Cruise Control

16 May 2016

She has steered the cruise industry through rough seas and helped drive cultural change in the corporate world. Contact caught up with Australia’s Most Influential Woman and alumna Ann Sherry AO as she reflected on her career so far.

The title of Australia’s Most Influential Woman carries prestige, honour, and the recognition of an esteemed career.

But Carnival Australia Executive Chairman Ann Sherry AO says it also carries a weight of responsibility.

Sherry (Bachelor of Arts ’78; Honorary Doctor of Business ’14) was named Australia’s most influential woman of 2015 at the Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence Awards, celebrating her efforts in overhauling Carnival Australia and revitalising the cruise industry.

“The title was a huge surprise, largely because you don’t put yourself forward for those things, but it is now my responsibility to continue to use my influence,” she said.

“I’m involved on a wide set of fronts on a number of issues and I think using influence to try to improve things for others is a responsibility, but also an opportunity.”

Sherry joined Carnival Australia in 2007 and has led the industry’s extraordinary growth in the years that followed.

Prior to that, Sherry spent 12 years with Westpac, driving cultural change, community engagement and customer focus, and is recognised for her work in helping the company become the first private-sector bank to introduce paid maternity leave.

Before joining Westpac, Sherry was First Assistant Secretary of the Office of the Status of Women in Canberra from 1993 to 1994, advising then Prime Minister Paul Keating on policies and programs. She was also Australia’s representative to the United Nations forums on human rights and women’s rights.

In 2004, she was awarded an Order of Australia for her contribution to the community through the promotion of corporate management policies and practices that embrace gender equity, social justice, and work and family partnerships.

In addition to her executive role, Sherry holds a number of non-executive roles, including with Sydney Airport, ING Direct (Australia), The Palladium Group, Australian Rugby Union and Cape York Partnerships.

Did you have any early career ambitions?

When I was growing up there were virtually no female role models, but my mother always worked. She was a pharmacist. The idea that I would work probably came from a maternal role model and the belief that I could have a profession and a family.

Why did you choose to study a Bachelor of Arts at UQ and what influence did the University have on your future career?

UQ was where you went if you wanted to go to university in Queensland. I actually started my working life as a radiographer at Royal Brisbane Hospital but realised it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, so I came to UQ. I started my BA studying maths and computer science. As a sidebar, I also studied government and psychology and it was those subjects that I found incredibly engaging. They were much more about the argument and the discussion, as well as the thought process. My time at university was an incredible time for reflection and flexibility. I started in one area and ended up in a completely different one, and there are very few opportunities in your life to do that. That flexibility is one of the things that has stayed with me because I’ve changed countries, companies and careers a number of times since and you learn not to be afraid of that. I was a student at a time of very conservative politics in Queensland. Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the Premier and there was a lot of activism on campus. I believe that activism gave students the opportunity to be part of public discourse, part of public debate, and have a view on public policy. The opportunity to engage in those big issues made you feel as though you were part of the world you worked in and lived in. There was so much happening on campus and the richness of those experiences became an incredible foundation for life.

Was there a professor or teacher who inspired or influenced you?

Margaret Cribb, who was a staff member in the School of Political Science and International Studies, was one of the few female lecturers I had at university. She was very engaging around the issues of government and public policy, which probably led me to join the Australian Public Service after university.

Why did you make the move into the private sector after a long career in public service?

I had been critical of the private sector from where I sat in government. So, when I was offered the chance to get into the system and try to change it, I figured I needed to put my money where my mouth was. I moved to Westpac when there was a strong push to get more senior women into the sector.
There are very few opportunities you get to come into organisations at a senior level and be part of driving a change program. So that was incredibly appealing. I learnt that even old and well-established institutions can change, and the culture change that you bring to an organisation is what makes them relevant.

Tell us about your work with Indigenous communities?

I got involved with an organisation originally called Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships about 15 years ago after attending a meeting in Weipa. Lawyer and land rights activist Noel Pearson gave one of his early speeches about welfare reform and the rights of Indigenous communities to take more control of their future and it resonated with me. That organisation later became Jawun, and I was on the board for about 12 years. When you spend a lot of time in those communities you realise that one of the great barriers to long-term change is the lack of availability of (or access to) good education. I got involved with the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, raising money to enable kids from remote communities to attend boarding school, and that program now has hundreds of Indigenous kids attending some of the best schools in Australia. Many become teachers, doctors and nurses and return to their communities and improve service delivery, health and other outcomes. I’m now on the board of Cape York Partnerships, and we’ve launched the first educational institution in the Cape for young women of school age who have children. This is more common in remote Aboriginal communities than it is in the rest of the country and, of course, it affects education opportunities for those women and therefore changes the outcomes for their kids. I’m passionate about what I call practical reconciliation, which is the need to support Indigenous communities to be self-sufficient. I’m passionate about education because I think it’s such a game-changer for individuals, their families and communities. And I’m passionate about supporting communities that have the will and desire to change the way they’re engaging with the rest of the world and the rest of Australia.

What career achievements are you particularly proud of?

The introduction of paid maternity leave in Westpac changed corporate Australia forever. I’m proud that I was able to have that sort of impact. The second was revitalising an entire segment of tourism. The cruise industry was on its knees when I took over the business. The growth of cruise tourism has impacted the Pacific Islands and regional communities in Australia, where we now take the ships, and there are tens of thousands of jobs that are supported by the industry.

What advice would you give to young people who are keen to have a successful career?

I would say that the job you end up doing probably doesn’t exist now, or you can’t imagine it now. You need a tool kit that has flexibility at its core. It’s important to take risks as sometimes the things that seem the riskiest yield the best results. If you get the opportunity to work globally or study overseas, do it. Living in other people’s environments teaches you a lot about them, their culture and also yourself. I would also say never stop learning. The world around us is changing fast and you’ve got to keep learning to keep up. Finally, if you experience success, you have the responsibility to bring other people along with you. We’ll create a better society if we’re all thinking about how we can share our good luck and good fortune with others.