UNSW Business School alumni, friends and supporters packed the house for the first Meet the CEO of 2016 with Andrew Penn of Telstra. Mark Scott, former managing director of the ABC and secretary elect of the NSW Department of Education, sat down with Penn for a roving conversation that touched upon everything from Penn’s hobby art to his plans for turning Telstra into Australia’s leading technology company. Scott started the conversation by asking Penn about his less than typical educational background.
“You left school at fifteen,” explained Scott. “If you are going to lead one of Australia’s iconic institutions do you recommend leaving school at 15? Why did you leave school at 15? Talk about your educational pathway.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it but what I would recommend is a thirst for learning,” replied Penn. “Whilst I did not have that in my earlier educational years I have had it subsequently and it has been very important to me. Unless you are prepared to continue to learn, continue to reinvent yourself, continue to push yourself, you will struggle to be in a very senior role.”
Throughout the interview Penn kept coming back to the value of education. The mastering of new environments, Penn explained, requires a constant focus on learning and being open to exploring new ideas. Curiosity paired with practical experience provided Penn with the motivation to succeed and move his career forward.
“I had ambition to do well and make a difference,” Penn noted. “When I left AXA I had the choice to stay within the financial services industry or go into a completely new industry. It was that desire to throw myself into something completely different and the excitement of learning something different that pushed me towards going to Telstra.”
One of Penn’s key pieces of advice for the audience was to embrace the power of knowledge. His time in Asia taught him that successful engagement with foreign markets required a ‘boots on the ground’ mentality.
“You need to completely immerse yourself,” Penn explained. “It is about spending time on the ground, time with the local people. It requires preparation and research. One of the best ways to get to know a culture is to learn the language. And demonstrating your knowledge of that is a really respectful way of making an impact and developing relationships.”
Time investment in knowledge building was something Penn reiterated as necessary in a world that changes so quickly. Not only do you have to have an understanding of the current context, you need to be able to anticipate longer term trends.
“I block out time, I create the space for future thinking. And I also block out time to travel internationally. I spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley, northern Europe, Israel, China, and Australia talking to the major global players, the Microsofts of the world, the Googles, the Amazons who are at the frontend of technology innovation and technology change.”
This desire to be at the forefront of ideas and technology was reflected in Penn’s admiration of Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors.
“One of the people that I think is the most amazing individual is Elon Musk. Here is a man who’s younger than me and who has reinvented the payment system, the car industry, and is now trying to reinvent the retail energy industry and send rockets to the moon. It’s that completely transformational thinking that is so inspiring,” Penn said.
Penn’s passion for innovation, ideas, and game changing technology has driven him to lead Telstra into a new future where media, analytics, software, and engineering are part of the telecommunications package. And it’s something Penn wants everyone to access.
“On the one hand some of the wonderful things about the technological advances we are seeing are the creation of opportunities for people and increasing standards of living. But at the same time the divide is getting greater between those who have and those who have not. It is critically important that we ensure we don’t leave people behind.”
Watch the full interview with Andrew Penn of Telstra.