IHEA CEO Speech at Wentworth Institute of Higher Education – ‘Life Lessons, Career Lessons’

Dr Peter Hendy

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) - Independent Higher Education Australia (IHEA)

Speech at Graduation Ceremony - Wentworth Institute of Higher Education

SMC Conference Centre - Banquet Hall, Sydney

Friday 3 June 2022

******* Check Against Delivery *******


Thank you for the kind introduction.

I am delighted and honoured to be asked to speak to you this morning.

I am, as was just said, the Chief Executive Officer of an organisation called Independent Higher Education Australia.

It is a peak body that represents the majority of independent sector higher education providers in the country, including all the independent universities and, of course the Wentworth Institute.

The Wentworth Institute is a classic example of a independent sector organisation that keeps innovating and keeps poking the public sector, in particular, showing them what smaller, more agile organisations can do.

However, today I am not going to dwell on these issues but instead provide you with some life or career lessons I have picked up over a long career - both in the private sector and in the public sector.

I am going to briefly cover big lessons I have learned, and I think have benefited from in my career.

You always have lots of career options

The first is that you have lots of career options - probably many more than you realise.

What a great organisation like the Wentworth Institute does well, is teaches you a core skill set that can be the basis of a long career which you continually fall back on, again and again, as you progress through various jobs.

Because, unlike 100 or even 50 years ago, when people would typically only have one job in their lives you will be facing multiple jobs in different sectors of the workforce - many of you will have already done so.

When I started my career people would say that typically new graduates would face three very different types of job throughout their careers.

Now it can easily be five or more.

My core set of skills came from studying economics - I was lucky enough to get a first-class honours degree.

That has been the basic thread in all my jobs.

First, starting in the Federal Treasury.

Being the Chief Economist to the Prime Minister.

Running my own small business in the private sector as an economic consultant.

Being a Member of the Federal Parliament and a Minister of State.

To running the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry - Australia’s largest business organisation.

Being a senior public servant in the NSW Cabinet Office.

Add to that, during the Howard Government I was a Chief of Staff for, one after the other, the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Education, Science and Training.

I was also the Chief of Staff of the Leader of the Federal Opposition, who was Brendan Nelson at the time, and Principal Advisor on Foreign Affairs and Trade for Julie Bishop who went on to be the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

And I also worked overseas as the Executive Director of the Economic Development Board in the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Middle East.

So, I was able to translate a standard bachelor’s degree in economics to working at the highest levels of government, not just in the economics portfolio but also in defence and foreign affairs.

It allowed me to work overseas and conduct a strong consulting business where almost all my clients were international, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, but also in North America and Europe.

The point here is that most people can translate a core skill set into a huge number of job pathways.

You are only limited by your imagination.

Networking is critical to success

The second life lesson is that networking is critical to success.

Now I’m guessing you all know that and don’t need to be told again.

However, most people are actually poor, if not very poor, at networking.

To do it effectively you need to work at it and map it out strategically.

Just like in other areas of your job where you map out your workload and determine goals and benchmarks, you need to do the same with networking as a discrete activity.

Just turning up at conferences and business functions is nowhere near adequate.

You need to assiduously, personally, engage people and build relationships.

Over the years I have found that you may spend years building a relationship with targeted individuals.

You should start by building a one-way relationship.

What I mean by that is that you should try and build your relationships initially without asking for anything.

Become someone’s trusted contact well before you ever go to them to get something from them, like doing a deal or asking for a job.

It is usually best to go to their place of work and make it as easy as possible for them to interact with you.

And you shouldn’t be shy in approaching senior people as potential mentors.

It plays to their vanity, but they invariably have a lot of useful advice to give to you.

Also, alumni from the Wentworth Institute will be an important network for you.

However, everything in moderation.

Don’t bug people or the interaction will become a negative one.

With that word of caution, a good networking strategy is the difference between a great career and just plodding along.

Treat everyone with respect, because you never know where they’ll end up

From talking about networking, I will segue to the third career lesson.

A big lesson I’ve learned because I have had decades of experimental proof to verify it, is that even if it causes you to grit your teeth in some cases, treat everyone with respect, because you never know where they’ll end up.

Maybe it is because of the luck of the draw, and I have worked at some genuinely important workplaces over the years, but I have met a lot of important people especially in the early stages of their career.

Most importantly for the younger ones amongst you, you will find that you will often have somebody working at a desk next to - who you now may think is an incredibly annoying waste-of-space.

But remember, people mature and the person who could barely draft a document or do a calculation when you first worked with them, may change their ways - and for example, come to a place like the Wentworth Institute - and end up being great mangers and business professionals.

Dare I say it, maybe even better than you.

At the beginning of my career, I worked with any number of people who then became stars.

To be honest my first impressions of them often turned out to be very wrong.

I’m just going to read out a list of some people I have worked with from my earliest days.

In most cases I expect you won’t recognise their names.

However, most likely you will recognise the important, senior jobs they eventually got to.

So, for example I note these are some of the people I met in the very first 12 months I worked at the Federal Treasury, straight after finishing my honours degree all those years ago.

They were all just your average public servant way back then.

However, they had big success. For example

** Maurice O’Shannessy, became the CEO at Merril Lynch in Australia

** Stephen Miller and Russell Maddock, both became the Managing Directors at Blackrock in Australia

** Mark Delaney, became the Chief Investment Officer and Deputy CEO at Australian Super

** Grant Hehir, became the Australian Auditor General

** Martin Parkinson, became the Secretary to the Treasury and later the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet

** Ted Evans, also became Secretary to the Treasury and chairman of Westpac

** David Morgan, became the CEO of Westpac

** John Fraser, became the Secretary to the Treasury and prior to that was one of the global leaders in UBS, the international bank

** David Borthwick, became the Secretary of the Department of the Environment

** Mary Anne Mrakovcic, became the Deputy Secretary in the Treasury

** And one of my favourites, Tim Stewart, became the Chief Global Strategist at Moore Capital Management in New York, but more to the point, now owns his own island in the Caribbean.

The mere fact that I have known these people and more importantly been on good terms with them cannot have hurt my career.

And to say again these are people I met in the first 12 months of my career.

I subsequently met all manner of famous politicians and significant corporate leaders.

For example, just down the street from here, at the NSW Cabinet Office, I worked with Kate McKenzie, who became the Secretary of the NSW Communications Department and later head of Corporate Relations at Telstra, and is now Chair of NBN Co.

The bottom line is treat people well and in almost all cases it is reciprocated.

Develop a good understanding of weighing up costs and benefits

My fourth career lesson stems from the fact that I am an economist.

A lot of what is wrong with the world is caused by people simply not doing what an economist calls, in the jargon, a cost benefit analysis and taking account of opportunity cost.

Or said differently, it is what the man or the woman in the street might call - using commonsense and weighing up the balances.

If you can’t do these well, project and policy development can very well be the case of one step forward and two steps back, ie going backwards.

Just taking the time to weigh-up the opportunity costs of a given action can prevent a whole lot of heartbreak.

So that is number four.

Identify your career passions and pursue them

However, as I was preparing this speech, I realised I left off a very important additional point.

There is actually a fifth point that I should add and I’m guessing you will have heard it from other people.

And that is to, if possible, pursue your enthusiasms.

If you can identify what you are passionate about, what you are enthusiastic about, and do them as a job - then, as people say - you don’t have to actually work a day in your life as you are doing something you are happy to do.

That is why, after all the things I have done in my career, I am excited about my new role in higher education - as it is an area that I have been passionate about throughout my career.


So, there you go - five, not four, key lessons.

Over to you.

Congratulations for graduating, and all the best for the future.

I wish you well.


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