Choosing a new CEO

By Elizabeth Fry

Succession planning is tough. But it is especially hard where the chief executive is the longstanding face of the company and a doyenne of the industry to boot.

The qualities of a top chief executive are well known - the ability to build and lead a quality team, create a member-centric culture and communicate a vision to staff.

But with things changing so fast in the superannuation sector, a leader who can tackle change head-on is also critical.

So, when looking for a leader to succeed Leeanne Turner as the chief executive of Spirit Super, the board opted to look outside the fund.

Directors wanted a leader who could drive growth by attracting a younger demographic.

The fight for younger members is now the main battleground for industry funds so a chief executive with a proven record in member engagement was essential.

Turner had signaled to the board in advance of the merger between MTAA and Tasplan that she would step down once the deal was complete. That gave the board time to address succession planning to try and diversify the fund's executive team.

The board of directors chaired by Naomi Edwards chose Jason Murray to succeed Turner, joining from QSuper where he was chief of member experience.

Unusually, the board was agnostic about where Murray lived, which Edwards says is very different from pre-pandemic times when the board would have had a fixed view about his location.

"With a decentralised campus-driven, multi-state office where many people are working from home, you need a chief executive who will trust and empower his executive team since he won't physically be on the ground," she says.

"It's a very new and different leadership style compared to the old days.

"The forceful command and control leadership style of a decade ago is no longer sustainable. Neither were we looking for a visionary strategist overseeing from afar."

Edwards is a strong believer in the power of the executive team when it consists of young, hungry people with great ideas who bring out the best in each other.

Mixing it up

After the merger, Turner and the board also decided that Spirit Super needed a fresh new executive team. One way of achieving this was to mix things up and place executives in very different roles.

"Having executives move to new jobs prevented anyone from being stuck in the mindset of saying 'this is how we did things before and we are not used to doing things differently'

"That allowed the merged fund to set its own structure and create a new culture."

Remarkably, the Spirit chair goes on to say, humility was also a prerequisite for the top job.

"Again, that's very different to a decade ago. I don't think in the past that chief executives were recruited for humility, but we think it makes for better leadership particularly, in a distributed environment."

Because of lockdowns, Edwards has never met Murray face to face and the entire recruitment process relied on zoom and references. "There were a lot of zoom calls but I was very aware that you miss out on 80 percent of peoples' normal cues on zoom, so it was something of a leap of faith," she explains.

Moreover, she was heartened by the response to the announcement about Murray on LinkedIn, acknowledging his leadership skills.

"There was a real outpouring of positive comments from his current staff about how lucky Sprit was to have him."

The white-hot topics

As for the most important conversation she will have around the board table next year, Edwards points to the fierce amount of regulatory change forcing super funds to grow fast, invest in new technology, and deliver strong performance without taking many risks.

"That's a very challenging trifecta, so the focus is on cost reduction and new ways of engaging with members," she states.

In her view, Canberra's early release program - introduced when the pandemic first hit - has heightened engagement with super for younger people. As she sees it, the younger demographic is a battleground for super funds because of the ways stapling will affect the industry.

"Young people have new and different demands of their super funds now, and this is why the board thought it critical to install a chief executive with strong credentials in member engagement"

Since none of Spirit Super's directors are Gen Z, Edwards thought the fund needed a fresh approach to the problem.

The big challenge for medium-sized funds is how to compete with the mega-funds. "Business as usual won't cut it anymore, so we need to look at what it can do better or differently."

To that end, the fund set up a pilot incubator which Edwards says has already produced initiatives that will change how the fund engages with young members.

The second big item on the agenda involves being a director or a trustee. Edwards calls the job almost frightening in the not-for-profit sector nowadays because of increasingly onerous rules for directors.

"You need your board directors to be willing to take measured risks, to try different things, and not be terrified into inaction by the pace of change and regulator," argues Edwards.