At Meet the CEO, Ahmed Fahour talks about how his upbringing has shaped his business career.
Ahmed Fahour AO, the Managing Director and Group CEO of Australia Post, has shared his personal and professional insights on what it takes to lead and the path he took to the top. He sat down with Mark Scott, the former ABC Managing Director and currently Secretary of the New South Wales Department of Education, at UNSW Business School’s Meet the CEO event.
Ahmed Fahour’s business life has been shaped by his upbringing, and especially by his mother, who ran a bakery in Melbourne after migrating to Australia in 1969, following his birth in Lebanon in 1966.
At Meet the CEO, Fahour explained that he learnt many of his earliest life lessons from the example set by his mother. “When we came out to Australia as migrants there were language issues, and my father had several jobs. However, he had an accident, and so my mother ran the business, looked after five kids while tending for a sick husband, and yet never did she raise her voice or get tired. She was an amazing inspiration.”
Mr Fahour launched his professional career at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 1987, after completing a Bachelor of Economics. While working at BCG he completed his MBA and quickly rose to become a Director and a member of BCG’s International Partner Group. From there, he was recruited by Citigroup in 2000 and moved to New York, where he was Head of Corporate Development, as well as serving on Citigroup’s Global Management Committee. Mr Fahour joined NAB in September 2004 as Chief Executive Officer for Australia, and later became an executive member of the board. He has served as Australia Post’s Managing Director and Group CEO since 2010.
Although he was brought up in a Muslim family, Fahour’s father sent him to a Catholic school, emphasised to him that there are always ‘amazing learnings’ to be had from all religions, and forced him to interact with people from all walks of life. “My father made it clear it was important to be open minded …..and always put yourself forward.”
That message clearly resonated with Fahour. Embracing and encouraging diversity has always been one of his top priorities, and led to one of his proudest achievements while at Australia Post. “When I started, only 19% of all management positions were women, and I thought that was shocking. Within two years, that number was 37%.”
“But the one thing I didn’t do was introduce targets. I refused to have a KPI on the percentage of women in senior management. I want women (to think that) ‘I got here on my own merit’.
Throughout his career, he made a point of listening to staff who worked for him, and he lives by the mantra that “happy staff leads to happy customers, which leads to a happy shareholder”.
Mr Fahour was appointed as the new Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Australia Post from February 2010. There, he began a business renewal program, called "Future Ready".
He says the job at Australia Post was a challenge. “It was tough. At that time there was industrial action, the volume of letters was dropping, and staff engagement was low.”
However, he says, by talking to the staff he got a real sense of what was happening to the company. “The postie could see the volume reduction. It was very real for them. They had a real understanding of the predicament the company was in, and that is a huge advantage for a CEO. The staff know something has to be done, so you can put forward ideas, and they are accepted.”
He told the Meet the CEO audience that he once met a cleaner, who wanted to be a teller in a NAB branch. “He came up to me, and explained what he wanted, and sent me his CV. He turned out to be very well qualified. Ten years later, the man I met is still a teller at a NAB branch, and doing very well. He found what he wanted to do, and achieved it.”
“That’s my advice to all of you,” he said to the audience. “Find out what you want to do, and it will come out in your body language and your whole demeanour, and you will find that connection to achieve something that makes you tick.”