How exchanging hard for soft skills helped Bill Wavish realise his childhood dream.
In his 60s, Bill Wavish admits that his leadership style had, until recently, been characterised by a “my way or the highway” type approach. But all that changed after his time on the Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP), and the result has given him a new lease of life.
After a long career, latterly fixing troubled retail groups such as Australia’s biggest supermarket chain, Woolworth’s, chartered accountant Wavish wanted to spend his later years in sectors he cared about: charity, sport and his first love, science.
“I’m a frustrated scientist,” he explains. “At school I wanted to be a marine biologist but I finished up an accountant. I always wanted to study at Cambridge but I was persuaded to stay at home in New Zealand and study commerce.” So as retirement beckoned in 2011 he fulfilled one ambition by enrolling in Cambridge Judge Business School’s three-week intensive ALP.
“In my career, people did what they were told or they got fired, basically. But working with scientists or charity directors, who do what they do out of the goodness of their heart, I realised I was going to need a new ‘soft’ set of leadership skills.
“The CJBS course was particularly good for that. We studied how Margaret Thatcher and Lyndon Baines Johnson organised themselves before they had any power: ‘If I can’t fire you I have to convince you, charm you, or outmanoeuvre you.’
He found inspiration in course director Peter Williamson, who he has kept in touch with. “Peter uses soft skills,” Wavish says. “He is fantastic at saying, ‘That’s a terrific idea, but…'” He also still speaks to his sub-cohort of five, who are spread throughout the world, consolidating their careers. “We help each other. I give them advice whether they like it or not… none of them are as old as me!”
Applying his new skills hasn’t always been easy. Last year, while he was chair of the New Zealand Warriors Rugby League, Wavish’s team faced eviction from their stadium. “Shocked and surprised” that his forceful, logical argument was being rejected, he remembered the ALP course.
“I thought: ‘what would Margaret Thatcher do?’ And instead I began to canvas support from all over the place, including politicians. Cold-calling, explaining, setting up meetings – it just needed a bit of my time and tact. In the end we won it and we’re about to sign a new lease!
Wavish now sits on a total of 10 boards and has started two charities of his own, including the National Indigenous Culinary Institute, which trains Aboriginal chefs for top restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. He’s also found two projects close to the heart of his boyhood self – a dinosaur museum he helped to set up, showcasing local palaeontological finds, and, even more excitingly, researching stromatolites, in partnership with NASA.
“Stromatolites are the earliest form of life on earth,” he explains. “They are blue-green algae which, through photosynthesis, produced enough oxygen for plants and animals to occur. 80 per cent of the world’s surviving stromatolites are in Shark Bay in Australia and I help the scientists there with strategic planning – basically by sticking my nose in. NASA are looking for life on other planets, and being able to identify stromatolites from space is a useful part of that.”
“I’ve unearthed my charming side,” says Wavish, “which anyone who ever worked with me would have doubted I had!”
Bill is interested in hearing from…
…anyone passionate about dinosaurs or stromatolites!