David Thodey on three essential qualities of a transformational leader

While good ideas and purpose are the bedrock of success, leaders today must also be willing to challenge themselves and change course when the timing feels right, says David Thodey, Board Director and former CEO of Telstra

The events of 2020 have inspired many leaders to reflect on what the future might look like for their organisations. But in many ways, the future of work is not on its way – it’s already here. Digital transformation plays an essential role in adapting to this new environment, but transformational leaders must also ensure their organisations become more human, creative and resilient along the way. 

How leaders can innovate to create organisations that are more human, creative and resilient is discussed in The Business of Transformational Leadership podcast, the eighth episode of the AGSM @ UNSW Business School Leadership Podcast series hosted by Emma Lo Russo, CEO of Digivizer. 

In the podcast, David Thodey, Board Director and former CEO of Telstra, shares his thoughts on essential leadership skills and how leadership can foster the human and creative elements which are so crucial to business success. Other podcast guests include Deborah Young, founding CEO of the RegTech Association, and Patrick Sharry, Director at People and Decisions, and AGSM Program Director and Adjunct Faculty member. 

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“Telstra was not just [about] being a telecommunications company, it was about creating a brilliant connection with people": David Thodey, Board Director and former CEO of Telstra. Image: Shutterstock

Transformational leaders are purpose-driven

Mr Thodey is widely known for having reinvented Telstra during his six-year post as its CEO. Under his leadership, Telstra’s value more than doubled from below $40 billion to above $80 billion in the six years leading up to his retirement in 2015.  

“Telstra was not just [about] being a telecommunications company, it was about creating a brilliant connection with people... I think in that process of purpose and culture, it redefines who you are and then gives people the freedom to go and do things differently,” he said. 

For many organisations, COVID-19 has forced them to reflect upon purpose and how best to align work processes to work more effectively. “I am a great advocate for purpose-driven companies. I think purpose transcends economic return,” said Mr Thodey.  

While having the resilience to push through adversity and believe in yourself is vital, Mr Thodey said leaders need to be “ready to change if it’s not working” and to be “ruthlessly honest about whether you are succeeding or not”. 

Being purpose-driven and organisational culture also go hand-in-hand. “Culture plays a critical role in there. And the culture needs to be real to who you are as an organisation, just like any society or nation… you can’t deny your past, but you can create your future. You’ve got to work off what is instinctively and innately you, and then move it forward,” he said. 

The process of defining purpose and culture allows leaders and their organisations to redefine who they are, giving everyone the freedom to do things differently, said Mr Thodey. And in the context of the current economic environment, the ability to adapt and do differently will play a key role in a company’s future success.

“You’ve got to have an idea, pursue it, but be willing to change it,” added Mr Thodey. 

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Being purpose-driven is key to transformational leadership. Image: Shutterstock

Transformational leaders drive collaboration and innovation 

Innovation and finding new ways of doing things also require hard work and determination, but Mr Thodey said transformational leaders can look at current policies or behaviours impeding organisations from achieving what they want to do – and are willing to change them.

“I love it if you do have that moment of brilliance when you decide something or see something, but often it’s just hard work. I think it’s from the visionary purpose, culture, alignment, all the way through the discipline and rigour of running a company differently... how you keep that balance is essential because it can get out of kilter quickly if you don’t watch it,” he said. 

As the nature of work continues to change, managers need to evolve with it. However, one thing will remain the same: the need to collaborate. How to ensure effective collaboration in a virtual workforce has become a top concern for many leaders. So, what can they do? 

“We need to lift each other up… we need to encourage each other, step up and change the attitude. So every day, find someone to support or say something good about and encourage them on the way because it’s too easy to be critical,” said Mr Thodey. 

Leading people is a very human element, he said. “There are great ideas and there’s great thought leadership and we can be inspired, but at the end of the day, leadership is about bringing a collective group of people together to achieve more than they would as individuals. 

“It’s not about me being right, not about you being right, it’s about getting to the truth that will make a difference and better for our nation and the greater world"

David Thodey, Board Director and former CEO of Telstra

“That’s what a great leader does,” he said. “Somehow, they enable you to do beyond what you thought you could do. Hopefully, that involves doing things differently because the fundamental value in people working with people is to create differentiation, do things differently; that then creates some value, hopefully economic, social, or maybe environmental. So, we need to keep thinking about what great leadership looks like.” 

Transformational leaders also champion the adoption of new technology, particularly within knowledge-based industries – but Mr Thodey observed the adoption of technology may not be happening as fast as it could be. 

“I’m worried that we’re not going fast enough. I think there’s so much opportunity and we’re starting to see a little bit in Melbourne in the biotech area. Seeing some here in Sydney… but nowhere near as big as we need. That’s why I think [the] New South Wales government setting up the tech centre around Central – Tech Central – is really exciting,” he said. 

“The question of creativity, how do you do creativity in a virtual world? Well, hopefully, it’s not always virtual first. Hopefully, we can come together,” he added. 

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Transformational leaders are willing to take risks and challenge themselves for the good of their organisations. Image: Shutterstock

Transformational leaders challenge themselves 

What can leaders do to challenge themselves and challenge their organisation, to be leaders of change, innovation and global thinking and competitiveness? Mr Thodey said there are four key steps: practice what you preach, step out and make a difference, encourage other people to make a difference, and never stay comfortable for too long. 

“You’ve got to be willing to stand up and talk about it and step out and put yourself at risk a bit. Step out and have an opinion, put it on the table, and go and make a difference – and invest a little bit back into the community from where you come from. I think if we all did that just a little bit more, then the multiplier effect would be enormous,” he said. 

“It’s not about me being right, not about you being right, it’s about getting to the truth that will make a difference and better for our nation and the greater world,” he added. 

The Business of Transformational leadership and other podcasts in the series are available online. Click here to access the series and find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School. 


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