For most schoolchildren, a trip to the headmaster’s office is to be avoided at all costs. To have the audience of the school’s head means either great trouble or success – there is little in between which would warrant such a meeting.

For Alison Gaines FAIM, an audience with the headmaster was a daily occurrence through childhood. But not for the reasons you might think.

Ms Gaines, now Chief Executive Officer of global executive headhunting firm Gerard Daniels and President of AIM WA, is the daughter of a school headmaster.

The Gaines children would travel the state through their childhood, setting up camp far and wide for periods of time to follow the education careers of their mother and father.

From Derby to the South West to the Perth Hills, the family would settle and resettle, living in the headmaster’s house – often on school grounds.

The thought of it would be daunting for some. For Alison, part of a successful family of leaders including sisters Elizabeth, the CEO of Fortescue Metals Group, and Jo, the Deputy Chief-of-Staff to the State Premier, the experience proved formative.

Her brother became a school teacher (music and sport specialist), continuing a long line of teachers in the family (five generations in WA).

"We were in a really unique position as children where, because our father was headmaster and we lived on the campus or next to the school, we constantly saw him in a lived, 24/7 leadership role," she told Leader.

"All sorts of things happen around schools, during school and after school as well."

Ms Gaines said she believed her parents set the family a fair leadership precedent through their childhood.

"I do think as a family we’re comfortable with the idea of leading people, leading institutions and having a vision of what something could be and improving it," she said.

"Certainly my parents as teachers always came to a new town or a new school with an idea of what they could do to leave it in better shape.

"I suppose we were very privileged to see that in action all the time."

The impact of the impressions made during those years are evident even today when scouring the long list of roles held by Ms Gaines since then. Common themes of a strong appreciation of education and an eye for leadership are evident throughout.

With extensive experience in areas of education and training, Ms Gaines said she believed
leadership skills are drawn from nature and nurture.

They include board roles at AIM WA, Murdoch University, INSEAD, AESC, the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the College of Law Ltd. She holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in law, politics and public policy and governance and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Murdoch University and is a Distinguished Alumni.

"Perhaps this is the golden thread between me and my siblings – our parents’ absolute devotion to good education," Ms Gaines said.

"They were very encouraging of us to do well in school and to have lots of other interests – we all studied music, we all had great experience in sport clubs, we liked joining things and learning and mastering them – we had great role models."

Ms Gaines spoke particularly highly of her mother, who she said set the example of working, studying, being involved in the community and raising children all at once.

These days Ms Gaines is herself a role model to many. Having taken over as global CEO of Gerard Daniels in 2018 after 12 years in the organisation, she now leads staff in Perth, Sydney, London and Houston.

From a successful family and with extensive experience in areas of education and training, Ms Gaines said she believed leadership skills are drawn from nature and nurture.

"I know people who are born to organise and inspire other people and know how to get things done – if those people are given opportunities as leaders they tend to maximise them," she said.

"But I do think there are other people who can adapt to a leadership style by putting the work in and learning how to become great leaders – otherwise I wouldn’t be President of AIM WA and advocating for management and leadership education".

"There are lots of opportunities for people to learn their craft and become better leaders – unless they have a personality style where they’re so determined to only follow their own intuition and not understand there are different techniques of leadership that would improve their style."

Leading across the globe

The leadership game is as globalised as ever, and as someone who works across borders, Ms Gaines follows a stringent travel schedule to ensure she gets to know her staff across the world as well as possible.

The offices are spread far and wide and the workplace make-up of each is extremely culturally diverse – a theme emerging more broadly in an increasingly spread working world.

"In all our offices there are probably as many people who aren’t locals as there are people who were born and raised locally," Ms Gaines said.

"This means we need to design a workplace that makes people feel really comfortable, and to ensure we don’t have office cultures that make some people feel uncomfortable and not valued.

"We work very hard to have a diverse workplace, both in terms of ethnicity and gender diversity, so we can make the most of the great gifts that gives us."

Meanwhile, despite the logistical challenges, face-to-face time is considered critical to spreading leadership vision and values.

"Given I’m new to the CEO role, I’m meeting everyone one-on-one in the business so I can build a rapport with them, share the mission of our firm and understand what makes them tick and what they need to be successful," Ms Gaines said.

"The weekly phone calls are useful, but I do need to spend time with people face-to-face. I’ve got a program of travel so I get into all the offices regularly and spend time planning and having some fun with each person and the team." It also exposes her to the regional networks and economies in which clients operate.

Leading across the globe also offers unique perspectives on global leadership trends. Ms Gaines said cultural differences meant there is no one way to lead an organisation or negotiate with clients and candidates. Leaders need to consider the different styles of communication and negotiation prevalent around the world.

"Some styles are very direct and transactional, often garrulous, and like things to be out in the open," she said.

I think there are great Australian leaders who are very focused on good strategy, execution,
culture, customer and client outcomes

"Other styles tend to be more relationship-driven and consensus-driven and take longer to negotiate. Things don’t always happen out in the open in a boardroom or in meetings, and they rely on people respecting the complexity of networks and relationships.

"Leaders need to adapt to those different styles to build credibility and get things done."

Meanwhile, Australian leadership has come under fire in recent years, particularly on the back of the banking royal commission and the conduct of some in the political realm, but Ms Gaines said she did not believe there was a crisis of business leadership at home.

"I think there’s been some very poor examples of leadership, most recently uncovered by the banking royal commission, but to say that’s representative of leadership broadly in Australia is misleading – on the one hand it might be naive, on the other it might just be people trying to create a headline," she said.

"Over the course of a year in headhunting we have hundreds of clients and I usually only deal with the CEOs and chairpersons, so I get a sense of the quality of leadership in Australia and internationally.

"I think there are great Australian leaders who are very focused on good strategy execution, ethical culture, customer and client outcomes and who do adopt concepts of building fair workplaces open to all sorts of people – I see those people all the time. They are also looking for executives and board candidates who also share these characteristics."

Getting on board

For Ms Gaines, getting involved in boards and committees is something of a natural flow on from childhood, where she and her family would regularly join community and sporting groups in the areas they moved to.

The AIM WA President speaks highly of the merits of board involvement, having been involved in plenty herself, and said it was a great way for ambitious people to bridge the gap between management and executive level work.

"You learn as a board member how to think more strategically in the medium and long-term, and how to think about and measure what matters and mitigate risk - so you have a bigger imagination about the organisation. That’s very good experience for executives and CEOs," she said.

"I think where a lot of people struggle if they go from management into an executive or CEO role is to lift their gaze and start properly delegating to allow them to work more on the business.

"Being on a board actually accelerates your understanding of how to do that."

As a headhunter, Ms Gaines said she was often actively asked to find executive candidates with board experience or exposure. Her advice for managers without board exposure is to search out board experience.

"There are lots of community boards as well as commercial boards people can get involved with," she said.

"We regularly see people join subsidiary boards, school boards, sports boards, community boards, alumni or professional associations, government boards – there are a lot of places where people can learn their boardroom craft."

A member of the 30% Club, which campaigns for greater representation of women on ASX 200 boards and has set a target of 30 per cent, Ms Gaines is passionate about boardroom diversity. She said big corporates and governments were doing well in achieving a greater representation on their boards.

She believes small and medium enterprises, however, are lagging in this regard in Australia – a factor put down to a lack of good networking and poor understanding of the talent in the market for board roles.

"There are a lot of women who are board-ready, but some SMEs don’t have the sourcing strategy to go find that talent," Ms Gaines said.

Leaders need to adapt to different styles to build credibility and get things done

According to figures released by the Australian Institute of Company Directors at the end of January, 96 ASX 200 companies had achieved 30 per cent female representation on their boards at the end of 2018, including 18 of the ASX 20 companies.

Ms Gaines said she expected to see a situation where the market demanded action from companies which failed to act.

"At some stage if there’s no obvious improvement I think there will be ‘defacto quotas’, where the institutional investor community, on behalf of big shareholders, is going to force more companies in the listed sector to act," she said.

Among the very best

Quizzed on the direction of AIM WA, President Alison Gaines FAIM is emphatic in her praise of the organisation and its assets.

"Firstly, we’ve got a long-term, stable team, well-led, with access to tonnes of training, which we really pride ourselves on," she said. "We’ve got great strategy, which has been successful, making us a very sustainable institution in Australia.

"Then we’ve got probably one of the most beautiful private campuses in Australia, and we’re very committed to it.

"We’ve got long-term clients and members who are very loyal, and we’ve got great curriculum".

Through linkages with Harvard Business School and a successful joint venture with The University of Western Australia’s Business School, AIM WA has become a regionally significant institution highly egarded by its peers.

"These partnerships allow Western Australia to be a place where the WA business community, government and not-for-profit community, and also international visitors, can come to hear great thought leaders and do some deep diving into some really meaningful management and leadership topics," Ms Gaines said.

"We like to think of ourselves as an Asia-Pacific hub for big ideas."

The Institute recently restructured to allow it to pursue interstate and overseas business more readily, a move Ms Gaines said would offer it greater freedom outside the state.

"We restructured from an association to a company so we can drive our interstate and international strategy much more aggressively," she said.


Alison Gaines FAIM

  • Gerard Daniels, Global CEO, 2018-present
  • Gerard Daniels, General Manager Asia Pacific, Global Practice Leader Board Consulting, 2006-2018
  • AIM WA Director, 2013-present (President 2016 onwards)
  • Association for Executive Search and Leadership Consulting, Director, AsiaPac and Middle East Council, since 2019
  • IDPN Global Club INSEAD, Deputy Chair, 2014-present
  • College of Law Ltd, Governor, 2010-present
  • Law Society of Western Australia, CEO, 1997-2006
  • Public Sector Management Office, Government of Western Australia, Director 1994-1997

Jack McGinn is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.