Featured Profile: Lisa Gray
View from the C-suite
Lisa Gray is in her second term leading Victoria Funds Management Corporation. She spoke to Kanika Sood about her long-running career, what makes good leaders tick and what's on her reading list.

About four years ago, Lisa Gray went from manning high-powered roles at the likes of NAB and MLC to steering a fund manager that invests government assets.

She says there are more similarities than differences between the two sectors.

Leadership is about crafting strategy, building a team and asking the right questions.
As one of the tight group of executives who transitioned seamlessly between public and private, she's the right person to ask.

"They both have a hierarchy, people need to organise into teams or departments to function and both need to manage reputation," Gray says.

"But in a public sector leadership role, you need to develop the skills to manage a whole new set of stakeholders including the government and ministers."

When she started at VFMC in 2016, Gray had clocked more than nine years at NAB, nearly three at MLC and four at Plum Financial Services, all in C-suite roles.

Her move to the $64 billion VFMC followed the standard process, she says.

But there was a catch: her appointment would need to be approved not just by VFMC's board but also by the Victorian state treasurer, at the time, Labor's Tim Pallas.

Gray and Pallas knew each other from her days at NAB when, she sat on an expert panel that advised the state treasurer on housing affordability.

With that hurdle cleared, she spent the first six months on the job engaging its board, an external firm, and key staff through one-on-one interviews.

The outcome, VFMC's 2020 strategy, saw the fund manager focus on three areas: embedding strategic clarity, building resilience in investment performance and developing its technology and people capabilities.

In February this year Gray was renewed for a second term in the role. She is eligible for reappointment as long as she retains the support of VFMC's board and the minister.

But life wasn't always spent in the highest rungs of Australian finance.

Gray's parents were immigrants, who arrived in Australia following WWII.

As a young girl, she attended the selective entry, all-girls Mac Robertsons Girls High School in Melbourne.

"I enjoyed school, not everyone does," Gray says. "I was very involved in house activities right from the start."

She liked to go camping and played tennis, softball and competitive netball. Also of interest to her were drama, acting and production.

Later, Gray studied a bachelor's in town and regional planning at University of Melbourne.

"It was mostly an accident," she says. "But there was some element of design, an interest I inherited from my father who trained as an agriculture scientist and later switched to being an architectural draftsman and ran his own business."

Three years later, Gray would graduate with a degree in town planning with honours.

But the coursework had sown the seeds of a career in company leadership.

"About midway through the degree, I did
a course on organisations and teamwork.  I realised I had a real intuition and passion for leading people and that was what I really wanted to do instead of town planning," she says.

Gray used her elective units to learn about business, marketing and legal concepts. But getting her first job in finance was still not easy.

"Back then employers were not as lateral in recognising transferrable skills when they hired people. But the finance sector was still open to people without direct training but with the right attitude," she says.

In her first role as a business analyst at National Mutual, Gray was a part of a team that looked at how the company could improve processes.

"I got to work with a range of people across different departments and areas. That was good because I have a natural curiosity about things," she says.

Gray liked product development and distribution the most.

And so she sought out a job in product management at National Mutual, helping build the deferred annuity business.

While working, she also did a graduate diploma in management from RMIT.

By this time, National Mutual had handed over majority ownership to French insurer AXA. Gray went for a leadership role, this time adding operations and technology to her areas of expertise.

"The managing director picked five or six of us to go and chart out a new strategy for the company on a blank sheet of paper in six months," she says.

In her early 30s at this point in her career, she was appointed to AXA's executive team for Australia/New Zealand.

"That was a significant step up in my career," she recalls.

It was also the source of her next big career opportunity.

"I got to a stage where I really wanted to be a chief executive. At that time, AXA and MLC were going to merge. They were also looking for a founding chief executive for Plum, which was a startup and a joint venture between MLC and Vanguard."

"I thought that sounded fantastic."

Gray came on board as the first employee of Plum in March 1998. In less than four years, she took Plum from a startup to having the second largest market share in corporate superannuation, after Mercer, she says.

In her time at Plum, Gray also paved the way for its employees to work flexibly.

She is mother to two, who were born at the start and end of her time at Plum.

"My four fellow board members were all fathers so they understood what it takes to raise a family. I had a lot of support and it really paved the way for thinking that you can work flexibly," she says.

"There were times when I brought my two month old daughter into board meetings with me."

Missing the complexity of working for a bigger organisation, in 2001 Gray was approached by MLC's then chief executive Peter Scott to lead its insurance business.

Three years later, she switched lanes again to banking with NAB where she would stay for nearly 10 years, eventually as its chief operating officer.

Outside of work, Gray enjoys reading crime novels. Australian Jane Harper is a favourite, as is J.K. Rowling under her pseudonym of Robert Gailbraith.

"The flaws in human lives, their character, and how they overcome challenges is interesting to me," she says.

So, how does someone, right at the top, jump to leading a very different business each time?

"I never felt the need to be the expert," she says.

Gray says too many leaders try to make all the decisions themselves and in the process, force people to leave the organisation.

"You realise that leadership is about crafting strategy, building a team and asking the right questions," she says.

She says if a team shares values, priorities and context, they will make largely similar decisions regardless of who is in the room.

"This means the team and organisation are not reliant on any one person, including the chief executive," she says. "That's my test for myself as a leader."

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