Spotlight on Michael McNulty

10 Minutes with Michael McNulty by Robin McClellanLeadership WA spent time discussing leadership with Deloitte Western Australia managing partner and chair of Leadership WA board, Michael McNulty, who said the days where one person could be the single source of knowledge were over.

Any leadership lessons?

MM: There have been many and I’ve quite dramatically changed my leadership style over the years. I used to be very autocratic – demanding and directional in how I led teams. Then there was a pivotal moment about six years into my career when I discovered that wasn’t working as well as I would have hoped. So, while it was working really well managing upwards to my partners and everyone else, it wasn’t working well with people that I had around me. It wasn’t very genuine either, in terms of who I was.

On lessons I’ve learned, I believe good leaders have to be dynamic and inspirational. Ultimately, good leaders need a certain amount of dynamism to inspire people to follow them. At its core, great leaders also have to demonstrate great loyalty to their people – and that’s not a one-way street. If you want loyalty, you have to earn it. So I’d say that, on one hand, empathy and understanding from a great leader is really important, and being able to admit when you’re wrong or, in fact, when you don’t know everything is also okay.

Nowadays in the more complex world in which we live, manage and work, the days when one person can actually be the single source of the truth or knowledge is a long way behind us, particularly if you’re in broad commercial-type environments. So admitting what you don’t know is just as important as being able to articulate what you do know.

You should be able to act with conviction, certainly around your values and what you believe in, too. An inability to follow your convictions and actually act on them, I think, is a real weakness in leaders.

The other one that really stood out to me, and it sort of comes back to Leadership WA, is that leaders have to manage diversity and diversity of thought. They need to capture all the various elements, whether it’s gender or cultural diversity, or any form of diversity. That is actually quite difficult, and it’s not a skill that can be learned easily. It is something that you can only learn through time and engagement and making a few mistakes about how you bring the best out of people.

But it’s probably going to be one of the most key ingredients of a good leader in the future.

On diversity, are things different to 20 years ago?

MM: Yes, I came from probably the most homophilic companies in the world – Arthur Andersen. But there has been a significant shift in attitudes in the past decade. In its broadest context, diversity is different types of people with different backgrounds. In reality, it is far easier to manage in an environment where everyone is similar. People more readily agree with what you say, people think the same way, and everyone processes things the same way. It maybe easier, but it doesn’t deliver the same quality outcomes as managing in an environment where there is real diversity of thinking, especially with regards to problem solving and risk management. It’s a fallacy to think that it is an easier process, but it is absolutely more valuable.

So it’s important to let colleagues know that you don’t know it all?

MM: Yes and that’s changed in 20 years. Leaders are far more about being able to bring people together and bring the best out of individuals and team members.

Twenty years ago, a more egotistical leadership was common: ‘I’m very decisive and I’ll get it right’. I know that’s a gross generalisation, but we’ve certainly moved a long way towards different types of leaders.

So certainly with diversity of thought, attending the Leadership WA program 11 years ago was a significant moment of development. In the first half of the year, I actually found it very difficult because many of the perspectives and viewpoints were so dramatically different to what I had experienced and the problem solving I’d done in a corporate environment. I just simply never had that type of variety.

I learned that I could and indeed had to be a better listener. And I mean active listening – adapting my views and really trying to understand what people were saying, versus going through the motions until I could get my viewpoint properly expressed and on the table. I almost had to rewire my brain to be able to listen and really understand properly that there are very different perspectives.

Listening definitely improved my leadership. Having time throughout that year to actually process my own thoughts around where I was going, where my career was going, and having some peers who I could really discuss that with during the year, was great. I also made lifelong friends from Leadership WA’s program and the organisation activated the community side of my life. Within six months, I joined two community boards.

You’ve got a busy, full life: you have kids who need your time, with an active spouse, and I know you give back a lot to the community yourself, not just to Leadership WA and, of course, you’re running a big organisation, but you also make sure you’re physically fit. Can you talk about why that came to be a priority and how you squeeze it in to a very busy life?

MM: If I don’t exercise regularly in the morning, I struggle to turn my brain on properly and I end up a lot more tired than I would be otherwise. There is also the incentive of getting my dog out in the morning (that’s a five-year-old labrador); if I don’t get him out, I pay the price at another time. But exercise helps keep me balanced; you can only run so hard for so long, and there are times when you have to throw everything at the job, and when you have to throw everything at the family.

Good leaders get their own life balance but also respect the balance that other people need to strike. It’s different for everyone.

When we talk about flexibility in the workforce, it’s not all about policies, because everyone can write a policy to say ‘we’ve got flexible working hours’.  It’s about appreciating that everyone’s life is different. They may have ageing parents, young kids, sporting commitments or any other type of interests outside of work, and there are going to be times when they need to dial up or dial down depending on the circumstances. So whenever I have things for the kids at school, I’m very visible about it. I make no excuses for having to go out for two hours in the middle of the day if the kids are in a production at school. But I think that’s the leadership people need to see, so that not only are you getting your own life in order and being able to stay fit – and we’ve got a new wellness program we’re running across Deloitte at the moment to encourage that – it’s all about people demonstrating as leaders that family is important to them, and it should be important to everyone, because we’re in this for a long time.

On diversity, Deloitte has had some impressive results. Can you tell us more?

MM: This has been a major focus for a long time and it has been right at the top of our strategic priorities for at least the past 12 years. We focus on all aspects of diversity and have senior leaders in our firm as visible leaders in all areas.

There have been many initiatives but probably the most impactful has been The Deloitte Business Woman of the Year, which has been running for 12 years, and has been stunningly successful. When the program began, we had fewer than 20 female partners in the Australian firm. Now we’ve got about 160 and many of them have gone through the program. So something is working there, and it’s a wonderful way to identify, profile, connect and provide development opportunities for exceptionally talented women who are coming through the practice. We are in the process of redesigning this now but the core elements will remain central to its success.

We’ve done a lot of work on flexibility and unconscious bias. It’s been a two-way communication, where everyone’s willing to be a bit vulnerable and actually say what they think, even though they might be concerned that someone might react in a way they’re not expecting. When you have those really good interchanges you can suddenly then see the path, but it takes discussion and it takes a willingness to experiment – a willingness and an openness to fail sometimes, and then learn and iterate.

This is in contrast to when everyone’s standing on opposite sides of the room and not really saying exactly how they feel. I think that’s when you end up with a stalemate and you don’t really get anywhere. So, in terms of getting that conversation alive and real, that is probably one of the key things we are doing.

Any ‘light bulb’ key leadership moments over the years?

MM: There are very few that define who you’re going to be and how you’re going to lead, because it tends to be an accumulation of many things. That first experience was a 360 feedback when I made manager; there’s no doubt I could see the impact that had.

The lessons throughout the demise of Arthur Andersen were quite profound for me. When the firm collapsed I had to manage my own emotional demons while also trying to lead a group of people I was responsible for through a very difficult time. That taught me more than I’ll probably ever be able to learn from a book. It’s not an experience I’d ever want to go through again, but I learned a tremendous amount.

So that was probably as developmental, as a leader, as any experience I’ve ever had. But I think every time you start a new role you end up doing that. One of the things I’ve seen as I’ve travelled through different roles – and in these sorts of organisations you change roles every three to five years – it’s always really important that you’ve thought about succession in your previous roles. Probably the worst thing you can do is make yourself completely and utterly indispensible in a particular role you are in. It makes it impossible to move on to the next opportunity when it arises.

You can’t do that in a month, can you?

MM: No, and I think some people do it very deliberately. That can really hold them back. I also learned a lot from was travelling as a young man – in Africa and Mongolia, fly-in, fly-out from Perth. Being that remote – in Mongolia there was only one international phone line in the town we were in – taught you to take control and do stuff as a 25 year old that I wouldn’t have experienced elsewhere. So I think very early on in my career I learned to take responsibility and be accountable.

One of the questions we ask at Leadership WA is: ‘Are there different styles of leadership for different industries or sectors?’, so you’re probably very well placed to comment on that.

MM: In fact, in many cases they can all actually exist within an organisation, and they can be situational. So I can understand where you need a ‘general-and-soldier’ approach if you’ve got underground miners in high-risk situations; they really need to do what they’re told and stick to the rules. But when those guys come above ground and they’re in a team meeting to talk about the next day, or things they’ve learned, then they should be operating in a different zone where they can express their views without fear of anything. It’s situational and can also depend on operational performance, whereby divisions that are performing at a higher level get greater autonomy than those that are struggling.

Can you tell us about what Deloitte is focusing on as a leader in the accounting and business consulting space?

MM: We are a very diverse organisation, and probably more diverse than people appreciate, I suspect. So we absolutely still do what we’re best known for in terms of the traditional side of the business – assurance and advisory, tax, financial advisory, consulting, Deloitte private and risk advisory. But within each of these service areas our business is transforming at a rapid rate. I like to think that we can integrate these capabilities to help redefine how people will work in the future through applying a deep capability around artificial intelligence and other emerging disruptive forces alongside our deep commercial expertise.

How do you differentiate yourselves from other groups that may be providing a similar suite of services? Do you feel like there’s a different culture at Deloitte than other big consulting houses?

MM: It’s a really interesting question and one we also ponder, but it is also one that only others can really answer. I certainly acknowledge that from the outside many people would see the ‘big four’ as quite similar. We also need to look at other more non-traditional competitors, such as large consulting and technology companies against which we compete regularly.

If you look at breadth of services, there are obviously similarities and, at any point in time, there are some places where we’re deeper than others and vice versa.

Can you differentiate based on culture? I really believe that you can and hence why it is such an important part of a leader’s role to protect the culture that defines an organisation. I believe our culture is built around teaming, both internally and also with our clients. As we move forward this will be more and more important as being able to integrate capability from a variety of sources becomes even more critical.

We will also differentiate ourselves around strength of service capability wherever it’s appropriate. But clients are actually looking for an engaging experience as much as anything else; in most cases they know we’ve got the capability.

So it’s how you bring that to bear, and how your clients feel about working with you that become more important.