In this edition of Wyvern Corner Office, Richard Humphry AO (50-56) discusses his career pathway. Having worked in a range of jobs before securing the position of CEO of the Australian Stock Exchange, Richard is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to working in the financial world.
What do you remember from your time at Wesley College?
I came to Wesley College aged 10. In those days, university degrees were rare and it was acceptable for people to leave school back then with what was called a Junior Certificate. That’s what I ended up doing, so I left Wesley when I was about 15. When I reflect on my years at Wesley, I remember having lots of close friends. I am quite the optimist, so even back then I saw everything from a positive point of view. We would cycle two miles to school every day, up hills and without gears. I still remember that fondly. Overall, it was a happy time – I enjoyed it.
What was the greatest lesson that your parents taught you?
My parents were the pillars of the local church. My grandfather on my father’s side was a minister in South Perth, and my father was the one out of all of his brothers that continued that support of the church. He would get the kids up at six in the morning to cart bricks for the church; we worked without mercy. In his role, he always had to carry himself with integrity and the importance of integrity has stayed with me in my working life.
When I began working for the public service sector in Canberra there was such a standard of integrity. There was an expectation that you would give fearless advice to ministers. As integrity was so important, I was able to fit in as it was natural for me. That being said, it brought about many issues of having to provide unpalatable advice to ministers and to senior officials. If you didn’t do that, apart from compromising yourself, you would also be misleading them.
When you are developing policies that have a serious impact on the community, you can’t just think of the positive side, or the political side. You must consider the potential implications and the unforeseen circumstances that might develop from those decisions.
What advice would you give to someone who is about to start their career in the corporate world?
You will probably have about five different careers over the course of your working life. That’s different to what it was like back in the day; people tended to go into one job. As it turned out, I did five or six different jobs and that was an unusual occurrence. It’s quite exciting for young people these days – you don’t know where you might be in a few years’ time. It’s a marvellous time to be alive. I would do it all again if I could.
As a young person, you have got to stay up to date with the science and the technology of the time. It’s not enough to be just a doctor or a scientist, or whatever it is you choose to be, you need to have a broad approach. If you’re going to take advantage of the opportunities that are there, you must think critically and observe the trends of the time. You must be able to think independently.
What makes a good leader in the business world?
I think there’s two ways you can run an organisation: with fear or with encouragement and participation. It has got to be the latter. You have got to be aware of the needs of the people that are working for you. It is not about you running the show, it’s about how you facilitate your team. If you have that approach, the leadership will follow. You need to ask yourself, have you got the credibility to be accepted by them to be their leader? Essentially, this comes down to having a stable and positive approach. You must think of the team members rather than yourself. The whole concept of the law is about communication with transparency – without that you can’t build trust.
You had to make some big decisions in the different roles that you had. How did you go about making those big decisions?
It is important here to distinguish between intelligence and judgment. Judgment is the key. It’s not about always making the right decision, it’s about making rational, considered decisions. Most people are bright, but only some make considered decisions.
Often in the business world, the process can overtake the objective, especially in the private sector. Before making any major decisions, you must consider whether you are focussing on your objectives in the right way. You need to wake up and ask yourself, is this relevant? Sometimes this might mean getting fresh set of eyes on your project. You do need to sometimes get outside yourself and your views.
What sorts of traits do businesses look for in prospective employees?
I would always put the personality before the degrees. It’s no good having all the degrees if you can’t apply yourself. It’s about fitting into a team. In my case, the people I was looking for had to be able to take people (their team) with them. ASX Chief of Operations, Colin Scully, was one of these people. He had a natural ability to lead.
How important in business is it to trust your instinct and then hold your nerve when you’re being challenged?
When the 9/11 attacks happened, that meant that the world markets were going to be dramatically impacted. Australia was the first market to open their stock exchange the next day and to me if we had of folded and closed our market, even as a sign of respect to the deaths, that would have sent a message to the terrorists that they could run the show.
As the CEO of the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), I got direct calls from different people saying not to open it. I got calls from different countries asking what we were going to do. There was a lot of pressure.
Fortunately the Chairman of the ASX and I were on the same page. We had to send the right signal and we opened, with the market falling 50%. Everyone was uncertain as to what was going to happen from there.
I had to hold my nerve – people were telling me it was on my head. The issue, to me, was a no brainer. We knew that once we did it, we knew everyone would fall in line.
We sent a message to New York saying we hope you understand and we did it for these reasons. They said it was absolutely the right thing to do. These are your defining points in life. You won’t always take the right path, but you’ve got to stick by them.
What’s your greatest accomplishment?
Family, to me, is still my most important accomplishment. I am very proud of my grandsons. Hopefully I’ve helped them prepare for what is going to be a pretty challenging future.
I am grateful for my experiences I’ve had and the interesting people I have met on the way. They were all different and taught me different things. You had experiences out of those relationships. They aren’t what I am proud of but it’s what you remember. I always feel you don’t achieve these things yourself.
Richard and his wife Rose visited the College campus earlier in the year. It was a fantastic opportunity for him to view the Gallery of Honour in which he had been inducted into in 2018.