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Craig Connelly

Being a good mentor is about being a good listener.

Craig Connelly

CEO, The Ian Potter Foundation

After a successful 25-year career in finance, a near-death experience gave Craig Connelly a life choice. After opening up to a friend about his personal experiences, Craig became the CEO of The Ian Potter Foundation – a philanthropic organisation with a vision for a fair, healthy, sustainable and vibrant Australia. Today, Craig has found his purpose as a leader and mentor, empowering people to help others.

You’ve gone full circle having started your career at 101 Collins, leaving and now coming back. Can you tell us about that?

 

I started at JB Were in 1992 at 447 Collins St. I helped a senior colleague manage the fit out of Level 16 at 101 Collins, where we moved in 1995. As a junior analyst, I remember walking into the morning meeting in the old building, leaning against a wall and coming out covered in dust – it was such a disgusting old office! To move to 101 Collins and meet in the beautiful big boardroom on Level 16 was a very big deal.

I was at JB Were for 11 years and left in 2004 to set up a hedge fund on Flinders Lane. Our office was nice, but it wasn’t 101 Collins, so any meetings we could have at 101 we did! I’ve always used what’s now Binary since it started. 101 has always been a real focal point in the CBD for me.

After a successful 25-year career in Australian financial services, what prompted the move to community work?

 

As a research analyst I was travelling three to six months a year. As a young father, I wasn’t home enough. I loved my work, but I had to choose between my family and my job. When I set up the fund in 2004, the idea was to work four days a week, more flexible hours, with one day at home. By 2005, nothing had changed, and I was still working too much. Around that time, our family went on a holiday to Alaska and Canada. While we were there, I was diagnosed with Leukemia. After receiving my last rights from a local catholic priest, being close to death on two occasions, and suffering multiple infections and complications, it took me nearly 17 months to recover. It shook me to the core, and I was lucky to be given a genuine life choice.

I didn’t go back to work until mid-2007 and I left my business in 2012. I had fallen out of love with financial services and the financial markets. I reoriented my values, committed myself to my family, myself and my community. I was bit lost for a couple of years, I started a couple of businesses and had a bit of fun, but I had no purpose. I opened up to one of my closest friends, who was a senior partner with PWC. I told him I was lost professionally and didn’t know what to do, but that I didn’t want to go back to corporate life. Three weeks later, Egon Zehnder contacted him looking for someone to fill the Potter CEO role. He gave them my name and after eight interviews, I was lucky enough to be offered the job.  I started in October 2015. My wife reminded me that 15 years earlier I had said that one day I’d like to run a philanthropic organisation!

What was your motivation for pursuing the opportunity at The Ian Potter Foundation?

 

I wanted to give back, but I didn’t know how. I still suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time. I think we all do. I have become more self-aware and attuned to being a more effective manager of people. I’ve always been good at presenting, articulating my thoughts and even have solid written skills, but I became Head of Research at JB Were too young, and I was a poor people manager. I wasn’t mature enough. Now, I think I’m a better-quality manager and motivator of people, and I’m keen to apply my experience and skills to empower those around me.

I don’t think I bring anything particularly new or innovative to philanthropy, but what I do bring is an effective means of empowering people who are passionate and effective in their roles.  My job is to simply elevate their aspiration, ambition and their achievement, while creating a supportive and safe environment for them to flourish. Potter has put my professional career into perspective. In my current role, I am lucky enough to deal with some of Australia’s best and brightest people. They are either socially minded or they work in medical research, Early Childhood Development, in the Arts or in supporting and enhancing our natural environment – truly inspirational people with the skills and drive to assist others.

I look back on my career and I think I didn’t do anything that comes close to what so many others do. I made money and I worked in an area that I enjoyed and found interesting, but I didn’t impact anyone else’s life. I’m very lucky that I can help others to do that now.

Tell us about The Ian Potter Foundation and the work you do?

 

The vision of The Ian Potter Foundation is for a fair, healthy, sustainable, and vibrant Australia. The foundation operates in four funding pillars to support this vision that I think are critical.

Fair supports two program areas: The first is early childhood development, focused on assisting children aged 0-8 to thrive and be best version of themselves. The second is community wellbeing with a particular focus supporting disadvantaged Australians. In Health, the Foundation supports medical research and translational public health research projects. Sustainability supports organisations to create a sustainable environment for the benefit of all, and Vibrancy fosters a vibrant community through the arts by supporting artistic endeavour and development.

Who was Sir Ian Potter and how did he create the Foundation?

 

Sir Ian Potter was an entrepreneurial, successful, well connected, stockbroker, businessman and philanthropist. He established his own stockbroking firm in 1935 and had a successful career domestically and internationally. Sir Ian was extensively involved in many of Australia’s leading arts organisations, including the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the Australian Ballet and Opera Australia.

In 1962, Sir Ian was knighted.  Two years later, after agreeing to donate one million pounds as a non-tax-deductible gift to establish The Ian Potter Foundation, the Australian Parliament approved the establishment of tax-deductible vehicles that are the cornerstone of many of today’s charitable vehicles.

Fifty-seven years later, and after distributing approximately $430 million to support the people of the country that provided so much for him, the total value of The Ian Potter Foundation is just over $900 million.  The Foundation distributes more than $30 million annually to support Australian charitable organisations.

You’ve been a mentor to many young professionals throughout your career. In these times of economic turbulence, what advice do you have for young people?

 

Being a good mentor is about being a good listener. I used to like the sound of my own voice too much, so I didn’t listen properly. Listening allows you to really help someone and explore the issues relevant to them. As a mentor, I hope to offer a trusted space – you can’t be an effective mentor without an established relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

As I’ve got older, I have a much greater respect for the wisdom of experience. I used to think someone in their 50s was ancient, but now I regard myself as a young 55-year-old who has had five years learning from my current Chairman who is an amazing person in his 80s. I learn from him every time I speak to him. As a mentor, you never stop learning.

I’m very hopeful for the future, because I am so impressed by today’s young people. They’re more worldly, more empathetic, more considerate of others and harder to mentor as a result because they are so well informed! I find it challenging in a good way to work out how I can help someone. One thing I have learnt is I am far better at genuinely respecting another person’s perspective, which is what’s missing in the world today. The world seems to be a shouty, competitive and aggressive place and I would like it to be less so.

What is the experience of working at 101 Collins like?

 

I am blessed. 101 is an amazing building. My career started down at 447 Collins in a horrible building, I didn’t enjoy that end of town. Coming up to the top end of Collins Street felt like coming home. When I moved to 101 Collins the building was new and modern, with a great fit out. I could look out at the MCG, Botanical Gardens and I had a parking spot in the building from day one so I was very happy. We would run down to AAMI Park or the Tan at lunchtime, or play touch rugby once a week. That’s when there were four showers on level 5, which were horrible! Nothing like the end of trip facilities today.

The current end of trip facility takes the building to another level. I get into work early, go to Binary for my coffee and breakfast, and chat to Lisa the barista. Now with the RISE studio, I will do more yoga classes. The quality of the fit out, the office spaces, the location, the amenities – the building is timeless and of the highest quality.

Which organisations are you most excited about now?

 

It’s very hard to choose a favourite. We have the honour of working with some of Australia’s most amazing people and organisations.

Over the past two years, the health space has been most exciting. We have co-funded the establishment of the COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Task Force in partnership with other philanthropic partners and the State and Federal Governments. That taskforce has played a huge role in helping front line clinicians: hospital workers, doctors and GPs to assist patients suffering from COVID-19.

In the sustainable space, there are two. One is Watertrust Australia Limited, which we helped to co-create with the Myer Foundation, Colonial Foundation, the Besen Family Foundation and 13 other philanthropic partners. Another, ClimateWorks Australia, which I consider to be one of the pre-eminent Australian not-for-profit organisations, is working to help Australia to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

On the Community Wellbeing front is an organisation called Social Traders, whose management I rate very highly, and who do amazing work to try and improve the ability of social enterprise organisations to create an environment supportive of meaningful employment opportunities for people with a disability.

What made 101 Collins the right home for The Ian Potter Foundation?

 

The Ian Potter Foundation is one of the best know philanthropic foundations in the country. The Foundation wanted to be in one of the best locations in Melbourne’s CBD, so it moved to 101 Collins. The Foundation Chairman, Charles Goode, understood the significance of having a solid, respectable and well recognised corporate presence. The vision for The Ian Potter Foundation is for a fair, healthy, sustainable and vibrant Australia. This building is an environmentally sustainable and eco-oriented building, it is of highest quality, operates to high standards and so it embodies a lot of the attributes that Potter seeks of the organisations it supports.

Image credit: The Australian Ballet – Principal Artist, Ako Kondo / Photo – Pierre Toussaint

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