Take 5 with Jennifer Westacott AO

Jennifer Westacott AO

We chat with Jennifer Westacott, former senior partner of KPMG, on her impressive career and business success.

We chat with alumnus Jennifer Westacott on her impressive career and business success.

 Jennifer Westacott
Last role at KPMG National Lead Partner, Climate Change, Water & Sustainability
Partner in Charge, NSW Government
Board Director
Time with KPMG 2005 – 2011
KPMG office Sydney
Current roles
(as of September 2019)
Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia
Chair, Western City & Aerotropolis Authority
Non-Executive Director, Wesfarmers
Co-Patron, Pride in Diversity
Patron, Mental Health Australia

Growing up in the district of Springfield on the NSW central coast, Jennifer was told her best career prospects were to work in the local shoe shop. But Jennifer had other plans and has since gone on to become one of the most powerful business women in Australia. As Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Jennifer leads a forum for the heads of Australia's top 100 companies contributing to the national public policy debate.

She is the Chair of the Western City & Aerotropolis Authority, which is overseeing the design and delivery of the Western Sydney Aerotropolis, and she is a Non-Executive Director of Wesfarmers. She serves as the co-patron of Pride in Diversity and is a patron of Mental Health Australia.

In 2018, Jennifer was made an Officer (AO) in the General Division of the Order of Australia.

Prior to the BCA, Jennifer occupied a number of critical leadership positions in the New South Wales and Victorian Governments.

She served as the Director General of the NSW Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources; the Secretary of the Victorian Department of Education and Training; and the Director of Housing in Victoria.

She was also the Deputy Director General of the NSW Department of Community Services, and the Deputy Director General of the NSW Department of Housing.

And, of course, Jennifer was a senior partner at KPMG.

We look forward to chatting to one of our most admired Alumni.


You’re known for being a strong advocate for creating a more prosperous and fairer society. What drives your passion for being such a positive change-maker?

I think if you grow up in a poor family, you know the meaning of prosperity because you didn't have it.

You knew what it was like to look over the fence, not in my neighbourhood because everyone was poor, but to look at other kids going to school whose families went on overseas trips and who had holidays.

You knew what it was like for some people to get ahead and I was determined to get ahead personally and individually, but then to also make sure that whatever I did in life, I was going to help other people.

And now to be at the Business Council of Australia, where you can actually start to influence systems change, that’s what I’ve tried to do.


What advice would you give to young Australians starting out in the workforce?

The first thing is to not narrow their career options because they have to imagine that they're going to be in a world where jobs are going to change quite dramatically through technology.

So, they have to make sure that they choose career paths based on a set of capabilities, rather than a set of narrow occupational categories.

For example, if you want to be a lawyer, you really have to do the due diligence on whether those jobs will be available and what shape they will take. That's not to say you shouldn't do law, it's that most people who do law now, won't be practicing law.

The second is to have a really strong belief in your own ability.


As the immediate past chair of the Mental Health Australia, and in recognition of this growing issue in business and society, what work do you believe still needs to be done in this space?

There are things that need to be done in the mental health system and they are long overdue. This includes making sure that we have a serious plan for discharging people who've had a very acute episode because many of those people at the moment are discharged and they either have another very, very serious episode, or worse they kill themselves.

KPMG did some fantastic work for Mental Health Australia, called Investing to Save where they looked at things such as the whole role that secure and supported housing can play in keeping people well and keeping them in the community. They looked at this whole question of discharging people to prevent suicide. So, there are some simple things that can be done and KPMG did some sensational work on this.

But there is no doubt we continue to get the balance wrong between investing early in people who are presenting with low-risk things versus investing too late when their situation has completely fallen apart.

The thing is we don't look at that person's whole of life, their housing, their social interaction, and their general health. Many people who are mentally ill are also extremely unhealthy and we've got to look at the whole person.

And finally, we need to look at the workplace issues and that's about normalising conversations about mental wellbeing. It's about having a focus on wellbeing as well as a focus on performance, and it's about giving people the safety to disclose and giving managers, particularly the expertise and knowledge, about how to manage people with particular types of mental illness.


Congratulations on being made an Officer (AO) in the General Division of the Order of Australia last year for distinguished service to private and public-sector administration through executive roles, to policy development and reform, to cross sector collaboration, to equity, and to business. What has this award meant to you?

This honour as well as being made an honorary doctorate at the university that I studied at (the University of New South Wales) are two of the best things that have ever happened to me in my life professionally because imagine, a kid from the Housing Commission estate winning an AO.

And, the second thing that I just was so thrilled about was the recognition of the word equity, because that is what I have passionately believed in - that we need a more equitable, fairer society and I've never shirked from that.


What are you most proud of in your career?

I'm most proud of the little things. The things that you think, gee I was part of a team that influenced that or I was part of a team that achieved that.

For example, when I was running the NSW Department of Housing, people would tell me that their kids had nowhere to play.

When I drive past there now, I see children playing in the areas where we put fences in so they were safe off the main road and had a safe space. It’s those things that make you really proud because you can reflect and think you were part of making that happen.

It's those little things that you take a lot of pride in because you actually change people's lives for the better.


Who or what inspires you and why?

People with conviction inspire me.

Sometimes I don't agree with them, but I absolutely admire people who stick to their convictions. People like Margaret Thatcher, who were very controversial people in history, but were conviction politicians.

Bob Hawke was a deeply conviction politician and he was a real inspiration and a sense of hope to me.

As a young person you look for leaders who reflect your values and beliefs, who you think can help you deliver your aspirations and your dreams. For me that was Bob Hawke.

He laid the foundations for a modern Australia and living standards which are the envy of the world. He opened our country and the economy to the world and brought people together around a common purpose to realise the potential of every single Australian.

I admire people who, despite it not always being easy, stay true to their sense of belief, direction and vision. Margaret Thatcher took England from this very industrial economy, recognising they could not compete any longer on those terms, into this financial powerhouse and it lifted the living standards of everyone.

I really admire the Queen, not from a kind of voyeuristic perspective like The Australian Women’s Weekly or The Crown, but as a values-driven person. She has modernised some of those values, she is adaptable but has remained true to a core set of principles that are just are absolutely without change. They have allowed her to be a very successful monarch for more than 65 years.

I also admire people who can get back on the horse after adversity. I've had to do it. I've watched other people do it and I really admire people for doing it because it is not easy to get back up sometimes. I admire politicians, business people, and celebrities who get back after adversity.


What is the best career advice you have ever received?

The best career advice I ever received was from Gabrielle Kibble, who told me I was too young to become the Director General of the Department of Housing and to wait to gain more experience, more authority, so that when difficult things happened, you had the authority to bring to those decisions.

It was the most challenging advice I've ever received. It turned out to be the best advice I ever had.


What advice would you give to your teenage self?

To not be in a competition with myself and to worry about what everyone said and thought because it can actually eat away at you.

To just feel that you were good enough and you’re going to be good enough.

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