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michael traill

GREAT IDEAS: Jumping Ship by Michael Traill {Interview}

Lessons from a former Macquarie Bank executive who left for good

Leaving the so-called millionaires' factory of Macquarie Bank to enter the not-for-profit sector, Social Ventures Australia founding CEO Michael Traill experienced criticism and heartache as he discovered the soft and hard skills needed to apply business discipline to the social sector.

In this interview about his book Jumping Ship, Michael tells us how and why he did what he did. 
I grew up in Morwell in the Latrobe Valley [in Victoria], a postcode of social disadvantage. Dad was a high-school teacher and Principal; he was the first in four generations to go past Year 10 at school.

I always felt very strongly the idea that everybody should have a fair crack at things and, having grown up in an environment with a bunch of kids who didn’t really, I think that sticks with you. 
As I went on career-wise to get an MBA at Harvard Business School, and Macquarie Bank, that old Jesuit line [emerged], of show me the boy at seven and you’ll get a pretty clear line of sight to the character of the man.

I got to the point in my 40s, the classic age of mid-life crisis; I could stay in the bank and do well, and make more money, [or] explore ways of using whatever skills I’d developed…to make some kind of social purpose difference.

I remember vividly a weekend when I was [AFL] coaching...a boy called Paddy. He was 11, he was being bullied at school, he was dyslexic. I knew from his dad what a self esteem lift he got from his footy. In another part of my life, [at the bank] we were working on a potential $20 million dollar investment. And, I'm thinking about this kid, and feeling good that ...I could have a positive influence on his life. I wanted to do more of that. There was an itch that needed to be scratched.
I started as founding CEO of Social Ventures Australia the day before my 42nd birthday. I remember reading a piece with some discomfort from a leading social commentator who said: "Really, how much good can some tosser investment banker from the millionaires’ factory think they can do by parachuting into the non-profit world?"  

SVA is now a national team of over 100 people, they’ve invested more than $80 million in a range of social enterprises. They’ve sat behind some of the most significant social enterprise developments in the country…being a founding investor in Goodstart, which is now a billion dollar early learning childcare label in the country.

There’s actually a different way of thinking about capitalism. I’ve come to describe it as capitalism 2.0.

It was a pretty lonely existence at the front-end. We had to build credibility, and we had to build trust. A wise old owl said: “Michael, [non-profits] might not be telling you this, but what they’ll be thinking is “We don’t care what you know, until we know that you care.”

We didn’t engage with government much in the first five years and in hindsight, I think that was a mistake. As SVA evolved and matured it’s become a very thoughtful and explicit partner with government.

Want to be involved in the social purpose sector? Be patient.  Understand their programs and take the time and be patient in building the kind of relationships and trust where you can engage and use your skills.

I have a lot of people that come to me and say: “Tell me what you think I should do. Should I wait?" You’ve got to be patient. There is no formula in this.

I say ask yourself three questions (borrowed from my great friend and mentor, Raymond Drummond):
  1. Who are you? It’s a deep question. It can’t answered by: I’m an executive director of Macquarie Bank.
  2. Why are you living and working the way you are? Why are you doing what you do? What do you enjoy, what’s troubling and challenging?
  3. What might you yet become and do with the rest of your life? These questions I find encourage deep professional and personal thinking. The responses are quite extraordinary.
The common denominator of the truly exceptional leaders to me is humility. Humility doesn’t mean being shy. You can be humble and out there. Humility means being deeply respectful that you can’t achieve anything unless you… have deep and trusted relationships.

Michael’s GREAT EIGHT, answers to our eight getting to know you questions:  

Recommended book: The Years of Lyndon Johnson series by Robert Caro.

If you could co-author a book with anyone in the world who would it be, and what’s the book title? I’d love to work with Robert Caro but you’d have to give up 20 years of your life because he’s such a forensic researcher. Authentic Leadership, what it takes to make a difference.

Best piece of advice you can share? Not to be shy of failing. 

What's been your lowest moment, and how did you recover from it? At SVA, when we had a funding crisis and we had to let outstanding people go because we simply did not have the funding or resources to keep good quality people on board. That was pretty terrifying. We worked through it, people understood and respected that we didn’t have much choice,and we carefully rebuilt the organisation. SVA had a pretty solid history of growth, so it turned out to be a bump on the radar but it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time.  

How do you relax? The body is falling apart a bit, but I still really enjoy getting out and getting on the bike and playing tennis, and swimming, particularly if it involves doing stuff with the family, that’s fantastic, that’s first prize.

What’s a fun fact that’s not widely known about you?  I was, in my prior life, a White Rabbit which is code for a VFL [Australian Rules football] umpire. The best you can hope for when on or off the ground is that you’re not abused. It’s a very grounding and levelling experience. I’m glad I had it.

What do you think is the secret of success? Hard work, being patient and persistent, and aspiration. A group of people around me who said, you’re the right person to help push this along. In many moments of doubt and pain, it was incredibly affirming not being shy of the aspiration.

What is your prediction for 2025? Capitalism 2.0 is going to take off.  Social enterprise is driving reasonable financial returns, acceptable to super funds, with business discipline to social purpose.  That will change the economy.

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