Telstra chief executive David Thodey stepped down in May 2015 after six years in the captain's chair.
INTHEBLACK interviewed Thodey at his Sydney office just two weeks before he announced his resignation, and encountered a laid-back executive who was passionate about making Telstra a better service provider to its customers.
Thodey talked to former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley about leadership, innovation and building business connections in China. He also said how tough the top job can be and discussed the legacy of his predecessors. You can read the full interview here. Here are his thoughts on his beloved All Blacks, social media, cars (he famously drives a relatively inexpensive Toyota) and what the future holds.
David Thodey was born in Australia but moved to New Zealand as a young boy. He played rugby there from age 11 to 20 and admits that while he supports Australia in most sporting contests, when it comes to rugby he’s an All Blacks fan.
Thodey: I can’t deny it; it’s such a deep religious experience. Someone was telling me recently that when the All Blacks play they have a rule that they always leave the changing shed cleaner than they found it. Isn’t that interesting? They bring their own rubbish bins and everybody has got to do it – whether you’re captain, coach or whoever. I really like that because it grounds you.
Thodey explained that Telstra uses social media to engage with its employees to discuss issues and toss around ideas.
Thodey: There’s a few really interesting things we’ve found with social media: it has completely removed the impact of layers of management, which is always a difficult thing. We’ve also found that someone will say something – and maybe it’s a bit contentious, they may be frustrated about something – but I don’t say a thing, it’s other people who jump in. They say: “I didn’t find that, it was like this.” Or “Oh is that right?” And so it’s a self-managing process.
Thodey famously drives around in a Toyota Corolla, despite the big CEO pay packet. Malley asked Thodey why, when he was ready for a new car, he elected to buy another Corolla.
Thodey: It’s probably just a lack of time and interest. Nothing more than that. There was quite an interesting moment in my career at Telstra when I was running one of the divisions – I went out to talk to a number of first and second line managers in the field. I got a limo to drive me out and I can still remember that as I arrived, a few of the guys saw me and they thought “Oh, here comes the Sydney corporate exec” and I could see I’d created a barrier for me to be able to talk to them about what we’re trying to do.
Telstra at its heart is so embedded in the community of normal every day Australians, that’s who we serve every day. And when we get the sort of incredible disparity … there is so much wealth caught in the top one per cent of the world now, I don’t like that. We serve people and we want to make a difference. So that’s where it came from, and it’s too confusing trying to buy a car anyway.
The retiring CEO
The day Telstra announced Thodey was stepping down as CEO, he said in a press conference that he had been thinking about retirement for a while and that he’d had a wonderful five years with the company.
Thodey: It really has been a wonderful time for me. It has been such a pleasure to work with such a great leadership team with such wonderful people at Telstra, and to see the company respond so well in aspiration to create a wonderful customer experience and to re-energise the company.
But the really defining moment for me personally was when the company was chosen by our peers as the most respected company in Australia. Now, that was a significant event for Telstra, because it was recognition of the incredible hard work our field technicians, our people in call centres and the shops, do every day, as well as our strategy. And it was probably the seminal moment for me in seeing Telstra really recognised for what it does so well every day, and to see that energy and that appreciation was just wonderful for me. We have been on a journey around customer service, and we’ve tried to put the customer at the centre of everything we do, but that’s difficult. But to see the way people have responded, to see the way our customers have responded and then to see that reflected by the market has truly been gratifying and has kept me energised every morning as I’ve come to work.
So what of my future? Well, I look forward to contributing maybe in a non-executive role going forward. I’ve been in operational executive roles now for something like 37 years, and 15 years as an executive, and so I hope to be able to contribute in some way both nationally and internationally.
I’m going to take a break at the end of the year, go and spend some time maybe overseas, and then come back and look at what the options are. But I do want to finish by saying I think the company is in excellent hands. I think Andy [Penn] will be an outstanding CEO. I think there’s a great leadership team at Telstra and I look forward to watching the great progress that they will make. So let me now pass over to Andy Penn.