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Career confessions: Deakin Chancellor John Stanhope

After more than four decades working in finance, accounting and management, Deakin University Chancellor John Stanhope has learnt a thing or two about what it takes to be a business leader. He has held positions including Chief Financial Officer and Group Managing Director at Telstra. He is now Australia Post’s Chairman. In addition, he is the Chair of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF) and a fellow of the Institute of Company Directors. Stanhope talks about what he’s learnt working in business from the ground up and what it takes to be a successful businessperson today.

He worked first and studied later

I worked for four or five years before I was encouraged to go to university. I worked in human resources and also on business cases in the engineering division of Telstra. Working had given me some insight into what I should study. I chose commerce at Deakin and completed an accounting major and an economics major laced with marketing subjects. I wanted it to be general so I could make myself as marketable as possible. I had a philosophy of moving around – I would say yes to new roles, even if they weren’t as exciting as the role I was in. I worked in product management, marketing, HR and engineering. I initially completed my degree part time and then full-time in the final year and a half and then I moved into finance roles.

He climbed the ranks at Telstra to become Chief Financial Officer

I still have the attitude that it’s not a good day if you haven’t learnt something. Things change in business all the time. In finance, you have to continue to keep on top of financing mechanisms, derivatives and technical aspects. Shareholders look to the CFO at annual general meetings (AGMs) to see if what’s being reported is true and fair. A good CFO also contributes to the strategic direction of the business. The business world requires creative problem solving – those that get ahead are good at it.

There was no precedent for mobile telecommunications

I was involved in the start of Telstra’s mobile business between 1987 and 1989. My role was to estimate the growth in mobile phones. I didn’t really have anything to base projections on. I knew Australians were fast adopters of technology. Back in those days there were VHS video recorders and they’d been adopted quickly. I used that as the base and made an estimate of the demand for mobile. I got it wrong at times – the demand was 10 times more than we expected.

Negotiating an $11.2 billion deal with the Government and NBN Co. wasn’t easy

The government decided to form a network monopoly for the National Broadband Network (NBN). My role as Telstra CFO in the deal negotiation was acting on behalf of the shareholders. The value of their shareholdings couldn’t reduce with regard to a broadband network. You have to keep that in mind when you’re negotiating. It was a lot of money. I had to negotiate with the Government which had rooms full of advisors, lawyers and investment bankers. I also had to negotiate with the NBN Co. to implement it. It took two years.

The customer has more power than ever

I’ve been Chairman of Australia Post for nearly four years.  During that time the customer’s definition of convenience has changed multiple times. At first the customer said going to the post office was not all that convenient, so we created 24/7 parcel lockers for people to pick up their parcel any time of day. Consumers thought that was good for a while, then they decided if it was out of their way they would get their parcels delivered to work. Now companies like US-based UberRUSH pick up parcels and deliver them within an hour. The people that do well in organisations are those who can recognise that and the importance of customer centricity in everything they do.

'The people that do well in organisations are those who can recognise that and the importance of customer centricity in everything they do'

John Stanhope,
Chancellor, Deakin University

If you want a role at the top, work-life balance doesn’t exist

I spent seven years as deputy CFO and eight years as CFO. I retired early because I was tired. You can tell after 15 years – it starts to impact your health. You don’t see family much. A time comes when you say enough is enough. I say to graduates, ‘Human Resources will tell you about work life balance, but as you move up in an organisation there isn’t any.’ I believe in being honest. My stress relievers are two fold: one is hitting drums and one is barracking for the Geelong Football Club and yelling at umpires – for these things I made the time.

Good grades aren’t enough if you want a successful career.

You need to complete your degree, but what you also need is communication. I don’t mean sending texts. I mean talking and listening. Employers now put candidates through assessment tests that are cleverly designed to discern if people have the softer skills, too. In 2015, Ernst & Young announced they would not choose 2016 graduates on grades alone. When you begin a job you’ll be asked to collaborate, use creative problem solving skills and have an understanding of customer centricity – that is what will help you to differentiate in the job market.

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