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7 Questions with Kim Ellis
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7 Questions with Kim Ellis
Name: Kim Ellis
Current title: Director
Current organisation: Australian Antarctic Division
Kim Ellis was appointed as Director of the Australian Antarctic Division in February 2019.
Kim’s career has focused on complex operational logistics, leading large-scale public organisations through transformational change and delivering critical environmental science activities. He has degrees in arts, human resources management and business administration from Royal Military College Duntroon, University of Canberra, and Deakin University.
His involvement with Antarctica and the Southern Ocean began in 1979 as a young Army lieutenant operating all-terrain amphibious vehicles known as LARCs (Lighter, Amphibious, Resupply, Cargo)leading the resupply teams for Mawson, Davis and Macquarie Island research stations.
Kim worked in amphibious and aviation support logistic roles throughout Australia and the United States, and specialised in air and sea terminal operations in Sydney and Darwin. His 24 year Army career culminated in the command of the Amphibious Logistics Regiment.
After leaving the Army in 1997, Kim became Head of the Passenger Services Group at Sydney Airport, where he was responsible for all passenger-related operational activities. Kim led the 120-strong team through the $600 million International Terminal upgrade and the Sydney Olympic operations in 2000.
Kim joined Bankstown Airport Limited in 2001, taking responsibility for the business and operational management of Bankstown, Hoxton Park and Camden Airports. As Chief Executive Officer of BAC Airports Pty Ltd, he had oversight of large scale property development, establishment of new infrastructure and services, and the development of scheduled passenger flights.
Kim became Chief Executive of Centennial Parklands in 2011, before having his role expanded to include the Royal Botanic Garden in 2014. This role was responsible for the operation, preservation, sustainable development and financial viability of Sydney's most valuable and highly used inner-city green space and the leadership of one of the world’s oldest and most important scientific organisations.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
This is my fifth cycle as the CEO of a large organisation - from Army, through airports and on to large Government organisations. In each role I have tried to drive a change agenda. Not just for the sake of change, but to improve the way the teams work, to make things safer, to make them better places to work. The tough bit is finding the energy to drive this change, both upwards and down, while at the same time maintaining the momentum and productivity of the organisation - to ensure that I didn't 'throw the baby out with the bathwater.' It takes sustained resilience to keep driving the change, facing up to the critics and always doing what's right.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
Much of my career progression came through the great start I got from the Royal Military College Duntroon - self discipline, leadership, self awareness and the ability to work with my colleagues towards outcomes. The move from Army to airports was quite a big step, but it made me realise that my core skills were transportable and gave me the confidence to keep taking on bigger leadership roles. I was always willing to try something new; take on a bigger challenge and say yes to opportunities when they arose. I was also willing to step out of my comfort zone and apply for jobs that were a bit left field, like running Gardens and Parklands. That career move gave me the foundations in science leadership which was a part of me getting this amazing job as Director of the Antarctic Division.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I get up at 0545, walk for an hour around Hobart (tough mid winter!) and then head in to work, to arrive around 0745. My first task is to check my diary and overnight emails, and get coffee (I don't eat breakfast so that first coffee is pretty important!)I meet with my EA at 0830 for a diary review and catch up on key issues. I am then consumed in meetings, site visits and work in progress reviews, with a scheduled hour for lunch, often with work colleagues to discuss their issues. I finish around 1800 each day, where possible, with the intent to have dinner with my partner and watch the news. Most evenings are spent reading, talking or watching a movie with my partner and then ideally asleep by 2230.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
It's a lesson I keep learning - our job as leaders is to make the complex simple. It's great to communicate, engage, be transparent and keep your people across everything - but if it only makes their lives more complex, you're going in the wrong direction. We need to keep simplifying the messages, focusing on core issues, focussing our leadership to a few key points that everyone can find their place in. That works both ways - keep your Board papers and Ministerial briefings simple, short and to the point. It's just as easy to confuse your boss and your staff.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
'The Unthinkable', by Amanda Ripley. It's a great and simple book '...might save your life one day'. I have repeatedly bought copies for my leaders - not just because of the safety issue, but because it has some very strong and practical lessons about leadership, preparation and strategic thinking. I even make my adult children read it!
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
Two main approaches: lead by example and expect your people to reach and maintain your standard; and get external experts in to deliver a program of leadership development and training.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
In 2020 I conducted an Antarctic Treaty inspection tour across east Antarctica, visiting 17 research stations. It was a 10000km odyssey across some of the most extreme and remote places on earth. At the end of the trip, while waiting to fly back to Hobart, I was able to go on an overnight field trip to the abandoned Wilkes research station, a day's travel from Casey Station. There were 9 of us; 5 remarkable women and my inspection team of four. In the group there were 7 PhD's, 6 of them scientists and experts in law, international relations and field operations. Sitting in the field hut with these amazing people reminded my of the privilege and responsibility of leadership and how important it was to these people that I did my job well.