Ann Sherry AO is the Executive Chairman of Carnival Australia, the largest cruise ship operator in Australasia and a division of Carnival Corporation & Plc. In 2007 Ann joined the organisation as CEO and since then has transformed the industry and seen the organisation grow at double digit rates each year. This month we were honoured to be able to speak with Ann about her executive and board career, and hear her advice about what people need to consider when beginning their board career.

You were named the most influential woman by AFR Westpac in 2015 – which was quite an honour.

Honestly I was surprised, partly because I didn’t know it was coming, and of course pleased because it was recognition from somebody else, which always feels more meaningful. But ultimately, I thought – great, what can I do with this.

I’ve found a few interesting things to do with it over the last 12 months.

Did you always know you wanted to be a Chief Executive?

No I didn’t. When I was growing up, women didn’t do those things. I’ve always had a burning passion to do things differently. I guess you would have described me as being a contrary or a difficult child!

If you don’t like the status quo then I always had the view that you have to change it. I didn’t really think that being a CEO was the only way to do it though. When I was a young woman, there were virtually no role models. Women were other men’s wives.

My mother always worked however, so I did grow up with a view that education was important for girls, and that you needed to have your own things in life. So I guess there was a piece of me that had a slightly different experience to other girls my age. My desire to be a CEO came much much later.

You stepped into the Carnival role in 2007 at quite a tricky time in the history of the business. Did you have any concerns about taking on the role?

I did a lot of due diligence and I certainly went in with my eyes wide open. I think there are very few times in your life where you get the chance to work with what is at its core, a great business. And to get it when it needs re-building re-imaging, revitalising provided a great opportunity.

So I saw the opportunity rather than I saw the problems. Most people thought I was mad, and they said so. Why would you leave banking and go to ‘tourism’ and why could you take on this business?

Everyone else could see the downside but I could see the upside.

That probably reflects a bit about who I am. I looked at the business in the US and looked at how good they were, and how big they were, and then looked at our market and thought, we all live by the sea with all these incredible ports! We’ve got all these amazing destinations that you can get to on ships!

There is just such a great opportunity here for an organisation like Carnival Australia. Why wouldn’t you have a crack at it?

You don’t’ often get the opportunity to jump industry – particularly when you’ve been a CEO for a few years. Organisations are largely conservative with regard to who they bring on as the CEO. Even when they bring people in from the outside, they usually bring them from the same industry. So the opportunity to jump into a completely new industry and learn a whole lot of new stuff was an enormous opportunity.

What type of challenges did you face in the early days?

There were difficult times and challenges at the beginning. The first month in the job, the NSW Coroner had just concluded an inquest into the tragic death of Mrs Dianne Brimble and it had been on the front page of the newspapers for some time.

And, in that same month we had a ship hit by a freak wave off New Zealand. We had to fly passengers home from Port Vila in Vanuatu and had to take the ship to an unscheduled dry-dock, something of course I knew nothing about. It was an interesting week, and I probably learnt more about the organisation in that single week than what I’d have normally learnt in months.

Operationally I learnt that we are a machine. If you need to get 2000 people from A to B, we find a way of doing it. We do it smoothly and everyone felt that they’d been treated well. When we needed to get the ship into dry-dock, the technical guys knew exactly what to do.

The operational underbelly and core of the business was and is incredibly strong. That gave me great confidence. The platform we were building on was fantastic.

The customer service people were amazing. They were on the phone to customers, talking to people on the next cruise. Logistically when you’re dealing with those numbers of people, the complexity is huge. The customer service people were outstanding and it made me think that I was working in a pretty good business.

Then of course I had the mad experience of engaging with all the technical people on the dry-dock. I’d never been to a dry-dock before and I turned up in my high-heels. You could see people thinking – either it’s her or she’s lost!

I had to put my overalls on with my steel capped boots to get into the ship and have a good look at it all. It was a real trial by fire, but I met lots of people as a result, many of whom I would have otherwise taken months to meet. I watched the business and its response at its most stressed, and was amazed at how it performed.

I guess that really was a good experience… even though it was a terrible time for the business. It also brought all of my international colleagues out, most of whom I hadn’t met up until that point. It was interesting that many of them said that they’d been in the business nine years before anything like that happened to them. So culturally I was able to get a really great feel for what the rest of the organisation was like. It was a big learning week.

You’ve recently gone through another interesting transition from being Chief Executive to Executive Chair. How are you finding that, and what do you want your legacy to be in this new role?

For the first few weeks in my new role I had to be really disciplined about not doing what I’d been doing for the last nine and a half years – which was telling people what to do, or making suggestions.

The shift is actually a shift for me as much as it for the organisation. Of course I’ve pulled people up behind me, and I had to consciously push people out to them to get issues solved rather than letting them still come to me. One of the changes I’ve made is to limit the time that I’m actually in the office to only three days per week. That way I’m not overly visible, looking like I need things to do! I don’t want to disenfranchise people who are now responsible for the brands of the organisation.

I’m getting into the swing of it now, and I’m focussed on the market itself. We still haven’t got access to Garden Island for cruise ships during the height of the summer cruise season sorted but plans are advancing for a new cruise terminal in Brisbane to accommodate larger cruise ships. My role is now much more about the outward facing pieces, about how do we make sure that the market is optimised.

In terms of a legacy, I guess this phase of my time with Carnival Australia should be about ensuring that the market is ready for our next phase of growth. In 2020, a new, big P&O ship is coming – the first ever designed and built specifically for year round cruising in this market. We need to have the entire infrastructure ready both here and in the Pacific.

You’ve had a board career now for a number of years, and you are now taking on an international board appointment. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience and how these opportunities come about, and what thoughts do you apply when deciding to take on an opportunity?

I began my board career with un-listed boards, as I didn’t want it to take up too much time while I was still a full time CEO. I’ve worked in the not-for-profit space, and on sports boards. In fact, I’ve tried a wide spectrum of boards.

What I’ve learnt is that sometimes the small or unlisted boards (depending on their sector, and how well they’re performing) actually take more time than bigger boards and bigger organisations.

I’ve also learnt the lesson that it doesn’t matter how good the board looks from the outside, your ability to succeed in a board role really depends on the other people on the board. It’s like any organisation. The people you work with are critical to your capacity to have influence and be effective. So that has made me far more discriminating now than I once was.

I’m also conscious of boards that are interested in appointing you just because they see you as an answer to their diversity issue. Sometimes I’m inclined to say yes if I’m the first female on the board, because I like the idea of breaking down the barriers. But I’ve also learnt that sometimes that’s not the place to be because sometimes you’re just crashing into the wall of a hundred years of history.

That varies however. I went into the Australian Rugby board – and I was the first woman ever there, and that was a good experience. There was cultural change happening across the entire organisation at the time – not just in the boardroom. That board was made up of a really strong group of men who saw real value in diversity, and in change itself.

I’ve been the first woman and sometimes the only woman on a couple of other boards and have felt as though my inclusion has simply enabled them to tick a box, as the rest of it just hasn’t been happening.

I’ve now learnt to look more closely at the board itself, rather than focus just on the organisation. The people dynamic on a board is crucial – and is now a critical part of my decision making process. You come together for short and infrequent periods of time and unless the interaction between board members is good, you can get to the end of the meeting and feel as though you’ve made no progress.

You’ve been an advisor to Prime Minister level around diversity and how we get more women into the boardroom. What are your views about why we haven’t had the correction that we’ve talked about for so long?

In my view there are three things that still stand in the way.

People don’t give up power easily and – you know, they’re great gigs.

Secondly, because of all the dynamics that I’ve previously described, board members look for people they already now – so the clubiness on a board is real. Board members tend to look to people that they’ve worked with either in an executive role, or on another board, so you do end up with the same group of people going round and round.

And finally, there really hasn’t been a requirement. The thing that has actually created change in the last few years has been the ASX guidelines. No amount of government policy or general conversation about diversity creates change. You need a regulator to say that it’s got to be done and if you don’t do it we’re going to name and shame you. That has now got every board talking about their succession plan and where they need to go to find new board directors. At least there is now a conversation about it.

What advice would you give to people who want to pursue a board career?

  1. Understand what it is you bring to a board

 I have a number of people who come to me and pronounce that they want to be a director. That’s most people’s start point, and I’d say that that’s probably not the best start point. The better place to begin is to ask yourself what you’ve got that would be of value to a board.

It’s also important that you understand why you want a board career. Are you really after flexibility or want a part-time role, or is it because you really want to sit at the governance level of an organisation.

You carry a lot of risk as a board director and need to fully understand your role and governance responsibilities.

My first piece of advice is to work out what you really have to offer, and then package yourself up to present to the market

2. Be clear that you understand what it really means to be a director.

 You carry a lot of risk as a board director and it’s important that you fully understand your role and governance responsibilities. You also need to ensure that you have at least the most basic training to become a director. You can’t just fling yourself at the market hoping that a bit of you sticks.

I believe that first time directors should consider starting their board career working for a not-for-profit organisation. There is a learning piece that people need to consider. Without experience, how else do you understand what is actually involved in being on a board, or know how to run a risk committee for instance.

It’s also important that people understand that they’re not running the organisation. I often hear people say that they don’t want to work in a not for profit as it’s unlikely to be a paid role. Well, we all start somewhere and NFP’s need great people, so in my view, you should first demonstrate what you can really deliver in that environment. Use that environment to test what you know and what you don’t know – and make a positive difference while you’re doing it.

There’s a real myth that people jump straight into listed boards. Certainly everyone I speak to who are on listed boards have all done significant work in the NFP sector. You’re not a bank teller one day, and then the bank CEO the next.

Being a director is no different from being an executive. Find a way to learn the trade and then decide exactly what you want, and build a strategy to get there.

3. Work your networks. That’s what all directors do. Nobody knows that you want to be a director unless you talk bout it – and nobody knows you’re capable of being a director unless you demonstrate it.