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An Interview with Cecily McGuckin, CEO of Queensland Steel and Sheet
After answering her father’s call to help with the family business, Cecily McGuckin saw the need for modernisation and change in the company, ultimately taking on the task while also navigating the operation’s overwhelmingly male culture. While evolving to meet current and future challenges is an important strategy for every business hoping to safeguard their future, Cecily feels that balance and candid communication are key when restructuring an organisation or introducing new technologies in the name of efficiency. People will always be an essential part of Queensland Sheet & Steel, and Cecily has developed her leadership style to take advantage of the value they bring.
In this episode, Cecily McGuckin, CEO of Queensland Steel and Sheet, one of Australia’s longest-running, family-owned steel distributors, talks to us about her extraordinary journey to becoming the first female CEO in Australia’s steel industry, how to build on the first generation’s legacy while managing necessary change, and why a people-centric culture is a winning formula.
- To build her knowledge, Cecily visited other steel mills overseas and learned from their operations. It was an important first step toward effectively implementing the improvements she felt were critical in her family’s business.
- There are many misconceptions about women taking leadership roles in business. But change is occurring because of the unique traits women bring, such as emotional intelligence, problem-solving, forward-thinking, and looking at situations differently than men.
- Planning ahead is extremely important, and not evolving is tantamount to death for a business. People are the key to changing a company’s culture. They’re not just numbers — employees are a multifaceted element in all organisations and, as we’ve seen, they can transform the way business is conducted worldwide.
- Someone’s skill set shouldn’t be the only factor in determining whether they are a good fit for a business. Whether or not it’s a family member, personality, values, and the potential to complement the team should all be considered. Putting the right people in the right roles is one way companies succeed.
Ramia: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Women in Family Business. I am very delighted to be joined by our guest today, Cecily McGuckin. She is the CEO of Queensland Steel and Sheet and she’s joining us today from Australia. Thank you for being here, Cecily.
Cecily: My pleasure as always.
Ramia: Cecily, I love the start of your career because we hear a lot of family members joining the family business because they get the call. Someone takes them to the side and tells them you’re needed. What I love about the start of your story with the family business, with QSS, is that it took two pretty convincing tries for your father to convince you to join the family business. First of all, I think for all our listeners, tell us how to say no to our fathers because I think sometimes that can be a very useful tool. Secondly, tell us why you say no the first time around and why yes decades later, really.
Cecily: Well, I suppose when I look at it with our business being the steel industry, it’s very male dominated. Growing up in the business — I’ve only got a sister and my mom — we never talked about us being part of it. It wasn’t something that was even in the forefront of my mind when I was thinking about my career that that’s a step I might take. When he approached me to come into the business, I’d been working in construction development at that stage and it just completely took me by surprise. It wasn’t something I was expecting. He had actually started the process of talking to a consultant about transition, what that looks for him, what some options are for him. They had mentioned, “Have you thought about your daughter? She’s in construction. It’s very similar worlds.”
When he came to us, we sat down with this consultant. We talked about it. We actually even did a whole personality assessment to see whether we could work together and we went through that process. It was about three months of talking. I think just in my gut, I still had so much to learn in other environments that I didn’t think it was the right time. To be honest, I was still so shocked by it. I don’t think I was ready to say yes. So I parked that and I honestly didn’t think it was going to be a conversation we have again. I thought it was done and dusted because we didn’t talk about it again.
Then he surprised me again 10 odd years down the track. I had just started my own consultancy business. I just had my first child. It was more ways, the way he worded this time was, “Can you just come in and help me with the finance side?” Because that’s where I’d started my career. I’d said, “Sure, I can balance the both.” Then I stepped in and then I realized what help it needed and it escalated from there. It was a very different way in which it was approached second time around. Again, it was something I was surprised with. I wasn’t expecting it. Then that’s where it all started 14 years ago.
Ramia: I just want to ask you about how your opinion changed about the family business once you were in it. Also, how did you make other people’s opinions change about what the family business should look like?
Cecily: The way that I came into the business, I walked in and it was … This is very, very typical of first generations. They are building it from the ground up and they’ve got those … The boulder blocks are pretty much set there of what the values are of the business and what the intent is. When I came on, everyone was on negative leave, half the staff had loans with my father, there were no employment contracts, there were some fairly negative people that were in the business, a lot of egos typically because it’s all men. I always went, “There’s so many things I need to look at and address.” It was something that I was very conscious of as a couple of different facets. I was conscious that I was the daddy’s little girl scenario. I was conscious that I was coming into an industry that I wasn’t fully knowledgeable of, and I was also conscious that I was coming in as a female.
When I walked in on that, I made sure that before I took any major changes other than taking off the loans and creating some basic contracts, I really spent a lot of time building my knowledge of the business. I traveled overseas to steel mills to understand how we created steel customers, how they used it, on our floor to see how we managed it, upstairs. I really made sure I’d spent the time so that I could then go, “Well, I now I have the understanding, the knowledge of it.” Then I looked at what changes need to come. It wasn’t something I did overnight. It was something that I slowly did because change is difficult for everyone. Me coming in, for a start, was a massive change. I used to use the disabled toilet. There wasn’t even a female toilet when I started. It was something that I was really conscious of. We spent a lot of time with me, for them accepting the fact that I was there, and then slowly building trust, not only with my staff, but also my father and also our customers and our traders. It was a matter of having to prove myself like everyone does. But I think there were a lot more elements in there because of the female side and being a family member and proving my worth that I actually had value to be there. It really was a really slow process of building that to where it needed to be and I was very careful of how I did that.
Ramia: Your father really wanted you to join. He really wanted you in that business. Clearly, a man who’s very proud of his daughter and her achievements believes that women can make a difference in business, and yet obviously never been confronted with what it’s like to integrate women into the workplace. What was it like for him, that realization? Was it tense in your relationship with him or did you manage to communicate through this turmoil?
Cecily: It was very, very difficult because he looked at it and goes, “Well, this is good the way it is. Why do I need bring changes?” A lot of the changes we were bringing in was more specifically the HR side of things where you’ve got all these governance and all these rules and regulations to put in and disorders. Having to educate him and go, “This is a necessity, this is something we need, or the workplace health and safety side of things or looking at different ways we can approach the business and make things more efficient.”
He was very clever in the way that he knew that IT was going to be a big part. Before I even started, he actually created our own computer system, which we’ve really built and developed into something fantastic now, which, really, we use to make us really quite efficient. I really spent a lot of time going, “Okay. Well, we need to do this.” What I used to go is gung-ho and go, “I need to do this and this is how we need to do it.” I slowly changed the way I communicated. I learned to slow it all down, to get all the facts, to be able to bring that to a conversation and go, “Well, I’m thinking about doing this. What are your viewpoints.”
Ramia: It’s amazing because you come in, first you help out, and then you become basically indispensable to the organization, and then you become CEO. First woman to join the family business, first woman CEO, clearly, but also the first woman CEO in your industry in Australia. Which is harder, being the first woman in your family business or being the first woman in your industry to achieve that level?
Cecily: I think both of them had a lot of challenges. I think both of them had benefits and both of them had flews in both ways. Coming into the family business and having to really show my father that he’d made the right decision because to be honest, him bringing me on was a risk for him too whether that was the right thing, and bringing a female into a very male dominated environment. I think he thought I was going to come in and just do what he wanted me to do. When I pushed back, there were difficulties and I think he was surprised that … I think he thought and he even said, “I know that she could achieve something but I didn’t think it could go as far as it has.”
The business has certainly grown since I’ve been here and that’s not just me. That’s the people we’ve now got working for us and consultants and all that kind of stuff. You put the right people around you and naturally you’re going to grow. You’re going to have successes because you ensure that you have the people that are championing not only me, but my team and the business as a whole. That includes not only consultants but also the right customers that you by doing that as well. Then you look at the industry as a whole and unfortunately I’m still the only female CEO in Australia. That certainly needs a lot of work and I think there’s a slow change that’s happening because women have value as leaders and I don’t think we’re given enough opportunity. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about women taking those leads and I think it’s starting to change because we have emotional intelligence that we take on board. We look at it differently. Our brains think differently to men and we are problem solvers and we are forward thinkers and people. Everyone has those elements and everyone’s different at how they achieve them and I really believe that the industry has now opened their arms and going, “You’re well and truly welcome,” but it’s taken me a long time to be able to prove my worth to get here.
Ramia: I find it very challenging to understand how we can even talk about keeping our businesses competitive in this kind of landscape, how we can talk about growing, scaling, creating multi-generational legacies without having a diverse workforce. We know the mega trends that we all are impacted by, but maybe more specifically your industry, of course, is under a huge amount of pressure at the moment. What are currently the trends and the shaping forces that you are looking at the biggest challenge for QSS in the future, and what is your mind telling you to do to prepare now for this in order to safeguard what it is that you’ve built?
Cecily: I think there’s a lot that we need to be able to do. I think forward thinking and forward planning is extremely important in every single business. If you don’t evolve, you’re going to die. For me, that covers a couple of different fronts. First of all off the bat, it’s the HR element for me. It’s the people element. It’s constantly evolving your culture to work in the here and the now and what people are really wanting. They’re looking for flexibility. They’re looking to be able to have a voice and looking for transparency. That part I think is really growing and it’s a culture for us. That was something that I have always been very passionate about and started before it really has started growing worldwide now, which is great to see because people aren’t just numbers. They’re part of a business and you only see one facet, but you’ve also got to remember there’s other parts to their lives. That’s one part.
Another part is cybersecurity is obviously a massive issue that all of us have to be very, very aware of. The amount of risk that is out there now for every single business is significant. Again, future proofing your businesses, ensuring that you’ve got every single possibility to protect yourself from the who knows what else is going to come. But there’s lots of opportunities to be hitting in different areas. Then you’ve got future proofing and relooking at the way that you do things, efficiencies, and that obviously brings in the IT, the AI, all those kinds of things which are growing by the day. There’s so many opportunities for us to be able to use those to make our business more efficient, more streamlined, and to be able to assist people, to be able to get the most out of them as well. I suppose those three areas are really, really important. And how you procure your stock, whether that is from your own country, from overseas. So many impacts. You see what COVID did in the lock downs that have happened across so many manufacturing industries. I think that’s really important as well. It’s just constantly having your eye on the ball in all these different areas and not thinking that that’s good enough. It’s always going, “What else can I do? What else can I do to be able to make that better? That is always learning and building and you’re going to learn that from team members or research or courses or webinars or podcasts. You’ve got to actively be out there looking at different things that are coming your way and future proofing your business.
Ramia: The HR element that you mentioned in contrast or in conjunction with the efficiency piece that you mentioned, how do you balance those conversations being as people-focused as you are as a leader? How do you marry those two elements that are so important to the competitiveness of your business?
Cecily: I think you just got to be really realistic. It is part of every single business and you have to be able to not dig your head in the sand and go, “Well, I have to deal with this.” If there’s jobs that you are looking at moving from your business and putting in technology to be able to do that, I think you have to be very open and honest about the impact that this could have on some individuals because you’ve got to have a frank conversation. People don’t like doing that and there’s those hard conversations sometimes you need to have, but sometimes it’s a matter of going, “Well, that role is being changed to this.” But the human element is never going to go away. There’s always going to be the need for people in every single business. You can’t make it completely robotic. It’s impossible. You always need people, but it’s making sure you have the right people to work with you to achieve those goals of bringing in different options of IT. And I brought everyone into that conversation and had roundtables of how we develop that and how we evolve that because it impacts so many departments. By bringing them into the conversation, not only did it make them aware of what we’re trying to achieve, but also they give you ideas. What if it impacts this? It makes you think about things that you might necessarily think about. It’s giving that roundtable conversation to everyone to be able to be heard. Then maybe certain things shouldn’t come on board because it has other impacts or whatever.
Ramia: I love the paperless example because it requires everyone to cooperate. It’s like a real team effort and I think it’s one of those things that make a lot of sense to everybody. At the same time, it’s the first coordinated effort towards a permanent change in your organization. But of course, there are things where as a leader you end up alone because you can’t get everyone to agree and you can’t get everyone to see eye to eye right around the table.
Cecily: But the one thing is if they feel like they’ve been heard. They may not get their way or may not be able to go the way they want, but if they’ve had a seat at the table and they’ve been heard, I think that’s where it changes. You’re not sitting there and going, “Well, we’re doing this and this is why we’re doing it.” You go, “Well, I’ve got all the facts and then I’m going to make a call based on everything, but you’ve all been heard.” I think that’s the key to that. That’s a really important part.
Ramia: When you consciously came into a leadership position and you consciously started to lead the people in the organization, how do you revisit your leadership style?
Cecily: If I look back, the way that I started when I started in leadership, I look back on the good leaders that I’ve had and the bad leaders I’ve had. I’ve then created leadership based on my personality and what works for me. I’ve grabbed all the bits and went, “Actually, that could really work for me.” I’ll really be conscious to going, “I really don’t like that,” and making an effort going, “Well, I want to make sure that’s not part of how I lead.” Then in part of that, I’m always evolving my leadership and looking at ways of learning it and changing it and my communication style. Only last couple of years, I’ve got a business coach. I find, for me, that’s really important. I know there’s forum groups and peer groups you can go on to that catch up monthly. I know there’s a lot of that going on. But for me personally, I found out that just having a business coach and having a one on one for me works for my type of learning and focus.
But I’ve also made sure with my leadership style that I’ve created people around me that I can bounce ideas off. I call them my tribe. I’ve got a group of women … There is one man but there’s a group of women that are all business owners, all in different parts of the world, in the country, in different industries, and not even in my industry, that I can call and go, “Look, I’m dealing with this. How would you deal with it?” Each of them have their own different expertise.I’ve made sure I’ve really spent time on having a business coach. I do really listen to some really good podcasts. I do webinars if I see it necessary. I did a course last year, which was facilitated and on the basis of Brené Brown. Her way of fundamentals, that really helps. I think it’s always finding something that you connect to and making sure it works.
Then even sitting down and if I’m talking to my staff and if I’ve done something wrong, actually taking ownership. That’s a big part of leadership because a lot of people don’t. It’s my way or the highway. I don’t believe in that. If I have made the wrong call or if I dealt with someone in a way that I’d probably go that should have been dealt with differently, I’ll go “Look, let’s talk about how we can do this differently going on,” and take ownership of it and really being conscious of that and also really not rushing. I used to be rushing all the time. I now sit back. I get the facts, listen to my gut and go, “Okay.” And I’ll say to people, “I want to come back to you on that.” You don’t need to give an answer right then.
Ramia: Such good advice.
Cecily: This is the thing. There’s so much in your head. I’m always chaotic. But I’m going to regret it if I make the wrong call, so I go, “Give me half now.” Or I say to them, “Come back to me tomorrow.” I say to them sometimes if we’re having a conversation because I’m so big on my gut, I go, “What is your gut telling you?” So I get them to think about what they’re thinking about. Facts, guts working together, it’s a match made in heaven as far as I’m concerned. Every time I haven’t listened to my gut I know I’ve made the wrong call.
Ramia: Do you think you will know when it’s time for you to leave, when your leadership can’t evolve anymore to the point where it serves the company?
Cecily: I think I will because I look at the way that my father has transitioned and I’ve looked at the way that some other family businesses have transitioned and I’m really aware of how I want that to be for me. I am already now forward planning to a degree what that would look like and not trying to be in the trenches so much and stepping back to allow my staff to shine. I’ve got good people working for me and the more I can step back and let them do it, the more the business is going to be able to run without me having to be so involved.
I’m never not going to not be involved, but if I allow those people to do their jobs and be able to step up and step up and step up, who knows what we can achieve because there’s someone else? That’s a matter of us together as a team to be able to build it to the next level, whatever that might be for us.
Ramia: What if a family member were to join? Would that be emotionally very different for you, do you think?
Cecily: Yes. It is because I think that a person should get a position because they’ve got the skill base, but also because of their personality and their values. When I hire someone, whether that is a family member or whether it’s someone externally, the first thing I look at is that person’s personality and values and whether they’re going to fit into our business. Because no matter who they are, if they’re not a team player, if they’ve got a big ego, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not how this business is run. Whether your family or not, that’s just not going to fit. Even if I transitioned out of my CEO role, that might not be a family member. We may have an external person be a CEO. And over time I’ve really gone, “What are those different options?” Because I’ve seen and I’ve learned from others that just because it’s a family business, doesn’t mean it has to all be family. Because if you want that family business to succeed for generations and generations, you have to do the right thing by the business to do the right thing by the family. It is a matter of trying to be able to calm it down a little bit and making the right call as best as you can for your business and that’s not easy.
Ramia: No, it’s not. We all try, I think, but it’s not an easy one. You talked about evolving. Is there anything else that you feel family businesses around you are not doing enough of right now, where you are like, “I’m very concerned that this is going to mean that after this generation it’s over”?
Cecily: I think that spending the time to be able to ensure that your corporate structures are in place, that there’s an external person that the family members can all use as a mediator when things go wrong. That person doesn’t have to be employed by the business all the time. It could be ad hoc. But there’s someone that all the family respect that can come in and be able to support the business, to be able to hear and make sure everyone’s being heard. I think before family members come in, I think there needs to be a set of rules that are used. Obviously, they’re going to be loose rules because things will change.
I just don’t think there’s enough education for family businesses on how to deal with people coming in, training in leadership, transition of people out. I think we are left to our own devices and I do actually think that governments in every country could do more to support because we’re all such a large part of our economies in every country. I do not think governments see that as a necessity and I can’t speak highly enough about the fact that if you’re supporting that, you’re supporting your whole economy.
Ramia: How long do you think it’s going to take to see more women now at the leadership level in the industry? Do you have a bet going how many years it is going to take?
Cecily: I would love it to happen quicker. My business, 14 years ago there was just me. Now I’ve got I think there’s 18% women in my business now. That’s not only just in-office. That’s on my floor. That’s my warehouse floor. I hope it’s starting to happen more. There are more women coming in. I am starting to see a change, not as quick as I’d like it to be, but at least there’s change happening. It’s not just staying still and it’s evolving. I love saying that. It needs to keep on moving forward. I think that this industry is starting to see the value that women can bring to it. We just need more women at the table to be able to have their say and to be able to prove their worth because they are damn well due for that.
Ramia: We will make it happen. Thank you very much, Cecily, for joining us on the podcast today. We enjoyed this conversation very much.
Cecily: My pleasure.
This interview is part of the special series “Agile Minds: How Family Enterprises Evolve” in collaboration with KPMG Private Enterprise.
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