Career highlights and insights with one of AFR’s 10 most influential women in the boardroom

Working across continents, advising world leaders, funding financial tech companies and championing women’s equality – Cassandra Kelly takes stock of her career with Michelle Keomany.

This article by Michelle Keomany originally appeared in The Intelligence Issue, our April/May issue of Marketing magazine.

Michelle Keomany copyWhen Cassandra Kelly answers the phone it’s hard to place her accent. Now based in New York, you can hear her many years of living and working overseas coming through.

She’s articulate, genuine and easy-going, which may not be the first impression that you would get from the standard-issue executive portraits and the incredible list of resume titles, mostly containing the words ‘founder’, ‘chair’ or ‘director’.

Cassandra Kelly is a cross-sector champion of financial services, technology, philanthropy and entrepreneurship. She co-founded Pottinger, Pottinger Analytics and Atomli. Pottinger is a highly respected financial services company with offices in Sydney, London and New York. It has been featured by the Australian Government’s Productivity Agency as one of the 10 national benchmarks for skill utilisation
and productivity.

She is also a digitalisation and entrepreneurship adviser to the G20/B20, chair of Allpress Espresso International and deputy chair of the Treasury Corporation of Victoria.

Australian Financial Review has named Kelly one of the 10 most influential women in the boardroom. She coaches and advises world leaders, chief executives and politicians and she’s also the co-founder of Glass Elevator, a not-for-profit that works to increase the number of women in senior executive positions.

But if all that wasn’t enough, most recently Kelly became the chair of newly launched data technology company Fulcrum. Late last year, Fulcrum raised $2 million in capital through A-list Australian investors and is already working with ASX top 50 companies to help transform how they use their customer data through its exciting new platform.

In a climate where it’s relatively easy to fly under the radar and stay in the same senior role in the same industry, Kelly’s career represents someone that doesn’t settle for the status quo and is driven by what she hasn’t achieved yet.

 

Learning from spilt milk

MK0417 coverWith so much ground to cover across such interesting and diverse territory, our conversation actually starts with reflection. How does such an impressive career start?

“Often people think it’s that first graduate role that’s considered your career start, your first job on the corporate ladder. But for me it was actually the job I had as a teenager. I was working with a local business owner. It was a supermarket in a small town and I didn’t have a title, I just did what was needed,” she says.

Through her part-time job while a student, Kelly learned how to be useful to the supermarket owner who had immigrated to Australia and needed someone he could trust, to read, do basic accounting and converse with customers in English.

“If some milk was spilled on the floor or someone was irate because something hadn’t gone well, I could be out there speaking English while my boss might take over the cash register, which didn’t require as much speaking.”

She continues, “I knew a lot of our customers from the local community and I realised that, if we didn’t upset them, they were going to keep coming back.”

For most of us, our first jobs did little more than provide pocket money and funny stories to tell years later. But for Kelly, this experience taught her first-hand the fundamental business basics of needing to balance the books and keep the customer happy, while also the satisfaction of being truly useful to someone.

“That was a lovely memory for me, and if I knew where to find the business owner now, I would love to say thank you, because it was a very lucky part of my life.”

 

The strength of naivety

One of Kelly’s earlier management roles took her to Japan, where she was vice president of GMAC Commercial Mortgage in Tokyo. She describes what it was like to work overseas before working overseas became more common practice: “I was a gaijin, a foreigner, and I was a female. If you looked at my scorecard, you could see that I had very little going for me before I even opened my mouth… and then they discovered I didn’t even speak the language.

“I had to learn to influence differently; I had to find more innovative ways to be effective and build respect.”

Kelly was not only working in simultaneous translation but leading a company that was comprised almost entirely of older, Japanese men.

So what drew her to take on such a big and different challenge in the first place? “I was younger. I’m still young but I was younger then,” she laughs. “When you’re younger you have that wonderful bit of  ignorance. You take a leap because you don’t know you’re taking one.

“I think not enough people are honest at points in their career and don’t appreciate quite how high they’re jumping from. I definitely think that was true for me because so few people had worked in Japan at that point, so there weren’t even stories of what it would be like.”

She talks of being given cultural training that seems very outdated now, like where to sit in a room and how to hand out a business card. But this was a very far cry from actually knowing what to expect about living and working in Japan. Until this role, Kelly had  largely been responsible for advising people as a consultant at McKinsey, as an investment banker or an adviser.

She relished the opportunity to be able to get involved and step into the world of running a business. “This was actually about the advice I gave to other people and seeing what would happen if I had to take a bit of my own medicine.”

Kelly says that out of everywhere she has worked, including Africa and Europe, Japan was the most challenging. “I didn’t appreciate how hard it would be to run a business of that nature in that particular country at that time, given my demographics. But it’s by my nature that I love learning new things and the excitement of testing my limits. So maybe it’s a mixture of naivety and bravery.”

Kelly sums up not just this role, but what is a common theme through her whole career, in one quote from former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh: “Anna once said to me, leadership isn’t meant to be safe.” She continues,

“This is it – I’ve got one shot at making a difference and it’s not going to be by staying safe. Staying indoors, or in my own community, and only doing things that I knew I would be good at, wouldn’t lead me to finding out what I was best at or what I could best contribute.”

Cassandra Kelly’s data ecosystem

What’s refreshing when you speak to Kelly about the businesses she’s a part of is the distinct lack of buzzwords and jargon she uses.

Her insights come from a genuine place, her sheer breadth of experience allows her to connect dots that others wouldn’t necessarily see. Fulcrum isn’t ‘just another tech company’ because its bigger strength lies in the ecosystem that Kelly has helped build from scratch. “Fulcrum ensures that we have the right proposition to each individual customer in the right place at the right time, delivered in the right way and Atomli helps the business to know exactly how much of each individual product will sell in each store on any given day with any given promotion.”

While Kelly’s businesses both have data as the raw material, the real value comes from the conversations they are having with their customers. It’s not about the data; it’s about the business and customer pain points.

She talks about changing the game in a real way, starting with the bigger, disruptive picture. Kelly describes disruption as affecting businesses on two levels – an overall one and a customer one. Business is increasingly borderless and the cost of entry is falling while competition is increasing. It’s a perfect storm thanks to online competitors and customer demands, and many businesses have been too complacent.

“What businesses used to confuse as loyalty was simply lack of choice. Customers no longer have to be hostages in contracts, they won’t wait for items and switching is becoming the new norm,” she says.

Kelly goes on to deliver a home truth, “The traditional view of loyalty has faded – there is no such thing as a customer for life. You have to win the customer every time. The last interaction any customer has is the benchmark for the next interaction, so you need to make sure it’s relevant.”

The combination of expertise and new technology represents new opportunities for Kelly. Through her businesses, she is turning the tables, transforming disadvantages into advantages and problems into opportunities.

“You need to move from being the disrupted to the disruptor – adopt a mindset that your customers are there for you to lose, not for others to win. Look at how technology can enable the delivery of smarter ways of running the operation that enables world-class experience and customer engagement every time we talk to our customers.”

 

The Glass Elevator

Outside of her professional roles, Kelly influences positive change through the not-for-profit organisation she co-founded with Pottinger alumni Olivia Loadwick. The Glass Elevator works to increase the number of women in senior executive positions by building support networks, providing development opportunities and overall, stimulating discussion about gender equality.

Kelly speaks about what it was like for her as a young woman in the corporate world: “In the early years of my career, there were almost no role models, there were almost no women at all at senior levels in financial services. I drew my inspiration not from what I could see, but from what I knew I could be.”

She goes on to say, “All that being said, Glass Elevator for me is about trying to inspire people by showing them that there are more of them, by showing them people that look them and that they can actually get there,” she says, “It’s about giving them the example that I didn’t
see, because it’s certainly much easier to aspire to be something if you can see it.”

In an interview with Women’s Agenda in 2014, she spoke about returning to Australia in 2003 following stints in London, New York and Tokyo. Kelly describes walking into boardrooms in China and it was normal to have women in the most senior positions; that it was expected. So she was startled that Australia was very much behind and that it wasn’t even being discussed.

Since then she’s seen improvements, the dial is slowly moving and she has also learned to look beyond her own industry to find inspiration. “But if you ask me if I would have preferred to go down a path where there were more women? Yes, absolutely; imagine how much easier that would have been.”

What’s her advice for anyone that might be feeling affected now? “Know that you’re not alone,” she says. “Know that if there are times that it seems unjust or unreasonable, that’s why the statistics are like they are, because it’s not reasonable and it’s not equitable, and that’s why we need to find ways to do more.”

Kelly isn’t feeling patient, and she’s not going to wait for someone else to fix things. “Australia can’t sit there and think the job is done. It’s not enough until women truly have equality and there are no longer issues. We don’t have time for talk now, the talk has been helpful in terms

of educating, elevating and airing issues but we actually just need to get on with it and change the numbers.”

How can we start improving things for women, especially those already at the forefront? Kelly gives an honest and bigger-picture view. “If you can stay at that senior level you make it easier for the generations coming through. We will make it easier for those below. It will become more normal.”

It’s simply not enough to blindly trust that other people will see our worth and pay accordingly, she says. “Meritocracy is broken; we need quotas to shift the dial more quickly.”

She points out an interesting double standard: “Why are businesses afraid of targets or quotas for women’s equality when they use them in every other area of business?”

Kelly believes that employees, women and men need to know their value. “Don’t be your worst enemy”, she says. “Don’t treat yourself like a charity and think, ‘I like my job so I don’t deserve to be paid more’. You have to value yourself.”

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with employers. “They’re the only ones who know if they’re paying equally, so it’s their obligation to know the amounts.”

Apt in a data-led business world, Kelly’s approach is matter-of-fact. Now that we have the data, the research and the statistics, we need to do something about it. The status quo doesn’t have to be so forever.

While the technology and environment are more advanced now, Kelly always returns to simply getting on with how to be truly useful. Her businesses are still finding new ways to balance the books and keep the customers happy, just as she did at the local supermarket.

So, given how much she has achieved throughout her career and her philanthropy, when will Cassandra Kelly be ‘done’? Apparently never. “So much of what we do is what we haven’t yet achieved… I can do more. I’ve got more left in the tank. Satisfaction for me is waking up knowing I haven’t finished. I’ll never be done, and that’s such an incredible privilege.”

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Michelle Keomany
BY Michelle Keomany ON 22 May 2017
Global social media manager at Pernod Ricard and Marketing Mag freelance features writer.