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Exclusive interview: KPMG CEO Andrew Yates

·12-min read
Image of KPMG CEO Andrew Yates with Yahoo Finance Rich Thinking banner
KPMG CEO Andrew Yates talks to Yahoo Finance for Rich Thinking. (Source: Supplied, Yahoo Finance)
  • RICH THINKING ISSUE #3
    This exclusive interview was first published in Rich Thinking, a fortnightly weekend read delivered to Yahoo Finance's Fully Briefed subscribers. Get it straight to your inbox here.

If I gave you $10,000 to invest for your child, or a nephew or niece. Where are you going to put that?

That’s actually a good call, because I just opened up an account for my two children, so they can start learning about how investments work. My kids just think money comes from nothing.

I’d create a balanced portfolio for them which have some blue chip dividends, accretive stocks, but with a decent portion into speculative new technology assets as well. So try to get a balance out of the $10,000, I’d probably be conservative with $7,000, and I’d encourage them to take a bit of a higher risk with $3,000.

Are there any daily habits in your work routine that are non-negotiables, that help you perform well and stay productive?

I went running this morning – I try to as often as I can. I'm sure lots of people say the same sort of thing. I live in Manly in Sydney, so running down at the beach when the sun's coming up is a great way to start the day.

Obviously I don't get to do it every day, just because some days are different. I notice a real difference in me on the days that I haven't done it, compared to the days that I do.

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What time do you wake up to do that?

It's funny – in lockdown, it’s gotten later. This morning I was running at 5:30, so around 5:30am or 6am in the morning. I find that my body clock gets me up anyway, so I'd rather be down the beach with the sun coming up getting that inspiration than just lying in bed, doing nothing.

Have you always woken up that early throughout your career?

No, I’d be lying if I said that was the case when I was a more junior member of the firm.

I never joined KPMG thinking that one day I'll be CEO. Certainly as I've gone through my career, things like those daily routines have become more important. The more busy I've gotten, the more things I've tried to juggle, but it hasn't always been the case that that was my daily routine.

As CEO I imagine you have a huge list of things on your agenda. What’s your best method for prioritising what needs to be done for the day/week/month ahead?

It’s a good question. In all honesty I think what underpins the way I've tried to be as an executive is to be conscientious, and to try and get through a workload methodically.

As you go through a career you observe mentors that you've had; you work for people and you see their style. I worked for a partner for three years in Hong Kong – this is back in the days before email and all the modern communication we have now.

I’d go to his office and he’d have an in-tray that would literally be six inches high of papers. And I’d just watch him work through it really conscientiously.

I looked at that and thought, of course some things come at you quickly and you need to change what you're doing because an issue might arise. At the moment we’re trying to refresh our strategy, so that's a priority for me. But I do try and get through a workload pretty conscientiously and methodically.

People talk about hard work. I draw a distinction between hard work and conscientiousness

Conscientiousness for me is doing what you'll say you'll do, meeting your commitments, getting to meetings on time. That's really important to me.

Finally, I use email as a bit of a to-do list. I leave the unread emails as things that I need to do, if that makes sense.

I think procrastination can really lead you down the wrong path. We're all like that as we go through school and study, and after a while you realise you’ve just got to work methodically through what you're doing, just to make sure it all gets done.

KPMG CEO Andrew Yates. (Source: Supplied)
KPMG CEO Andrew Yates has been at the firm for more than three decades. (Source: Supplied)

You spent some time working in Hong Kong and also in New York. What was a key learning that you took from your time working abroad and brought back to Australia?

It's funny – both my times abroad coincide with major financial crises. I was in Hong Kong during the Asian crisis of the late 90s, and I started in New York in November 2007, so I was there for the heart of the financial crisis.

In both those situations I brought back a sense of challenging the status quo and thinking more deeply about the role that my profession plays, and trying to genuinely be more forward-looking than a lot of us do in day-to-day work, which is either backward-looking or very focused on the moment.

It is trying to think about what impact we have on the future, having seen the wealth destruction that I observed when I was working in both those locations. So that’s one thing.

And then culturally, I vividly remember sitting in a meeting in Hong Kong, where my team was Chinese, and my client was Korean. There was a common language of English, but it was broken and culturally very different; all three of us were very culturally different sorts of people.

Finding the way to think how you can softly bring a group together to get to a common understanding or a common point – I think I learned a lot about that, working in that cultural environment.

What did you do? What tips do you have for readers on trying to bring together stakeholders from different cultures?

It's a tip that I would give to everyone, which is: you have to listen. I do observe a lot of people that don't listen, and the only way to understand the nuance in what people are thinking and what their perspective is to listen to those perspectives, and to be open to adapting your own position.

I could have gone into those meetings with a very firm view of what I thought we should be doing, and that would not have satisfied the different perspectives that those individuals had.

So it's very much listening, adapting your own thinking, and also picking the things that matter and that don't matter in an outcome. I think it's a combination of all those skills that you learn when you immerse yourself in different cultures.

Is there a characteristic or a quality you really value in people that you think goes under-recognised by other leaders? Something you see in someone that makes you think: ‘They've got the stuff’?

There are a couple of things that are big for me.

One is energy. I talk a lot about energy and aspiration, and I can see when people come into a situation and they’ve got energy. I think if someone brings energy to something, they may make mistakes, but they've got the right intent and they want to make a difference – that's really important to me. And if they've got ambition for themselves and for their clients, for our business, for the country, that's really, really powerful for me.

Being conscientious is also really important: people that actually respond, people that turn up on time. They're really little things, but they make a big difference because it shows people care.

So energy, aspiration, conscientiousness and listening.

In the last couple of years corporate culture has been firmly in the spotlight and at the forefront of business leaders’ minds. When a company is going through rough waters, what is it about your style of leadership that people want to follow, and pulls people through those hard times?

Transparency, honesty and authenticity are the things I think are really critical, probably in all times but certainly in tough times. More and more people want to see leaders that are authentic, and aren’t people that sit on top of the hill and are inaccessible and indifferent.

I talk a lot about being purpose-led; particularly a lot of our younger generation who work in the firm really want to understand that we do provide a deeper purpose to society, and I genuinely think we do. A lot of our external stakeholders want to hold us to that sort of standard as well, so we’ve got to be transparent.

Almost everyone has great intent, but people make mistakes. With 10,000 people, people being people – they make mistakes. But underneath all that, they've got great intent.

So I think if you're transparent, honest and authentic, people will follow that. You can’t fake it.

The 4-day work week. What do you think about that?

Funny you say that. We had a ‘town hall’ two weeks ago and I got that question, and I think Sweden was referenced. I’d never say never. What I'm about at the moment is building choice and flexibility into our firm anyway. So I would hope that if people wanted to have a 4-day work week, we have the conditions in our organisation where they can do that already. Whether it needs to be mandated across the country or in our firm, I don't know.

It’s probably one of those issues that we’ll get to in time. But I would hope that our firm is flexible enough already to allow people to have that flexible work arrangement that they look for.

As a CEO, you command an executive salary. Where do you like to spend your money?

I've never really been motivated by the money, to be honest. I've always thought I was quite fortunate to be paid what I’ve been paid at every level. Even when I joined as a graduate in 1990 I thought I was pretty lucky then, so it's never really been my motivator.

I've got a family, I've got two young kids, 13 and 11. I spend my money on my family, I try to make contributions to different causes. And that’s it, to be honest.

Andrew Yates is KPMG Australia's new CEO. (Photographer: Aaron Bunch/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Andrew Yates is KPMG Australia's new CEO. (Photographer: Aaron Bunch/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

What’s been the best monetary, financial or investment move you’ve made?

Engaging a financial advisor to actually help put some structure around what I do. Everyone says ‘whatever profession you're in and what you do for yourself is not what you advise your patients or your customers to do’. I was into my late 30s where I’d been involved in the financial world [for a while by that point], but I'd spent no time focusing on my own wealth creation.

So the smartest thing I did was actually engage someone to help with that and effectively take it out of my hands, and make sure it was all structured and managed appropriately.

Is that something you wish you did earlier?

The time was pretty much right. I went through my 20s and 30s, spending what I earned, and enjoying stuff as I think people should in their 20s and 30s. I get a sense that people entering the workforce nowadays feel they want to get to that point a bit earlier, perhaps than I did, but for me, the late 30s was the right time.

If you had an extra 10 hours in the week, where would you put that?

I’d spread it out in exercise, my family, and catching up with my friends.

Final question. If there was one specific thing you could say to anyone, no matter who it was, for them to be more successful, productive or profitable, what would that advice be?

Don't celebrate the highs or ride the lows too hard. Do both: celebrate success, reflect on failure, but don't don't do either too hard. So have balance, and don’t get anchored in the ‘today’ too much.

Is that lesson from a particular point in your career, or did you gradually develop it over time?

It gradually developed over time – any career has ups and downs. No career is a straight upward trajectory. Every person, including myself, has missed out on something – we don’t get promoted, or someone else gets an opportunity. Those things are natural in any career.

But on the other hand, good things happen to you. You do get promoted or you do have a win with a big client.

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Over time, you realise that you can't let those things weigh you down because you've got to keep moving forward. There'll be another opportunity or another experience around the corner.

I just encourage people not to let their job define them. Don't be defined by your job. People can sometimes think that's what defines them, their success in their career, but people should be broader than that and have other things going on, and get value in and enjoyment from other things as well.

Thank you so much for your time Andrew, it’s been a pleasure.

Thanks very much.

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