The Power of One


By Laini Bennett
Tuesday, 05 June, 2018


The Power of One

As the leader of a $44 billion superannuation fund with 850,000 members — 80% of whom are women working in health and community services — HESTA CEO Debby Blakey lives the ethos that ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’. We talked to Blakey about her experiences as a leader, and using her influence to improve women’s rights and gender diversity.

Debby Blakey is modest. She plays down her achievements, deflecting praise back onto her employees, of whom she is clearly proud. She exudes warmth and an enthusiasm born from her passion for her role, and for her organisation. In fact, passion is a word she uses often, and believes it is a character trait required in leaders. “Every one of us at HESTA is very ambitious with what we want to achieve, and passion has to be what drives that,” she explained.

But so is knowing your purpose, she added. “I love Simon Sinek’s work on ‘Finding your why’. Before I became CEO, I spent a time with a coach really understanding my ‘why’ and whether my purpose was aligned with the organisation. I don’t think we talk about this enough.”

Finding her path

Blakey’s career started in the financial services industry in Durban, South Africa. After taking time off when her children were young and doing further study, she launched her own business, consulting on employee benefits to small and medium-sized organisations. In a country where compulsory superannuation still doesn’t exist, Blakey was an advocate for change.

Twelve years on, Blakey moved with her family to Australia, where she re-did her certified financial planner qualifications, and began working with a small industry fund. In 2008, Blakey joined HESTA and found her ‘why’. It was only on becoming Deputy CEO of HESTA that it occurred to her that she might one day become CEO. “I didn’t wake up one day and think: ‘I want to be CEO of HESTA’. I never had a five- or 10-year plan, but I have always had an eye on the future,” she said.

Learning the ropes

One of Blakey’s strengths as a leader is her ability to self-reflect and recognise areas where she has the opportunity to improve. She admits to moments of self-doubt, but says it’s what we do with those moments that’s important, asking herself: “What is the development need that I am potentially identifying in myself, and what do I do about it?” On becoming CEO for the first time, Blakey realised that there were skills that she wanted to build on — such as working effectively with a board.

Blakey seeks feedback from the business about her performance. “When I became CEO at HESTA, I received good advice: that the more senior you become, the less feedback you receive.

“And if there is ever a time when you need feedback, it’s when you’re CEO.”

So she approached several people within the organisation whose opinions she trusted and asked them to be a conduit for feedback, letting her know what they thought of her decisions and how HESTA employees were responding. Blakey said it has been a powerful experience, and that she has made decisions based on the feedback received.

 Debby Blakey with HESTA Chair Angela Emslie.

Leading by example

When it comes to gender diversity, Blakey believes HESTA leads by example. Its board is half male, half female, as is its senior executive. It’s had female CEOs for nearly 20 years. “We believe that in the long term, organisations that have diversity at the board and senior management level will ultimately deliver better returns. Diversity is such a powerful enabler,” she said.

Within HESTA, Blakey ensures that there is a strong focus on improving gender equality outcomes and a workplace culture based on inclusion and respect. She is delighted that HESTA has been recognised by the WorkPlace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) as an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality for the last two years.

“We’re committed to gender equality and that commitment goes much further than just talking about it. We want our actions and culture to reflect these values and to help drive long-term, meaningful outcomes,” she said.

Blakey wants all women to experience similar equality, and speaks passionately about the issues facing HESTA members. She worries about the significant gender gap at retirement; that men retire with almost double the amount of super than women (which is why HESTA pays employees super on both paid and unpaid parental leave). She is concerned that healthcare workers are not earning salaries that reflect the important contribution they make to society, and the need for tax concessions on super that favour those on lower incomes.

The power of influence

Blakey wants to see HESTA use its power as a $44 billion fund to influence the world for better. “We see our responsibility as an investor as a far higher bar than just seeking good investment returns,” she said.

Last year Blakey made news when she wrote to 172 ASX-200 organisations with less than 30% women on their boards, asking them about their plans for diversity at board and senior management level. As a major shareholder in many of these companies, HESTA is in a position to elicit change.

“If boards continue to only appoint men, then we feel at some point that, as an investor, we need to take action,” Blakey said. This may include voting against the appointment of directors for any organisation that has no women on its board.

Blakey is also advocating for victims of family violence to receive access to their own super. “We do know that financial control is very often part of family violence.

“The victims and survivors may be faced with situations that, due to lack of finances, means they stay in the relationship,” she said. Giving them access to funds would help them to rebuild their future.

Debby Blakey giving a presentation to the health and community services sector.

Women helping women

While influencing policy changes can take time, Blakey believes women have a tremendous opportunity to mentor and support other women, to help them progress in their careers and in life. “The previous CEO of HESTA, Anne-Marie Corboy, was an amazing leader. She was so passionate about developing other women as leaders, and I was certainly a beneficiary of that.

“Talking to her one day, she said it always disappointed her when women stepped into more senior roles, then didn’t look behind them to make sure that the door was open for other women to follow. She really lived that, and I hope that I am living up to that legacy.

“When you’re given the opportunity to step up,” she said, “look over your shoulder; look for the women behind you.”

10 leadership attributes we can learn from Debby Blakey:

  1. Authenticity: be genuine, be authentic.
  2. Purpose: know your ‘why’ and that of your organisation.
  3. Emotional connection: people remember how you make them feel.
  4. Passion: find something you like, love it and embrace it.
  5. Feedback: proactively seek performance feedback.
  6. Good listening: leaders should talk less, listen more.
  7. Ask for help: if you’re new to your role, seek guidance.
  8. Juggling priorities: identify what is really important to you.
  9. Diversity: different perspectives make for better decision-making and stronger teams.
  10. Stand up for what you believe in.

Top image: Debby Blakey. All image credits: ©HESTA

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