Leaders Survey: Ryan Stokes on leadership, flogging a dead horse & ‘why execution eats strategy for breakfast’

Adrian Rauso
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Ryan Stokes says with a large and diversified portfolio of business interests there is a risk of getting too caught up in big ideas. 
Ryan Stokes says with a large and diversified portfolio of business interests there is a risk of getting too caught up in big ideas.  Credit: Adam Taylor/The West Australian

Nearing nine years at the helm of Seven Group Holdings, Ryan Stokes says knowing when you’re flogging a dead horse is the most sage piece of advice he’s ever received.

“This is a lesson in the risks of futility — if no amount of action is going to result in a different outcome, it’s time to let it go and make a change,” Mr Stokes told The Nightly for its exclusive Leaders Survey.

Since taking the top job, Seven Group’s market value has quintupled, with investments under the Group’s umbrella spanning construction, mining, energy and media.

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Mr Stokes is acutely aware that with a large and diversified portfolio of business interests there is a risk of getting too caught up in big ideas.

“My other favourite (piece of advice) is that execution eats strategy for breakfast,” he said.

“This is not to diminish the importance of having a good strategy, but without effective execution even the best strategies will fail.

“It is a good piece of advice to ensure when devising a plan, you don’t spend too much time on the strategic aspect at the expense of how it is going to be delivered.”

This outcomes-focused mantra is at the heart of Seven Group and its 15,000-strong workforce, Mr Stokes says, and that starts at the top.

“There is that great social experiment where someone stands on the street and looks up, that people walking past will stop and look up as well. It showcases human nature and ultimately the power of our innate curiosity,” he said.

“In business, it’s the same: people tend to look where the leader looks.

“If the CEO is stuck in the ‘strategic clouds’ then the organisation will want to be focused there. Instead, there is so much more value to be created if they are operationally focused and in the detail.”

The view ahead

But Mr Stokes isn’t just getting stuck in the weeds either, and has a clear view of the opportunities and challenges facing Australian businesses.

He has been methodically pivoting Seven Group to capitalise on the need for infrastructure investment, pointing to the $1.7 trillion 7-year project pipeline that Boral and Coates will help to deliver.

Rising mining production and the ongoing energy transition are the two other key aspects of the growth thematic Mr Stokes sees within the domestic economy.

He is optimistic about Australia’s future prospects, although he believes significant economic challenges will have to be carefully navigated.

“The economy has been resilient to date, with the rates softening inflation, but the full impact of the rapid rate rises are not yet fully realised,” he said.

“The other inherent challenge for Australia is the increasing burden of regulation and the persistent desire to add layers of complexity.

“This isn’t limited to business, it impacts all aspects of life.”

Beyond our shores, Mr Stokes continues to embrace Australia’s ties with the Middle Kingdom.

“Our resource exposure to China and the growth economies of Asia remains our most compelling opportunity,” he said.

“In the medium to long term, China will need to manage ageing population, population decline, the maturing of the economy to a middle-class economy, and how effectively they can deliver their planned economy model.

“Overall I remain optimistic about China given the economic powerhouse that they are and the inherent competitive advantages they have across the majority of their sectors.”

Warhols in Wanneroo

It is not just Seven Group Mr Stokes devotes his time to.

The 48-year-old is a keen advocate of having strong and vibrant cultural institutions accessible to everyone in the country.

He serves as chairman of the National Gallery and backs the Federal Government’s investment into growing the cultural landscape of Australia, which he wants to see continue.

“As part of the Government’s Cultural Policy the National Gallery has received funding for an initiative to share the National Collection where many of the masterpieces of the collection are lent on long-term loan to galleries across Australia.

“Soon we have Warhols on loan in Wanneroo. They deserve credit for that funding solution.”

Seven Group Holdings has a majority stake in Seven West Media, publisher of The Nightly.

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