Embracing challenges: Belinda Gibson on leadership and ASIC

Belinda Gibson was deputy chair of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) from 2010 to 2013, having joined as a commissioner in 2007. She also served on the Financial Reporting Council and the Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee.

At ASIC, Gibson had responsibility for the oversight of Australia’s capital markets, supervision of exchange traded markets and brokers, and improvements in disclosure and corporate governance. Initiatives under her leadership resulted in lower fees and improved services for Australians who rely on financial markets.

From 1987 until joining ASIC, Gibson was a corporate law partner at Mallesons Stephen Jaques, specialising in transactional advice and corporate governance issues.

 Gibson spoke to Knowledge@Australian School of Business, watch the interview here. An edited transcript follows:

Geoffrey Garrett: Welcome to the ASB video series on leadership. In this series, we’re interviewing some of our adjunct professors, who are very senior business leaders in Australia and internationally, and are actively involved in our education program, both by teaching our students and by mentoring them. Today’s interview is by my colleague Chris Styles, deputy ASB dean and director of the Australian Graduate School of Management. Chris is interviewing Belinda Gibson, who recently retired as deputy chair of ASIC. Belinda was responsible for the oversight of all Australian capital markets. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this interview with Belinda as she reflects on a career of leadership, not only in the public service but in the private sector, where she was a very prominent attorney in Australia.

Chris Styles: Thanks Belinda, for being part of our leadership series. Let me jump into your time at ASIC, which of course is our major regulator in Australia. The time that you were there was really characterised by a lot of change and reform, much of which you drove. What did you find when you arrived at ASIC that was really driving that change?

Belinda Gibson: When I arrived at ASIC, it was November of 2007. I think the market peaked the week I arrived, and it went down fairly fast after that, which I don’t think was me and I don’t think was Australia; I think it was the global market. So 2008 [required] a huge preoccupation with the challenges of a folding market. When I arrived, the commission had [already] decided it was a time for change, even before the crisis. We wanted to make ASIC much more market-facing, [so] that instead of being driven by internal structures, [it would be] driven by what the market wanted. So, we did a very large structural change at a time of extreme market difficulties, shall we say.

Styles: What other types of challenges were there, particularly for you as a leader in the organisation?

Gibson: Leadership challenges for me, if I might speak from a personal point of view to start with. I’d come from a world as a lawyer, in a large law firm, but where you closely managed a small number of people – 10, maximum 20, on a transaction – to a world where at times I had 20 direct reports, and at all times I had 500 or 600 people in that sphere. And that’s a huge personal challenge to lead and to really learn to lead that many people. Within ASIC, those sort of leadership challenges are learning about communication; you enter a new organisation that has its own dynamics and its own existing infrastructure, and you have to come to terms with that. You might want to build change into it, but you can’t do a wholesale change; you have to work within that. And that took some adaptation.

Styles: So how did you adapt? You’ve talked about a very different environment in Mallesons, where you were a partner, to your role in ASIC. How did you go about adapting to that different environment? Was that a conscious thing, or was it something that you reflected on, or was it something that you learned your way through?

Gibson: I learned my way through. I looked to others to assist – the [then] chairman of ASIC, Tony D’Aloisio, was an enormous guiding influence. Other commissioners, other senior executives in other organisations that you could talk to in generic terms about how you do this, and learn from others. I learned the value of that probably more so than ever.

Styles: The transition from being a partner in a law firm to ASIC, what drove that in terms of your career? I mean, sometimes our careers are well planned, sometimes it’s happenstance. How did you, and why did you, make that shift from one to the other?

Gibson: It was to a large extent happenstance that there was a knock on the door [asking]: “Belinda, what would you think about moving down here?” Up here, you might say. It was at a time when I was ready for a change, ready for a challenge, ready to do something that was going to utilise all my skills. I’d been at Mallesons 25 years, I’d been a partner for 20 and it was just time for a change. It was also time and an opportunity to give something back to the wider community. I’ve done a lot for specific clients, I’ve done a lot for the firm, I’ve done quite well myself along the way; and this was a chance to help the market more broadly, which was my skill set.

Styles: If we go back to the early part of your career and particularly your education, how do you think your education set you up for your career, or what sorts of things did it give you that now, on reflection, you’ve drawn upon?

Gibson: Having been at ASIC, my economics degree suddenly came out of the bottom drawer. I suppose I hadn’t really drawn on that terribly much over the years as a practising lawyer, or even over the years managing the law firm. But when you’re suddenly talking about crisis and prudential requirements and market influences, that degree came back with bells on, I might say.

My law course set a framework, a way of thinking. I did some courses when I was at Mallesons, just week-long courses – one at Harvard on negotiation, which I think has to be the most valuable course I’ve ever done in my life in terms of structures, and in terms of thinking about yourself, and learning. I did another one on joint ventures at INSEAD, again just a week or two. But they make you think, and they give you a framework, and that’s good.

I did get some coaching when I was at ASIC on managing a large number of people. I just felt I needed some assistance, particularly at a time when we were a couple of commissioners short. And that was of great value. I think I’ve learnt how much, how good it is to learn, and to seek assistance.

Styles: So when you were in the law firm and you became a partner, then you started leading people, and you really took responsibility for not only their outcomes but also their own development. What sort of approach did you take in helping develop others?

Gibson: That was also a journey for me. I think as I started and through my career, it was very much [a case of] lead by example, and not spend a lot of time with people, talking to them about their advancement as opposed to their work on particular projects. As you get older, you start to think, “Well, I’m learning from that; I can give some, too.” So, and especially at ASIC, I spent a lot of time talking to people about their careers and where they might go, and giving them the benefit of my thoughts.

Styles: That’s really signalling a move away from the technical or the content part of one’s job, whether it be in a law firm or in ASIC, and more [towards] the managing people part. Would you say that as you went through your career, you were spending more and more time on the people part rather than just the content part?

Gibson: Absolutely. And that’s an element of my maturing; it’s an element of progressing, that as you get higher up the tree, as it were, you can’t manage the micro nearly as much, and you need to do better at helping those doing the micro [work] do better at it. So it’s an element of self-help, but it is an element of maturing to work out how you’re going to get the best outcomes.

Styles: Well, that’s all about your leadership style and your development. You’ve been able to observe in your career a lot of business leaders and government leaders and community leaders. How would you characterise leadership in Australia? It’s a big question, I know, but what are some of the things that you find we do well, also things that we don’t do so well?

Gibson: The challenge, I think, for business leaders today is the engagement with the market, by which I mean not customers so much as the securities market, the financial markets, the newspapers, and I include in that blog sites and whatever. That’s the ground that’s shifting enormously. And some handle it better than others. And I’m not talking about the sort of incidents of continuous disclosure breaches or otherwise; it’s the wider picture of how you communicate. You are expected to communicate with a much greater array of stakeholders, investors, workers, and so on.

Styles: Well, that’s the future. What would your advice be to people who are developing careers, increasingly having more responsibility and greater leadership roles? What advice, based on your experience and what you see ahead, would you give them?

Gibson: Mentors are great. Coaches are good. Education and framework, I think, is important. I don’t want to sound like an ad for a business school … But the education I’ve done in that regard gives a framework to see how to establish things, and how to carry forward, and it gives you a framework to analyse what you’re doing and what others might do, and what, if you like, good practice might be.

The second one, on a more personal level, would be to be objective about what you’re doing and how you’re doing; that people give you hints along the way, people say things along the way that you think, “I’m doing really well”, but actually, they might just be saying that

So the study helps you be objective, but be objective. And seek challenge, I think, is the other one; don’t get too comfy.

This piece first appeared at The Knowledge.


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