Woman Sherry, Ann
- Corporate Leader
Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne
If there is one word that can be used to describe Ann Sherry's brilliant career it is 'diverse'. Born in Gympie, Queensland, in 1954, Sherry, the daughter of small business owning pharmacists never imagined that she would end up being a corporate leader in the banking industry (she was with Westpac for thirteen years); 'an industry full of dreary old men in cardigans' (The New Zealand Herald, 04 January, 2007). Nor did she imagine that she would be head of a Commonwealth Government agency (the Office for the Status of Women, 1992 - 1994), a leader in the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) in the mid 1980s, a member of the board of the Australian Rugby Union (2012 - ), a director of Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships (2001 - ) or the CEO of Carnival Australia (2007 - ), a major player in the cruise industry. No one could accuse Ann Sherry of being unwilling to take on new challenges and experiences. If anything, her preparedness to do has been the source of her success as a leader in government, industry and community organisations.
This ability to take on and rise to challenges has also been a characteristic of Sherry's personal life. Growing up in a country town, she says she 'grew up without a sense of fear or constraint' and, by her own account, very little sense of responsibility or ambition (Holdforth). This remained the case after the family moved to Brisbane, so they could open a business in the middle of town and Anne could attend the well-regarded private girls' school, Somerville. But two dramatic events changed the course of her life. When Ann was about thirteen, her parents' pharmacy was destroyed in a gas explosion that blew up a section of central Brisbane. Both parents were unharmed, but the impact of the loss of the family business was profound. Having recovered from this shock, Anne's mother became temporarily paraplegic after contracting Ross River virus. At the age of fifteen Ann, the eldest of three daughters, became the woman of the house. She tested many limits, including the patience of her younger sisters. But then again, she really wasn't concerned about what they thought. 'I didn't care,' she said. 'I was mother' (Holdforth).
After leaving school, Sherry wanted financial independence more than anything else and so chose to pursue radiography as a career, a choice she did not stick with for very long. 'Meet nice people and watch too many of them die…it just wasn't for me,' she observed (Holdforth). She enrolled at the University of Queensland, eventually connecting with the 'debate and intellectual stimulation' offered by studies in economics. She met her future husband, Michael Hogan, who she married when she was twenty, despite having railed against marriage as a form of institutional constraint imposed upon women for years. Like many other Queensland students growing up in the era of the Bjelke Petersen state government, she became politically engaged and conscious of the various ways that women and indigenous people were discriminated against.
The birth of their son, Nick, when she was 21, introduced her to a whole new world of discrimination. He was born with Down Syndrome in an age when disability was not spoken about. Ann and Michael were advised to institutionalise him and try again. Her response ('I've just had a baby dickhead') was to make a conscious decision to help Nick to become as capable as possible, a response that set alight her passion for social justice (Holdforth). She made the local kindergarten accept him, despite opposition from other parents, and was profoundly affected by the extent of discrimination her son encountered. It taught her the importance of resolve when the challenge is tough but the course of action is right.
When Sherry finished her degree in 1977, she joined the Commonwealth Public Service Graduate Program and embarked upon career that took her through public sector workplaces from Brisbane to Canberra, Melbourne, London, Auckland and Sydney, at a time when all workplaces were having to evaluate their processes and practices to promote diversity. Later, as head of the Office for the Status of Women, her achievements included developing a national policy on women's superannuation, and lobbying hard for a paid maternity leave scheme. It wasn't until she made the transition into corporate Australia that she was able to make this a reality.
In 1994, Sherry was appointed Head of Human Resources Management at Westpac Bank where she introduced a range of measures designed to attract and retain staff. She oversaw the creation of sexual harassment guidelines, established a disability employment program, fostered a staff culture that was open and consultative and, after years of unsuccessfully advocating paid maternity leave in the public sector introduced a scheme in 1995 that created waves of positive publicity for the company. In 2003 she was appointed CEO of Westpac New Zealand, a position she held until 2007 when she moved to Carnival Australia. In 2003 she was awarded a Centenary Medal and in 2004 she received an Order of Australia for service to the banking industry, in particular her involvement in developing an internationally acclaimed Corporate Responsibility Program.
Sherry is often asked why she took the risk of moving from the public to corporate sectors. Her answer reflects an awareness of the historical dimensions of women's exclusion from public life. In the twentieth century, government was the most important factor shaping outcomes for individuals and communities and women wanted the right to influence government at the ballot box. But in the globalised twenty-first century, when governments have delegated their responsibilities, power has been dispersed and big corporations are the greatest beneficiaries. Women need to be involved in affecting the impact of this shift. 'I believe,' she says, 'that getting women into business leadership roles will be both a sign of positive change to the status of women - and a stimulus to that change.' Women who take up the challenge of corporate leadership will have the opportunity to contribute to the social well being of individuals and communities in ways that are morally valuable and 'that would be impossible to achieve as isolated individuals'. The best way to change culture is through control of the seat of its power (Holdforth).
This is perhaps why she took on the challenge of Board membership of the Australian Rugby Union in 2012. Sherry acknowledges that her appointment as the first ever woman to the board of the ARU 'came out of left field', but believes it to be a signal that another site of women's exclusion, organised sport in Australia, is undergoing cultural change. Breaking up the boys club, she says, 'is always a very strong signal' of organisational change. 'It just flags that rugby is fit for the twenty-first century' (The Australian, 20 July 2012).
Ann Sherry began her leadership 'training' in the twentieth century and has given no indication that she will be letting up in the twenty-first. She has passion, drive, energy, resilience and pragmatism. But most importantly, she enjoys empowering others to become leaders. The words of Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu resonate with her:
'Superior leaders get things done with little motion. They impart instructions not through many words, but through deeds. They keep informed about everything but interfere hardly at all. They are catalysts, and though things would not get done as well if they were not there, when they succeed they take no credit. And because they take no credit, credit never leaves them' (Sherry).
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection
- Sherry, Ann, Leading Your Organisation to Greatness, Institute of Public Administration Australia, Melbourne, Victoria, 2002. Details
- Holdforth, Lucinda, 'Ann Sherry', in Sykes, Helen and Frydenberg, Helen (eds), Australian Leadership Reader: Six Leading Australian and Their Stories, Australian Academic Press, Bowen Hills, Queensland, 2006, pp. 11-22. Details
- Sherry, Ann, 'Slice of Heaven', University of Auckland Business Review, Autumn 2007, pp. 25- 31. Details
- Jayne, Vicki, Ann Sherry: Women's Champion, New Zealand Management, vol. 51, June 2004, S8(5) pp. Details
- 'Ann Sherry is Banking on Life', The New Zealand Herald, 4 January,2007. Details
- 'ARU cruises into 21st Century with Sherry', The Australian, 20 July 2012. Details