A guardian and nurturer of retirement outcomes: Q&A with Energy Super's CEO September 2017


Energy Super’s CEO, Robyn Petrou, has been at the fund's helm for almost nine years, and in Super since taking on her first full time job. In an ever changing industry, she says it "certainly hasn't been dull." This week she speaks with Industry Moves about her Super journey and offers advice for other women in the industry. While life has thrown her some curveballs, three of them to be exact, she has learnt to adapt and be resilient in the face of change, qualities that she believes makes for an effective leader.

You’ve been working in the super industry since taking on your first full time job. What’s kept you here so long?

Superannuation has been an evolving industry. It has provided so many opportunities to learn and grow in knowledge and skills and as a leader. The constant change, the need to continue to be better, to perform, to grow and respond to a changing membership, a changing environment and changing legislation means I have never stopped learning and it certainly hasn't been dull. My values are aligned with the goals of the industry in bettering retirement outcomes for Australians and I see my role and the role of the fund as the guardian and nurturer of our members’ retirement outcomes.

You've been CEO of Energy Super for nearly 9 years. In your opinion, what are the elements that make for an effective leader?

I was once given the definition of leadership as being the right person, in the right place at the right time. I so often come back to this as it’s a great reminder that a leader needs to continue to learn and grow within themselves and their organisation.

Leadership is a challenge and an honour. To be an effective leader, especially in a changing world, you need to be able to adapt. By this I mean the need for self-awareness when responding to a situation. This requires humility, the ability to admit failure, willingness to listen to alternatives and to seek support from those around. It also requires resilience and emotional intelligence to lead the diverse people in your organisation and to know when to follow instead of lead.

Leaders need to build a relevant vision. They need to be continually scanning the environment around them, have a deep knowledge of their industry, clear understanding of their customers or members, their competitors and stakeholders. Then, be able to build a vision that is clear and is communicated with convincing rationale. Change does not happen quickly, so consistency and clarity is important.

Leaders need to create an environment of empowerment and collaboration to be able to lead, not dictate. This requires trust and openness with the ability to inspire those around to create and innovate. People want to be inspired. People want to work for something they believe in, something that makes sense to them.

What do you feel has been the most significant change to the industry since you first joined to now?

Wow, there have been so many. The beginning is always a good start and the introduction of SG changed the landscape of superannuation coverage from the very few to almost all Australians – if only we could create great retirement outcomes for all Australians. The next big change was SIS legislation, which we thought was the game changer, but it followed through with RSE Licensing, Choice of fund, Stronger Super to name a few. On top of that, the industry has successfully grown members’ account balances so that Superannuation is now a significant part of an Australian’s wealth. This has led to engagement levels, expectations and knowledge growing exponentially and driven further changes to the industry. All of these have been significant and it is too hard to name one as they have all changed the industry over the years.

As one of a small handful of female super fund CEOs, what advice would you offer to other women who are just starting out in the super industry?

The industry is one of constant change, to be successful you need to embrace change, grab chances to learn and develop and look for your opportunities. Build a network to help you do this. Working in an industry where success means a long and comfortable retirement for Australians is rewarding to help that happen. There are so many opportunities for women to find a leadership role that is right for them and success will look differently for all, make sure you know what success means to you before you make any decision.

You’ve mentioned that Energy Super has been one of the first to adopt new technology to increase member engagement, what does the fund have planned to stay up to date with new technological advancements moving forward?

Digital transformation in superannuation is an exciting time. Over the last couple of years, we have focussed on further building our skills, knowledge and platforms that will enable us to successfully respond to technological solutions. We have focussed on collecting, collating and now maximising the use of our data. We have built an agile program of change, looking to minimise the rollout time of solutions, built solutions to improve member cycle time and prioritised our solutions to what members need and want. We have a big program of change still to go and I am sure we will continue again past that.

You’ve previously spoken fondly of former Chair of Energy Super, Bob Henricks. What did you take away from working beside him?

Bob was an experienced Director with deep knowledge of Superannuation and the Energy industry in QLD and happily passed this knowledge to me. He was passionate about the Fund and the members and I learnt the importance of this passion and knowledge and the role it played in successful outcomes for the Fund and members.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life or career so far?

I have had many mentors that have helped shape who I am today and they all were people I admired for various reasons but the biggest influence on my life and career has been my triplet boys who were a big surprise. They taught me that life can throw some curve balls and that I should remain flexible in my plans! They also taught me some valuable leadership skills: resilience, organisation, patience and empathy, that I have used along my journey. They also taught me how to function on minimal sleep.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

I have had so much good advice over the years and I think the best advice is the one that makes you stop and think. Encourage feedback and listen to what people are saying and it will help you make better decisions and choices.

If you weren’t in finance, what do you think you’d be doing?

I was originally enrolled at University to do Occupational Therapy before I transferred to Economics, so maybe working in a hospital or practice somewhere.

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?

I undertook a course at NIDA. It was for fun with my husband – still waiting for casting calls!

View Robyn Petrou 's profile