Grass-roots or global, it's all about balance
Alistair Brook, General Manager, Southern Region, Incitec Pivot, grew up on his family’s mixed farming operation at Cavendish, near Hamilton, Victoria in what he describes as an idyllic childhood.
And while it doesn’t seem the most obvious forerunner to life in corporate boardrooms, travelling the globe, Alistair said it is this rural upbringing and passion for the beef industry, that set him firmly on his professional path.
And while this path has often looked like diverging from Alistair’s pastoral roots, he acknowledges that something has always drawn him back.
“I was accepted to study Human Movement at RMIT after high school, so I was off to do that,” Alistair explains.
“But the then-state manager of Elders had been talking to me for the last few months about taking on a sort of apprenticeship.”
The prospect of an instant job and income proved understandably appealing to the school leaver, who took a role with Elders, while planning to return to study a year later.
“I met with Elders state GM Greg Hunt, and I went to the interview in my school uniform – a pair of shorts and a school shirt,” Alistair laughs.
He started with the company four hours away in Kyneton, however, home seemed a long way away, and Alistair soon opted to return. Having thrown himself into work straight out of school, it became clear that time was needed to plan his future.
Alistair never did find his way back towards his university course, but thanks to a scholarship awarded by the Short Horn Society of Australia, he was soon off on a trip that included time at Texas A&M University.
“I had about 18 months over in the US, and covered off about 30 states in that 18 months. It was a real whirlwind for a 20-year-old,” he reflects.
The scholarship opened a series of doors to the small-town boy, and Alistair says it was one of the first experiences to teach the responsibility that comes with opportunity.
“Selection for the scholarship was based on a commitment to the beef industry; commitment to the breed, and then the ability to pay back that investment,” Alistair explains.
Upon returning to Australia, the budding rural leader returned to Elders, this time working out of Albury, through the stud-stock business, meat trading business and international trading business.
“That took me from Albury back to Melbourne, and then up to Brisbane,” Alistair says.
Working right across the beef value-chain, from Genetic R&D and feedlotting to overseeing the first wave of branded Wagyu product, Alistair soaked up the breadth of experiences that arose along the way.
By the end of 2000, it was time for a change, and Alistair had a brief stint with the Horticulture Society, before crossing into the terrain of asset management and business turnaround.
Climbing the ladder and doing challenging work kept Alistair absorbed for a couple of years, but it wasn’t long before his deep farming roots were exerting their pull again.
“I was missing the passion of engaging with people from a rural background,” Alistair says.
“That’s what I love about ‘our’ industry. The culture that comes with it. You talk to someone and they’re really passionate about what they’re doing; you can hear it in their voice. They are making a difference in their area, and they are engaged. It’s not just a job.”
So, when the Futures Exchange launched Beef Futures, Alistair leapt at the opportunity to go back to Elders, and help establish their trading desk, focusing on risk management.
Alistair was shouldering state and national roles, when Victorian GM David Pemberton suggested he take advantage of a leadership opportunity called the ARLP.
In 2007, Elders supported Alistair and colleague Tony Goodman on Course 14 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program.
Comfortable on the farm, at-home representing his industry, Alistair acknowledges that he was vastly unprepared for the ARLP experience.
With visions of a leisurely stay in comfort, Alistair was caught short of clothes and equipment as the challenging realities of the ARLP Kimberley session took shape.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Alistair says of the Program, which he now appreciates is a by-word for leadership in regional circles.
“I loved it. I was just so out of my comfort zone. It was so left-field and the first night was really challenging in this tiny little space with people you’d just met,” he says.
“I quickly worked out that on the Program, you’re going to have to be prepared to be uncomfortable. And that was probably something at the time that I really struggled with—being raw in front of people, showing that I was uncomfortable.”
Looking back eight years later, Alistair says it’s easy to see why the beginning of the ARLP is such an integral session.
“For the first five or six days, I was still fighting it; what I knew. You carry your instincts, and you have to work to step around them. It was a really unique experience.”
And the sessions that followed all provided their own unique lessons.
Exposed to social disadvantage and struggle in Sydney’s urban sprawl, Alistair says the experience touched him and gave him a better ability to understand the challenges faced in different walks of life.
His group was also the first ARLP cohort to experience the international component of the Program in India.
“I had done a lot of travel, but it was my first time to India, and expectations before going there – I understood what the cities were going to be like. The rural areas fascinated me.”
“I came home thinking about it; challenged by it,” Alistair says.
When he reflects on starting to see himself as a leader, Alistair says the ARLP has definitely shaped his approach to communication.
“It was always a challenge for me at that time being a younger person, and having to have influence across a broad demographic, “ he says.
“Initially I tried to achieve it through a more forceful approach, a more direct approach. And my approach to feedback was not as receptive as what it should have been.”
But that changed rapidly, through interactions and feedback from his fellows on the ARLP.
“I didn’t understand how to give and receive feedback, and I hadn’t been given that opportunity to learn that in a comfortable environment, and that was really good for me,” Alistair says.
“And I always now talk with people about giving and receiving feedback, and with my current work team, we have regular feedback sessions.”
After a restructure in 2008, Alistair’s role with Elders became redundant, and the leader was faced with yet another crossroads to determine his future steps.
He accepted a role as National Livestock Manager with Landmark, and after a few years, he was off to spend 18 months with the company in North America.
While still working for the betterment of Australian rural industries and livestock producers, Alistair says that a grueling whirlwind of travel between Australia, Canada and the US took its toll.
“That was a really tough 18 months,” Alistair says, explaining that it had a big impact on family and relationships.
“The experience was fantastic as a challenge for my development, but it wasn’t until I’d finished in that role that I realised the impact it had on me emotionally and mentally.”
He says that like most lessons, this realisation took a while to crystalise.
“A real challenge for me in my personal life and career, is portraying things I’m feeling,” he says.
“Through the Program, I got to look at people in that environment who had a good balance and good approach to embrace things and express things. They were things that I wanted to work on. I’d been so matter-of-fact,” Alistair reflects.
“If I’m totally honest with myself, I thought that people would judge me for my lack of formal education, so I would show them how capable I was by being matter-of-fact and objective.”
Alistair says the ARLP is unlike any other course or program he has undertaken because of how it melds personal and professional development, on the premise that one cannot happen without the other.
“Whether I talk about the Program straight-up, or I talk about lessons from it, or snippets of it, it has had a marked impact on what I do.
“That’s the beauty of it—you’ll take out of it what you need to take out of it.”
Thus, he says, it is important to approach an opportunity like the ARLP for the right reasons.
“You’ve got to be ready to do it. It’s not an academic ‘tick of a box’. You can go and do your academic tick box and say ‘I’ve done that’ and move on. You’ll only get out of that what you’ve learned.
“The ARLP presents tools. It could be people, systems, processes, it could be opportunities.”
And for him, one of the biggest gifts has been tapping into the knowledge and friendship of hundreds of likeminded leaders.
“The Network is something you can draw on for different reasons, From a business perspective, yes I will pick up the phone and I will ring somebody, cold, and have a conversation with them. You don’t need to establish common ground when you’ve done the ARLP. It’s already there.”
Alistair started in his Melbourne-based role with Incitec Pivot in December 2012, putting all his leadership skills to the test as he joined an entitiy going through a period of rapid change.
“When we make a business decision, it impacts on everyone, in terms of our distribution network and the users of our products. So, it’s not only the internal elements that we need to lead and communicate and articulate, but we need to do that externally as well. That can be a real challenge.”
In his work with Incitec, Alistair covers ground from West Wyalong to Port Lincoln and Tasmania.
“I tell people I have the best of both worlds. Then I can get out into regional Australia through both business and personal paths,” he says.
All of Alistair’s family are making a living from the land in one way or another, and he is enjoying a slower pace of life and a closeness to ‘home’.
Since decreasing his globe-trotting ways, Alistair even has time to be working with young cattle handlers for events like the Melbourne Show.
“It’s my favourite week of the year. I go along and work with kids that are 8-12 years old, that are so passionate to be there. They’re excited, they’re open-minded, they’re engaged. They have an absolute thirst for knowledge,” Alistair says.
So is he slipping comfortably into the role of mentor?
“I think I’m very much still developing myself. I still look at different people to learn from what they do. There were people that were very giving of their time, when I was growing up. That helped me along the way.”
And exchange and interaction is, after all, just what the ARLP is all about.
“The ARLP touches a person, and that person then goes and behaves in new ways and takes their lessons – filters them, disseminates them, and just changes little things,” Alistair says.
“Yes, it absolutely does make a difference.”
Applications for Course 23 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program are now open. Apply here.