Tony Berg on his "no bullsh*t" approach to feedback

There are few more accomplished CEOs globally than Sydney-born Tony Berg. As the first CEO of Australia’s Macquarie Group, he helped a young financial institution to become one of the largest investment banks in the southern hemisphere.

When it comes to CEOs, there are few bigger names than Sydney-born corporate heavyweight, Tony Berg.

As the first CEO of Australia’s Macquarie Group, he helped a young financial institution to become one of the largest investment banks in the southern hemisphere.

By going on to become CEO of the country’s leading construction materials and energy supplier, Boral Limited, he swapped the trading floor for bricks and mortar, going on to lead an ambitious turnaround programme resulting in one of Australia’s most successful corporate demergers.

To celebrate the launch of Howamigoing, we caught up with the man himself where he gave us the low-down on his meteoric rise to the top, learned about his unusual nickname and found out why variety is the spice of his life.

Tony’s diverse global experience and well-earned reputation have seen him sit on the boards of several high profile organisations, including the National Gallery of Australia, Westfield, Record Investments and ING Australia. Having achieved boardroom fame by the tender age of 30 and being an integral cog in a whole host of high-profile international projects since, we can’t think of anybody better to ask about personal and professional development.

Tony in Sydney's Botanical Gardens.

Julian: Tony, looking back, did you always have a clearly defined idea of where you wanted to take your career or has it evolved in more of an organic fashion?

Tony Berg: My university education in economics and business generated a desire to be a manager. However, I responded to opportunities as I saw them and I was particularly excited by the M&A work I did early on, but then tended towards management at Macquarie Bank.

Variety is important and I do not believe in holding on to a job too long depriving others of taking that position to bigger and better results. That is why I moved to Boral from Macquarie, I admit I was lucky. But I would have been happy doing other jobs had the ball bounced differently.

Julian: You were affectionately nicknamed The Headmaster during your time at Macquarie Bank – what does this say about your work style and how you drive professional development in others?

Tony: I think only a minority of Macquarie staff called me The Headmaster, but probably not “affectionately.” I was strict in terms of values and risk taking and not everyone liked that. At Macquarie, professional development was very much on the job. We would give executives responsibility early and watch how they handled it, expecting people to ask if they were unsure. For those predicted to move up into management we made them head up projects to assess their calibre.

"You can't have a constructive feedback discussion when the salary increase and bonus are being discussed"

Julian: Have you found a difference in the “proactiveness” of Australians toward their career compared with our international counterparts?

Tony: I believe the proactiveness of Australians is similar to Americans. If anything, Americans think they should be promoted sooner and are more up-front about that.

Tony (centre) accepting the role of Patron of Musica Viva Australia.

Julian: Throughout your career, what has been your approach to gathering feedback? Who did you tend to ask, and how often?

Tony: I believe formal performance reviews are important – they create a record for the benefit of both parties. They should not be a substitute for informal discussions where someone can learn and improve from constructive feedback.

Julian: What are your views on de-coupling a company’s feedback cycle from its salary-review/ bonus cycle?

Tony: It is very important to de-couple the feedback review cycle from the salary and bonus review cycle. You can’t have a constructive discussion when the salary increase and bonus are being discussed.

"I look for integrity. No "bull-shitting", just tell me truly what is going on"

Julian: In your experience, do millennials have a different work ethic or approach to their career than those of the baby boomer generation?

Tony: Both millennials and baby boomers are prepared to work hard and long hours. For a long time, I have felt that working hours are too long. The main difference I see between baby boomers and millennials is that millennials are more prepared to change jobs to get ahead. Baby boomers were more patient.

Julian: What attributes have you tended to look for most in promoting others?

Tony: I look for integrity. No “bull-shitting”, just tell me truly what is going on. They’re the people I like working with.

Tony (left) and David Clarke in Macquarie Bank's Annual Report, June 25, 1990.

Julian: What would you say are the biggest sticking points preventing people from advancing in the workplace?

Tony: Sometimes people have unrealistic expectations about promotion.

Julian: To what extent do you think this can be alleviated through seeking regular feedback?

Tony: Regular feedback helps, but individuals need to listen to what is being said and respond to it.

Julian: What has been your career low point and highlight?

Tony: I guess the highlight of my career was helping to form a bank that more than achieved our vision for it. A low point was losing key people who had been long-term colleagues in the journey.

Julian: What lessons did you learn from your low point that helped you get where you are today?

Tony: The lesson was that often our fears are much worse than what eventuates. When people leave, others can step up.

Julian: And finally, what is the best piece of career advice that anyone has ever given you?

Tony: One of my most important lessons was to seek out people who are really successful and going places. Try to work for these leaders and have them be your mentor.

Julian: Sounds like a great place to finish on - thanks Tony!

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