As the athletes warm up for the Paris Olympics, it’s eight years and counting to Brisbane 2032 and Organising Committee president Andrew Liveris AO is on a global change maker’s mission. 

    Former Dow Chemical Company boss Andrew Liveris AO thought long about his second act. He planned a string of international boards, a university academy to rewrite the business leadership playbook and some family investing.

    A side hustle as president of the board of the Brisbane Organising Committee for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games (BOCOG) hadn’t figured. Turns out it’s a “nice confluence because it’s a long vision”. Two years in, Liveris is in his element.

    The Darwin-born chemical engineer, 70, spent four decades with the US titan as a career internationalist at the intersection of global business, government and society. His new job, Act 2, puts him at the table in the conversations on the world’s major tectonic shifts — digital, environmental and energy transformation, society and geopolitics.

    “At Dow you get trained that it’s not about you,” he says. It’s about the institution, the enterprise, and then handing it over in a strong enough form so that the next person can take it to the next leg of the race. I wanted to keep myself emotionally and intellectually relevant for the needs of the next generation.”

    Liveris has been an adviser to three US presidents (Obama, Trump and Biden), has board and advisory roles that span the energy transition from fossil fuel giant Saudi Aramco to EV maker Lucid, digital transformation at IBM and Salesforce, and ASX-listed engineering services company Worley. Add Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, Teneo and Saudi Arabia’s NEOM, plus Richard Branson’s B Team Leaders Group and his eponymous Queensland University Academy for Innovation and Leadership, and most bases are covered. He’s known for his forthright views on everything from carbon capture and nuclear energy to standing firm against claims of wokeism.

    Leaving your comfort zone

    Liveris was chair and CEO of Dow and executive chair of DowDuPont for 14 years, engineering the historic 2017 US$130b merger with DuPont, and three-way “Reverse Morris Trust” split, before retiring in 2018. Fighting for survival, these were often white-knuckle times — an attempted boardroom coup early as Dow CEO and then scrabbling to find billions to rescue an acquisition during the global financial crisis make for gripping boardroom and leadership lessons.

    “I learned the hard way, when you’re in a crisis, the anxiety of the crisis itself overwhelms what you can do,” he says. “You’ve got to back yourself away, talk to somebody who can mentor, coach or listen to you. Listen to yourself and then figure out how you overcome that moment.”

    Liveris says a crisis gives you the capability to do things you otherwise might not do — which is a big lesson to learn.

    “Now you have to live in that state of mind all the time,” he says. “This sort of momentum in yourself and your ability to change yourself is one of the key skills a CEO or leader needs to adopt. That demands smart people around you, a lot of scenario planning, disrupting yourself and your enterprise. It’s basically deciding that where you are is too comfortable.”

    Enlightened boards

    Such a scenario also demands that the board evolve with a cadence and skills to match.

    “I learned early on that I had to evolve my board at the pace the company was asked to evolve,” says Liveris. “The transformation of the company meant that the people who appointed me had to change, too. The board evolved from a board that was informed and engaged to a board that became activist and kept asking why.”

    Then it became an enlightened board with contextual depth and breadth.

    “It’s the sort of board that brings experiences from adjacencies — the consumer, from the service sector, from different parts of the industry that you’re trying to play in, industries that you want to grow in,” he says. “Then we have the capability of understanding enterprise risk management.”

    Liveris says Australian boards need to do a better job of integrating the messaging from customers, employees and other stakeholders. “Brands and companies, and interaction with the people who are your stakeholders, isn’t a singular point-to-point conversation and boards need to understand that. Australian boards are stuck in point-to-point.”

    According to Liveris, American boards are migrating to purpose-based stakeholder management that integrates the brand narrative into the “go-forward” position and builds the brand of the company with respectability and connectivity to its ultimate audience, society.

    “If we had the standards of 100 years ago, today no company would be in business, right?” says Liveris. “Those standards have evolved with human knowledge, labour laws, immigration skills, schools, healthcare — things that matter to us. [Deciding] who sets the standard for the next 10-20 years is a vacuum that has to be filled by business, based on creating a barrier to entry that, if they do it, then their competitors will have to catch up. That is earning the licence to operate from society and, as a result, benefiting all your stakeholders, including your financial owner. That isn’t wokeism, that’s justifying your enterprise financial model.”

    The new abnormal

    In his recent book, Leading through Disruption, Liveris describes the retreat of global leadership, failed promise of globalisation, triumph of short- term business over long-term, geopolitical schism and the mission-critical urgency of ESG factors. He champions the need to refresh leadership, reach for new skills and build a generation of young leaders capable of grasping the intersecting set of tectonic fissures that are reorganising what it means to do business today.

    “We’re devolving globalisation 1.0 to 2.0,” he says. “Globalisation 2.0 is a regional model. It isn’t a West–East model or a China–US model. It’s a regional model, which means there will be trading blocs and values-based partnerships that come out of that.”

    The Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and AUKUS are examples of the emerging ecosystems. Liveris suggests Australia needs to renew regional alliances with South East Asia, India, South Asia and the Middle East rather than consider an either/or relationship with the US and China. Boards will need to ask deep questions and scrutinise supply chain and other risks. “If we could, in time, 10 to 20 years from now, have as much trade and investment with those parts of the world as we do with China, then it will diversify our risk,” he says. “We should not provoke China, we should work with China on a transactional basis. They need us and we need them.”

    While at Dow, Liveris insisted that the organisation made a decision as to whether it saw itself as “a global company that happens to have its headquarters in America or an American company that operates globally”. This goes to issues of leadership, skilling the nation and the kind of enterprises that Australia needs to thrive.

    “The nuance in that for Australian boardrooms is that ‘we are Australian companies competing globally’ gives me one answer on how boardrooms should think,” he says. “Saying, ‘we are global companies that happen to have a headquarters in Australia’ gives me another answer. If you’re the latter, then you better have the best geographic enterprise risk management system in place that you can possibly buy.”

    Board of the rings

    Andrew Liveris AO, self-described Brisbane Olympics 2032 “orchestrator” is juggling a big strategic vision, multiple stakeholders, late-night board calls and competing short-term political interests. “I’m finding it incredibly challenging and it makes running Dow look fairly easy in comparison,” he says.

    The Brisbane Organising Committee for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games (BOCOG) is certainly proving to be a very different experience to a public company board.

    “As Dow chair and CEO, I sort of beat the drum,” he says. “Here, the orchestra — and trying to conduct that orchestra — is very complex. Trying to get people to move in various directions through influence is not all that easy.”

    Liveris says he couldn’t do it without a brilliant CEO, having recruited former Deloitte Asia Pacific and Australia boss Cindy Hook to lead a team that could eventually scale to more than 1000, plus tens of thousands of volunteers.

    Technologies are impacting the modern Olympic Games. There’s net zero, digital strategy, esports and new AI strategy — and a smaller footprint that Liveris says fits the city and the Queensland region, not the other way around. BOCOG has recently delivered a strategic plan and a games delivery plan, for an inclusive, accessible and sustainable Olympics, forecast to provide an estimated $18b in social and economic benefits, some 120,000 jobs and the long-term legacy of a healthier, more active and inclusive region.

    Liveris heads a board of 22 that includes representatives from federal, state and local government, international and Australian Olympic and Paralympic committees. Wesfarmers CEO and former rowing silver medallist Rob Scott, Paralympian and National Disability Insurance Agency chair Kurt Fearnley AO, and KPMG Australia partner and Arrilla Indigenous Consulting CEO Shelley Reys AO are on the board.

    Recent disputes over whether to build a new main stadium or upgrade existing venues, and navigating potential changes of government, including the October state elections, are part of the terrain.

    “We’re not the dictators of where a road or a train or a stadium goes,” says Liveris. “Our job is to utilise the infrastructure and venues decided by the politics and governments of the jurisdictions. To navigate that, we have to stay true to this notion that we’re not a burden, we’re an enabler of economic, social and environmental wellbeing. On the economic side, it’s important our revenue and cost model delivers no extra cost to the taxpayer. We’re watchful that as the government looks at recrafting its commitments to deliver infrastructure and venues, it doesn’t add to cost streams or take away revenue streams against
    our plan.”

    Liveris says he seeks to build middle ground for the long term.

    “Short-termism is a disease,” he says. “I understand elected officials have constituencies and get elected because of messaging, but I’ve got to ensure the message of the Olympics is intact. It’s a Cathy Freeman moment, that’s what people remember. All this other stuff? People won’t remember any of it.”

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Lord of the Rings’ in the July 2024 issue of Company Director magazine.

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