How Alan Kirkland has championed socially responsible leadership

Throughout his career as a CEO, Alan Kirkland has demonstrated a commitment to societal impact and championed access to justice for those in need

Alan Kirkland is a case study in how to lead organisations that focus on societal impact for the greater good. Over the past 20-plus years, he has led organisations such as Legal Aid New South Wales to assist those experiencing poverty and disadvantage, championed the rights of consumers as CEO of CHOICE, and now assists with the oversight of Australia’s financial services sector as Commissioner of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

Since completing an Executive MBA at AGSM @ UNSW Business School in 2006 (in addition to a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts in 1996 at UNSW Sydney), Mr Kirkland has made it his professional mission in life to make markets fair, safe and just for Australians – particularly those who are in positions of poverty and disadvantage or who have been unjustly treated.

BusinessThink spoke with Mr Kirkland as he was in his final weeks as CEO of CHOICE, before taking up his new role at ASIC.

Championing access to justice

One of his earlier positions was as Executive Director of the NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS), for example, where he led campaigns for increased funding for child protection, homelessness and disability services. He has taken a strong interest in improving access to justice for those in need, having served as Executive Director of the Australian Law Reform Commission, as CEO of Legal Aid New South Wales, and Chair of the National Legal Assistance Advisory Body.

“Probably the biggest highlight for me was being appointed as CEO of Legal Aid, which was really my first big CEO role,” Mr Kirkland says. With around 1000 staff, he said Legal Aid was a complex operating environment with a mix of state and federal funding combined with a delivery model involving public and private sector lawyers and a wide range of other stakeholders – all of which needed to work effectively together to meet the needs of the community.

“That was a huge step up for me,” he says. “The MBA was really critical to my ability to deliver in this role, and there are certainly some things that I was really proud to have achieved there. I look at Legal Aid today, and there are many things I helped to put in place that have actually become much bigger now which are delivering significant outcomes for people in New South Wales.”

Leading consumer advocacy through boosting engagement at CHOICE

More recently, he served as CEO of consumer advocacy group CHOICE, and he is particularly proud of his achievements in leading the organisation over 11 years. “In my time at CHOICE as a consumer advocate, I've seen how critical it is to have effective regulation. That requires people in leadership roles at regulators that understand how the market works as well, the consumer experience of those markets, and particularly the experience of disadvantaged and vulnerable consumers,” he says.

One of the key focuses in his time there was to improve the culture of the organisation. When he started in his role as CEO, employee engagement levels sat at about 25 per cent. “I don't know how an organisation can even function with staff engagement at 25 per cent,” he recalls. “This was the presenting problem, and we couldn't do anything else until we addressed that. Yet, it wasn't something you could do quickly; it probably took three to five years before I felt like we'd cracked that engagement problem. And it was hard, painstaking work along the way.”

One of the most important steps Mr Kirkland took in this process was to build the organisation’s values from the ground up. When he arrived at CHOICE, he recalled seeing wall posters with values, but no one could remember them or tell him where they came from. “We decided we needed to throw them out and start all over again,” he says. The CHOICE people and culture team surveyed employees about aspects of the culture (such as when employees felt proud to work at CHOICE), followed by a half-day workshop that was attended by around a third of the staff face-to-face.

“We honed in on those insights that we thought could serve as our values, which turned into truth, help and impact. These have evolved and we've changed how we talk about them and how we describe the behaviours that sit under those values. But we have stuck with those three headline values of truth, help and impact. And I'd be pretty confident that most people at CHOICE could recite them if you ask them what their values are today,” he said.

Since then, engagement scores are consistently around 80 per cent. “Now you see discretionary effort, with people putting up their hand and volunteering to take on jobs. I see things happen around the organisation that nobody in management has ever suggested somebody think about. And that's what you get for a really positive and engaged culture, as well as the fact that people will just talk about that being one of the things that really attracts them and keeps them at the organisation,” he says.

How CEOs can become better leaders

Mr Kirkland acknowledges that like many leaders, he has experienced impostor syndrome but was less ready to recognise it earlier in his career. “I felt like you had to just pretend that you knew everything that was going on and just blast through,” he recalls. “But over time, I've come to realise that you need to be confident in that you know what you're doing, but also acknowledge where there are gaps in your knowledge and understanding – and reach out to people who can help to fill them,” he says.

“So rather than pretending that you're all over it, when you may not be, it’s about having the humility to go to somebody at whatever level of an organisation and say, ‘Can you please explain this thing to me? Or tell me if I got it wrong?’ This has really served me well, but it took me a long time to learn that.”

For those aspiring to leadership positions, Mr Kirkland also underscored the importance of having a support network. “My support network from the executive development I've done over time has been important,” says Mr Kirkland, who reflected on how lonely CEO-type roles can be. Having peers outside the organisation is important for support in a number of ways – both when it comes to discussing certain sensitive issues, as well as having contacts who have been through similar experiences and who can be trusted to discuss issues in confidence.

Also important for a CEO is their relationship with the chair of the board. “I've been really lucky, in that I have an incredible group of chairs to work with. Often people are asked about what's enabled their learning and success over time, and the answer will usually be their boss or their CEO. As a CEO, the closest you have to a boss is the chair of your board. And all the governance theory acknowledges that you need to have a great chair-CEO relationship,” he says.

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“But even better, as a CEO, is having somebody who's going to push and stretch you and challenge you and question whether you're making the right decisions, but in a way that makes you feel like they've got your back. And I have been incredibly lucky, particularly at CHOICE, to have a series of people who have come from different backgrounds. Each of them has given me a different way of thinking about things – but they have absolutely stretched me and helped me to make better decisions. And I think for anybody in a chair or CEO role, thinking about how you get that relationship right is really critical.”


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