ve had to have his legs pulled up.

                   What was so significant about Mandela is that he forgave, that as far as I could see from reading his book, from watching him as President of South Africa, he did not hold it against the white population. He did not go out to recriminate, as some of his colleagues might have wanted to. That’s amazing.

                   And you know what? It’s right. Basically, you should not in any way allow people to hurt you. Of course not. But on the other hand, there are at times a need to forgive and to get on with life and to try and find some way that people can live what they want and you can live what you want without being prejudiced and without affecting adversely either your life or theirs. He really affected me in that regard. And by the way, thanks to the late Kerry Packer, I got to meet him. And it’s one of the finest days of my life. Amazing man.

AL               David Gonski, chairman, philanthropist and arts lover, thank you very much for joining us on The Good Life podcast today.

DG             It was a pleasure. Thank you.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.