Leadership insights from Wesfarmers MD Rob Scott

By UNSW Media  Tuesday, 29 October 2019  Features

​Speaking at UNSW Business School's Meet the CEO event in Sydney, the Wesfarmers Managing Director and Olympian shared his insights from the worlds of elite sport and business leadership.

Interviewed by Mark Scott AO, Secretary for NSW Department of Education, and a member of the Business School Advisory Council, Rob shared his journey from high school student in regional Western Australia to becoming the head of one of Australia's leading conglomerates.

Holding a grudge can be useful

With a rowing career that saw him win a silver medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Rob shared how his competitive rowing started with a bit of a grudge while growing up in Western Australia.

After he and his friends had taken up rowing, they wanted to participate in the famous school regatta known as The Head of the River.

"We were going alright so we said, let's enter, and we were told very clearly 'no you're not allowed to compete because you're from a state school'. I took it the wrong way… I turned up to the team trials and made it into the state team, so really my whole rowing career came about because I had a chip on my shoulder. "

Five years later, age 21, he was an Olympic finalist in Barcelona.

Lessons from elite sport

Having lived and competed alongside so many other elite athletes, Rob says there's an energy that is difficult to match outside of the sporting world, but which can be found in great businesses.

"With Olympic sport, you surround yourself with people that, every day, wake up trying to be the best in the world. They might not always be successful, but every day you're surrounded by people with that ambition. It can be very addictive," he said.

"When I finished rowing after the Olympics in '92 I had to find something to fill that gap and being a team sport person, I had to find a team that shared that ambition."

He also shared how rowing, as the "ultimate team sport", taught him the importance of synchronicity and consideration of others.

"Individually you need to put yourself through such incredible pain and stress just to compete and somehow you have to mesh that together with others and finding this elusive rhythm," he said. "You learn that being in a team means creating an environment where everyone can operate at their optimal."It's okay to have "mixed" university results

After the '92 Olympics, Rob said he needed a job to occupy his mind and pay the bills, which was no mean feat during a time of economic recession.

"It wasn't easy to get a job. Especially as my university results were…  I call them 'mixed'", he laughed.

He explained how his big break came through a program with Ernst & Young (now EY), which supported Olympic athletes pursuing careers outside their sporting field.

"I think I was the only current Olympic athlete who had a degree in Western Australia, so they asked a favour of one of their audit clients – Wesfarmers. They said, 'look can you meet with this young guy? He's got a commerce degree, we don't really know how good he is, but he can row really fast."

From there, Rob got his first shot in the finance team. The rest is history.

"As business starts to create flexible work environments they realise not all career developments are smooth, linear paths. Having a diversity of experience and working with organisations that provided me with flexibility, gave me the opportunity to succeed and is the only way that I could have achieved what I have today."

Rob advises learning beyond your speciality.

"A degree is important, but we want to know if you get the bigger picture, what experiences shape you as a person, how effective are you at managing people at different levels."

The benefit of the silver medal heartbreak

In his interview Mark Scott highlighted to his silver medallist subject that, for some, a silver medal is worse than no medal. Though at the time it was a very frustrating outcome for Rob and his rowing partner, he said in the end it was a valuable part of his long-term success.

"Most people would be pretty happy with a silver medal but when your wife (Olympic water polo player, Liz Weekes) has a gold medal at home… I guess it actually shows you what a great judge of talent I am," he laughed.

"Truth is, me and Dave Weightman, my partner, were bitterly disappointed to have won a silver medal because we set out to win. It took us a long time to get over it. But at the end of the day, what matters is the experience you went through, what you got out of it, and the hunger left in you from not winning – I don't think it's a bad thing. It drives you to do more."

Leadership criteria of Wesfarmers

"From a Wesfarmers point of view, the more choreographed and political you approach a promotion, the less successful you will be, that is the nature of our organisation," said Rob, when queried on the difficulties many face in rising through the ranks of large conglomerates.

He said Wesfarmers has three core leadership criteria that can be observed clearly across the organisation: being commercial is really important; engaging people at different levels and building relationships and delivering results.

"That gives you a sense of what actually matters. There is no manual for how things work. We take our jobs seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously," he said.

"Being pragmatic and down to earth is very much ingrained in the business – and we recognise that none of us are smart enough to predict the future, but we can set ourselves up to be successful under a range of circumstances."


About Rob Scott, Managing Director of Wesfarmers Australia

Rob Scott was appointed Managing Director of Wesfarmers in November 2017 following his appointment as Deputy Chief Executive Officer in February 2017. Prior to this, he was Managing Director of the Wesfarmers Industrials division from August 2015 until August 2017. Rob started with Wesfarmers in 1993 before moving into investment banking, where he had various roles in corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions in Australia and Asia. He re-joined Wesfarmers in 2004 in a commercial role in business development, before serving in a range of senior roles across the company, culminating in his current leadership role. 

Want to develop specialist knowledge in a specific area of business? Explore the study options available in UNSW Business School Postgraduate Degrees.

leadership-insights-from-rob-scott