David Gonski on Creative Intelligence, Education and His Secret to Giving Good Career Advice

Interview with David Gonski

In this episode Douglas and Nick interview one of Australia’s most respected business leaders, David Gonski. Gonski holds a number of impressive board titles, including Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, President of the Art Gallery of NSW Trust and Chair of ANZ Bank, just to name a few.

We discuss the impact of COVID-19 on business and innovation, with Gonski sharing his observations on how the virus will impact the digital transformation agenda for Australian business. We discuss the role of pandemics on the national psyche, and focus on its implications for risk tolerance within the business world.

Nick asks Gonski about the learnings brought forth by the two publications of the highly influential Gonski Report on the education system, whilst Douglas explores how creative thinking and creative intelligence is the core skill for the future. Gonski talks candidly about the dire need for better diversity within the workplace, to ensure a broad range of ideas and perspectives, which shapes the future of any country.

We dive head first into the world of banking and how the digital era is reshaping the way the way consumers approach finance, before touching on Gonski’s personal story as a migrant to Australia, what he attributes to being his success, and the single-minded drive to constantly learn and improve oneself, in creating a meaningful life. Finally he shares his secret for giving good career advice to people.


Douglas Nicol:                  Hello, I’m Douglas Nickel and welcome to Smart Dust, the podcast that likes to look at the tech and innovation trends that are changing our world. Sometimes big mega trends and sometimes, well, the ideas that sit at the fringes of science and technology. As always, I’m joined by digital trends’ maven, Mr. Nick Abrahams.

Nick Abrahams:               Hello, Douglas. And hello, Smart Dusters. Thanks for joining us today. This is a very special episode of Smart Dust. They’re all special, but this is particularly special in that we are joined by David Gonski. Now, David Gonski is one of the most perspective business leaders in Australia, but you may also recall he entered the Australian vernacular with the I Give a Gonski campaign in relation to the education review that he did some years ago. David started his career in 1977 as a lawyer before co-founding an investment bank. He’s involved in a broad range of organizations in the government and education sectors as a leading philanthropist and community leader. David wears so many hats in Australian business and community life that it’s hard to mention all of them, but just a few examples.

He’s the director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He’s the chancellor of the University of New South Wales. He is the president of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Trust. He’s the chair of ANZ bank and he’s the director of Sydney Airport Corporation. David Gonski, welcome to Smart Dust. Thank you very much for joining us.

David Gonski:                   Nice to be here.

Nick Abrahams:               David, we might just start off with something that’s very topical right at the moment with the impact of COVID-19. There’s been a few Zoom calls, I’m sure, given the number of organizations you’re involved in. You spend a bit of time on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, what are your thoughts about the video conferencing experience?

David Gonski:                   Well, the first thing I would say is make an admission that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I always thought Zoom was something you did in a motorcar. I had no idea what Zoom was and I certainly didn’t know how many different brands of Zoom there were, but I’ve been Zooming from morning until night now for 12 to 14 weeks. I must say I’m quite comfortable with it. I think it’s an amazing and very good technology situation. I’m amazed how efficient it is, I’m amazed how intrusive it is. I watch what bookshelves people have behind them and the younger people put all sorts of lovely decorations behind them, and so on. I don’t think it’s a substitute for face to face meetings, but I certainly feel comfortable that we may not need as many face to face meetings going forward.

Nick Abrahams:               Interesting. There was something going around on the internet yesterday, which was saying it’s perhaps not so much working from home now as living at work. So, maybe Zoom has enabled that, but we move on to how do you think that COVID-19 has actually impacted the digital transformation agenda for Australian business?

David Gonski:                   I believe that COVID-19 actually has had a big effect on the digital transformation. If I just give an example which may sound facile, but for years I got the daily papers, both in the broad sheet version, which I loved, but also on the screen. Soon as COVID came, I started to think, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t be going outside and picking up a paper, et cetera.” I canceled it. I’ve been thinking of canceling the non-digital version of the newspaper for two years, and this brought it upon me. And I give that example as what I think is happening out there. It has pushed us towards the direction we were going. It has made us felt a little bit more comfortable with the digital environment, and I think it has made us also feel the necessity to move forward rather than just stay with some of our old habits. So, I believe it’s been a big impetus, but an impetus for things that were occurring already.

Douglas Nicol:                  Do you believe that boards will be less risk averse as a result of covert? In the past, you’ve commented that maybe boards are less likely to take a risk today than maybe a decade ago. What do you think COVID will do with that risk view of the world?

David Gonski:                   Let me take one step back. I think that the big effect of COVID on boards is probably to push us to think a little bit more in the longterm. It’s quite interesting, and I freely admit it, the last time I really looked into pandemics was in 1973 in the second year of my economics degree. I didn’t really think of pandemics from then on, and I deny that I was around in 1918 when we actually had one. The fact is that as a board, one has to look forward, one has to look into the long term. And I think the fact that we didn’t really plan for pandemics, although I’ve got to say at my bank we acknowledged they could happen and we’ve put it in all our documents, but the fact of the matter is as boards we have to look longer term. As to your question, whether it’s going to make us more or less risk averse, I’m not sure it’s going to have much influence one way or the other. What I do believe, though, is it’s probably going to make us more thoughtful. We are living through a major incident in world history. And even though I’m now getting into some seniority in age, I’ve never had that in my life before.

Nick Abrahams:               It’s a remarkable time for the world. Moving to one of your, I guess, key passion areas in life, which is education. And you are obviously the author of the Gonski Report and you refreshed that in 2018. And I’m just wondering that subsequent to that report coming out, the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW was created in your honor. Could you talk to us a little bit about what the Institute does?

David Gonski:                   The Institute was established by a wonderful man called Adrian [inaudible 00:00:06:36], who’d actually been the minister for education in New South Wales for many years. He perceived that in addition to all the wonderful things that are going on in relation to education in universities and elsewhere that there needed to be an institute that looks at disadvantage. And many people, as revealed in my first report particularly, suffer educational disadvantage for a number of reasons. And he’s a wonderfully mature thinker, he felt that a special institute looking to solve those problems, to try and get rid of that educational disadvantage, was a major point. And what he did was he managed to, I don’t know how he did it, get with him a new professor by the name of Pasi Sahlberg and Pasi was the guy behind the Finnish in Finland revolution of education. And to get him here to start to focus together on the educational disadvantage that’s within our country, it’s pretty exciting.

Nick Abrahams:               Do you think we’ve progressed since the report? Are you happy with the way Australia has developed?

David Gonski:                   The first report we did was only about finance and by the way, I’ve got so many people writing to me to ask me what I thought about how they teach reading, et cetera. But it was a finance report, which by the way, justifies asking a banker to do it rather than someone steeped in education. It took some years, but I believe the financial side of the equation has been greatly improved. I’m very happy that so many parts of our initial report are now embedded, and there is actually an acceptance that disadvantage exists and requires an overlay of additional monies. Now, we’ve come perhaps to the more difficult bit, and that is how do you spend that money? And that was the purpose of our second report. That hasn’t been implemented, although parts of it have been as of two weeks ago, in fact. And now, we have to see what people involved in do with the additional money that’s there. There’s been a bit of criticism that some of that money hasn’t been spent. I think it’s a bit early to make that criticism, and I think it could make a very big difference.

Douglas Nicol:                  One of the things that you say in the report is that in addition to the standard curriculum, topics like problem solving and creative thinking are really important skills to have for the coming 20 years. Can you talk a bit about that and why you feel strongly about that?

David Gonski:                   I feel very strongly about it. I think that when we talk for example about STEM and all these wonderful things, what I believe we’re really saying is we want to educate people to think. We don’t need any more, because we’ve got wonderful technology and so on, rote learning. In the old days, if you could know all the facts, you were the superior person. Today, there is a computer that not only knows the facts, but can be given to you in two seconds on a little machine sitting in your pocket. What you need, though, is that wonderful human benefit of being able to understand those facts, to be thinking around the facts, to be thinking outside the box and indeed assimilating the facts to the benefit of how you want the world to progress. And I think that’s absolutely essential, we need to teach that and we need to move forward on it.

I should also add that I’m watching the coming, as all of you are, of AI, artificial intelligence. I don’t fear it because I know the intellect of humans is such that they should be able to work with AI and indeed do better work rather than be put out of work. And I think if we teach our kids to think outside the box, to think intellectually, and indeed focused but outside of just the normal rote learning, we’re preparing them to live with AI and we’re preparing them to move maybe from one job that might be replaced over time to a more exciting one. One that’s less involved in rote learning, less involved in procedure and much more in thinking.

Douglas Nicol:                  And do you think there are particular countries in the world who are really embedding that into their curriculum? So, the Finns for example, are they teaching these skills well?

David Gonski:                   Well, the Finns are, but the wonderful thing the Finnish have done is to understand and lord great teaching. Here, we’ve got great teachers, but we don’t lord them, in my opinion, as much as we should. In Finland, if you are a very bright person, you don’t go into banking, which is a pity because I’m a banker, but you don’t go into banking, you go into teaching. And I would love to see here a bit more of that talent going into teaching, and where there is talent already in teaching, that we sing more in their praise. Everybody has a favorite teacher in their lives and everybody owes something to a teacher and we should acknowledge that. So, that’s what Finland did. In terms of actually getting one to think outside the box and think creatively, they’ve done some of that, but there are other countries that have done it. For example, Israel is often put up as an example. They’ve got a very small country, a country under threat, a very innovative way of thinking and actually a people who are self starters. They have to be, I suppose. That’s where they’re teaching a lot of this, and they’ve of course done very well in the new technologies and I think we can do that too.

Douglas Nicol:                  And if we move to universities and perhaps what universities look like in the future, there’s some debate about whether the university experience outside of the lecture hall is what it used to be, in terms of being involved in societies and being involved in committees and that side of your character and building. What’s your view of how university life will look in the future, will it be very different to today?

David Gonski:                   Can I firstly say, anyone who knows a lot about university life would divide that question into two parts. There is the experience of the undergraduate and there is experience of the postgraduate. If I deal with the postgraduate, I’m not as worried about them having a campus experience. I’m not as worried about them standing together and basically enjoying debating and so on. I’m in favor of it, but I think as a postgraduate, you often are already formed and moving into your job. And I believe, by the way, in continuous education, so I’m expecting us to have post post graduates and even post post post graduates going forward, and I think that’s very healthy. It’s the undergraduate experience that in my opinion is terribly important. I believe very strongly in using remote learning techniques, but I absolutely believe for the undergraduate there is no substitute for a period of enjoying and being involved in an academic life within a university.

In my opinion, and people laugh at me, at my university we have what’s called a library lawn. I believe that was a subject quite important in my formative years. I listened to various politicians, all of whom are dead now, not because of me being there, but because it was such a time ago. I learnt the arts of debating, just lying there on the lawn and hearing people positioning themselves. I watched and spoke to different cultures. I enjoyed debating things, which often frankly were facile, but it was a great art to learn and meet other people. I believe very strongly in the undergraduate experience. I do believe it exists. Many who are interested in sport, for example, have wonderful experiences at universities. We’ve got very strong sports teams and so on and they meet lots of people, but I do believe we have to encourage it even more.

Nick Abrahams:               I think as chancellor of the University of New South Wales, it looks like the university is in very good hands, David, with that vision. Can we talk a little bit, you mentioned that you are at its core, I guess, a banker and that has been a significant part of your career. The whole financial services sector has been massively impacted by technology and other changes over recent times. What do you see the future of financial services?

David Gonski:                   I think that the coming of the new technologies in financial services is fantastic. I believe, firstly, that it can allow us to provide even better services to our customers. I believe that it can promote great efficiency in what we’re doing, and I believe it can reduce mistakes. So, I’m a believer in the new technologies. I don’t fear them and I actually support them. I believe that the coming of a period where we don’t have cash is a big plus. I think it’s a big plus for customers because it means they don’t have to go and get cash to try to buy things or use their monies. They can do that within their phone or on their desktop, whatever they wish. I think that’s greatly convenient to them. Second, I believe fraud will be greatly reduced. And finally, I’d have to say from a governmental point of view, I think it’s likely that it will remove a lot of the black economy and that, of course, will produce perhaps either more taxes or better discipline in the way taxes are paid. So, I’m strongly in favor of the developments that are going on and I believe financial services who, and certainly the big banks are doing that, embrace the new technologies will provide better services and will find other ways also of providing assistance to their customers way beyond what they’re doing presently.

Nick Abrahams:               And just moving then to diversity, a subject that you’ve obviously been a very big advocate of, both in your board work but also in your book, I Gave A Gonski. Could you talk a little bit about how you think corporate Australia has fared in relation to promoting diversity in the workplace and at board level?

David Gonski:                   I think over the last few years there’s been a very strong focus on gender diversity, particularly at board level and significant, I think, hurdles have been achieved, et cetera. We’ve got 30% clubs and hopefully going to 40%. I also think, in senior management, there’s a lot of good work that’s been done. I don’t believe we have got there yet. I firmly believe that if you want the best people for the job, you’ve got to choose from 100% of the population. It is absolutely ridiculous to only choose from slightly less than 50%, who just happened to be male. It may be convenient, by the way, for males, but that’s about where it ends.

In my view, we’re taking good steps towards that, but I would urge that we can’t stop looking at it. It’s terribly important. And people say to me, “Well, why do you believe that?” Not only is there the 100% point that you should look for the best over the whole population, but I’ve learned absolutely that diversity in management produces the best decision making. I think a calamity, and I’ve said this many times, could occur if everybody sitting around a board table was exactly the same as me. I suspect we’d agree considerably, and if we didn’t agree, we’d be arguing on the wrong points. To have people from diverse backgrounds, whether it be gender, geography, learnings is terribly important. And I must say, I believe at the bank I chair at the moment, we’ve got a pretty good diverse group and boy, it makes the debate much better and I think the decisions better.

Douglas Nicol:                  Do you think that in the future we will have to move to a model of very strong affirmative action with quotas and things like that, or do you think that’s going too far? What’s your view?

David Gonski:                   I’m not keen on quotas in any way. I fully understand, by the way, that people who’ve been waiting for a long time for this to occur can sometimes feel quotas will bring it forward. Quotas, in my opinion, basically malign the excellence of the people who are put in, because forever they’ll be there because there was a quota and they’re much better than that. In my opinion, if it has to be pushed, it should be pushed by males in the relation to diversity of gender, and indeed by Australians in relation to diversity of different backgrounds, including bringing on international talent as well. So, I would say to you that I don’t believe in legislative quotas, I don’t believe we should be telling the politicians what to do and I don’t believe they should be telling industry what to do, but at the same time, I feel strongly we must achieve this because it makes sense.

Douglas Nicol:                  David, we might move on to your personal story. You were born in Capetown and your family migrated to Australia in 1961, partly influenced by the events of the Sharpeville Massacre. And in many ways, you are the quintessential Australian migrant story. What do you attribute your success to?

David Gonski:                   By the way, the first thing I want your listeners to know, I was very young when I came here, 1961. Well, many people ask me which university I went to in South Africa. I had just started school. So, I actually spent the vast majority of my life, I’ve been very lucky, I’ve spent it in Australia. In terms of success, it’s interesting. A thing about immigrants is often they don’t think they’ve been that successful, and I’m one of them. I think immigration at whatever age does have, for many people and I’m one of them, that feeling that you’ve got to get up every morning and achieve things, because if you don’t, you haven’t achieved anything. So, every day is a bit of a battle to achieve. Sometimes that makes for more success in life. Sometimes, of course, it’s your undoing because sometimes you get up and you’re not successful that day.

So, I would say the drive of the immigrant should not be underestimated. We were very lucky immigrants. Firstly, we were English speaking. My father had university degrees, he was a brain surgeon from England, which is where he’d gone to to get his qualifications. So, we came with an innate asset that I’ve never forgotten, that education travels with you. And we came to a country that opened its arms to us, and I’ve got to say, I thank every day firstly, my parents for making the decision to leave South Africa and secondly, for the Australians for receiving us so well.

Nick Abrahams:               And David, your generosity of spirit, as we’ve heard I think throughout this discussion as well, but your generosity so spirit is legendary. I think in the Australian business community particularly, many people beat a path to your door seeking career advice at various stages of their lives. Could you perhaps give us… What’s your favorite piece of career advice that you give to people?

David Gonski:                   By the way, the first thing I would say, and I suppose this is a confidential secret which I’m now sharing, I find it a great honor that people come and ask my advice. And I know one day they won’t, and I know that will be the day where my career is over, so I’m delighted that they do. But the secret I wanted to tell you is that I let people talk. I have learnt very early on as a mentor that generally the mentee knows the answer, generally the mentee’s thought about it a lot more than I have, they’ve just walked through my door, and generally most of the mentees that come to me are quite intelligent and driven people or they wouldn’t have bothered to make the call. So, I let them talk and often I pick up from what they’re saying what I think is the answer. And then, I give it back to them, and the number of times they say, “What a fantastic point.” And of course, the point is theirs. And so, my secret, and it’s the secret sauce as they say, is my advice to mentors is listen to the mentee. Guide the mentee, but generally the mentee knows and just needs a little bit of a pat on the back that this is the right way to go.

Nick Abrahams:               David, the advice is to listen. We’ve had the opportunity to listen to you today and on behalf of all of our listeners, thank you very much. It’s great to hear you talk and to hear your story. Really appreciate you spending time with us on Smart Dust today.

Douglas Nicol:                  And that wraps it up for this episode. As usual, there are some links and notes to peruse for this episode on the iTunes program notes. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please rate us on your podcast platform of choice and indeed subscribe to Smart Dust. Thank you to the wonderful content creators at Daresay who produce, very wonderfully, this podcast. So, from me, Douglas Nichols…

Nick Abrahams:               And me, Nick Abrahams…

Douglas Nicol:                  Goodbye.

Nick Abrahams:               Goodbye


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