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On Monday, 16 June 2014 – two nights before 2014 State of Origin Game 2 – the AGSM hosted Australian Rugby League Commission CEO David Smith in the latest instalment of their Meet the CEO series. As usual, the Sydney Four Seasons Hotel was packed out, and the event certainly didn’t disappoint.

AGSM - David Smith - CEO NRL

After being introduced by ASB Dean Professor Geoffrey Garrett and NRL Commissioner and ASB Business Advisory Council member Cathy Harris, Mark Scott (Managing Director, Australian Broadcasting Corporation) got down to interviewing David.

I have to admit that I was (pleasantly) surprised by David’s style. I’m a strong believer in using sporting teams rather than military teams as the basis to study business leadership, management and strategy. I went in thinking that David would use lots of sporting language in his interview. Instead, we were presented with an articulate, sophisticated banker who talked about managing an iconic Australian sporting organisation in an intensely competitive and challenging environment.

At one point in the interview he explained that this was a business audience and the conversation was about the business of sport, so he felt it was the appropriate language to use. He talked a lot about market positioning, local and international growth strategies and leveraging brand equity. It was all very insightful, however I felt at a couple of points that his responses were more rehearsed and media-trained than spontaneous. Nevertheless, he was still very polished and impressive.

I won’t summarise the interview, but here are some of my take-aways from his answers.

Need for strong business discipline

No matter what sort of organisation, at some point it will need to be managed professionally if it is to be sustainable and grow. The NRL is a perfect example. Even with strong cultural and community roots and passionate (fanatical) supporters, when David took over it was in pretty bad shape for an organisation of its size and age. The NRL Commission and David have implemented rigorous business thinking and strategies, and the results are evident in both on-field and off-field performance of the League.

Ability to abstract and apply transferable skills

At first, the choice of an investment banker to run a national sporting organisation seems strange. But as both Cathy and David pointed out, one of the reasons he’s able to do well is the ability to apply transferable skills that he brings from his previous roles. David mentioned that this was his fourth “career”, including an engineering background, military service and banking.

In addition to the ability to abstract problems and apply skills learned in seeming unrelated fields, I also think that introducing someone from outside an industry vertical provides an opportunity to approach issues from a fresh perspective. In my own career, I’ve found that this has helped me challenge embedded assumptions and re-frame conversations.

Stay connected to your origins

When asked how he is able to relate to the everyday person and the NRL fans, David talked about staying connected to his origins. He talked about coming from a mining town with modest means, and not forgetting that.

This reminded me a bit of Cameron Clyne, the CEO and Managing Director of the National Australia Bank. In his Meet the CEO interview, he talked about growing up in a mining family and using the strong work ethic instilled in him to stay grounded.

Speak the appropriate language

The other advice he gave was to speak in a language that was appropriate to your audience. The obvious example was his use of sophisticated business terminology suited to the audience at the event. However, he said that when talking to the clubs and their members, he uses terms and ideas that make sense to them.

Seems a bit obvious, but a good reminder nevertheless. This is especially important for technology professionals, who need to get better in speaking in terms of business problems and solutions rather than IT implementations.


It was a great event, and the AGSM did a great job hosting it. (The arancini balls at reception were awesome!)

If you’re interested, the recorded video of the interview is well worth watching: