Whether it’s successfully running two global airlines, steering a crisis-hit media empire or chairing a major financial institution, Sir Rod Eddington takes leadership inspiration from sports and knows the business game inside out.
As the gold-tinted lift doors at JP Morgan’s antipodean headquarters close, a small screen plays a news story about the budget crisis facing Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. The message of austerity jars with the building’s opulence. Business people in tailored suits weave through the lobby’s towering marble columns to jobs at one of the country’s most successful financial institutions. The building’s greatest luxury is its view. From the firm’s 32nd-floor office a panorama spreads from Australia’s most recognisable sporting structure, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and ends with Flinders Street station, an iconic railway terminal built during the city’s gold rush. These symbols of transport and athleticism provide a vantage point that seems almost designed for the extra-curricular passions of JP Morgan’s Australia and New Zealand chairman, Sir Rod Eddington.
Frequently labelled “the busiest man in corporate Australia”, Eddington’s CV includes stints as the ceo of British Airways, a non-executive director at News Corporation, and the chairman of Infrastructure Australia. He has also spent time as the ceo of Cathay Pacific, president of the Australia Japan Business Co-operation Committee and the Chairman of Lion, Australia’s largest brewer. How can one man manage such a diverse portfolio of roles?
“You’ve got to compartmentalise,” he says. “I’ve always been curious. So I enjoy both the familiarity of things I understand well and being involved in things that are relatively new.”
Though his time as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford means Eddington is not beyond throwing the odd “chum” into a sentence, his grounded upbringing in rural Western Australia has never left him. “You learn to beware of hubris quickly in the bush,” he says. “You learn it in class, at home and on the sports field.”
The latter point has been particularly important to his management style. When he wasn’t training with the air force reserves during his engineering degree he played cricket for the University of Western Australia and was later the president of the Vincent’s Club, Oxford’s most prestigious sporting society. “The thing about sport is that you learn to make the most of what you’ve got but accept your limitations,” he says. “It’s a perfect preparation for business.” Now in his sixties, Eddington rarely takes to the field. But he continues to draw inspiration as a spectator, in particular from the Fremantle Dockers, the Australian Rules football team that he served as a board member for. “You talk about leadership – I am a huge fan of Fremantle’s captain Matthew Pavlich,” he says.
“He keeps his dignity through both success and failure.” That assessment could equally apply to Eddington, who is no stranger to crisis. In 2008 he was non-executive director at the Australian asset-manager Allco Finance Group when it collapsed with almost a billion dollars of debt. It was also he who successfully steered British Airways through the weeks following September 11, a time when the airline was losing as much as £2m a day.
He managed to increase the airline’s annual operating profits to £540m by the time he left in 2005, a feat that earned him his knighthood. “We had aeroplanes scattered around the world because the US had closed its airspace. Me and my direct team met every morning for the better part of a month,” he says. “In difficult times you have to over-communicate.”
A similar strategy was also adopted during his role in News Corporation’s handling of the phone-hacking scandal. “That was an example of where a board had to do everything it could to find out what happened and put it right,” he says. Eddington’s position as a director at Australia’s largest news organisation allowed him to observe and learn from one of the country’s most powerful – and controversial – business exports, Rupert Murdoch. “Really successful business leaders are passionate about the industry they are in,” he says. “I’ve never met anyone that is more passionate about the media business than Rupert.
Eddington has never shied from policy debate. He recently returned from accompanying Tony Abbott on a trip to Japan, where he advised during free-trade-agreement negotiations. In 2008 he also released an extensive report on improving transport links in the state of Victoria. “The tyranny of distance conspires against us in Australia. I think when you’re an island continent if you don’t have transport links then you live in isolation.
We need to be better connected,” he says. While Australian officials have welcomed his advice, he is quick to point out that a good manager always picks his moments carefully. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you can wear out your welcome,” he says. “But I like to think that if I ask to speak to a senior person in business or politics, they will take the call because they know that I respect their time.”
He takes a moment to gaze over the train tracks. Despite running flag carriers for the UK and Hong Kong, it seems his strongest loyalty still lies with his home country. “I’ve lived in a lot of places,” he says. “But they don’t come much better than this joint.”
What time do you like to be at your desk?
These days, about 08.00. When I was a chief executive it was usually 07.30.
Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership: at MBA school or on the job?
On-the-job training really matters but whether you do an MBA or not, it’s important you get exposure to the most recent academic thinking.
Describe your management style.
Inclusive. For the really big important decisions you need to have the input of the whole business.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
Sometimes you have to take them by yourself but often – particularly if time permits – there is a chance to get others to test you.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
To be successful you have to be respected but it is difficult to be respected if you’re disliked.
What does your support team look like?
Small. When I was at BA I had a PA and a driver because I was often whizzing around.
What technology do you carry on a trip?
BlackBerry, another mobile phone and often an iPad.
Do you read management books?
I take good ideas wherever I can find them.
Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I walked this morning. I enjoy being at functions with people I work with but the days are gone when I can have wine with lunch.
What would your key management advice be?
Never stop learning.