Influencers & Profiles

Worldliness and multiskilling: Lessons in leadership from Myer’s Bernie Brookes

Eloise Keating /

Bernie Brookes hardly needs an introduction. The 54-year-old is chief executive and managing director of Myer and the man tasked with reinventing the 100-year-old retail business.

Brookes has a long association with Australian retail, beginning when he was stacking shelves for Woolworths while studying. He rose through the ranks at Woolworths, reaching the position of management director before taking the top job at Myer in 2006. Myer’s sales totalled $3.143 billion for the 2013-14 financial year and Brookes is focused on cementing a place for Myer in the digital age.

I’ve spent 36 years in retail. I think a couple of the adjectives I’d use to describe the things you use a lot are worldliness and multiskilling. They are probably the two DNA characteristics that are really important.

I had the opportunity to work in Indian retail, to work in China, and to spend a lot of time working overseas in different roles and different assignments. And suddenly you’ve got a wider span of worldliness of how retail works and how management works.

So that’s the first thing I think that really puts you in good stead to be a CEO.

I think the second thing is I grew up in retail. I was a trolley boy, I was a buyer, I was a store manager, I was a general manager, I was a change agent, I worked in IT. I worked in such a multitude of tasks that now I understand all of the roles.

I think the day of a CEO moving from being a planner to training buyer to buyer to merchandise manager to CEO is gone. You’ve got to diversify and to be doing operations, or stores as it’s called, then do buying.

From the personality point of view, there are half a dozen things that are really important to be a good leader or a good manager of a company.

Firstly, you’ve got to have integrity. What you say is what you do.

Secondly, you’ve got to have the ability to communicate because the best leaders are the ones that can communicate. If you look at Winston Churchill, you look at Mahatma Gandhi, they’ve got that marvellous ability to do that.

The third is you’ve got to be creative and inquisitive. You must be very creative in coming up with ideas and solutions to things and you’ve got to be inquisitive so that you’re reading as much as you can, looking at what’s on the web and finding out things, and travelling a lot .

You’ve certainly got to have the ability to work as part of a team. I think a loner or an individual worker isn’t going to be particularly strong.

And you’ve got to be very decisive. Leadership is about making a decision, right or wrong.

They are the half a dozen sort of adjectives to describe what I aspire to do each day. When sitting down and talking to the people that report to me and who want to be leaders, we talk a lot about that, about being creative and inquisitive, about good communication.

Naturally you’ve got to be competent. You wouldn’t be in the job if you weren’t. But you’ve got to have each of those skills and have the integrity in each of those skills to go forward.

When I look for someone who I think will be a good leader, it is worldliness, have they done lots of different jobs within a business, and have they got those characteristics.

What keeps me awake at night is the obligation to look after the 13,000 staff of mine. If we make some significant wrong decisions that result in them losing their job or not getting as many hours or having a poor workplace environment, that’s really the driver for me.

Most people will tell you it is sales, profit or costs. But the obligation of a CEO is that if you put the business in the wrong direction, you can cause redundancies or job losses; that is the worst thing you can do to an individual.

The thing I hate the most is when we close a store or we have to make people redundant. So it’s the obligation to the staff and making sure we’re giving them meaningful and long-term employment so they can look after their families.

I’ll be with Myer for a few more years. I’m only 54 so I’ll stay on for a few more years. We’ve just recruited three really good new executives and over the next few years I hope that one of them will be able to take my place.

I’d rather promote from within than from overseas.

Over the next few years there is a ton more to do, there’s lots of activity and there’s lots of competitors. There’s a lot more money to spend, so it’s an exciting time.

There’s no good sitting there and saying we’re not going to do something because we don’t know what the future holds. You’ve got to try to think about where the customer is going to be rather then where they are today.

We’re a pretty different business to what we used to be.

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Eloise Keating

Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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