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Explosions, miracles and determination: Leadership insights from Ann Sherry AO


Speaking at UNSW Business School’s Meet the CEO event in Sydney, Carnival Australia Chairman Ann Sherry AO warmly regaled her inspiring leadership learnings to 350+ alumni.

Ann Sherry’s trajectory to leadership started with a bang – literally. When she was 13 and attending school in Brisbane, her teachers told her there had been an explosion. A gas leak had managed to obliterate a whole block in central Brisbane – including her parents’ pharmacy.

Thankfully her parents and their employees lived through the event, however many of them were injured and, with the pharmacy gone, had lost their income.

“That day changed everything,” said Ann in an interview with Mark Scott, Secretary for NSW Department of Education, and a member of the Business School Advisory Council.

“Not only did we lose the pharmacy, but there was a lot of conversation in the house about our responsibility to the people who worked with us, and the stress this caused.”

The dynamic of Ann’s home underwent many shifts in the following years, as her mother took on work as a hospital pharmacist to make ends meet. A few years later, however, her mother became the second person in Australia to ever be diagnosed with Ross River Virus, spending two years in hospital with paralysis.

Through another time of great uncertainty and change, Ann was forced to take on new responsibility at a young age – a challenge, she assured, that she took in her stride.

“At 16, I became the head of the household – a role I relished,” Ann said. “My sisters thought I was a tyrant, but I was a natural leader.”

Despite her weakened state, it was her mother’s astonishing recovery that first taught Ann the importance of determination, and not to accept anyone’s low expectations.

“My mother walked again, despite everyone insisting she would be in a wheelchair the rest of her life. When she first came home, she would tip herself into the pool every day and she swam and swam and swam. Then, for no reason anyone could understand, but she got back on her feet.”

This realisation that difficult and unexpected feats can be achieved with determination played a huge role in Ann’s success throughout her life. Her diverse career saw her move from radiology (“my mother wanted me to marry a doctor”) to public service, banking and tourism.

After feeling the impacts of gender bias in her earlier years in the workplace, Ann says it was in the public sector that she finally felt free to flourish.

“When I came out of university, the Courier Mail still had job ads specifying gender and all the really good jobs were for men and boys,” said Ann. “The reason I went into public service was because it was the one place where you sat a test to get into the graduate program. I sat the test, got an offer a few weeks later, and had a fantastic job in the new Department of Productivity.”

From there, Ann went on to head up the Office of Women during the Keating era, breaking new ground in areas like superannuation for women, paid maternity leave, and campaigns around sharing domestic duties.

After a stretch of encouraging the private sector to improve gender diversity, Ann was compelled to “put my money where my mouth is” when she was headhunted for a HR role in Westpac as part of the bank’s campaign to attract more female leaders.

“They hired eight women in total – there we were, eight gals in senior roles, taking the jobs other people thought they owned. Everybody made it know they thought we were interlopers.”

This attitude from other staff made Ann all the more determined – not only to stand up to all forms of everyday sexism, but to prove she could enact real change where others had failed.

“I’m pretty combative so I had a ‘bring it on’ attitude. That is how I introduced paid maternity leave to Westpac.” This ground-breaking change for the banking sector saw the company’s return to work rate increase steadily, and Westpac was able to finance the initiative within a year.

In 2007, Ann became CEO of Carnival Australia, the largest cruise ship operator in Australasia, at a time where the cruise industry was engulfed in public scandal, and a global financial crisis was looming. Despite this, she managed to transform the industry, with double digit growth every year since she took the helm.

Ann also set the lofty goal to grow the number of Australians taking cruise holidays each year from 250,000 to one million by 2020 – a target she met six years early.

In recognition of her fantastic contributions to industry, government and society Ann has been awarded Ann the Centenary Medal, an Order of Australia, as well as being named winner of the Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence Award.

Despite all she has achieved, Ann laughs at the challenges she has faced as a result of those who didn’t believe she was up to the task, particularly due to her gender.

“On my first day at Westpac, I wore trousers – radical. That caused a stir on day one,” Ann laughed. “As Chairman of Carnival, I still find myself on a lot of dry docks in high heels with people thinking - ‘is she lost?’”

Check out the highlights from the event here.

Now in its 17th year, Meet the CEO is one of Australia’s foremost events for leadership insights. With previous speakers including ASIO Director General Duncan Lewis AO and NSW Premier The Hon Gladys Berejiklian MP, this event is a valuable opportunity to engage with UNSW Business School’s 86,000+ global alumni network and offer opportunities for lifelong learning from premier leaders.