Avril Henry

on Monday, 04 June 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews

Avril Henry
Executive Director, AH Revelations

Avril Henry graduated from the University of Cape Town in Accounting and Economics, migrating to Australia in 1980, with two suitcases, $500 and a dream to live freely and make a difference.

Avril’s career has spanned senior roles in Finance, IT, Project Management, Change Management and HR. The companies she has worked for include De Beers, Barclays Bank, Midland Bank, UBS Warburg, Westpac, Merrill Lynch, DMR Consulting and Clayton Utz.  She has worked in South Africa, Australia, the UK and USA. In 2003, she set up her own business, focusing on Public Speaking, Consulting and Executive Coaching in the areas of Leadership, People and Performance strategies.  

Avril is a Fellow of CPA Australia, a Senior Associate of the Australian Institute of Banking & Finance, a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Australian Institute of Management and the Australian Human Resources Institute. Avril is the immediate past Chairperson of the National Diversity Think Tank.  

Avril was one of three finalists in the 2005 and 2004 Australian HR Awards for the Lifetime Achievement in HR Award; and in 2002, was one of the five finalists in the Australian HR Awards for Best HR Director.  In 2005 Avril was a finalist in the Sydney Business Review Business Woman of the Year and was nominated in 1995 and 1996 for the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year.  

Effective November 2005, Avril has been appointed by the Department of Defence to head up a ministerial review of recruitment and retention practices in the Army, Navy and Airforce.  

Avril is the author of “Leadership Revelations: An Australian Perspective”, released in March 2005.

Interview with Avril Henry

Why did you write an Australian perspective of leadership? What insights did an Australian perspective offer that other research on leadership did not reveal?   

I decided to do a book on Australian leaders as I noticed that often large organisations go offshore to find new CEOs and senior executives, so my objective was to demonstrate that we have plenty of good, competent leaders within our own country and should look locally for new leaders rather than overseas.  The second question could best be answered by saying that my book sought to illustrate that Australian leadership is about understanding the culture of Australian workplaces and Australian employees, which is often not understood by leaders from other countries. I also think that my book demonstrates that leadership can be found across industries and in different types of businesses, including Not-For-Profit and small businesses. Large business and politics do not have the monopoly on leadership.   

According to your book, Leadership Revelations An Australian Perspective, the unique essence of leadership in Australia comprised key characteristics of leadership, such as an appetite for learning and developing others, change enablement, courage, integrity and the ability to motivate and inspire others. Can you briefly summarise the behaviours, competencies or characteristics that comprise a good leader? Do you regard any characteristics as being more significant than others?   

I think that technical and business competence has often been demonstrated prior to someone being promoted into a leadership position, unfortunately their people skills and interpersonal skills have often not been developed to the same extent as their business skills. We talk about people being our "greatest asset" in workplaces, yet we treat them like children and "liabilities". Many people in leadership positions have limited or poor people skills. It is a well known fact that people join organisations, but leave because of poor managers or leaders! I believe behavioural competencies are more important than technical skills once in a leadership position. A smart leader will always surround himself/herself with people who are technically more competent than them. The key competencies for a good leader are, in my opinion, and from the leaders in the book, great communicators, comfortable with change at a personal and professional level, have respect for people, lead by example through not only their words, but more importantly their actions, which leads to integrity, an ability to inspire and motivate people, believe in the value of coaching their people and value difference rather than uniformity. In February we released a report titled "The Who What When and Y of Generation why", in which 75% of the participants (predominantly aged 20 -24) identified good leaders as those who were good listeners, lead by example, inspire and motivate people and create positive work environments. I think the most important quality of a good leader is the ability to listen to others, they listen more than they talk and respect others regardless of position, status, gender or age.

In your book you identified a number of cultural traits which hinder Australians in their quest for leadership, such as an unwillingness to praise good performance for fear of promoting tall poppy syndrome. Where do you see this trait originating and what do you recommend to overcome this trait in a community or business place setting?

I believe that this trait comes from our strong culture of "mateship" and our desire to keep everyone "in their place", and making sure no one thinks they are better than someone else. In our recent survey of Generation Y, 100% of participants said that receiving feedback on their performance at work was highly important to them. We need to learn how to give (and receive) feedback, and this needs to be done through training programs, as it doesn't come naturally. If we don't learn how to give feedback to those we lead, we will lose the two youngest generations in the workplace. They want to know when they are doing a good job, so they can continue doing so, but they also want to know when they are not doing a good job so they can improve, expecting that their managers and leaders will help them achieve such improvement.    

Your book gave an equal representation to women who are leaders in Australia. From your findings, do you think that one needs to understand the role gender plays in how leadership develops and is practiced in Australia?

Each gender approaches leadership differently, in broad terms, men tend to be more directive in their leadership using traditional "command and control" leadership styles, while women tend to be more inclusive and collaborative in their style. Women also tend to be better listeners. I think each gender can learn from the other but this requires an open mind and a willingness to learn from each other. Current leadership styles need to become more collaborative and inclusive, as this is what Generations X and Y are looking for in their leaders. They want to be heard, make a contribution which is valued by their leaders and the organisation, and they want to do work which makes a difference. We have already seen that research shows that people want to work for leaders who listen, demonstrate respect for others and lead by example, in their words, leaders who "...do what they say they will do".  

What patterns emerged in the responses of women leaders that women need to be conscious of in their own journey of empowerment?

I think the important observation I have made is that women need to be confident in leading in the way that comes to them naturally, namely listening, fostering teamwork and collaboration, masters of balance and flexibility, rather than imitating traditional paternalistic, directive styles.   

How does Australia compare with other developed countries in terms of the quality of leaders and the opportunities available for new leaders to emerge?

Australia has some good leaders, but not enough of them at present.  As a nation, in both the public and private sector, we must investment more in leadership and management development programs.  Unfortunately we tend to cut the Training & Development budgets first when things get tough financially, as such training is seen as "soft skills" and therefore not as necessary as technical or product skills. Ironically, the only competitive advantage any organisation has is in the quality and skills of its people. The only way to ensure you have the best people is to hire the best in the first place and then invest in developing their skills consistently. As the new generation of leaders emerges amongst Generations X and Y, they are asking for "soft skills" training, as they want to be better managers and leaders than those they have worked for!   

Was there an Australian leader whose leadership style and philosophy impressed you the most? Why?

I was impressed and inspired by every person in the book in different ways.  Leaders in the Not-For-Profit sector made me feel very humble due to their unwavering passion and commitment to their causes, but Ann Sherry continues to be the leader who inspires and impresses me most.  I am fortunate to have worked for her in the past.  She creates a work environment where people can be the best they can be, done principally through her strong belief in her people, she encourages people to challenge the status quo and find better ways of achieving outcomes, but most importantly she leads by example, never asking her people to do something she would not be willing to do herself.