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Leaders lose sleep too

By CCIWA Editor

The best leaders are often deemed to have been born, not made. But one WA CEO says it is possible to shape your leadership style from mistakes.

Taking a not-for-profit organisation into a position of renewed growth has not been easy but it’s what MSWA head Marcus Stafford has achieved since joining the multiple sclerosis awareness society in 2002. 

Stafford has lifted the organisation’s profit from $4.5 million to $55m, while increasing its staff from 100 to 750 staff – not a bad effort. 

But he remains humble about leadership and says he learns from others, good and bad. 

However, he maintains that, as a leader, confidence and self-belief are essential around sound decision-making. 

“You equally have to have a level of awareness that you are not the monopoly of all good ideas so you are receptive to other ideas,” Stafford says. 

Stafford says he’s learnt more from bad managers - and his own mistakes – than from the best leaders he’s worked with and the best results he’s achieved.  

“It’s been an interesting dichotomy in that regard,” he says. 

“The worst managers I have seen have hired in consultants through their own weakness, allowed those consultants to steal their watch and then tell them the wrong time. But because of their weakness and inability, have followed the road map that’s been given them by the consultant, even if it’s wrong.”  

Hard decisions  

Stafford is credited with turning around the fortunes of the South Australian and Northern Territory branches of the multiple sclerosis societies – but it didn’t come without pain. 

Stafford was forced to retrench 20 per cent of staff and says he lost sleep. 

“I think if you are a CEO you have to have sufficient human characteristics that understand the responsibility you bear in this organisation. Once it’s a cold clinical thing you’ve lost what it’s all about,” he says.  

“So yes, absolutely, you lose sleep.  

“I tell you when I lost most sleep; when I thought 125 people were going to lose their livelihoods and the thousands of people in South Australia with MS were going to lose representation. That was really when I lost sleep.”  

Stafford says his initial thought when he started to go through the business was that he would keep the management team and cut down through the ranks.  

But as he delved deeper – and he didn’t have a lot of time – he realised that decisions made over the previous three years were a reflection of the management and board. 

“I realised it was lions led by donkeys and for me to retain the donkeys of management would have been irresponsible, so I cut out all the managers except one,” he says.  

“There were some really good men and women who sat within that structure who lost their positions just by virtue of being unlucky enough to be working at the wrong company under the wrong management. 

“I looked at strategy, structure, then staffing. It was a surprise for me when I did strategy and those decisions that I led to structure then to staffing. Then it was 25 staff, where if they had been lower level staff it would have been significantly more redundancies.”  

Stafford says it’s important to maintain transparency with remaining staff, detailing reasons why decisions have made and outlining how the team must now knit together to move forward. 

He says the turnaround took about three years with the organisation handed back to its new CEO and board about a year ago.  

‘Death by a thousand cuts destroys culture 

While redundancies have become commonplace in WA, Stafford – who has worked in London, throughout Europe, North Africa and the United States – says WA is one of the most savage when it comes to slashing staff. 

“I reckon this is the worst town for it,” he says. “I’ve seen it but not as savagely as I’ve seen it in WA. It’s always surprised me.” 

“I’ve seen the economic times, have been through the recession. I have seen how recessions hit countries and companies and how recessions make companies act and I’ve certainly seen good and bad decision making around the world on the back of that stimulus.  

“I’ve certainly seen arms being surgically removed to retain the life of the body and all those things we know.  

“There is a way of doing this stuff. I’m not so naïve as to say you should never do it, I’m saying cut once, cut hard.  

“Death by a thousand cuts is what destroys the culture of the organisation and the long-term viability of that company because it takes so long to recover and every time you get there, there’s another redundancy happening and it just goes on forever.” 


The best leaders are often deemed to have been born, not made. But one WA CEO says it is possible to shape your leadership style from mistakes.

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