Planes, Trains and Super: Q&A with Suzanne Holden October 2019

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After almost a decade in senior executive roles in superannuation, Suzanne Holden is returning to the transport industry as Sydney Trains' new chief customer officer. Suzanne shares with Industry Moves some of the experiences that have shaped her life and career so far, as well as her enthusiasm for the challenges ahead.

You joined the superannuation industry in 2010 as COO at AAS - Link Group and were later promoted to CEO. Prior to that you spent 22 years in the airline industry. How did your former experience in aviation prepare you for a career in fund administration?

I often say that the industries are more alike than they are different. Both are primarily customer service businesses that require leadership of large complex operational teams. Both are highly regulated and require significant change management and resilience! And both are supported by technology and innovation and require attention to detail and uncompromising management of risk.

"I often say that the industries are more alike than they are different."

When I joined Link Group, the Fund Admin operation was highly paper based and lacked the operational rigour that was prevalent and mature in the aviation industry and it was also unsophisticated in its use of data, again, something that the aviation industry had mastered both in terms of operational reporting and personalising the customer experience. As a result of my experience in the airline industry I was able to bring improved operational efficiency to Link processes and deliver better customer experiences.

What have been the highlights of your career in super?

It’s easy to say that winning best Administrator of the year for 3 consecutive years was a great endorsement of the journey we were on and the amazing effort of the combined team but I have to say, more than anything, I am proud of how our industry has worked to deliver a significantly enhanced customer experience that’s not only personalised but also timely, engaging and increasingly cost effective.

What are you looking forward to about your new role?

I’m really looking forward to supporting the ambitious strategy and plans of NSW Transport and particularly Sydney Trains and to working with a very impressive team of people who are committed to delivering the best possible service to Sydney travellers. We live in such an exceptional city and we deserve a world class transport system.

"We live in such an exceptional city and we deserve a world class transport system."

You are well known and widely respected in the super industry. How would you describe your leadership style?

I have 2 fabulous children, who are both currently at University and I often think about the sort of leadership that would attract them to a particular workplace. There is no question that I am driven to achieve success as I believe that pride drives greater employee satisfaction but importantly I also hope that I balance this drive with warmth, humour and optimism.

What led you to initially pursue a career in aviation and transport?

I had no plans to enter the aviation industry. In fact, as a third generation airline worker, I went off to university quite determined to break the family tradition! But after a short stint working in London for a Unit Trust company (just after the crash of 1987) I was enticed by the aviation industry.

"Tune into the culture of a department, company or industry and if your values are not aligned, make a choice and make a move!"

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I was born near London but grew up in the North of England. My childhood memories are predominantly very happy. My father was English and my mother is Danish and we enjoyed the best of both cultures. Our home was full of music and conversation and my school life was full of every extracurricular activity I could squeeze into my week; from basketball and tennis, through to drama, singing and playing the drums! We would spend holidays visiting family in Denmark or travelling around the world (one of the privileges of my father’s job at British Airways).

Sadly, I was in a car accident with my family when I was 11 years old and my father was killed. I have no doubt that this event had a profound impact on my later childhood but I also believe it continues to impact the way in which I embrace life and try to make a positive impact on the people I meet.

With the benefit of hindsight what advice would you give your younger self?

It’s only as I have accessed different experience across industries, countries and companies that I have truly started to appreciate how diverse cultures can be and how you can personally be impacted when the values of an organisation are not aligned with your own. If I could give my younger self some advice it would be to tune into the culture of a department, company or industry and if your values are not aligned, make a choice and make a move!

What is something most people wouldn’t know about you?

I think many people would know that my undergraduate degree is in the rather unusual combination of Maths and Drama but probably not many people would know that whilst I was at University I was invited to join MENSA, the high IQ society!

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