Cameron Schwab – Footy and Change Leadership

by | Nov 4, 2019

Cameron Schwab, CEO, designCEO

Jen Frahm: Welcome to A Conversation of Change with Dr. Jen Frahm, where we talk all things leadership, change and transformation. And welcome everybody, back to another Conversation of Change, with Dr. Jen Frahm.

Today, I’ve got a really super interesting guest for you, and you know that I tend to be a little bit selfish in who I bring on these shows, and it’s inevitably … They’re people that I’ve heard from or that I’ve read that I find super interesting, or there’s something in it that’s just really ringing for me, and I think, well, I really want to share it with the rest of you. For that reason, I am absolutely delighted to welcome Cameron Schwab to our show. Cameron, welcome.

Cameron Schwab: Thank you. And I liked that introduction, and I’d be now interested to find out what bit you found interesting, so …

Jen Frahm: Yeah, I will. There’s a few there. Let me just give a little bit of background. About half of the listenership are outside of Australia, and many of you in Australia will be aware that Cameron is … let’s just call it Aussie sporting royalty, particularly in the field of AFL, Australian Football League. Youngest CEO of Richmond Football Club, next 25 years in CEO roles of three of the AFL clubs. He is now well sought after for his work in leadership and CEO mentoring. Cam, to start off with, how do you explain AFL to people who know nothing about it?

Cameron Schwab: I think in many ways, I talk about it as quintessentially Australian, really in lots of ways. It obviously comes from its heritage in terms of the traditional football codes, but actually is arguably the first-ever of the codified footballs, and interesting there, the club that I was CEO of at one stage, Melbourne Football Club, is in fact the oldest professional football club in the world, and has the honor of actually playing the game that it created way back in 1858, and I was always very proud of the fact that my lineage in that role went back to the person who wrote the original rules of the sport, Tom Wills. And that his background probably is … well, Australian football’s background, is that he got a scholarship to go to the Rugby School in the UK, but he grew up in a place called Moyston, which is northwest of Victoria. It would have been very much pioneering country in those days.

He grew up with indigenous kids, so he played … We play a game which is … Whether it’s folklore or whether it’s reality, which is one part from the Rugby Grammar School college in heritage, and another part indigenous Australian. You can never invent the game if you tried it again. It’s a tough game to play. It’s a noble game. 200 meter grounds with oval ball, 36 players on the ground. No offside, but it’s … I think it has all the best elements of all the great football codes to be honest, and I come from a place of absolute bias when I say that.

Jen Frahm: To give you some background, Cam, I’m a Queenslander, and I grew up with baseball and soccer in the household, and I think … AFL had always been described to me as aerial ping pong.

Cameron Schwab: Yes, that’s right.

Jen Frahm: That was the expression until I moved down to Melbourne, and for those listening outside of Melbourne, what you need to appreciate, is to find a footing in Melbourne, you need to find your tribes really fast. And one of the defining questions you will be asked, no matter who you meet, is, “Who do you follow? Which team do you follow?” If you don’t have a background in watching AFL, you’ve got to get one pretty quick, otherwise it’s a pretty lonely place to be.

Cameron Schwab: Yeah. The question actually is, “Who do you barrack?” And I think barrack might be a uniquely Australian term.

Jen Frahm: Yeah, Good point.

Cameron Schwab: Which is actually I think from the army barracks, which used to be next to the MCG, and the barracks … The guys in there would come over, and they’d have chants and all those sorts of things going at the game, and they’d become known as the barrackers. So there’s actually a lot of heritage in it, and it’s captured the hearts and minds of most people in the southern states, and the unique Australian thing I suppose, is that we play four footballs, and they’re all wonderful sports, and I’m certainly blessed to have 30 years of my career in something that I grew up loving, and was very much part of my personal heritage, and then got to play it out.

Was never good enough to play it at that top level, but got to live it in other ways, firstly as a recruiting person, and majority of the time as a CEO.

Jen Frahm: Fantastic, fantastic. Now, we talk change and transformation on this podcast. Football, as an outsider to football, it strikes me that football has gone through enormous change. It’s probably driven by societal changes, so if we look at the rise of indigenous players in football, we now have a professional women’s league. The Pride Games: the celebration, those kind of things. I wouldn’t pretend to know what goes on inside the club, but I’m curious what you make of change leadership from your experiences in the industry.

Change equals High Performance.

Cameron Schwab: Well, it’s driven by performance, so therefore it has to be up for change, because performance is … By definition, when you’re competing, you’ve got one team wins and one team loses each weekend. If you’re not up for change, you’re not up for high performance really, and there’s always … I think if was looking at anything that sport in does in this way, and this applies to business as well, that if you just did a little simple quadrant, and you just had on one side, “Is it working?”, and on the other side, “Is it important?” …

And in sport, it continually goes through that process. Is what we’re doing important? And mainly as it relates in elite sport, as it relates to the performance of the team, and then is it working? And because you’re actually competing against someone else, often your stuff isn’t working. You’re getting beaten. So you have to look at change. And if it’s not working, by definition, you have to ask yourself what needs to change. And unfortunately, from time to time, the pure competitive nature of elite sport can have a tendency to bring out obviously remarkable performance, but it can actually bring out the worst in people as well. And I’ve got to be … I’m open and honest enough to say I’ve been on the both sides of that, the best and worst of my own behaviors in regard to that.

In terms of the other changes, I think often, sport’s at its best when it leads the conversation, and I think in terms of what it’s done in regard to over its time, the changing attitudes towards indigenous people in particular, I think has played a role, in that it basically judges inside the organization based on what you can actually bring to the team and what you’re prepared to give to the team.

From time to time, it can lag in people’s attitudes towards that, and we saw some really disappointing outcomes with Adam Goodes and the booing of Adam Goodes recently, which really had the potential to define the game in a way that it would never have hoped to be defined. And it didn’t … at that time, didn’t know what to do about it, but in looking at what it needed to do, whatever it did wasn’t enough, and so therefore change came too slowly in regard to that.

The one thing about sport at that level is that the balance of plays between what I’d call purpose and performance, is really … It can be quite unsettling in lots of ways, because it ultimately wants to see itself as performance-oriented, but it recognizes that it does come from a deeper place and a deeper purpose, including its own heritage. And I think in regards to that  … Whilst we can be proud of our history as an overall situation, we also proved that we can fail ourselves as well, by not changing and not adjusting quickly enough.

I think becoming good at ambiguity and facing into our ambiguity is always going to be one of the great challenges for all of us, and unless we’re prepared to embrace it, we’re not giving ourselves personally or organizationally the opportunity of achieving what we can.

Jen Frahm: The Adam Goodes example is a really good one in terms of the similarities of what happens in a lot of large corporate organizations, in such that the leadership knows there needs to be change, but sometimes the people in the organization or the fans et cetera, can be slow to change, and that’s difficult stuff for leaders during change.

One of your sayings is “It’s the hard days that define us”. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, and what that means for you in leading change?

Cameron Schwab: It is those mornings where … I can remember driving into work and knowing that I was going to have to face into a difficult decision, and I think the most difficult decisions are when you know that you’re going to be making a call on someone’s life, really, that if you … You have to bring someone into your office that day and tell them that they’re no longer a part of the thing that they’ve spent their life wanting to be a part of. And that can be … I’ve faced into that relatively early, because I was a recruiting manager, recruiting young footballers, and having to tell 17- or 18-year-old footballers that they weren’t going to be good enough to play the very thing that they’d spent their young lives thinking that that’s what they’d get to do.

Pleasingly, you’re often proven wrong, and players did go on and play.

But also when you’re … You might have to sack a coach or something like that. In many cases, they’ve played the game, they’ve then got involved in the game post-career, so they knew nothing other than the game, really, and you’re putting that at risk. And I’d be sitting at a traffic lights and there’d be someone maybe cleaning the windows of the 7-Eleven on the corner or something like that, and I’d look at his … what that person’s responsibilities were for the day, and I’d say, “I’d do anything to have your job today. I’d do anything not to be me in my role,” and at that point, questioning not only the validity of the decision that I was going to take, but my ability to actually deliver that decision in a way which wasn’t … which could be done with any form of decency and generosity. And I can say that I failed that test on a number of occasions.

And then I look back now, and I don’t think of the days where I made the wrong decision as in time would say that I made the wrong call, in you’re faced with a 50/50 and you chose the wrong 50, or even a 70/30 and you chose the 70 and the 30 got up. I don’t reflect on those that much. I reflect on the days that I wasn’t brave enough, or I wasn’t humble enough. I let my ego take control. I reflect on the days where I got angry, when really that was just being indulgent, and so they’re the defining things for me. I

f I look back … And when you know you have a choice, and there’s some aspect of you which has dragged out the worst part of you, they’re the defining ones for me. And they’re the ones I had to practice the most, I’d say. And whilst the world would judge a CEO of an AFL club on wins and losses and balance sheets and profit and losses, and all the things that it does, I’ve found over time that I was defining and deciding my own performance based on those three things. “Am I being brave, am I being humble, and am I being calm?” And there’s too many times over my time, many when I got really competitive, my competitiveness sort of triggered behaviors of which by no means that I’m proud of now.

Jen Frahm: Mm-hmm. That makes me a little bit curious around are there moments of joy that define you? Are there moments of pride and really strong positive emotions that work for you?

The Unknown Meaning for an Unknown Person.

Cameron Schwab: Yeah no, but there are. Again, they’re probably … They’re the conversations you’ll have 10 years later. They’re the ones that … And you’ve heard me speak, and I talk about this notion of an unknown meaning for an unknown person. If as a leader, you’ve actually given of yourself to someone that it’s actually had some meaning for them, they’ve made choices in their life based on a conversation, and I think of people who have had that impact on me. That you’ve made choices in life based on a conversation, and then you see them later on in life when they’re now … They might be parents, they might be … They’ve made significant developments in their own career, and they’ll talk of a time where you had … you were generous with them, and that you were also … You listened well, you were decent, you honored the conversation. And they’ll tell me how much it meant.

They’re the times, again. There are certainly moments where I … I was at Fremantle when we made our first final. I was at Melbourne when we made the finals for the first time in 23 years. I was at Richmond when we did a thing called Save Our Skins, which basically saved the club. Yeah, don’t worry, they can get a run on the resume. They can can get a run on the LinkedIn profile, but I don’t think about them nearly as much as the other stuff. It might be that I’m getting old and generous or something. I’m not sure, but it’s … Or that I’m actually seeking to define myself in a way that I never sought to define myself at the time.

But there’s certainly pride in all of that. There’s no doubt. And I still feel a deep love and connection with the clubs with whom I felt … that I had the opportunity of working for. And in one club’s case, Melbourne, I got sacked twice there. So it actually … Even despite that, I still … I can tell the story about being a part of the club which was almost the owners of the game, if you like. I loved that fact, but I do … I certainly have my moments.

The good thing is, sport’s very good at celebrating its own folklore, and so I get to do that. I get to do that, so if I … It’s a funny thing. I did a little bit of work with a club last week, and we had dinner afterwards. And we call it GFS. It’s a funny terminology, but it’s called Good Footy Shit. So we just get to talk Good Footy Shit. I loved that, where I was … We were actually looking for … They weren’t necessarily people I’d spent a lot of time with over the journey, but we had people in common, and we knew of each other’s achievements, and we wanted to hear the backstory to those achievements.

Or we knew of each other’s near misses, and we wanted to then go, “How close did it get?” All of those things are still a beautiful part of it. I think it’s probably that that I miss more than anything, in terms of doing what I do now, it’s just that sense of camaraderie, and trying to build something with a group of people together, which you know is always going to be hard.

You’re never going to have an easy day, you know?

Jen Frahm: It’s … What you’ve just spoke of there, and … It’s really interesting to notice the change in tempo as you’re telling those stories to the previous, and what’s defining you in the reflection. But it has me thinking about one of the spaces that’s really quite contested in the change space at the moment, is the notion of change resilience.

And there seems to be emerging … There’s two camps of how do we look at resilience. Is it something we need to embody to allow us to brace for more change, or is it this state of perpetual learning and much more positive buoyancy, where you’re thriving during change as opposed to coping with change? How do you make sense of that?

Cameron Schwab: I think you’ve just got to look at both the … Even from success, even in in failure, there’s a form of resilience in both, and I think probably I made some of my worst decisions when I was being seen as successful, and I think it’s mainly because the ego kicked in, if you like. And what I was doing, was I over … I wasn’t accurately assessing really my role in all of that in some ways, and so … A really good definition of resilience comes from a guy by the name of Tim Harkness, who’s the … He’s a sports science and psychologist with Chelsea Football Club, a guy with an enormous amount of pressure in the UK, and he says it’s your capacity to accurately assess both your threats and your opportunities and then allocate emotional resources accordingly. And I like that.

Jen Frahm: That’s fantastic.

Staying Calm.

Cameron Schwab: Yeah, so even if looking at … “Have you accurately assessed the threats and the opportunities?” And sometimes we can over … If things aren’t working, and often they’re not, is that … The first question you’ve got to ask yourself, “Is it important that we fix it, and then what do we have to do to change it?” If it’s not important that we fix it … We can spend a whole lot of time fixing things that don’t need to be broken, and our efforts and our time is much better spent developing something else, something new, something different. And that can be really hard in businesses and organizations, because often, we’ve actually aligned resources to the thing which doesn’t need fixing, and so you’ve got to change something else to actually even allocate your efforts to something else. If you put in place a department who are a group of people who are working on something which you now turn around and say is not important, well, you’ve also upset a whole lot of other things.

But we can’t hang onto things for too long. And even … I remember, there’s a guy named Neil Craig, who’s a wonderful sporting person. He actually was … He was a high-performance manager with England Rugby, who’ve just got beaten in the World Cup final, with Eddie Jones, but he was a senior coach at Adelaide and then I worked with him at Melbourne. Whenever we faced into some difficult situations, he would just … He’d come in … Because sport’s great at looking back and saying, “What can we learn from what actually happened?” It’s where it’s miles ahead of business. We spend a lot of time looking back and trying to work out what we can learn and how we can use that as a teaching tool from this point onwards, whether it’s a game or whether it’s something we didn’t handle well in a trade week or something like that.

The first question he used to always ask is, “Did we stay calm? Did we stay calm?” We’d spend 10 minutes on just that question, and if we actually come to the conclusion that we didn’t stay calm, there was almost no point assessing the rest of the decision, because if we weren’t calm, it was just a freak of nature if we got it right, really.

That’s almost the first question you ask yourself, when you’re faced into something. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Did you stay calm?” And if you did, now we can at least have that conversation about did we have all the information, did we have the knowledge, did we … Was there anything more we could have actually done during the … Whatever.

So staying calm became the first part of it. What he’s basically saying is, “Let’s make sure that we’re allocating the right emotional resource to this issue.” And there’ll be variation, because you’ll always have … And people will have levels and different experiences, and I … We admire in the AFL, players who under intense and fierce pressure, can make great decisions in front of 100,000 people in the MCG, but we’re not allocating the same if you like, way of thinking when we’re not doing it in front of 100,000 people or someone running at us at 100 miles an hour. That seems to me the goal of most of this, is just allocating the right emotional resource to whatever the challenge, the circumstance, the threat, the win, the loss, whatever it might have been thrown at you.

Jen Frahm: Great way to look at it. Great way to look at it. Cam, there was … For the listeners’ benefit, I was listening to Cam speak at an event last week. Part of the talk, you referenced you appreciate parenting as a metaphor for leadership, and I have to say at that point, my stomach did a turn, and I had to mask my face as I went, “Oh God, please no,” because so much of our work is done trying to get rid of parent-child relationships in the workplace and get people working as peers and stuff like this. And so I had this really strong knee jerk reaction to it.

Cameron Schwab: I hope I won you back a bit, did I?

Jen Frahm: Well, I’ve since done a little bit of reading of the work that you’ve put out, and I can see that you use that metaphor in a very different way. Can you share your thoughts on that metaphor?

Cameron Schwab: Well, the metaphor …  is one … there’s probably … There’s a whole lot of reasons. One of the metaphors I often have is just to … Anyone who is a parent will remember the time where the baby goes from the womb to the hospital, and all its buttons and support, and then all of a sudden, to … You’ve got your kid in the back of your car, and you’re driving home at about three kilometres an hour, and just basically everything in your life at that time changes. All of a sudden you can’t drive any more, let alone … you’ve got to look after this child, and you’re looking at each other, and you’re thinking, well this thing’s forever, and there’s going to be lots of times in all of this that we’re not going to know what to do.

And I’ve found that with leadership, is if in leadership you actually walked in the room pretending that you knew what to do when you didn’t know what to do, you’d never dream of doing that as a parent. You actually get support. You ask people. You ring your older sister, people who know what’s going on, people who have more expertise than what you do. But it’s still always going to be heard, and I think that’s probably the other element to it. Leadership’s actually always going to be hard, and … The other aspect of it is ultimately, our … I think the most important question that anyone can ask as a leader is a simple one which is, “Do you believe in your people, and do your people believe in you? Do you believe in your people, and your people believe in you?” And then ask yourself, okay, well what makes you believable? And then what do I need to do to believe in the people who are working in an organization? And I don’t mean in an ownership sense; I just mean it in a relationship sense.

And I think that’s a lot like parenting, that ultimately what we’re trying to do is get our children safely to self-responsibility as quickly as they possibly can. And then we keep letting go more and more and more, and from time to time, we get the door slammed in our face because puberty kicks in, and … All of that is just a mechanism if you like for people wanting and needing to have their own space in regard to self-responsibility. I’ve got … My parenting circumstance is a little bit different than … perhaps different is the wrong term, but just being … We’re challenged by a circumstance I never saw coming, which was I have a transgender child, and she’s … I’m wonderfully proud of her, but all of a sudden, recognizing that I wasn’t sure that I had what I needed to actually parent her in the way that she needed parenting, because I’d pretty much made up my mind for the previous 16 years that I thought I knew. And I didn’t know.

And it was always going to be a … Living in a world of not knowing is always going to test us, and then we need our kids to help us with that, because if they’re not helping us, with our not knowing by not sharing with us how they’re really feeling and how they’re really going, well, we can’t help them any more. A term I use, and the thing I’ve said to Evie at the time, was that you have to make yourself easier to parent. I can’t … If you’re pretending and trying to set your life up in a way where you feel as though you’re so determined about the decision you’ve made, which we’re fully supporting you on, that you’re not allowing us to help you through whatever inevitability that a young person’s going to go through, let alone someone’s who’s changed gender … Well, I don’t know who you’ve got left. It’s really only us.

I think leadership gets to that point as well, that you have to have people who are prepared to be helped, and also you have to make yourself open to the learning required to actually help them. When you have that, the thing which builds is belief, because you actually go, “Well, if anything goes wrong here, anything’s not working here, we can at least have the right conversations to see if we can make it happen.”

The other thing is, you’re biased. With kids, you’re biased. And you build your biases around them, in the same way as we have our biases in the workplace as well. And we need to be able to see through those, that sometimes we’re too hard on our kids, but other times, we’re looking at rose-colored glasses at our kids as well. And when you wake up in the morning, you still have to parent them, the same way as when you take them out of the car when they’re so dependent on you. You still have to parent them. No one’s going to do it for you. That make sense?

Jen Frahm: Yeah. Oh, it does, and I think it was the way you explained the move towards autonomy, is part of parenting that definitely sits easier than perpetuating the parent-child dynamic.

Cameron Schwab: The funny thing … Because it’s actually … I often ask leaders … I go, “Do you want to be loved as a leader?” And I reckon there’s a little part of them that does. But they’re not going to own up on that. And then I go, “Do you want to be liked?” And they know it’s deeper than like. And then normally people lean forward, and they go, “No, I want to be respected. I want to be respected.”

But even then, I think it’s deeper. I say, “I think you want to be trusted. You want to be trusted.” In the end, people who are aligning their careers with whatever you dish out on a day-to-day basis, so can you at least actually do it on the basis that you’re going to honor that, because it’s not about you. It’s actually about the people …

I get the aspiration to be a leader, but if you’re not honoring the role, you’re not making a difference.

And I think ultimately, the aspiration is to make a difference, otherwise don’t call yourself a leader. Call yourself something else. And we need to have something which is in between … not quite leader, but not quite manager. It’s a funny place that I think a lot of people find themselves in.

Jen Frahm: Yeah. For what it’s worth, I would say that most of them do want to be loved. I think that’s a universal. We all want to be loved. We want to be loved.

Cameron Schwab: Yeah, it’s just that we’re not prepared to own up.

Jen Frahm: No.

Cameron Schwab: I think there is … There’s a bit of love, but you also recognize that it’s a big step. And I think no doubt that there’s … The one thing which I think has changed over time, is that we fully encourage deep friendships now in the workplace, where we didn’t do that for a long time, because that was going to form a clique, or it was going to form some other bullshit.

Friendship is … If a group of people like spending more time together than they do with another group of people, that’s just the natural process of life. And I don’t know about you, but I actually prefer to spend time with people who I get on well with and I like and I’ve got lots of common ground with, than people who I don’t like. That’s just natural, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to spend time with people you don’t like. You have to forge as best you can the sorts of relationships which the organization requires of you.

But I think friendships in the workplace is a really powerful thing, and really good, strong, solid friendships, as we know, are built on the basis that people can set expectations and standards of each other, regardless.

Jen Frahm: Well, and ask for support. Build support and ask for support.

Cameron Schwab: Yeah. Yeah. A bit more likely to reach out, yeah. No doubt.

There’s “More to the Game”.

Jen Frahm: Cam: “More to the Game”. Tell me about it. What does it mean for you. What does it mean for change?

Cameron Schwab: Well, More to the Game came to me as a … Because I did a lot of my learning through the game, because my father was involved in the game as well. And I think in the end as a father, he … Without me knowing it at the time, he used the game and my love of it as a … and his understanding of it, so he came from a position of expertise in the game, as a means by which he could educate me on things beyond the game, whether it was the stuff we talked about before about handling your successes with humility, about bouncing back, about building resilience: all the things that the game was going to test anyone in, but also what life was going to do for a young person as well. And I love the idea of how we turn knowledge into wisdom, how we turn knowledge into wisdom.

If I have a conversation … We’re having a conversation now; if someone who’s listening says, “Oh, I like that quote from Tim Harkness, the Chelsea bloke.” Well, how do they make that now part of their wisdom, rather than just a piece of knowledge and information that they have? Well, that’s my “More to the Game”, if you like. That’s the going deeper into it. There’s things that you can see when you watch a game of football, and you say, “Yeah, I think I understand.” But then you go, “Okay, if I want to really understand what’s going on there, you’ve got to go deeper.” If you want to go … And most people don’t need to. They just love the game for what it is, but in our own world, if we say, “Okay, there’s …” The line is, there’s more to the game than you are seeing, is that you’ve got to go beyond the obvious stuff, beyond the cliché – “What is the wisdom which is driving this?”

My take is that if you actually … It’s not what you’re prepared to learn today, it’s what you’re prepared to teach tomorrow, so if you take a piece of knowledge and it becomes a learning thing for you, and then you can pass on that knowledge in the form of wisdom to someone else, it’s been aligned with your own take. You definitely believe in it, and it’s resonating with you in some other way. And then now you’ve passed that on to someone else, and that becomes your unknown meaning, unknown person, that goes wherever it’s going to go. But you’re showing that there’s more to the game, you’re giving it more than what it actually is.

So it came out of a thing that was a … It was a reflection on my relationship with my father, which I’ve now taken … who passed away a long time ago, but who I’ve now taken into the work I do now, so …

And it also happened when I … Because I’m a practicing artist as well, so with art, is … I studied fine art at the Victorian College of the Arts only a few years ago. And I was more like a tribal elder in some ways, because I was … You had all these first-year uni students. And so I got to know the lecturers more than anyone else, and one of the lecturers, his name’s Raafat Ishak, a wonderful artist. And he came up to me at one stage and he said, “Oh, you draw like a CEO,” or, “Your art’s like a CEO’s art.” It was like the ultimate put-down. What he was basically saying is, “Art’s about creating a conversation. You’re all about closing down the conversation. You don’t want any interpretation of your stuff. You’re too scared.” That’s what he was telling me. That was my interpretation of what he was telling me.

Once I picked my ego up off the floor and tried to take it into a piece of learning for myself, I worked that out, and I was really then conscious about how we need to create space in how we speak, how we teach, how I do art, how I write, how I do whatever. And people’s own interpretation of it … And that’s actually the key part; no one’s going to just take what you write as doctrine, or what you draw as doctrine and pass it on to the world.

It has to resonate with something that they believe in themselves. And if it does that, the knowledge has become wisdom.

Jen Frahm: Yeah. I love that. And the story about your art teacher had me laughing, because the last 12 months, I’ve taken up art, and immersion into art and play. And one of the things the art teacher had said to me in life drawing classes, because to tell you the truth, my process is they move into a pose that I look at and I go, “No, not a chance. Can’t draw it. Forget it.” And then I draw whatever I see in front of me with no expectation of it actually looking anything like that model. And she came over and she said, “You’re very good at seeing the things that other people can’t see.” And I … Yeah, that’s what I do at work. That’s what I do in change. I find the things that other people can’t see. And so it’s been a really interesting experience.

Cameron Schwab: That is. It is. And life drawing’s always hard. Life drawing’s never easy, and it wouldn’t matter we grabbed Pablo Picasso out of retirement for him to have a go at it, he’d still make a mess of it at different times.

It is always that. And it was interesting, because when I first started at the College of the Arts, I was a drawer – that was my reason, so if … And the first few weeks you’re there, you do a lot of life drawing. And for those who don’t know life drawing, you’ve got basically a butcher paper for 10 minutes, nude model in front of you, and you’re trying to capture whatever you see. We do all of that, and I couldn’t help, with my little competitive instincts taking over, just doing a little wander around everyone else’s butcher paper as well, just to see where I stacked up against everyone else. The old football person came out in me, even when I’m doing art class. And then three years later, I can say, and there’s some prodigious talents getting into fine arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, don’t worry about that.

But then I looked at it three years later, and said “Okay who has now created the art that we’re talking about?” and it almost bears no relevance to what I saw when I first walked around the back of everyone’s butcher paper that day. It was the young people who were prepared to go deep into it, the ones who were the most curious, the ones who had a really good system of making art. People underestimate, there is a real system of creativity. Do they curate their own thinking before they seek to create something? All that sort of stuff.

And they’re also the kids who slept in the studios, who just were obsessed with it. They loved it. So I was seeing … and what I saw from the young artists is exactly the same personal characteristics as I saw in the elite young footballers. They just were different … I was looking at skinny little goth kids instead of six foot five Adonises. That was the only difference, but the actual mindset was unbelievably similar.

Jen Frahm: That’s brilliant, brilliant. Cam, one of the truisms that I’ve come to believe, accept, recognize in the leaders that I do work with now on change and transformation, is that in order to be effective at change and transformation, you need to be able to change yourself. Inevitably, that’s the first place change needs to occur. How does that statement sit with you, and your experience in leadership?

Cameron Schwab: No, I’m very … One, I’m very supportive of it. One of the lines I use is, “You’re not your beliefs.” People become very … They love this thing that they are their beliefs, and my beliefs have stood me in good stead, or I would say it’s often belief in dogma is so related, and the classic example of that is that for 130 years, 140 years, 150 years, there was no interest in women in playing football at the elite level.

There was no lack of women playing the game, but we thought there was no appetite for it at a senior level. Well, that belief was only held by white, middle-aged men. There was never a belief by the women themselves. They actually do make up more than 50% of the population, and Australian football has a remarkable number of women actively supporting the game, given that we’ve actually never provided the opportunity for them to have a career as athletes within the game. Now there’s about … I think it’s close to 40% of the … between 30 and 40% of the members of AFL clubs are women, which is miles ahead of just … of any other football in the world. And it’s because it’s always had a family-orientated … There’s reasons for that, none of which we can take any credit, but we actually like to take credit for.

There is a whole belief system which was around … that no one’s interested in watching women. Well, 56,000 people turned up at Adelaide Oval to watch Adelaide beat Carlton in last year’s AFLW … AFLW Grand Final. So we were wrong, and so that was just held back by our beliefs. And if we then have a serious conversation with women about the game, can we actually create serious career opportunities for them within the game? And now that’s starting to happen.

Still a lot of work to do. And so therefore that required a whole lot of people to change their mind, and there’s still people who sneer and laugh and do all that sort of bullshit stuff, but there’s still the people who sadly … and there was an example overnight in Italy, where a player walked off the ground, an African heritage player walked off the ground, because he was racially abused from the crowd in the game. He just picked up the ball and kicked it into the crowd and walked off the ground. It’s stuff like that which needs to happen for people to actually change, because people sitting there watching that game go, “What do I have to do to make it a safe place for that young man to run around on our fields?” Because that is just bullying in the workplace. Well… We’ve got to … They’re extreme examples of the need to change.

But if you don’t come in recognizing that we live in a very ambiguous world, ambiguity is only going to become more and more a part of our existence, and you’re thinking you don’t have to change? I do this stuff, and I call it the enemies of trust. And the number one enemy of trust I have is ignorance, and that’s actually self-imposed ignorance, and also people just unfortunately don’t have the capacity to get it. That’s actually part of it. And also the second one is default thinking, default thinking: when we actually keep coming up with the same answers for different problems, because those answers may have served us well at some stage in the past.

One of the assets of trust I actually have is ambiguity. If we’re good at ambiguity, well, we’re a pretty cool organization, I reckon. And for leaders to walk in the room, instead of coming in on their white horse saying, “I’ve got the answer here, guys,” it’s actually coming in the room slowly, sitting down and saying, “Look, I’ve got a view on this thing, but I know that it’d be a far more informed view if I could get the very best thinking out of whoever’s in the room. And ultimately, yes I will have to make a choice at some time, but I want to make it a totally informed choice based on the thinking and mastery which happens to sit in this room at this time.”

Jen Frahm: Sensational. Cam, have you got time for a quick word association?

Cameron Schwab: Yeah, okay. I love them. This’ll bring out all the biases.

Jen Frahm: I reckon you’re going to nail it. Quite frankly, I reckon you’re going to nail it. There’s five qualities that I believe are critical for leaders facing into uncertainty. And first once, I’m going to give you all five, and if you give me a response for them? Vulnerability.

Cameron Schwab: Only … It’s the only way you can be authentic, if you’re prepared to be vulnerable. Can I talk about vulnerability a bit? Is that okay, or-

Jen Frahm: Yeah, it’s your time frame. Go for it.

On Vulnerability.

Cameron Schwab: I would just say, there’s three reasons you’ve got to be vulnerable. The first one is, it’s actually a far more authentic version of who you are, so if you’re actually pretending you’re not vulnerable, well, we’re not seeing who you are. And everyone says, “I want to be an authentic leader.” Well okay, well guess what? That comes with vulnerability. Authentic’s a nice, positive word. Everyone shudders at vulnerability, but you can’t be authentic without being vulnerable.

The second one is that shit happens in our lives. Stuff gets out of control. Terrible things happen, or circumstances within our families, our lives, all those sorts of things, so it’s actually a reflection on life.

The third aspect of vulnerability which is pretty important is it’s actually by showing vulnerability, you’re in fact inviting people to help you. You’re sending an invitation. I don’t think a leader walks in the room and goes, “Look, I don’t know what I’m doing here,” but they actually can walk in the room and say, “Oh, I’m actually feeling a little bit unsure of myself on this one. I really need some help on this.” Or, “I’ve got this thing going on at home, but I’m really battling with it at the moment.” Or, “I’ve just got this little health issue. I just need some support over the next little while.”

So it’s actually creating an invitation for people to step in and support and help you and build the type of trust that you want as a leader. That’s not one-word word association.

Jen Frahm: It’s okay. It’s okay, you’re warming up. Empathy.

Cameron Schwab: Empathy. Yeah, I think it’s more than listening. I think listening is a critical part of it. I like to call it skilled interrupting. Does that make sense?

Jen Frahm: Yes, it does.

Cameron Schwab: You want to be able to give the person … You just don’t want to … Look, I understand people want to get stuff of their chest and they want to talk and all that, but from time to time, listening and taking it in and seeing and helping that person with own understanding, is by deeper feeling for what they’re going through, I think is what empathy is. It’s not just listening. And I think we make the mistake that people think empathy is just listening. Again, it’s layers below it. It’s layers below that.

Jen Frahm: Curiosity.

Cameron Schwab: It makes the world go around. The curious will take over the world, hopefully. Hopefully. And the bloody dogma and the nastiness will step aside.

Jen Frahm: Courage.

Cameron Schwab: Doing the right thing, even when it’s hard.

Jen Frahm: Self-compassion.

Cameron Schwab: I’m shithouse at it. Self-compassion. I’m not an expert. You’d need to talk to an expert on that. No, I think it’s at the heart of belief, that … Do you believe in … In those questions, do you believe in others, and do they believe in you? When you then ask yourself what makes me believable, well really at the heart of your own believability is do you have belief? I think that’s probably … You can’t have belief unless you actually … if you actually don’t have that capacity to care for yourself in a way which is … just not simply the transactional stuff of going for a run or going for a … You’ve actually got to … There’s got to be some self-love in it all. I’ve got a volatile relationship with my self-love. There’s some volatility in it.

Jen Frahm: I don’t think you’re alone there, Cam.

Cameron Schwab: No, no, I think I’m in a … There’s a big queue at the front, but we can help people. We can help people. And I think I’ve learned it over time. I think I’m getting better at it. I’m getting better at it.

Jen Frahm: Yeah, that’s great. Cam, this has been a joy to speak with you-

Cameron Schwab: Thank you.

Jen Frahm: … and hear your stories. Is there anything that you would like the listeners to know, go to, find you, connect, download …? What’s going on in your world that our listeneres can help with?

Cameron Schwab: Well, my business is called designCEO, so it’s designing leadership really, as much as anything, which is … I think it’s a … Really probably from the conversations that we’ve had, you can sense that there’s a system of thinking around this stuff as much as there is a way of thinking, and so I help leaders to actually find their own means by which they lead.

And it’s … I come from an environment where I use the framings of … perhaps the best learning environments, which are elite sport. I think they’re the best learning environments in the world, because they’ve got a scoreboard at the end of it all, and we’re measured by it. And we also recruit selfish young people, and we have to educate them on selflessness, so it’s actually … If we can make that transition with those people, why can’t we do that as leaders?

So my business is called designCEO. I post a lot of stuff on LinkedIn, which you’ve probably seen. I like to think I’m generous with what I offer, and I do it through coaching, through workshops, through coming into organizations and helping their teams, similar probably to what you do in that regard to find their own way in which they can lead in the context of the challenge that they’re all facing in their own way.

It’s system of leadership basically, the same way as football’s a system of playing. I’m quite … yeah, at this stage, getting really good feedback from people who have had the experience. And I like to speak. You heard me speak the other day, had a chat, go pretty deep. And by that … And then I can hopefully … I do believe you have to lift people to shift people. I think that’s probably … It’s really hard to shift unless people feel still motivated and energized by the prospect of doing it, and that’s the approach I take to the work I do.

Jen Frahm: Yeah, trust me, we were all very lifted after watching you speak last week.

Cameron Schwab: Okay, cool.

Jen Frahm: Cameron Schwab, thank you so much for your time. It has been an absolute joy and a pleasure.

Cameron Schwab: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity.

Jen Frahm: You’ve been listening to A Conversation of Change with Dr. Jen Frahm. You can find many more resources on leading change at my website, I welcome feedback on what else you’d like to hear on the podcast. Why not connect with me on Twitter, @jenfrahm, or LinkedIn.


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