Former Mirvac CEO now on six boards

Wednesday, 01 November 2023

Damon Kitney photo
Damon Kitney

    Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz has jumped at six board roles – from a housing supply peak body to Macquarie Group – after leading Mirvac as CEO. Now her goal is to help make a difference. 

    Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz proudly describes her three children as “the most searingly honest focus group that I have”. Ranging in age from 22 to 17, each of them was born on a different continent and holds three passports, given their father, Stuart, is American and their mother is now an Australian, originally from the UK. So they are true citizens of the world, with firmly held opinions.

    “There’s no pretence in our house,” she says. “You can’t get ahead of yourself at all. Any whiff of corporate spin or theatre, they are right on in with honest, frank and fearless feedback.”

    Even so, she was taken aback at their reaction earlier this year to the news that she was considering joining the board of Rio Tinto, the company that three years ago blew up two ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. That act, and the company’s response, provoked international condemnation and the eventual resignation of the CEO and chair. Rio had also been criticised for its poor workplace culture. In March 2021, the company commissioned a comprehensive external review into its workplace culture by former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

    “I will admit to you that my children were horrified when I said I was joining the board,” says Lloyd-Hurwitz. “They asked me, ‘Mum, how can you lend your brand to a company like Rio Tinto?’”

    Boasting more than three decades of international corporate experience, Lloyd- Hurwitz’s greatest claim to fame is steering Australian property developer Mirvac through a decade of growth while launching transformational changes in culture, gender equity, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability. She announced her departure as CEO late last year in order to pursue a board career.

    “I reminded [my children] I had spent 10 years talking about sustainability and Mirvac was a very early leader in quite ambitious sustainability targets nine years ago,” she says. “But my children still insisted, ‘You cannot do that job.’”

    However, her response was resolute. “I absolutely had to do it, because unless we decarbonise the extractive industries, we are not decarbonising the world. Here is a company that not only needs to decarbonise, but also needs to be on a journey of cultural change around better relationships with First Nations people, around respect at work and around diversity. Those cultural transformation things are very much what I did as part of the team at Mirvac, so now I am very happy to be part of the solution at Rio.”

    She says her kids remain “sceptical”, but that didn’t stop her joining the Rio board in June.

    After executive life

    In addition to the mining giant, Lloyd-Hurwitz has also secured influence on other boards critical to national economic progress and governance excellence. She is a non-executive director of Macquarie Group, where she previously worked for three years as an executive in London, and chair of the Australian National Housing Supply and Affordability Council.

    Plus, she’s on the global board of renowned business school INSEAD, the Sydney Opera House Trust and she’s the president of Chief Executive Women (CEW). With such diverse appointments, her second major act in Australian corporate life promises to be no less ambitious than her first. However, she stresses there was no grand plan for her future when she announced her plans to leave Mirvac.

    Asked how she came across the Rio and Macquarie roles, she replies, “Practically, it is a combination of yes, headhunters do call, and then it was a matter of relationships that had been built over the years, who were very helpful in providing guidance.”

    There is also a new freedom she now feels after being stuck in the straitjacket that often smothers the public discourse of ASX-listed chief executives.

    “I am now free to have views on things that are outside something that you couldn’t possibly say as an ASX 50 CEO,” she says. “A CEO is on- message — you’ve got a purpose and it is that purpose you are delivering. So being able to pull that responsibility down has been very freeing. When you are a senior leader — whether you are the CEO or any other senior leader — every single thing you do or don’t do, say or don’t say, smile or don’t smile, is broadcasting all the time.”

    But there has also been what she describes as an “unsettling” part of the transition. Most importantly, she misses what she terms “the deep sense of belonging” to “her tribe” at Mirvac, the group of people with whom she worked every day for 10 years. Suddenly, she is in six new and — outside property — relatively unfamiliar worlds.

    “So there is an enormous amount of learning that has to go on — both in terms of the role shifts that come from being CEO and moving into being a director, but also in all the content areas that I’m having the opportunity to learn,” says Lloyd- Hurwitz.

    One important skill she believes she brings to her new life is knowing the boundary between the executive group and the board, gleaned from her ringside seat watching Mirvac chair John Mulcahy and his directors go about their work. “Rather than doing the doing, you are influencing and asking questions to try to move things in the right direction,” she says of being a director.

    At a time when many businesspeople are shying away from publicly listed boards because of the liability risks, Lloyd-Hurwitz acknowledges she is going into her new life with her eyes wide open. “You always have doubts — if you have no doubts, you’re not paying attention.”

    But having been a director and CEO at Mirvac, with all the associated legal responsibilities, the possibility of having an impact as a leader has always outweighed her concerns that seriously bad things could happen on her watch.

    “So you just have to make peace on that understanding.”

    A house is a home

    Lloyd-Hurwitz says her role as chair of the Australian National Housing Supply and Affordability Council is by far the hardest of her new roles. One of her priorities so far has been the reframing of housing as a basic human right.

    “Housing is not an asset class. It is a home, and there are so many levels of insecurity about groups of people who don't have the secure home that they deserve in a country like Australia,” she says. “We should be able to provide secure homes for many more people than we do.”

    However, she is heartened by the recent move by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to put $3b in “performance bonuses” on the table to encourage the states to accelerate land release, planning and approvals processes to build homes close to public transport and other amenities. The stated aim is to deliver 1.2 million new homes over five years from July 2024.

    “I’ve been encouraged that the federal government has stepped into this space to really try to make a difference,” says Lloyd-Hurwitz. “But it's a very complicated problem that has been decades in the making and will be decades to fix.”

    While there is no simple solution to solving homelessness and housing affordability, she says the root cause of the problem is supply. Governments leaping in with demand-side solutions only make the problem worse. “What we actually need to do is create more consistent, predictable supply more quickly,” she says. “The reforms that have been put in place in WA and Victoria are very welcome and hopefully will make a difference.”

    The Victorian government’s 10-year plan for the industry promises to build 800,000 new homes in the state over the next 10 years, underpinned by reforms to approval processes.

    “NSW still has some way to go, I would say, to having a clear, consistent and more rapid planning system.”

    Diversity dilemma

    As president of Chief Executive Women, Lloyd- Hurwitz is building on the foundations built at Mirvac, where the company secured the top spot in Equileap’s 2022 global gender equality ranking and achieved a zero pay gap.

    Since she took over the CEW role late last year she has spent time listening to the stories of both engaged and disengaged members, non-members and men.

    “I’m very concerned when women's organisations talk to their own echo chamber all the time, and don’t bring other people into the conversation,” she says. “I can tell you that there is a very strong perception that CEW is all about elite white women. That absolutely has to change, because it doesn’t reflect Australian society and it is not where I want to take CEW in terms of its mission.”

    Looking forward, she wants to amplify a vital conversation about gender and race amid her fears that racially diverse women in corporate Australia still face a “double-glazed ceiling”.

    In 2023, the CEW Unlocking Leadership: Conversations on Gender and Race in Corporate Australia report highlighted the challenging experiences of culturally and racially diverse women in senior leadership roles.

    “I’ve been struck by the number of conversations I’ve had with members who would say to me things like, ‘I went to an event, I was the only woman of colour and I’ve never been back’ or ‘I went to an event where everybody else knew each other and I didn’t know anybody. It was very cliquey, like high school, so I've never been back.’ 

    There is this amazing collection of 1300 exceptionally talented women, but I estimate only half of them are actively engaged with CEW as an organisation. Part of my task is to engage those 1300 women so that they can effect change in all of the areas they work in.”

    Some contributors to the CEW report also argue that a sole focus on gender alone could be detrimental to the consideration of other forms of diversity in Australian workplaces “as women were treated as a homogenous group”.

    “We want to be very clear that gender equity isn’t a seesaw on which if one side wins, the other side must lose,” she says. “A balanced, gender- equitable society is better for everybody. Men and women and all shades in between.”

    Leadership for the future

    Lloyd-Hurwitz’s seat on the global board of the INSEAD business school has also put her in a unique position to glean the latest global thinking around leadership and skills for the current and future operating environments.

    “There’s definitely a shift in education and higher education, particularly business education, away from the traditional MBA towards more micro credentialing and executive education.”

    Lloyd-Hurwitz is also chairing INSEAD’s facilities committee as the group undertakes an extensive renovation of its historic Fontainebleau campus outside Paris.

    As a former graduate, she says that INSEAD gave her a study experience that changed her life — and not only academically. She also met her husband there in 1993, the year before she graduated.

    Stuart Lloyd-Hurwitz has previously joked about spending more than 10 years adapting his own working life each time his wife’s career in property investment took them to a new location on the globe. So he had no objections when she told him last year that she was finished with executive life for good.

    “I should not speak on his behalf,” she says. “But he certainly didn’t say that I should keep working!” 

    Lessons for driving profitable growth

    • Employee engagement is the single most important predictor of company performance and this means genuinely engaging your people in a purpose, not just something that “feels good”. 

    • Find your mission. Why does your organisation exist? Delivering shareholder returns is clearly a priority, but not the only one.

    • Fostering true diversity of thought is hard work, but worth the effort. 

    • Be courageous around investing counter- cyclically, even if growing during periods of economic uncertainty can be a taxing operational challenge for the executive team and the board. 

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Changing Course’ in the November 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.  

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