What did former winners of the fund executive of the year and the FEAL Masters Program Scholarship spend their prize winning education grants on? Kate Hage talks to Bruce Watson and Michelle Di Fabio.

A $20,000 investment in your future: it’s a grant that’s led to top superannuation executives seeing the Dalai Lama and fund communication in a whole new light, and becoming involved in behind-the-scenes negotiation to help member outcomes.

The FEAL Fund Executive of the Year Award – awarded by the Fund Executives Association Limited (FEAL) and sponsored by AMP Capital – lets superannuation fund executives choose how to spend $20,000 furthering their education and professional development. Since the award’s inception in 2002 a number of industry leaders have attended courses ranging from executive MBAs at Harvard and INSEAD, to leadership programs at the London Business School.

Bruce Watson, CEO of AUSCOAL Super, won the award in 2010 and committed to a six-day leadership course run by the London Business School. Days were split between theory and practical components, which included offsites spread far and wide across England. Watson says he and the other participants learnt about social development by watching gorillas at London Zoo; saw innovation at play in start-up companies at Cambridge University; heard about managing globalisation from the City of London Corporation; and got introspective through a review of their lives and career goals.

“I looked at what was on offer across the whole world and, for me, this course seemed to be the most challenging and likely to stretch me out of my normal comfort zone; not to study traditional leadership in a theoretical sense, but in a creative sense. It was a wonderful choice,” Watson says.

Since then, two other FEAL winners have done the course; and back at AUSCOAL, Watson introduced several novel approaches to leadership, including a leadership martial arts day, an offsite with the Dalai Lama, and innovation and drawing workshops to unlock creativity. “The Dalai Lama cuts through complexity to simplicity, and yet we spend our lives loading up on complexity rather than getting to the simplicity of matters,” he says. “This was an important learning.”

So how have AUSCOAL members benefited from the lateral thinking? Better communication, “instead of bombarding people with newsletters that go in the bin”, Watson says. “We’re tapping into people’s preferences: videos, face-to-face and real life stories. Key has been simplifying our messages through storytelling.”

Michelle Di Fabio, strategy manager at HOSTPLUS and a 2009 recipient of the FEAL Masters Program Scholarship, has spent the past five years doing an executive MBA at the University of Melbourne, comprising two “industry tailored” modules per year. It’s a broad curriculum that Di Fabio says has helped her work behind the scenes to drive decisions for member outcomes, such as putting decision frameworks in place and negotiating better deals with suppliers.

“The course has [been] comprised of intensive residential modules that makes full-time work manageable,” she says. “Highlights have been the networking opportunities with alumni and studying overseas at London Business School and INSEAD in Singapore, both of which helped broaden my thinking.”

Since the award, Di Fabio has been promoted to her current strategy role and hopes this is just the start of a long superannuation career. “I’d love to be in a position of influence, ultimately on a fund board,” she says.

Joanna Davison, chief executive of FEAL, says the awards go a long way in helping to develop and retain talent within superannuation, and ultimately improving benefits for members. “FEAL recognises the importance of the development of professionals in the industry and the benefits to bring to members, with the desire to help them achieve dignity in retirement,” she says.

To nominate an executive at your fund for the prize of fund executive of the year, go to www.feal.asn.au. Nominations close on July 7.


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