08 Aug 2018
Getting Life Back in Balance
A bold career move led an executive to build a new work culture that fosters teamwork, trust, and fun.by Jennifer Myers
Photos by Louise Agnew
The day he returned home to Australia from three months in Harvard Business School’s General Management Program, Benjamin Gower (GMP 19, 2015) quit his job as senior vice president of operations for Australian defense giant Cobham Aviation Services, with no set plan for the future.
“At the time, I was struggling with where my career was heading and in particular where corporate thinking and leadership were heading on a global scale,” he recalls. “I was becoming more and more disillusioned with working for a nameless, faceless shareholder, where short-term financial returns were becoming more important than long-term sustainability.”
A few months later, in April 2016, Gower made a move toward that sense of sustainability, literally. He and his wife, Sally, moved four hours away from the city life in Adelaide where they’d been living to a 20-acre farm on the Limestone Coast of South Australia, where he had just been hired as CEO of the Wattle Range Council, a position similar to that of a city manager in the United States.
“I felt like it was the first time in my life that I had made a planned and deliberate career choice,” he recalls. Today, Gower and his wife also tend to 20 sheep, two alpacas, three dogs, and a cat. The couple grow their own produce and are awaiting the spoils of a recently planted truffle orchard.
Gower says his time at HBS gave him the clarity to take that leap and change his career and life paths. The concept of “making a decent profit, decently” inspired him to consider what he really wanted to do with the next chapter in life. He also credits the curriculum with integrating corporate ethics and values throughout, and challenging various ways of thinking and styles of leadership.
At HBS, Gower shared his Executive Education living suite with a Brazilian stock broker, a Japanese television producer, a Botswanan chemical engineer, and a Danish medical trials manager. The cohort, eight in total, were able to share their unique experiences, thoughts, fears, and aspirations as they worked through the challenging curriculum and prepared to return home with a new perspective. The bonds forged during this experience remain, as the group stays in contact.
Gower notes that the one-on-one coaching that he and the other participants received with an experienced executive psychologist helped them to shape the direction they wanted to take in their careers.
“It was intensive career development at a level I had never experienced before: subtle, deliberate, and incredibly thought provoking,” Gower says.
The day he returned home and gave his notice at Cobham, ending a 14-year career, all Gower knew was he wanted to work with people and communities, “and pass on what I had learned during a career and life that had been filled with wonderful experiences.”
Taking on new adventures certainly is not new for Gower, who, prior to his time at Cobham, spent 14 years in the Royal Australian Air Force, ending his military career as a squadron leader.
The RAAF took Gower all over the world. He chased diesel submarines in the Mediterranean and nuclear submarines in the Arctic; commanded counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean and peace-keeping operations in the Adriatic; and traveled to more remote islands than he could count. He spent three years on exchange with the Canadian air force, three years as the air force liaison officer to the Royal Australian Navy’s commodore of the fleet, and three months working for a US Navy battle group commander on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
In early 2002, Gower’s RAAF career came to an end when he lost 44 pounds in six weeks, collapsed at work, and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He was given a medical discharge and, through a former commanding officer, accepted a management position at Cobham, where he worked his way up the corporate ranks to senior vice president of operations. There, he oversaw all global aviation services: public transport, charter, freight, surveillance, search/rescue, and training operations across 10 countries, with a fleet of 140 aircraft.
A few weeks after quitting his job, Gower was contacted by an executive recruitment agency inquiring into whether he had any interest in a leadership role within local government. Though he had given the field little thought previously, Gower realized it fit the parameters of the new career he had been seeking.
“Local government is the only level of government that is imbedded within its community––it interacts with citizens on a daily basis and is completely accountable to the people it represents,” he says.
Wattle Range is a region in southern South Australia made up of 13 towns, with a population of 11,677. The region is known for its thriving dairy, agriculture, aquaculture, viticulture, and forestry industries.
Although it would be a jarring lifestyle change, Gower says he had the full support of his wife and their three grown children to take the leap. In fact, Sally is used to his adventurous streak. The couple were engaged in Venice after backpacking through central Europe at the start of the first Gulf War, the engagement ring sewn into the bottom of his backpack for more than a month. At that time, he could not afford the requisite romantic gondola ride, so he took her back to Venice this spring to make amends.
Prior to applying for the CEO position, Gower had never heard of Wattle Range. Upon conducting research, he discovered that his ancestors were among the first European settlers in the region and his grandfather had built the mill and adjoining houses in one of its forestry towns.
“I have felt part of the community from the day we arrived,” he says.
The job is wide ranging, putting Gower in charge of everything from roads and cemeteries to libraries and sewerage systems.
“Running a council is no different than running a global corporation. You just have a different customer base,” he says. “My customers are also my shareholders and, most importantly, they are my neighbors, my colleagues, and my friends.”
Gower sees few differences between effectively running a corporation and a local government office, although he thinks the business world could learn a thing or two from the processes in practice within local government.
“The importance of networking and communicating with key stakeholders prior to any important decision being made is fundamentally the same,” he explains. “I have been pleasantly surprised at the maturity of the local-government governance processes and the level of transparency and accountability that it has with its community. This transparency builds trust with all key stakeholders and is something that I believe the corporate world could learn a lot from.”
Internally, Gower has focused on increasing morale among the council’s workforce, which he says was quite low when he arrived. He actively encourages a culture in which all staff should learn through experimentation and by making mistakes. He also supports the idea that employees should enjoy their work and have fun.
“Getting the culture right is never easy, but if you interact with people openly, honestly, and with integrity, you can make real inroads––regardless of the industry you work in,” Gower says.
He makes a point to shadow junior staffers for an entire day in order to understand their role in the organization, making it easier for him to do his job in supervising them and to build trust and camaraderie among colleagues.
“My greatest focus is, and will always be, on people: motivating them, empowering them, and encouraging them to experiment and take calculated risks,” Gower says. “I have tried to create a learning environment and a culture that fosters teamwork, trust, and fun.
”This has been incredibly rewarding, and I feel as though my career and my life are both back in balance again. For anyone considering a similar change, I highly recommend it.”
Class of GMP 19