Helping Hand


Date: 30/06/2011
Words: 2750
Source: SMH
  Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: The Sydney Magazine
Page: 36

Life can be lonely at the top. So who do Sydney's high flyers turn to for advice and inspiration? Helen Pitt meets four stars of business, sport and art - and the mentors who guide them.

The mentor Michael O'Loughlin, AFL coach

The protege Adam Goodes, Sydney Swans co-captain

Adam Goodes grew up in South Australia and Victoria without his father and without any clear idea of what it meant to be an Aboriginal man. That's not to say he had no mentors - just that they were female. His aunts and his mother, Lisa May, a member of the Stolen Generation, were role models who raised him with the ethos of discipline and respect for all.

It wasn't until 1997, when he was drafted as a 17-year-old into the Sydney Swans, that he realised he had indigenous male mentors in his family, such as fellow AFL footballer Michael O'Loughlin.

"His grandmother and my great-grandmother were sisters," explains O'Loughlin of his relationship to the two-time Brownlow medallist. "Mum and I were watching the draft and she goes, 'That's your cousin.'"

When Goodes made the cut, O'Loughlin called him, saying, "How you doing, brother?"

O'Loughlin's support was crucial for the young boy fresh from high school. "I never knew what a mentor was back in those days; I just showed him the ropes," says O'Loughlin, 34, who spent 15 years with the Swans.

O'Loughlin picked Goodes up - literally for training and emotionally after blasts from the coach, Rodney "Rocket" Eade, who rode the prodigy hard in those early days.

He's now regarded as one of

the best in the game but Goodes "would be the first to admit he was lazy back then", says O'Loughlin.

"He didn't know what it was to compete at an elite level. I told him we all get a blasting from the coach at some stage. You just have to roll with it; there's no use sulking." Now, Goodes sees coaching as about the team, while mentoring is more about the person. He always makes this distinction with the three young players he works with at the Swans as part of the team's official mentoring program. "We sit down and say, 'When you've finished your footy career, what do you want your gravestone to say about you?' That way you've got a road map; you've got a destination. Then we can work on getting there."

Goodes is hard on himself and concedes that it's difficult to always be positive - injuries, losing matches and personal problems still get to him. "You need to recognise when you're going down the negative path. Just being around Mick and his family makes me feel centred and gets me back on the right path."

"I love him to death like nearly every Swans fan," adds O'Loughlin. "He's educated, articulate and passionate, which makes him a great leader - he's one of my mob as well as my best mate."

Goodes credits O'Loughlin with reconnecting him with his "blackfella roots", which helped give him the courage to reveal the racial abuse he'd suffered in the under-16s league. He says he's been racially vilified twice in his time at the Swans and has chosen to speak out as he

sees this as part of his role in the leadership group, which helps set standards of behaviour for the team.

In 2009, the cousins set up The Goodes-O'Loughlin Foundation to extend the mentoring concept across the Aboriginal population. "Obviously mentoring works, as nearly every sporting club has instigated this sort of buddy system," says O'Loughlin, who is coach of the Indigenous

All-Stars and a high-performance manager with the Australian Institute of Sport. "We want to do the same with our foundation. To create a network of mentors for indigenous people across the country, across

all fields. That's the goal."

The mentor Reg Clairs, former Woolworths CEO

The protege Paul Zahra, David Jones CEO

Paul Zahra turned 44 on his first day in the top job at David Jones but it wasn't a day of celebration. He was anointed upon the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, Mark McInnes, who left under a cloud of sexual-harassment claims, and the new CEO was caught up in a media maelstrom. "I felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights," says Zahra. "Everything was going wrong - it was a tough initiation as CEO."

But his mentor, former Woolworths CEO Reg Clairs, was thrilled by Zahra's elevation. "Reg was the only person who saw the joy in my appointment," he says. "Others - including myself - were caught up in the crisis. For 175 years, the whole David Jones publicity machine was [aiming] to get on the front page of the newspaper; this was the first time we had to fight to get off it."

During the crisis, Zahra spoke to Clairs - a David Jones board member - every other day. Clairs, 73, had two words of advice for his protege: "Stay focused."

Clairs had lived by this maxim since his teenage years, when he dreamt of representing Australia at the Olympics in rowing. Although he didn't make the team, the lessons he learnt in a rowing boat proved valuable in his climb up the corporate ladder. "To get eight people co-ordinated enough to row together takes some time and skill," explains Clairs. "Because of my sporting background, at Woolworths I often saw myself as a coach and used the rowing analogy in retail to explain how we work better in teams to reach a common goal."

Clairs encouraged Zahra to see the big picture; not to get distracted and always to keep the needs of the customer and staff in mind. It helped that Clairs had been catapulted into the top job at Woolworths under similarly tough circumstances when CEO Harry Watts died on the golf course in 1993. "He had similar issues in his transition as CEO," says Zahra. "Nothing really prepares you for the job - it's very lonely, the role of CEO - but if you have people you can trust enough to bounce ideas off, it makes a big difference."

Clairs - who masterminded the "fresh-food people" concept, which is credited for doubling Woolworths' grocery share - has been a mentor to many in the retail world, including, ironically, Myer boss Bernie Brookes. He first met Zahra in 1999 and the two, both self-educated men who rose through the ranks (Zahra began as a shop assistant, Clairs unloaded trucks), struck up a friendship. Zahra, the son of Maltese working-class migrants, was impressed by Clairs' ability to communicate with all walks of life: from cashier to chairman. For his part, Clairs was impressed by Zahra's dedication and sincerity. In 2003, it evolved more into a coaching role when Zahra came to him while Clairs was a DJs board member with what he thought was a creative idea - to introduce a children's range of bath and body products under the DJs label, including a soap that looked like an ice cream. "He was able to point out a child could bite into that and we'd be up for some sort of liability," says Zahra. "That was the first time he changed my thinking to factor in risk in all decisions."

Now that Zahra has spent more than a year in the CEO role, their phone conversations are not as regular but the pair still take an active interest in each other's lives. Zahra's capacity to pick up the phone and ask for advice is what makes him a good executive, says Clairs. "Asking questions of a mentor or coach is not dissimilar to tribal elders passing on information to young warriors."

Zahra says their relationship is almost like a father/son bond.

"I'm still learning; he's like an elder statesman. I help keep him relevant and understanding the move from retailing to e-tailing." It's a reciprocal relationship, adds Zahra, "a bit like a tennis match - it goes both ways".

The mentor Lucy Culliton, artist

The protege Rachel Fairfax, artist

It was during quiet chats over cups of tea that artist Lucy Culliton learnt the most from her mentor Bill Brown. She'd go early to class at the National Art School, boil the kettle, make a cuppa and her teacher would share his thoughts on her paintings.

The now-acclaimed artist, who won the 2006 Portia Geach Memorial Award and has been a finalist in the Dobell, Archibald, Sulman and Wynne prizes, valued Brown's tips. Even after she finished art school in 1996 she continued going to his classes and it was then that she noticed a younger woman in the room, a talented drawer.

"Bill was the teacher but Lucy kept coming over to my easel telling me how to fix things," says Rachel Fairfax, 38, the then budding artist and now professional painter. "I was frightened of her. She was very confident and clear but bossy, like the big sister I never had."

Culliton, 44, knows she was blunt and honest with Fairfax. "Rachel found it hard to finish a painting - she kept repainting - so I spent a lot of time with her resolving how to finish works. But I recognised her raw talent."

First Culliton asked Fairfax to paint with her in her studio. Then she asked Fairfax to accompany her on a tour of regional agricultural shows; she painted the arts, crafts and food, while Fairfax painted the animals. Not only did they become firm friends but Culliton's family embraced the younger artist, too, inviting her to their home and coming to her first solo show in a regional gallery. Culliton's father, Tony, a television director and producer, even made Fairfax her first easel.

While the two focus on the same subject matter - Australiana - they have different styles, both as people and painters. Culliton wears no-nonsense Blundstones and has her hair cropped short, worlds apart from the feminine and fey Fairfax.

"I am tonal, she's a colourist," says Culliton. "I have a background in graphic design, she has a background in film. But we both work hard - she's a tyrant for putting too much time into things. If anything, painting with her has made me paint stronger and quicker. I have seriously nurtured her - and I have been frustrated by her. Rachel is a great artist and it's good to have a conversation about art while you're doing it because it can be a very lonely business."

Fairfax, who has shown her work with Culliton at the Ray Hughes Gallery and from July 5 will have a solo show at NG Art Gallery, now splits her time between Hong Kong and Sydney but the two still paint together. Fairfax will visit Culliton's southern NSW home at Bibbenluke, intending to stay for the weekend but will end up staying for five days.

They'll paint, listen to country music and talk, says Fairfax, about "boys, relationships and how we've failed at them". They consider each other family; Fairfax supported her friend through the death of Culliton's beloved young nephew Reuben earlier this year.

Fairfax is often asked if she tries to paint like Culliton but, she says, "That would be the same as Gillian Welch trying to sing country music like Lucinda Williams. We paint in the same genre but our talents are very different. In art you learn from studying the masters but you don't try to be them. You have to find your own voice."

Their relationship, adds Fairfax,

"is as much about practical skills as it is about believing in yourself. Lucy really believes in herself and she's taught me to believe in myself, too.

In the earliest years of your career you're pretty vulnerable. So to have someone behind you, kind of blowing your sails when you feel pretty alone, that's like gold."

The mentor Steve Vamos, non-executive director of Telstra

The protege Pip Marlow, general manager, Microsoft Australia

Steve Vamos has been top dog at some of the world's biggest IT firms but the most important lesson he received about mentoring came to him as a 19-year-old, working at St Ives Liquorland.

His manager, Joe Pritchard, asked him to mop the shop floor and Vamos gave it a try, having never touched a mop in his life. Pritchard placed his hand gently on Vamos's shoulder and said, "Steve, you're a good worker but you don't know how to mop, do you?" Then he showed him. "This had a profound effect on me; it was a constructive way of telling someone they're doing something wrong. To this day he is one of the best managers I've had."

Vamos, now 53, went on to study civil engineering at the University of NSW and became one of Australia's IT gurus - first as an IBM executive for a decade, then as managing director for Apple (Asia Pacific), Ninemsn (then Australia's biggest internet company) and Microsoft Australia. In all those roles he's

tried to employ the "don't tell me, show me" style of management he learnt from that first boss. Good management, he says, is about coaching people to fulfil potential and he used this strategy with one of his direct reports, Pip Marlow, at Microsoft Australia in 2005.

"I was managing a team that wasn't performing," recalls Marlow, who joined Microsoft in 1995, having started her IT career straight from high school. "Steve helped me look at how to reinvigorate these people to create a high-performing team by simply putting the right person in the right job - coaching them like he was coaching me. We won team of the year, an award across the global organisation."

Vamos was impressed. The next year - while still her boss - they sat down to talk about her aspirations. "She asked me, 'Should I aspire to be managing director of Microsoft Australia?' I could see she wasn't lacking in confidence so we mapped it out - setting her the target of getting to her goal by 40."

They started to brainstorm and soon his office white board looked like a street directory, plotting her career path. Vamos pointed out weaknesses in her government and public sector experience so she went off and worked in those areas.

In January, two weeks shy of her 40th birthday - and five years after that session with the white board - Marlow was appointed to Microsoft's top job. The second woman in succession to take on the position, Marlow wants to be a role model

for women beyond Microsoft and is one of the few women on the Business Council of Australia. "Steve really challenged me to think about where I wanted my career to go. He showed me a tangible pathway, which probably increased the probability of me getting there. It went beyond mentoring and coaching - it was more like sponsorship." "A mentor is someone who opens your eyes to what's possible," says Vamos. "It's about giving people confidence to know they are good enough. It was easy to do that with Pip because she has a magnetic energy, she's fun and her strength is aligning and motivating people."

Although Vamos left Microsoft Australia in 2007, he and Marlow are in close contact and the two now have regular catch-ups where they compare notes about their careers, their families (both have two daughters) and their favourite reality TV show (MasterChef Australia).

Vamos now heads the Society for Knowledge Economics, which advocates for better workplace leadership and management practices. He believes mentoring and coaching play pivotal roles in this and he acts as a mentor to a few independent business people as well as Marlow, who is herself mentoring some recent graduates at Microsoft. "The young women I'm working with often don't have the courage to ask me questions so I have to seek them out," she says.

"I learn so much from them; I see it as paying forward the goodwill."

Vamos now heads a non-profit organisation, the Society for Knowledge Economics, which is advocating for better workplace leadership and management practices in Australia. He believes mentoring and coaching play pivotal roles in this and he acts as a mentor to few independent business people as well as Marlow, who has herself started mentoring some recent graduates in the company. "I realise the young women I'm working with often don't have the courage to ask me questions so I have to seek them out," she says. "I learn so much from them; I see it as paying forward the goodwill. You never know where they may end up."

Copyright © 2010 Rachel Fairfax