Psychological Safety Training

#5Putting level 5 leadership into action – George Savvides, Chairman, SBS (s01ep5)

Sep 15, 2021

George Savvides is the Chairman of SBS and former CEO of Medibank Private. George tells talks about what he learnt from his parents who were Greek Cypriot immigrants, and how he puts Level 5 leadership into action. He shares an interesting metaphor about the impact of a toxic team member and discusses his proudest achievement amongst many other things. George has had broad leadership experience, both in the corporate world, and the Not for Profit sector.
"In my experience, the opposite of care, a deficiency in care, force, power, threats, you might get a day's worth of strong output, but it's not a sustainable long term proposition"
- George Savvides


  • Why George believes that a caring culture is directly linked to a high performing team
  • Psychological safety in the workplace
  • The impact of a toxic person on culture
  • How working with World Vision helped keep things in perspective


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Transcript from the interview

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Graeme Cowan, George Savvides

Graeme Cowan  00:02

Hi everyone, this is Graeme Cowan, and welcome to the caring CEO podcast. We created this podcast because we believe that every leader’s number one priority is to build a more caring and resilient team who enjoys growing together. It is my job to interview CEOs and other senior leaders who value building both a culture of care and a culture of high performance. I’m very keen to understand how they do this, and I’m sure there’d be lots of insights and tips for anyone who wants to build a high performing team. It was a pleasure having George Savvides the chairman of SBS on the show today, I previously worked with George and his senior leadership team when he was the CEO of Medibank Private one of the things we did was to garner cattle drove in Outback Queensland and he explains why we did that what was the outcome of there is a real fan of business author Jim Collins concept a level five leadership and explains why he thinks it’s a really important concept in today’s work environment. He talks about his red sock washing metaphor to talk through what one toxic team member can do to the whole team. Self Care is really important to George and he only retired as a hockey player with a senior University Melbourne team 2016 one of his proudest achievements was a transition of Medibank from a government organization to a high performing private enterprise organization, and how he focused on storytelling and why to really help with that transition. He also served for a long time as a board director of World Vision and explains how his experience there help kept his business and personal issues in real perspective. Great guy George, enjoy. I’m delighted today to welcome to the show George Savvides. George is the son of Greek Cypriot parents who arrived in Australia at 1950. He was the first person in his family to go to university. George has 30 years experience in the Australian and New Zealand healthcare sector, including three CEO roles at Smith and Nephew, Sigma Pharmaceuticals, and Medibank Private. He joined Medibank at a time when it was making $175 million loss. Three years later it had turned around to a record profit of 130 million. He left Medibank as CEO for 14 years, retiring in 2016. He is currently the chairman of public broadcaster SBS and the biotech company next science and a board member of IAG and Ryman healthcare, he retired as chairman of World Vision Australia in 2018. Having served on the board for over 18 years, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2020, Australia Day honors for significant service to the community, to charitable groups, and to business. He’s also passionate about hockey, and played with the Melbourne University veterans up until 2016. Welcome, George, it’s great to have you on the show.

George Savvides  03:09

It’s great to be here Graeme, thank you.

Graeme Cowan  03:11

George what does caring in the workplace mean to you?

George Savvides  03:16

Well, it’s actually a very big an important topic. Because if you in the workplace want to have a high performing organization, then that only happens if you’ve got a high performing leadership group and teams that work for them. They’re feeling connected, enthusiastic about their work, and get on pretty well with each other as well, that friction pieces manage well. So care touches all of that, because my experience, the opposite of care, a deficiency in care, force, power, threats, you might get a day’s worth of strong output, but it’s not a sustainable long term proposition. And so maybe we take it for granted. But I think caring culture, I think is directly linked to a high performing team that produce long term results.

Graeme Cowan  04:11

You’re fantastic. And we talk about, you know, having a culture which prizes, both a culture of care and a culture of high performance and you’ve led organizations that are misused, you know, every quarter or every year, apparently must be tension between those two things. How do you keep on top of that balancing get the optimum output?

George Savvides  04:32

Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right. You know, and leaders who are sort of under the pump to deliver results, but also want to do the right thing by leading their organizations in terms of people leadership, are often finding themselves under pressure and to maybe subordinate one objective to the other. But it is a both and not one or the other. And yes boards do expect high performance shareholders, expect high performance. But you don’t get that by not being caring culture in an organization seeking to have great team work and great outcomes.

Graeme Cowan  05:09

I know that you really value the concept of a level three leader, which is described in Jim Collins book Good to Great. Can you just explain what a level five leader is?

George Savvides  05:19

Yeah, so Collins talks about the level five leader being the more of a coach than a captain; captains tend to score goals are on the field calling shots. Coaches are on the sideline, so there should be no left or run out the middle of the game. And so they’ve done their prep work in the locker room on the training field, prior to the game, talk one on one with players who maybe forgetting that passing the ball is a good idea at the right time, rather than keeping it or losing their head when enabled by an opponent instead of staying focused on the game and the strategy. So the level five leader in Collins’s book is came out of the observation, researching many companies where he was looking for why companies perform at a high level over a long period of time rather than short blips. And he found leaders that fit a profile, that wasn’t what he expected, he thought he would find great captains. But what he found was amazing coaches, and people who call the metaphor the window in the mirror, when things were going well, they would look through the window their office onto the factory for the operation and say, it’s my great team, wonderful people are so committed to the cause. The things are going badly that leaders would look in the mirror, and what am I doing wrong? What am I missing? What does my team need of me, and I’m not giving them. So this level five leader ended up being a profile of a sort of a resilience, stoic, not giving up, always through the team, serving and sacrificing on behalf of the team in the organization. In other words, leading by example, in terms of the mission that they committed themselves to, rather than looking for some kind of personal ambition. So that’s a level five leader and I always admired that, that stereotype or prototype. And I found that it encouraged me to try to be a leader in a certain kind of way, and to also help leaders who work for me to sort of get the most out of their teams by getting themselves out of the picture. And putting the team in the picture.

Graeme Cowan  07:21

Yeah, fantastic. And had that work on a, you know, week to week basis. George, what sort of questions do you ask yourself to try and stay on track for that style of leadership?

George Savvides  07:32

Yeah, so the week to week stuff would be, you know, there may be some friction between a couple of our team members on particular issues, or maybe their personalities just didn’t gel. And that was always the elephant in the room. And just, you know, you might try to get the meeting done. But unless you resolve that, you know, you’ve got a handbrake on, on the vehicle. So we spent a lot of time stopping to sort people out. Because we knew that we could only really run as fast as the slowest player in the team in the sense of those that friction issues. And so we would double back and resolve the issue, try to listen to each other understand the few points. And that tended to also build that kind of, we talk about values in an organization that is actually putting those values into practice. And if we did that, at the top of the organization, we’re more likely to lead by example, through the organization. So treating others with respect, collaborating, rather than trying to kick the goal in yourself. So that was a lot of the wait a week. Another part of it was this accountability to each other healthy, transparent of accountability, which I had to live with as well as leader, which would be GA, we’ve got a problem here. You know, we’re saying one thing with our values, but one of our senior executives is driving a very large technical project is not living those values. We’ve got people in tears at the startup meetings every morning, and you know, they’ve been challenged pretty aggressively by that leader and and you need to deal with it. And we need to deal with as a leadership group, and I remember those days. You know, but what about the objectives this person’s really delivering? And yes of course they are but you know, it’s how you get there, not just what what happens at the outcome. So I remember having to deal with that and taking the risk that we were just the project KPIs that we had to win the cut team culture.

Graeme Cowan  09:34

And how did the discussion go your head someone divisions, say was delivering the goals meeting objectives, but was causing some friction and some damage behind them? How did you go about handling that?

George Savvides  09:48

So obviously give people some chance, give them feedback, and ask them to modify, significantly modify their approach to team briefings and task achievement. I think this particular individual was actually probably better suited for the US military. Brilliant person, really, very respectful of their capabilities, but on people leadership that was not a strength. So we ended up after try a few times parting ways in a very generous way and caring way, but parting ways and then immediately sends a signal to the organization because it said that, actually, they do believe in the values that they’re promoting as a company and culture leadership group. Have we not done that, even if it may be one person in 12 in a team, there may be a misstep, not delivering the right value and behaviors. And we seek out how the 11 more wins, okay? The wrong metaphor, it’s not the numeric 11 against one, it’s, if you can doen the one, its spoils and stains entire organization, because it sends a message to everyone who’s impacted by that individual, that those values are very seriously upheld by the CEO and the leadership group. And that my metaphor for this grain sort of followed me around a bit, was that some time ago, Vivian asked me to do some help around the house still happens, its good. And I was fumbling away in the laundry, doing a load of white clothing into the wash. And that was the first load of the day. And I inadvertently let a red sock, get caught up in all of the white clothing. And so when I proudly said I taught finished, I’ll take them out, and I’m so good. Now open the door, and everything was pink. And, and that’s the metaphor of values and culture in organizations that it may only be one person, one part, one department, one section. And we may be tempted in protecting it because they are achieving great things, or they’ve been here forever, or they’re the son and daughter of the founder or whatever it is. And that condoning stains entire wash. So beware of the red socks, and you’ve got to be a pure play when it comes to values and behaviors.

Graeme Cowan  12:17

That’s a great metaphor. When you started with Medibank, private on the path to privatization. I assume it was largely a public sector organization that you were taking on? How do you begin that transition of culture to make it a much more accountable, much more customer service, focused organization?

George Savvides  12:40

Yes, actually, I was a 14 years grammars, it was actually three periods of change not two. So the the initial period was that inherited, government, public service sort of organization, came out of the Department of Health sort of leadership line. So it became a government business enterprise based out of Canberra and Melbourne, late last century. And in that we had, I joined in 2001. So we, we inherited an organization that was a bit like a public service, in a sense, its heritage, its origins that where people came from very loyal, very committed people, but a certain rhythm and a certain practice sort of momentum. And so the first phase of change was not the privatization that was still over the horizon. The company was crippled, it was losing money, it was bleeding. It was to find out why. So what do we stand for? What Why do we exist? And we started not with consultants because we couldn’t afford them. We went down and spoke to all of our staff and asked them, you know, what do you hear from our customers? What What do you want? What do you think we should be about and we came back with a really strong message that it wasn’t about paying bills, reimbursing receipts from healthcare providers, when they wanted the organization to actually be better informed about the health that was being paid for. And to be much more involved in the healthcare part of the sector that we are a payer to, to be more relevant in healthcare. And to be more discerning around the healthcare we pay for on behalf of the 4 million lives that are insured by the Health Fund. So the slogan was we had to move from payer to player in the health sector. We had to move from the grandstand watching the game of healthcare play out onto the playing field, a participant with the providers to ensure that members who use the health system, take the right pathways go to the high quality providers and get the best care. So that became a change program. It also informed strategic intent, and we acquired three businesses with very deep healthcare pedigree. And they were incorporated in the business that we went from a company that had 5% of its workforce and three and a half 1000 people, its health professionals to a company that I think got after about a third and its workforce. Professionals that informed our contracting and product designs, securement strategies, continuum of care from primary care into acute care, and rehab, and prevention, understanding more care needs for coming in emerging field members rather than just waiting for a reactive reimbursement claim. So that was very energizing find our purpose, which we put in the byline of the brand, you know, for better health, the next phase of change, and that really energized the organization, we became more like you’d expect a corporation of that size to look like. And then we moved into the privatization cycle in the last, you know, three or four years where we were asked to get ready, and started all the prep. And this is where the beginning of this interview sort of comes into play. We just don’t want the caring culture to origin healthcare concerns for members, where we need some results. Because we need to be able to value the enterprise at its true potential rather than from some of its legacy value and underperformance. So we’re already an average at the time of that journey, but it’s interesting grind that the purpose of the organization became the way in which the found it’s high performance, we ended up looking at the claims we paid for with a very deep knowledgeable team around healthcare. And they found errors or overpayments or some fraud in some dental practices and found lots of things, they found patterns in the claiming that shouldn’t have been there, they found infection rates in smaller hospitals that were twice the amount percentage of patient for a particular surgery, then some of the mainstream hospitals, larger, more competent corporate hospitals. And so you know, all of that resulted in saving unnecessary costs and benefit claims, and directing more of those costs into more beneficial areas. And that had a net result that the savers waste was quite significant. And margins doubled in a three year period. And it went straight into the IPO. And that made the IPO very successful. And those margins have been sustained since then. So if you go back, it wasn’t forcing for numbers. It wasn’t this sort of cruel, autocratic leadership approach. It was level five again, it was about, you know, how can we make the best care for our customers the purpose, the avoidance of messy wasted care costs that produce no healthcare outcomes? How can we be better discerning in that And out of that shift? Okay, margin improvement without benefit reduction. And so, yeah, you wouldn’t have got that effort from the team to find those creative solutions. If they were forced or pressured, then under the risk of being sacked or something. It came out of a genuine desire that there was one of the care for our customers, make sure the organization could step up to the promise we were making. So it drove the human energy and creativity that produce those solutions that benefit not only the customers and the members of the fund, but also the shareholders.

Graeme Cowan  18:08

Fantastic. And do you have the same team, executive team the whole time, or did you find you had to evolve the executive team? Yeah, look,

George Savvides  18:17

14 years is a long journey. So yeah, I think I had 4 Chairman 10 different shareholders in gamba. So I think we had probably about easily two full cycles of an executive team, maybe two and a half out of that time. Yeah. And many of the team that I prepare are still there today, four years after I’ve left, so yeah, it’s in I’m pleased for that. Because they’ve, they’ve invested deeply into it. It is purpose based. You’re familiar with organizations with deep purpose. And it’s great to be able to have a career and some vocation in a place where it’s more than just a job.

Graeme Cowan  18:56

You also worked as a board member for World Vision For a long time, I think was 18 years. What did you learn through that experience?

George Savvides  19:04

Yeah, it was a very contrasting world I lived in during that period, because I was on the International Board of World Vision as well. And I would fly to projects in very severe situations for human beings and see where the work was being delivered and administered and some joyful moments with children and clinics and care. That’s, you know, insane numbers. So yeah, as I call it, the richest woman in the world I found in one of our projects, she didn’t have a big bank account, but you know, to have their children be given a future was priceless for her.

Graeme Cowan  19:38


George Savvides  19:39

And there was nothing in the world she wanted more than that. She was full to the brim. And so I would live in this contrast in universe of coming back into Australia and dealing with a very first world one of the best health systems in the world, and then going into places where there is no health system. Then there’s humanitarian. And interventions, and people being directly, you know, extracted from parents. So I guess what was common was, I was amazed by the staff of World Vision and other humanitarian organizations and their commitment and sacrifice. And again, it’s more evidence of the fact that care and purpose, they’re probably part of the same sort of coin one side than the other. When care and purpose connect, the human being is fully flourishing. And you see some of the most amazing experiences in the world. And so their things I’ll never forget just to see how great people can be caring for one another.

Graeme Cowan  20:39

Was there anything you were able to transfer to the way you lead your business?

George Savvides  20:44

Look, I think I would often share some of the stories of my visits in the top 100 briefings and a regular basis that may bank or when I do the rounds with the staff, they knew well, what I did in my other parts of volunteer work. And I always found it was a good connection point with staff that the boss wasn’t really just about, you know, corporate Main Street, you know, that he could actually be kind in another way in a different place, which may be made me look a little bit more valid in my attempt to have that kindness play out in corporate values and cultural sense in an organization. I haven’t really gone back to do the research on that Graeme, but it’s connected a few times that might have been helpful in a different way.

Graeme Cowan  21:32

Differently. What do you do for self care George? you’ve had some, you know, big and very stressful roles. You’ve had some big roles now. How do you keep yourself in good shape?

George Savvides  21:43

Yeah, look, when I was more physical than I am now, I’m 64. Now Great, so that probably up late 50s. I was still playing hockey and veterans and all of that. Enjoy that I’m an old hockey player from way back. Very bad at it. But I love being on the good guys carrying on like a to Bob watch. Thinking that we’re half serious. And so that was that was fun. I get out on a little boat. I enjoy getting out on the water, not a fisherman, but I like to move along. Quickly. Viv and I have been married for two years. So I’m married to my best friend. And it’s been a lot of time together. And through COVID. Last year, we did a lot of time together. And she that was nourishing for good to have me around more often, as we thrived on that was great. I think in recent years, what keeps me centered and joyful, are things you can’t buy that, you know, they’re my little three little grandkids, the spread of ages, five months to four to five years, five months to five years. And three of them and we spend a lot of time with our two boys and their families. And they’re not that far away from us and Melbourne and yeah, that’s very joyful.

Graeme Cowan  22:55

I bet. What about when you were in these roles? And the roles you’re in now? Do you have good friends, you can call them on and speak to that can really assist when you’re going through some tough times?

George Savvides  23:08

Yeah, both in the corporate world. There’s a few networks here that I plug into, we still meet and catch up from previous relationships in previous corporates. During COVID, we’re involved in a Community Church down here on the peninsula that mentioned there, there’s a women’s refuge that we’re involved in, there’s lots of things that we sort of connect with our community. And during COVID, when a lot of that stuff sort of froze up. It’s actually Melbourne when it’s a long lockdown. 100 days, we started zooming some groups, you know, I mean, a book club. Still going, it was happening this morning at eight o’clock. We’re reading the book ‘Cast’, its a great book, incredible book about racism. And another group was basically the Friday night glass of wine group, which bunch of buddies they’ve got a few hobbies, and we share that over video and, and that sort of I can in COVID, lockdown, we will I really look forward to those weekly catch ups.

Graeme Cowan  24:05


George Savvides  24:06

It’s funny now that we got back to a busier pace that I have here on this Friday. I’ll have to make sure I can do it. So I kind of get the feeling that there will be a deficit coming out of the lockdowns, period and COVID, which, you know, we all have to go through, which will be that we value time and people more when we had time.

Graeme Cowan  24:27

Yeah, I know you’ve always been very diligent reader, what have been books that have had the biggest impact.

George Savvides  24:35

Ah look be our being our Institute’s book, leadership and self deception. That’s a pretty powerful book. You know, the vortex of self interest captures any individual that ends up accumulating authority in roles and positions. So that’s a really powerful book, really healthy read for emerging leaders. You need to make sure that they don’t get in the way disturbing the mission.

Graeme Cowan  25:01

What does it encourage readers to do? What’s the core message of it,

George Savvides  25:05

It’s a sort of an exposing, it’s like the Emperor with no clothes, you get to see yourself. Yes. In the opening in the opening pages, there’s this little example where people are coming onto the aircraft, and they’re rushing down the corridor to get a bag up first and get a better space and they sit down. And in the seat in the seat of three, you know, there’s, there’s this wish that the middle seats are going to get taken up, and you’ve already taken over the middle seat with your elbows hanging out. And then just before the door shuts, Oh no, someone sat there. So it’s a very small example of self interest. But you know, that’s a human being that needs to fly to the same destination, and always wishing they didn’t exist. So that’s the book starts, it gets a bit deeper than that. But it does call us out for you know, Simone will talk in her French philosopher, lovely female philosopher in the Second World War, talks about the two forces in the universe, gravity and grace, gravity to politics of self interest, Grace, the power to reach out to another human beings care for them. And those two forces are playing the universe. And so I’ve read books around that I’ve enjoyed Jonathan Sacks, book, morality, too, sadly, passed away, beautiful man. And the second mountain, there’s been a few good reads, this year during COVID that I’ve enjoyed, it’s been encouraging and also some of our indigenous heritage, one blog, some more recent books about the early years in the in the settlement of Australia and some of the stories that hadn’t been told. So in my role with SBS, we’re very keen to get some of those narratives expressed and told so that you can’t reconcile unless you start with truth telling. And so we have a job to do in that area. So I’ve been reading up a fair bit in that area.

Graeme Cowan  26:55

The son of immigrants, and they were quite recently in Australia before you’re born to have that shape the way that you experienced teenage years and I guess, getting to university as well.

George Savvides  27:09

Yeah, so two lovely parents, Helen and Andrew, dad passed away about five years ago. Helen, I saw mum last week, she’s 95 still doing well in Sydney. Yeah, so very generous people committed to their family, their kids, so they invest everything for them to grow up knowing that you are truly loved. But also that, you know, nothing comes without hard work and effort. So they was a role models we had dad was worked on the submarine base at our model in Sydney, and was the electrician there. And usually, usually, I used to spend some time down there on the base. So it was a lot of fun. Dad, always very generous man, with our people around hospitality, a great food. And not just great people, you know, their neighbors, friends, people that we work with. So there was always this sort of lovely attraction to our home. So I was inspired by his generosity and hospitality as a human trait. He did very well, he did a lot of work for friends that never charged for putting in powerpoints and mic fittings. Like I say, hand up some of those tools on the weekend and helping as his apprentice here. So he very excited to see me do well at school and my sister and went off to New South Wales, studying engineering, loved engineering study, the Japanese manufacturing technology, total quality management and my specialty year and then when did an MBA ETS. So that dad was my best fan, if anything was ever written about me or something was happening, he would cut it out ring me up, just constantly proud of his son and his daughter and just the beautiful people. So yeah, I grew up to the title, this interview is totally surrounded with care in terms of love and care as a family. So and that inspires me as a school of hard knocks at school being a wog boy from Greek heritage, it was a bit of that, because I think in my journey of probably just produce some character rather than damage. So we ended up being friends with all a gang. So we monitored through that. But it’s still an important issue to be sensitive to as we try to be an inclusive society and in Australia, and that’s why I’m passionate about what I’m doing at SBS. And you know, we don’t want to follow the role models of other places in the world where we have seen deep division and community.

Graeme Cowan  29:22

Yeah, fantastic. Who else did you learn from going through your career? You know, mentors made a big difference to you?

George Savvides  29:31

Look, I had a couple of bosses who were beautiful leaders of, you know, organizations to practice many of the things that I then adopted as pathways and, yeah, lovely. They took me under their wing. They did a bit of coaching and mentoring for me in my early years as an engineer, and then later as a business manager, probably about four of them. So I was very fortunate. Maybe I sought them out. I don’t know that there was always this desire to learn and to understand that Leaders did things and how they did things and why they did them. And the more I started to get into it myself in terms of reading, and getting into the author’s research, the, the high performance and where it came from, and the human factors behind that, that sort of got me into my own sort of treadmill of discovery and and then once you get a chance, as a CEO to put into practice and see what works and doesn’t work, you sort of get very convicted internally about, yeah, I know, this is the way to do it. We have authors of many books come to speak to us, a guy called Fred Lee, who wrote the book, if Disney ran your hospital, what nine and a half things would you do different? You might have met Fred in your times, gram, but he’s a big, big on care. He believes that a care culture absolutely adds to curing and healing, not just the physical intervention of the medical system. And he spent some time at Disney at Central castle, learning the attributes of care and inclusion and took that back into the healthcare cycle of these hospitals and ended up with high performing hospitals. And he says it’s all got to do with nurses to sit down and hold the hand of a patient and really listening support. So I we translated that into the corporate scene. We had an astronaut who came and visited us, Charlie, do you tell us the stories of how to solve unsolvable problems? You know, the oxygen cylinders running out in Apollo saying, how do you get home incorporations were often fine in front of wicked, wicked problems. But I’m a deep believer in the chemistry of creativity in human beings, as you suggest the right kind of culture and passion around solving a problem that the world needs to be solved. Impossible as it looks in scenes solutions will be found. And it’s that interface and how do you create an environment as a leader that permits people to have a go like that and be fearless, but trusting each other. So they can, you know, fail quickly until they find the solution? I’ve been encouraged by lots of foreign leaders who have come across it away and share that with the organizations that I laid at the same time. And they were on a learning journey as well.

Graeme Cowan  32:09

How do you make it safe for people bring up concerns the people bring up bad news in the organization?

George Savvides  32:17

Yes, that’s right. You know, it’s it’s certainly an important area. The last thing a board or a CEO wants is to find things way past, the due time of it being disclosed. Sometimes the problem is that the CEO is so fearsome, that employees are frightened to elevate and be transparent. So sort of does go back to culture, and what do you stand for. And if the area of honesty, integrity and trust isn’t there, then bad news won’t be shared, it’ll be buried. So a healthy organization needs leadership capable of being open and receptive to things that go wrong and respected. In human practice, not everything is going to work. And punishing a failure is not going to be a pathway to a future high performing organization. It’s learning from it. And it might mean also picking up the individual who stumbled and making sure they can continue on the journey with us rather than seeing them as a casual thing.

Graeme Cowan  33:20

Yeah, absolutely.

George Savvides  33:21

Yeah, it is a nuance, isn’t it? And it’s very easy to falter very easy from the top down to sin. Fear.

Graeme Cowan  33:28

Yeah, yeah.

George Savvides  33:29

And we’re senior leaders have to be extremely careful about their frustrations, their times of anger and wanting to find another place to land the blame. Is the board’s putting it in their lap. Yeah, that’s the red sock, isn’t it? Once you stay in it? Yeah, people will be fearful of telling the truth. You’ve lost trust. And that organization cannot perform at a high level, nor can it deliver promises to its customers if it’s caught up in that negative spiral.

Graeme Cowan  34:02

Very much so. When you think of your career, what would say achievement you feel really proud of? It’s 100%, your choice you can bring in every area of leadership and something that was very meaningful to you.

George Savvides  34:17

Look, I know, you won’t be surprised say there were many, but I guess the one that surprised me the most. Because there was a lot at stake commercially or significant was the pivot from a health insurer that pays bills to transition into a health care company. There’s a lot at stake, right. You know, if you goof that up, and it actually is worse, you know, go and have the competency become a health care company. You will never get deep enough to actually discern what services providers should be contracted to provide for the health fund members and where pathways, you know, if you screw that up, they’ll be reading every way you would have invested in things that were more expensive but delivered later. And you’d be the laughingstock lots of downsides. So the way we did that transition or transformation was not top down, it was bottom up. So was the hunger and desire of the body of the organization to become more relevant to its customers. And they actually saw that there were opportunities for this, it’s just that the top down, didn’t deliver it for them, yes, it into the care providers, more detail about the surgeries and consequences, and now their options. And so we making those acquisitions and then working at it, good integration, rather than clunky dysfunction. Getting that integration. So we had a much more informed organization around healthcare, we got the transition through the relevance through the products change, the experience changes, but so too, did the bottom line, we became much more discerning about where the $5 billion of claims would be spent. And we discovered where the three and $400 million of wasted purchases were, which went to sort of mindset shareholders became happy. And so that was a big, bet Graeme, very big.

Graeme Cowan  36:08

And you feel how long did it take before you feel confident that this is actually happening

George Savvides  36:12

around you four, year five, so of the transition. So after three years of turn around 2005, we then did the transformation program around 2005 to 2010. And yeah, in the middle of that, you could see the pivot, and then the rest of it has just been improvement. So it also says that it’s tough to do transformations, if a company needs it. If you’ve got short term CEO cycles, you know that the next guy may not see it, or girl may not see it, and there’s a different need and context is pressured. And so these are rare things. And I was very, very fortunate to have a bit of a run to actually see it through. And then after leaving see the legacy that continue to be fruitful.

Graeme Cowan  36:57

What were some of the obstacles on that journey?

George Savvides  37:01

Yeah, so that’s a good question. So resistance to change, hiring healthcare workforces in the acquisitions that came into the business, they were given empowerment, and those who had the role of making those calls in the past didn’t want to give it up and resistance there. Some of the mindsets from the acquired businesses weren’t good fits with the culture and mindset of the inherited business. So we had to do a lot of work on respect for each other didn’t matter where you came from, we’re on the same mission. And we’re not going to be high performance unless we treat each other as team players with respect and a lot of work on that. So there was a one company rather than a series of discontinuities across acquisitions. So that was challenging to stitching together and integrated outcome after a series of acquisitions.

Graeme Cowan  37:53

Are most people capable to change?

George Savvides  37:56

I think if you touch the chord, called conviction, or purpose, or meaning, or relevance, they’re all sort of coming off the same thing. If an individual can be connected to one of those attributes, then if we have to lift to be successful for a customer for whatever, another stakeholder, then there’s a why. So I just, you know, human beings will lift if there’s a why whether there’s a fire at the edge of a community town, and we will get out there and defend the town or with as a healthcare workforce, it’s under a credible challenge at the moment, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. But there’s plenty of why people do amazing things when you can connect to the why along with the humanitarian workers I talked about earlier. So in mainstream Australia, the why can be just, you know, the person that comes in on the contact center call in might have a service with your company or a policy or, you know, whatever. And you work for a company that says it’s not just what you sold on that’s important. It’s how you care for the individual that’s calling us. Because it’s not today’s product that we’re selling. It’s the trust that makes it a relationship that goes on a long term and sustainable journey. So being able to help people see that they’re not just dealing with traffic noise and a context and they’re actually dealing with the future life flow of the organization. And it’s about human beings and the consideration that they give to maybe an edge, an anxious caller that doesn’t understand the paperwork, and they just need a bit of assistance, or they can’t afford this particular product. And I need to be given another option if that’s possible. So that kind of consideration empathy. Yeah, if you can connect the why you’ll get high performance.

Graeme Cowan  39:41

Wonderful. On the introvert extrovert scale, where do you consider yourself to be?

George Savvides  39:48

Yeah, so I would have defaulted to X to introvert, but I if I’m in front of a team, and I have to say, this is where we’re going, this is why I really need your help. And then I I draw any For that process. So that means there’s an extroversion that I feed on, when I’m getting on with what what I call my mission. But then there’s also a place where I just want to sit down in my cave and go walk on the beach.

Graeme Cowan  40:17

It’s interesting. Last week, we interviewed a lady called Amanda Yeates, and she’s the Deputy Director General of the Department of Main Roads and Transport in Queensland. And she said exactly the same that she was an introvert, but she’s learned how to be an extrovert when she needs to be. But she also knows, and it sounds like you know this as well that you do need time to regenerate by yourself. However, that happens. How did you manage to do that in the work environment, you know, when you had to, you know, be the the chief coach for a period of time, and then you had to regenerate? How did you how did you manage your energy in that environment?

George Savvides  40:51

I think I was lucky that my leadership style was more coach. So I didn’t have to have all the answers, I didn’t have to be the best kicker on that field. or know if it’s the orchestra, I was the conductor, not the best player of every instrument. And so that is, by definition, a heavy delegation, and dispersion of authority and responsibility, goes with trust. that the best way to get a great outcome is to get great people to be part of the delivery of that great outcome rather than it’s all about you, George. So I was lucky, they’re being very significant delegator responsibilities, and basically touching and checking and monitoring. Like a conductor. I had time. You know, I had weekends, I could be with family. But we not as often as people that like that I had that time I had, like, my family was my energy source and my centering. We continued in our journey with our sort of faith journey with our church. And, you know, that spirituality piece is important for Viv and I, we it sort of gets us into a place where, you know, it’s about how do we serve the world and others. And that gets us centered in the right direction, rather than about self interest. Yeah, so I was fortunate, I think that I look, if I if my leadership style was an I’ve seen it in others, having to be in every pie, and every thing that’s made every meeting, because there’s a fear that maybe they won’t lift as high if I’m not pushing directly. I would’ve been exhausted. I wouldn’t survive the long term journey, I would have to check out at some point and start all over again.

Graeme Cowan  42:25

Yeah, one of the really favorite events of my corporate life was going on a cattle Grove, where you invited me to be part of that part of the leadership team. And we went to I think it was Emerald, and sort of live like cowboys for that period of time. And it really has become very, as you know, now I speak a lot and do workshops. But I use that cattle drove and movie, city slickers to really consider, you know, what is people’s one thing, and it really, you know, I’ve done this exercise and hundreds of places around Australia around the world that never ceases to amaze me. What people nominate is their one thing. You know, it could be a CEO of an agriculture company saying that doing chainsaw carving was his one thing. You know, I’ve had a woman who worked in a bank in North Sydney say that going fishing in a little tini by herself. 10km out to sea was a thing. So it was quite an extraordinary event for me. Do you ever reflect on that time that we had there?

George Savvides  43:30

Yeah, I do. It’s a lovely, I took my ladies with me. And you were part of that. And it was a way for my leadership group to work out how to be teaming without the context of the everyday work. Now they’re on the, on the big open planes. And we did a couple of droz. And yeah, the team bonded much more effectively after that, because there are some things in the architecture of day to day business and work corporate environments, where they get in the way often of connecting more deeply with individuals so when you see them out there, we’re pretty well we’re all equal status, everyone’s got a horse and everyone’s plugging along at the speed of the cattle in front of us as we prod them along take them to market and you know, we had a purpose though. The cattle were sold and we’ll get there went to a mental health charitable group in the rural communities that we were a part of. So yeah, it’s very special. The night sky was to kill for amazing show that goes on up above their heads at nighttime, when you don’t have the city lights fogging it away. So there was one moment of truth in the game, we were going down a gully and I was following cattle, and my horse was going at the wrong angle and I was starting to lean and I would have kept rolling to the into that gully and somebody must have told Lyle he’s a horseman, saddle maker, keep an eye on George he’ll accidentally kill himself. He was just there with his As my horse stumbled, and I started to fall, and I fell into his shoulder, his horse held a horse, it was falling, and we up rided ourselves. And then he disappeared again.

Graeme Cowan  45:14

It’s certainly a place for humility, isn’t it? Because these people have been riding horses, the whole life and we feel very inadequate. But one thing I, you know, really encouraged people to do is to, when I share the exercise, and in nominating, the one thing is to share it with others. And it’s extraordinary how many people don’t know those things about each other. And when they talk about it, you just see the energy in the room will lift, you know, you’ll see sparks in the eyes, see people smiling, and just just goes to show people can tap into those things that are really central to them really core to what makes them a person. It’s good for everyone. It really is.

George Savvides  45:56

Yeah, that’s great. those little moments of truth are important.

Graeme Cowan  45:59

Very much. So. George, if you were giving advice to your 20 year old self, you know, when you go back and do that and advice to save your time and a bit of heartache on the leadership journey, what advice would you give to your 20 year old self?

George Savvides  46:17

Yes, great question. Probably not to worry as much. There were times where I was caught up in the you know, obviously, the weight of the responsibilities were quite significant. Navigating board meetings and shareholder meetings and operating the organization, there was always something that would worry, and also the stress of when I measure up to the challenge ahead, you know, the next meeting the next issue, the next challenge. And I think I probably hurt myself a bit more than I needed to in the worry. He made me probably less connected at home when I was home, because I was I was still in the back of my head. So I probably didn’t hear the boys as clearly as I would have as a dad, if I had that in a more sensible place in the priority list. Because the point I’m making is that if I worried at 50, and not at 100, nothing would have changed. The journey would have been the journey. Except I might have heard things in a more empathetic way around my my family life and relationships, because worry tends to affect your ears. It gets way in the way of hearing others and being in tune with others. So that would be the advice of a 20 year old George, you know, don’t let the stress go beyond a healthy space where it’s going to deny you the thriving that you get from those things around you that are important to you.

Graeme Cowan  47:47

How fo you manage that worry that stress, what sort of strategies do you have set up now?

George Savvides  47:53

I think I do pack it in that it’s not the end of the world box. That whatever I’m fearful about. It’s failing to measure up to a particular challenge I’ve been given whether it’s a presentation, I’ve got to make an AGM that’s coming up a problem to deal with in a work setting that I don’t know the answer to. Worries, not the way to get to the solution. It’s certainly it’s important and healthy to be concerned, and to be concerned sufficiently to do the preparation to put the effort in. But then it becomes unproductive. If I’m sitting there baking in the churn of will that fail, what would happen if it failed? Won’t be adequate? Will people laugh at me what you know, whatever it is that you’re concerned about? So putting it in giving it the right level of respect?

Graeme Cowan  48:45

It’s fantastic. The CSIRO nominated rising work stress and mental health issues as a mega risk for the next 20 years. How to boards say on top of that, how do they know how things are tracking inside an organization?

George Savvides  49:01

Yeah, well, as you know, I’m on a few boards and they all do their deep dives around culture surveys and organizational heartbeat. They’ve all got names for it. Whether the tool is sufficiently sophisticated or not to really hone in, I guess it’s still a question that I certainly have seen more of a push into especially last year with the COVID genuine concerned about staff, how they’re traveling through it. Worried about the infection protection side as well as the physical side but also the mental health sides around fearing that maybe their careers in jeopardy or their company won’t make it or working from home or put them out of the line of sight of future aspirations they might have in terms of career and then the jumbling of family and life around you while you’re trying to get your job done and all of that sort of so the several of the companies I’ve that they’ve tuned into trying to understand that get feedback from workforce from from staff They’ve modified some of the hours of meetings that not into when people are sort of locked up, they get some exercise or go for walks. And you know, even down to, you know, suicidal tendencies, you know that those questions are asked in delicate ways to see whether people are struggling so that they can be a bit of a deeper dive around. We’re here to help. Can we plug into you, you know, you can always talk to us, as well as the other things that happened in home in terms of domestic violence and other pressure points that occurred as well. So it seems to be in the desire to, for employers to be more in tune with workforces? I think the the toolset that they use is still exploratory. Yeah, and probably not perfect. But there seems to be some more than baby steps towards a deeper understanding.

Graeme Cowan  50:48

Hmm, George it was just an absolute pleasure. talking with you today has been great to revisit your career and you know, the areasd you have worked in, what you’ve achieved. And I really love that you also have a broad leadership role, not just in business, but also very much with World Vision, and also arrow training, looking for emerging leaders. And you know, to me, you really champion both a culture of care and a culture of high performance. So it’s been a pleasure talking to you today.

George Savvides  51:22

Thank you, Graham, and great to catch up.

Graeme Cowan  51:25

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