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Exclusive interview: Former Air Force officer & leadership expert, Dr Kirstin Ferguson

·Editor-in-Chief, Yahoo Finance
·17-min read
Kirstin Ferguson, PEXA non-eecutive director
Kirstin Ferguson, PEXA non-executive director
  • RICH THINKING ISSUE #8 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.

Note: questions don't appear in exact order they were asked.

What would you say to someone who dreams of joining the Air Force?

For anyone joining the military at all, whether it's the Army, Navy or Air Force … there is a real sense of service. You need to understand it's more than just a job, you are actually there to serve. That was ingrained in me since I was 17. It's a position that comes with a lot of responsibility because you can be called away to put your life at risk at any time.

There's also a huge amount of camaraderie that comes from being in the military and it was absolutely foundational to learning what it means to be a leader, what to do and what not to do. I recommend it for anyone who feels they want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

What’s the best learning you took from the Air Force to the corporate world?

I remember being told when I was learning about leadership as a young cadet, that if you think about World War I, where they went up and over the top of the trenches - you did not want to be the army captain that looked behind you and none of your men were there because they did not trust you. They were not going to follow you into battle.

You want to be a leader that people trust and will come with you into anything. It's quite different to what people perceive as military leaders - a platoon with everyone yelling and it's all about command and control. In fact, it's much more about being a servant leader and earning the respect of those that you work with. You need to understand that without the people you lead, you are nothing. That is why you are there, to serve them.

In the corporate world, that also applies. You want others to feel that they can trust you and that you actually care about them. That's about being humble and leading with empathy.

You’ve had a very diverse career. From the Air Force, to law, to writing books and coaching. How do you make those big career-changing choices?

I've always been good at asking myself what's important right now. Whether you're looking at the big picture in the direction your career is going, or whether it's in the micro moment of a crisis you're trying to solve. So when I left school, it was important for me to get paid to go to university and go and join the military and learn about leadership.

And the Air Force gave an incredible foundation for me to do that. Then I wanted to learn about the law and I wanted to practice. So I went off and did a law degree. So that was really important to me to get a job in a professional services firm, which I did for a long time. And then it was important for me to run a company. So I went off and did that, and then it was important for me to do a PhD.

So I identified things that I wanted to do and that I thought would help me learn and propel down a different path. And so now I continue to think that way. So I'm writing my next book because that's important to me and I really want to do that. So I'm making sure there's space to do that. It’s about what’s important to me at the time.

It’s very brave to completely change your career path, multiple times. Not many people could do it. How have you done it?

Every single new thing I've done has been terrifying to me. And I suffer from imposter syndrome as much as the next person and still do. I've just got better at ignoring that voice in my head. So a lot of times it's a matter of just saying yes to opportunities and trusting the person who's offering that opportunity to you. So if you say yes, they obviously see something in you that perhaps you don't even see, so trust in them and see where it takes you.

And generally you've got no reason to think you're going to fail, but I don't want anyone to be under any misapprehension. Everything I've ever done, I think I'm not sure that I can do this or that I'm the best person to take this on. I became acting chair of the ABC overnight in the middle of a very public crisis, and that was a huge new responsibility to take on. And yet I did it and that's been the way I've dealt with every single opportunity that's ever been offered to me.

There would be financial repercussions of changing careers. How did you balance that out?

Yeah. And there's a huge amount of privilege that comes with being able to make choices. And I'm very conscious of that. On a number of occasions I’ve foregone financial gain to take a risk. So for example, when I decided I wanted to become a professional company director, I'd been a CEO and I was on one board and I was almost about to join a second board, but I went onto about 10 per cent of my income overnight by making that choice.

Now, fortunately I was in a position that I could take that gamble, but it was by no means guaranteed that I was going to ever have this career that I was hoping for, but it did work out because I was committed and determined, and off I went.

You mentioned imposter syndrome. How do you overcome that imposter syndrome?

Dr Kirstin Ferguson in her time in the Air Force. (Source: Supplied)
Dr Kirstin Ferguson in her time in the Air Force. (Source: Supplied)

It's not that I think I'm not good for the role, it's that I've never done it before. So it's going to draw on skills that I think I've got, but I've never done it in exactly this way before. That is a matter of hearing that voice that says surely there's someone better than you and identifying it. So I just know what that voice is and I can now ignore it pretty quickly because I've heard it forever and we all hear it every day. And generally, it's not based on anything factual. There's no reason to think you're going to fail.

I want to move on to talking about money and wealth. You've commanded varying salaries throughout your career. Does money make you happy?

I'd be lying to say it's not more comfortable to have money to make choices. There's no doubt about that. But I don't believe it makes you happy. I think it allows you the opportunity to do things that you couldn't otherwise do. And it brings me happiness to be able to have that freedom to volunteer. So I volunteer at Lifeline every weekend. I'm on the phone helping people who are far less privileged, and I can do that because I can afford to volunteer and I enjoy being able to do that, and I enjoy being able to help family and friends. So there's no doubt that I'm happier having money that lets me have choices than I would be if I didn't have it.

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Was there a salary that you hit, that you said to yourself if I hit that salary, I've made it?

Oh, every time. My first salary was $18,000 when I joined the Air Force and I thought that was like winning the lotto. I think I got to maybe $40,000 in the Air Force. Then I joined the law firm and I got $45,000 and I remember bragging about that. That was just more money than I could imagine. So it's all relative obviously. So your goal might be $100,000 and I think after that point, you start to become senior enough that it’s no longer about that number.

I do think it's important to notice, especially when we're younger, that there's a lot of ego wrapped up in whatever the number is and I was certainly ambitious and excited to be earning my princely sum of $45,000 that boosted my ego. I'm far less driven by ego around the number now, but it's taken me a 30-year career to not really be that interested in what the number might be.

What’s been a great investment you’ve made?

My husband and I, when we were still dating, were very lucky to be in the era where you could buy a house. And we bought into the inner city Brisbane market for $213,000. That was our first house. We had to borrow most of the deposit from our parents, which was only about $21,000 but we had to borrow probably three quarters of that. But just getting into the housing market allowed us to then move on from that. We've never been particularly risky investors, so we're very traditional. But it means now we're comfortable and really happy.

If I gave you $10,000 now to invest for say a niece or a nephew, where would you put it?

Oh, that's a really good question. I'd probably just put it in the bank but my husband would say, "That's ridiculous. Don't put it in the bank." Let me think…

I am really excited about some of the impact investing that's happening at the moment. I like the idea that if you had a young niece or nephew you could ask them about what they really care about. For young kids it's often the environment or whatever, so you could go and find an impact investment so that they feel that they are part of growing something. The reason I say that is to think of something more than just watching a bank account number increase with the interest because there's not much meaning behind that.

What's your one tip for negotiating a salary?

Go and do research. So find out as much as you can about what the going rate is. Don't just trust whatever they come back with. To women in particular, know the stats that women do not negotiate as hard for salaries as men. So that's my message particularly to women, know that whatever figure you are thinking, a male has probably gone in and asked for more and even doubled it.

You’ve been on multiple boards. What's your one tip for somebody who wants to get on a board?

Really think about why you're wanting to do it, and whether or not it's the right role for you. Being on a board is quite hands off. So if you're someone who really likes getting in and doing things, maybe boards aren't for you. I don't think you realise that until you do it and not every board is the same. I think even with all the right due diligence in the world, you can misjudge the dynamics around the board table and all the values of the people that are around the table. And all of those things are something you don't learn until you've done it quite a number of times and learnt a number of lessons along the way.

Is there training or practical skills that you would recommend for someone who aspires to getting on a board?

Yep. The Australian Institute Company Director course is considered the benchmark of company director courses. And so I would recommend they go and do that and become a member of the AICD. I'm a fellow there and it's a great organisation to network with other directors and learn and just do professional development and things like that. But the AICD company director course definitely.

What's the one way you think differently to your peers that you believe has given you an edge throughout your career?

When I'm asked to describe my position title it's the hardest thing I have to do because there is no one title that fits.

I've been very comfortable with changing industries, cultures, roles at any point in my career. I am definitely not on a linear path.

From the Air Force into law, to being a CEO of a group of psychologists. Then on to boards and doing a PhD to writing books and now being a coach and columnist.

So I think I'm more prepared than many to try lots of different things, and integrate that into a career. I wouldn't want to lose any of those experiences, and some end up becoming a deeper part of who I am than others, but all of them together are my career. And I think that's somewhat unusual.

As an executive coach, what’s something that you've seen business leaders or CEOs get wrong time and time again?

I think a common mistake is believing you need to be the smartest person in the room, and I see that over and over again. I think as we're starting our careers, having that need to feel credible through our technical ability is a very real thing because that's what we've been hired to do. But as we progress through our career, it becomes less and less important for you to be the one with all the answers, but in fact, to be facilitating that the others in the room, those you lead have been given that environment where they can be the ones with the answers.

So it comes down to the art of asking really good questions which is one of the most important skills for leaders.

Would you say that’s the most important skill for modern CEOs or leaders, or something else?

Probably the most important skill would be knowing that leadership is not about you. I think too many people get a title and think the universe now revolves around that title. In fact, as a leader, we are simply there to serve those that we lead and those we impact. It could be stakeholders or people outside of the organisation. The more we are able to see ourselves as guardians of whatever it is we are doing rather than the be all and end all, I think that is a mindset every leader needs to adopt.

Many executives talk about the importance of mentorship, coaching and sponsors. What’s the difference and which should you choose?

They’re all completely different.

We all have mentors and we might not call them that. These are people we can go and get advice from. I've always thought of my mentors like a buffet. I've got lots and I've kept them all through years and I go to them for specific advice. It's rare that one has the answers to everything. But I don't expect anything from them, it's really just a sounding board and it might be on something quite specific.

Sponsors are often those mentors who will put you forward for things. They will hear of an opportunity and say, actually, you should consider Sarah for example because she's really extraordinary at X, Y, and Z. And so they're sponsoring you and they're actually prepared to put their reputation on the line.

Then a coaching relationship is utterly different because it's actually a professional. Somebody who you've engaged with clear reasons as to why and what you want to focus on. You pay the coach. It's very much a more formal engagement for a period of time.

Understanding the different relationships is really important, but in mentoring and sponsoring, it's really up to the person, the mentee, to make that relationship work.

When would you recommend getting a coach for your career?

I coach a wide range of people, and they tend to be high performers. You wouldn't get a coach for someone who needs coaching because you've identified a performance issue. It should never be a punitive thing. Most of the people that I work with understand that they've got limitations in certain areas. They may be technically brilliant, but they understand their emotional intelligence or how to lead with humility or how to ask good questions is just not something they've ever learned. So with a coach, they can learn that in a very safe environment because no one ever knows, there's no judgment, and you can practice how that works. So it doesn't really matter what seniority the person is, it's just finding the right coach for them.

You mentioned limitations. From your experience, what's the most common limitation that executives come to you with?

It’s often people who are industry leaders, technically brilliant, who understand the work that they do better than anyone else. But it’s when it comes to the people side - how to really get the best out of their people or how to create a high performing team or how to be vulnerable. That's something that's not comfortable for them.

What’s your number one productivity tip?

It has been adapting to what's going on around me. So the reason I say that is that since COVID, the way I work has completely changed. So the way I'm productive has completely changed. Pre-COVID, I was on the road every week, travelling and in hotels and things like that. So having a routine and being productive meant finding little snapshots of time, sitting in airports and getting emails done and things like that. Now because of COVID, I have a very pretty set routine. I'm loving working from home. I'm finding it, probably the most productive I've ever been.

Do you think all this working from home will have long-term repercussions?

I think the challenge is that you may be productive, but you're doing it in isolation. All of us need to be interacting with others, not only in getting our work done, but in the way we think about the world so that we avoid falling into our own little bubble of reality. And so that's where the challenge will be. We'll be limited in how we solve problems and how we collaborate with others, if we're always in our own thoughts, and that's what the limitation will be.

If you had an extra 10 hours in your working week, where would you allocate it?

Right now I would use it to finish this book I'm working on. So I do love writing and researching and I want to do more of it.

For someone who dreams about writing a book someday - what’s your tip to getting started?

Get some help about what it is because even though you might think it's the best idea, you need to find someone else who thinks it's a good idea because you need them to publish it. Try to get some other views from other people and map out what it's going to look like if you can. Then off you go and then it is just write, write, write. Like it's just endless writing. Just keep writing.

That's great. Just keep writing. Thank you so much for your time, Kirstin.

You’re welcome. Thank you, Sarah.

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