3 Leadership Tips from a Construction CEO and Former Bookie

Long before he took the reins at Australian construction giant Lend Lease in 2007, Stephen McCann worked for five years as a bookmaker at the local horse races.

He wanted to be a lawyer, but also had a way with numbers, so betting markets held some appeal. Hailing from a working-class family in Adelaide, and one of seven siblings, McCann said the job helped pay his way until he was employed by a law firm. He later quit law and went into investment banking, before eventually joining Lend Lease to initially head up its investment management business.

He reckons his experiences on the race track, first as a clerk writing out tickets, then as a runner delivering betting slips, helped support his career.

“That was a long time ago, but I really believe it was a great early grounding in assessing risk,” McCann told Korn Ferry as part of a CEO interview series. “I think my commercial acumen was materially enhanced by that job because in a split second you had to be able to assess mathematically whether the risks were in your favor or they weren’t.”

McCann said the job exposed him to a wide range of people, while he credits his modest roots with giving him a more “worldly view” than some other college graduates.

“Never underestimate the importance of what you don’t know. You’re only as good as the team around you and if you don’t have the right team then you are probably going to fail.”

Here are some of his key leadership tips.

1. Respect your own shortcomings. For McCann, getting external input is critical to running a business, so he’s always looking for external sounding boards. To get more perspective from the board, for example, he engaged a coach who was a non-executive director shortly after he became CEO.

“Never underestimate the importance of what you don’t know,” McCann said. “You’re only as good as the team around you and if you don’t have the right team then you are probably going to fail.”

Fostering a great team also meant accepting dissenting opinions. “You’ve got to respect the journey they have been on to develop that perspective,” he said.

2. Have some style. McCann says there’s not much point in having great ideas if you lack the ability to influence others. “It is not just how well you do something, but how you bring people along the journey that is critical,” he said.

And it’s important, he said, that leaders realize their style could be replicated throughout the entire organization. “It has always surprised me how much the way the CEO and the senior executive team behaves can influence 12,000 people, many of whom you may not have met, because culture really does start from the top.”

3. Be resilient. If you want to be CEO, you must be prepared to be held accountable for your decisions. “Even very senior people—people running business units within broader organizations, and dare I say, some CEOs—want to be able to blame others when things get difficult,” McCann said.

“Resilience is vital as a leader. You’ve got to be prepared to take the good with the bad and ride through the tough times as well as the good times—for there will be tough times.”

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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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