Interview with Stuart Irvine: Australia & New Zealand’s corporate journey for gender equality

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The 100% Project host Hilary Lamb talks to Stuart Irvine about the challenges Lion is facing in this post-COVID world, and how they are dealing with the “new normal”.

Stuart Irvine, CEO of Lion, has significant experience developing an organisations culture, its people and making sure they do the right thing for the world in which we live to drive long-term value creation. Since joining Lion as CEO in late 2012, Stuart has led the organisation whose purpose is to “champion sociability and help people to live well.”

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Hilary Lamb: Today, I’m speaking with Stuart Irvine, Chief Executive Officer at Lion, headquartered in Sydney. Welcome Stuart. Can you begin by telling us a bit about your role in your organisation, please?


Stuart Irvine: Well, thank you, Hilary, a pleasure to be here. I’m the Chief Executive of Lion. The organisation is around 6,000 people. We’re broadly Australia, New Zealand, US and the UK with a couple of sites in Asia.  Beer and dairy, on the beer side brands like XXXX, Toohey’s, Little Creatures, New Zealand Steinlager. In the States, New Belgium, in the UK Four Pure.

We brew around 750 million litres of beer a year. That’s about 1.8 billion schooners of beer, and we’ve got a dairy business with Dairy Farmers, Farmers Union and Dare. The business is old, so started in 1840 in New Zealand and it’s a very exciting business in terms of we contact a lot of consumers every day with household brands, and brands that they love and adore, and we make things that we’re very proud of.


Hilary Lamb: It’s obviously a very well-established business and across lots of different regions, so many different cultures to cope with across that business. And with 6,000 people, lots of things to consider, and the performance of your people will be one of your key strategies.

So, I guess considering that, just moving into my first question. The world is very much a different place at the moment, as we all know, with COVID-19 and lots of business leaders have had to rethink some of their strategies. So, my question is, “Will leaders pay attention to gender equality as they rebuild their businesses after COVID-19?”.


Stuart Irvine: That’s great question, Hilary. Just before I get into the details of the answer at Lion, just an observation and I was thinking the other day, there is a lot of conversation about the post-COVID world, “the new normal”, people are calling it. But let’s not forget that the pre-COVID world wasn’t that great either.

So, in terms of social equality, income equality, gender equality, I think we’d all been struggling a bit to get to where we would want to be. And as we go through COVID and we see movements like Black Lives Matter, but also conversations about income equality, cultural equality, and gender equality, I think this could be a moment in time. And if we look at the silver lining, this could be a moment that we could seize in the post-COVID world to make a big, big difference.

So yes, gender equality has been, for Lion, an important consideration in how we work with our people in this post-COVID world and what we need to think about.

That’s not new to us, Hilary. We have at the heart of our business our core purpose about championing sociability and helping people to live well and when we talk about sociability, we talk about it in much broader terms than just having a beer in the pub or having breakfast together.

It’s about the very human nature, the very essence of human nature, that sociability is our human superpower. The fact that we can interact with other people, and be inclusive of them, and work with them to achieve great things. And with that in mind, back in 2012, 2013, we started our journey on gender equality and we’ve had some interesting steps along that way.

So, we’ve set a target for 2026 to have 50:50 gender equality. We had to make sure as well that we had gender pay equity. The fact was that we were really proud of ourselves, we think that the company is really fair and is of good character, and therefore, we didn’t really think we would have a problem on gender pay equity. Maybe for a little time, we said, “we don’t need to check that, because of course we’re a fair company”. We treat everyone equally, a huge sense of fairness and justice, but eventually, I said, “no, we’re going to check, let’s check it”.

The People & Culture Director at the time went away and checked it. He came back and he said this data must be wrong, because it says we’ve got a three and a half percent gap role by role. I can’t believe it. It must be wrong. Went away and checked that again. Came back. No, it was true. There was a pay gap.

This was back in 2016, and we immediately went to the board and fixed it. But what that taught me was that even companies that think they’re fair, and perhaps, especially companies that think they’re fair, are operating with that bias that everything is okay and they’re doing everything all right.

And what that showed me was you’re probably not, and we’ve made sure that that gap stayed closed. And what I think that COVID has done is it also showed us some areas where we can make significant progress if we readdress some of the biases that we might have. There’s never been a more important time, I think, to have people in your team who feel super engaged, who are willing to go the extra mile in these extraordinary circumstances, and who can solve new problems better.

And that all points you to having a diverse workforce. It all points you to having diverse teams of people and having ideas from everywhere. You know that diverse teams solve problems better, and if there was ever a year, 2020, is it for problems that have been thrown at us.

So, we’ve been super busy and the organisation has responded incredibly. In those circumstances, I think leaning into the conversations about how do you move forward with your gender diversity programs and your inclusion programs in general is a really important conversation to have right now.


Hilary Lamb: You’ve raised some really interesting points there and I had looked at your purpose, your vision, the championing sociability and helping people live well and thank you for explaining what your 2026 vision is with gender equality. I also think your story about the pay equity is probably not that unusual. I think that unconscious bias plays a role when onboarding both males and females. I think sometimes it is just not recognised until you actually look at the data and I think the data speaks volumes.


Stuart Irvine: Somehow, Hilary, there’s a lack of integrity if you set a gender balance target, and then decide not to fix the pay equity at the same time. I think it cost us between $6 and $7 million in a one off hit to get it fixed. The majority were women, but there were some men as well that needed adjustment and we check it every six months to make sure it stays there.


Hilary Lamb: You’ve talked a lot about the amazing brands that you have. It would appear from an outsider, that maybe it’s quite male dominated there as an organisation. Would that be the case?


Stuart Irvine: The gender split at the moment for the organisation is 60% male, 40% female. It’s slightly less in leader positions. We’re hiring more women every year than men, and we’re promoting more women every year than men.

I think we’ve made progress. I think those statistics though, hide something. We can come onto this, Hilary, later to talk about how we measure this, because one of my passions is to measure this team by team. So, you could look at 60 / 40, and you could say, “Oh, you’ve made some progress. Yeah, it’ll move the dial a bit more, and by 2026 you’re there”. Having an organisation, and I’m going to exaggerate to make the point here, where marketing, people and culture and finance are all female, and brewing, distribution and sales are male, is not success. Because magic comes team by team.

So, the measure that we’re putting into place is, how many teams in the organisation have a gender balance.  And by that we mean 50/50, 60/40, a significant minority of either sex. And that means that each leader is accountable for making that happen. And then we should, as an organisation, get close to 50/50. But the magic happens team by team.


Hilary Lamb: That’s a great quote to use. It’s not just overall organisational equality, it is about how you can change each of the departments and some of those are traditionally male.

Can I ask you then Stuart, what specifically have you done, or are planning to do in your business to ensure that the focus on gender equality is maintained during this time?


Stuart Irvine: I think the journey on flex, one thing I can reflect on, right? So, we started flex probably four or five years ago in line with our 50/50 goal.  Maybe flex 0.0, the first flex, we put up a lot of posters, everyone looked at them and said, “Oh, that’s nice you could flex”. But if someone stood up at four o’clock and said I’m going home, because I’ve got to look after my kids, or my dogs, or go surfing, or whatever you’re going to do.

Everyone just looked at them and thought, “Oh, you know, that’s not working”. So, we got over that and we got into sort of flex 1.0, where people start to say, “Yeah, I could really use this flex. It’s okay to flex”. People were starting to be much more flexible about the way it worked. And we were really pleased with that, men and women using it.

But as you get into COVID, we’ve put in flex 2.0. So, it’s the third iteration, if you like, of our flex program. I’d say that COVID has really shown you what flexibility has to be. With people working at home, some people working in the offices, because they have to be there, some people working in breweries, and other parts of the world we’re on zoom calls in people’s front rooms.

And suddenly, you realise people are at home. People are leading their lives at home, and we’re getting more done. That was a moment where everyone realised we could go to another level of flex.

So, now we’re saying flex should be 50/50. 50% of the time at home, 50% at work. Now of course, flex needs rules because you need teams to come together occasionally, because there is that element of human contact that you need and teams need to solve problems together. So of course flex needs rules and boundaries too. But we’ve really found that this world, this giant experiment of COVID has taken us to another level. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, in the reality of wanting to have diverse teams, there’s a real rational, thoughtful process of making sure you have diverse teams, but there’s also a bit of an emotional thing here, and this next comment is really about how you’ve been in people’s front rooms. So, I’m sitting here talking to you now, Hilary, from my front room, and I’ve been having conversations with leaders in the organisation at all kinds of levels and I’ve been in their front rooms too.

I was talking to one lady, and her daughter was like, “Oh, what are you doing Mum?” “Look, I’m on the call to the Chief Executive, can you just….” “I want to show him my teeth have fallen out”, So then I was sitting there, on the call with this lady, with her young daughter showing me her teeth have fallen out.

I’ve got three kids and it didn’t bother me in the slightest. And everyone suddenly became a whole lot more relaxed and realised that all the people at work have got other parts of their lives and that families at Lion are really important too. And how do you work that with flex, but also with new parents?

We’ve put Families@Lion in place as well, so that all the flexibility of parental leave can be shared by both partners over a couple of years. So that there’s a bit more flexibility there because what you’ll notice is, in the COVID world, it could be that people start making choices about who earns the most money, who doesn’t, and who has to look after the kids and who doesn’t.

That’s been important for us too, and it’s not just a rational decision. I think when you’re on the phone, or on the zoom call, when you see people in their houses, home-schooling their kids in between meetings, you realise that kind of families at Lion with young kids, how you’re flexible with people so that they can live their own lives is a very human thing and you need to lean into that too.


Hilary Lamb: That’s an interesting point that you said there, the fact you imagine being close to people physically, you would know them better, but it appears as though, as you mentioned, you’re in people’s front room, you see their children, you see their dogs, you see where they live basically, maybe that is actually forging closer internal /external relationships with staff, with suppliers, with clients, with everybody else, something I hadn’t really considered too closely before.


Stuart Irvine: I’ve noticed it, Hilary. The other thing that we’ve noticed is, it’s easier now we’re leaning into this technology better to form virtual teams, and teams that come from anywhere in the organisation. The hierarchy is less there.

You can have 30 people on a call. You can have 10 people on a call. You have 20 people on the call, they’re all there, and you can invite more people in and people from all over the organisation. We suddenly started to pull together teams that are diverse with people from everywhere.

And you start to meet people much more easily, and in much more depth. Now, I don’t think this replaces, physical human discussions, but it adds to it. And it’s an additive effect. I think it has really eroded those perceptions of people just as people at work, but seeing humans in the round for who they are. That can only be a good thing.


Hilary Lamb: Just going back a little bit about people working remotely, and it’s something that you’re going to focus on in the future, maybe 50/50. Are your line managers struggling at all with how to measure people’s performance, how to maintain that connection with them in that regard, because in the past it’s been while your physically present means you’re working?


Stuart Irvine: I think not. And I’ll tell you why. I think we’re already on the journey. The connectivity maintained through lots of, and I’ve had a few of these with my team and other teams, these fun beer calls, or coffee times where everyone’s on the screen, or turning up with their favourite musical instrument to break the barriers down and to have that time. And we’ve never thought it’s more important, because we’re also worried about people’s mental fitness, their mental well-being under these circumstances, and so we’ve upped that level of contact and connectivity.

The biggest concern that I’ve had, Hilary, is more that people are working too much. That, how do you give people the break that they do need over this time? Because holidays aren’t as easy to come by, and people are living in their front rooms, working in their front rooms, and then Monday to Friday blends into Saturday, Sunday, and you find that people that haven’t had the rest that they need. That means that they haven’t got these reservoirs of resilience that you build up by taking some time for yourself.


Hilary Lamb: I think that’s something that other organisations have seen. So again, I think your approach is very forward thinking, and it’s obvious that it’s not just COVID that has made you focus on gender equality. In some organisations, certainly it’s made them rethink some of their strategies, because people are now learning that you can work from home quite successfully and still deliver all of the different KPIs of your role.

I was going to ask you about you personally, Stuart. Sometimes they say, “well, it’s okay to talk the talk, but you really need the leaders to walk the walk”, so that it can be demonstrated and role modelled. Other people feel much more comfortable then, with following by example, and we all know that flexible working is something that women in particular appreciate the flexible approach, so is that something that you’ll be continuing as well?


Stuart Irvine: Oh, absolutely. So, me and my team, we’re working out how we want to do that, which days we’ll have flex and what everyone’s requirements are so that we can work together successfully as a team. The offices are in Sydney, so we’re not all fully back in the offices yet, but we’ll probably go back 25% or so in the next week.

And then I’ll be in there probably Tuesday, Wednesday, maybe Thursdays, and Monday, Friday not typically. We’ll be on team calls and things like that on those days. We think it’s pretty important to have days where you aren’t full of zoom as well. So, we’re looking at meeting free days, but we’re working that out together as a team, so that each team member has the right space, but also knows when, at what points, were together and what points were flexing. In some ways, it’s a real team activity, that flex.

So, I understand completely what you’re saying about, saying and doing and all of my team have been taking leave to role model that for the organisation. And we all work flexibly.


Hilary Lamb: Interestingly, you do hear people saying, “I’ve sat in this seat for five hours. I need to do something different”. You can’t just sit in front of a computer all day, every day. So, your proposition that there is going to be a mix in the way that you work sounds ideal.


Stuart Irvine: I think we’re all experiencing that it has some real upsides that we need to keep.  I can’t sit for five hours in a chair. Just physically difficult. We do phone calls walking around the block, and things like that, because you can do that too. And we’ve all got used to doing things like that and it’s become the new normal.


Hilary Lamb: Absolutely. I thoroughly agree with you there. You have spoken a couple of times too about silver linings. You started the conversation a bit earlier on about that. I guess that’s one of the questions people are talking about some of the positives that are coming out of this pandemic and forcing us to look differently at the way we live our lives.

So, can you just tell me a bit about those silver linings, what you found?


Stuart Irvine: Where we’ve started, Hilary, has been in this social equity, and the valuing of people as humans in total. Not as from this country or that country, or that ethnicity, or that sexual orientation. So, I think there’s a new appreciation for each other, and care for each other, and long may that remain.

I know that at work it’s made a big difference to move along from just gender, to talking about culture, race, ethnicity. We’ve got a reconciliation action plan starting this year. We’ve just started Pride@Lion, which is the LGBTQIA organisation that we’ve got. So, there’s been some real, tremendous steps forward and across all of the countries.

People caring for each other in these circumstances. That care I’ve seen is a silver lining. Can that now extend into some conversations around how we care for young people in a world where jobs are going to be different after COVID? How do we do that?  And are the conversations that were really more on the outer, like Universal Basic Income, become more central now to how we will live and work in terms of economic equity in the future? That would be a hope of mine. In terms of the social equity side of things, to continue there.

On the other side, I would also hope, and I do see that people are getting a greater appreciation for the world in which we live and the interconnected nature of it. One of my other passions is to help make sure that our generation, or our generations, don’t destroy the planet and heat the planet up to such an extent that the costs of that are the burden for the next generations. So, hopefully climate change can also become a mainstream topic of conversation, when the bush fires, that we endured in Australia, are a product of that, the collapse of the Arctic ice shelves are a product of that, the costs that are coming because of that are huge.

Lion this year, and if you talk about, “are you still focusing on this in a COVID world?” the answer is yes, because we became Australia’s first carbon neutral brewer this year. New Belgium, which is one of our businesses, has just launched a hundred percent carbon neutral beer – Fat Tire. We’re continuing to work on, what I think is one of the great issues of our time, which is the change in climate.

How can we start to do more now faster? Because I think, the speed of change is what surprises me. Intellectually, I think we knew these changes would happen, but they’re happening now and they’re happening faster. A silver lining for me will be that the climate change debate becomes not a radical protest movement, but a ‘centre of the plate’ for businesses and governments in making sure that with our new global view and how the connectivity of the world works, that we will have to work together on that.


Hilary Lamb: Well it sounds like Lion has a really strong social responsibility. That seems to be very high on your agenda in lots of different ways, which is great to hear and I wish all, certainly large corporations, would be able to do that. And I think people working, trying to work normally through COVID, has really made them think more about their lives in general. Where they live, how they live, how they integrate work, home, family, and so many issues about our lives.

We’ve tried to separate work and home for a long period of time and I think now we’ve seen, even more so, that those two elements are fully integrated. We can’t really separate them, or do we want to separate them?

I was reading an interview with Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And she was talking about the way to build back is to put women straight at the centre, because guess what,  they’re already at the centre. And I think she’s talking about family, and home, and children and caring. So, I guess the question would be, “Should we go further than gender equality, rather than just saying let’s consider genders equally”, should we be prioritising women’s issues?


Stuart Irvine: What I think about that is fairness, and justice, and everybody needs to be treated fairly. So, whether that’s men or women, or sexual orientation, or ethnicity, or culture, or religion, I think fairness is where I come from on that. However, I would say that women have been treated unfairly over a long period of time.

So, to get to that fairness, we are going to have to focus on those issues. I just go back to even those micro moments in households that you see on the screen, when there’s a couple caring for their kids, who’s doing the caring and how is that caring happening? And who’s holding down the income and doing the caring at the same time, perhaps?

I think that equality and sharing of the roles between men and women in families and how that works and in terms of the Families@Lion policies and things like that, and recognising the differences in how people think about things is really important.

For example, in our recruiting adverts, we’ve taken off the salaries, because men and women react differently to that. That’s had to go. ‘Previous experience’ we’ve taken off as well, because often men will say, “Yes, I can do all of those things” and women go, “Oh, I can’t do one of those things, so I won’t apply”. You have got to recognise that there are differences and organise yourself for that.

And in that way, you are prioritising women’s needs, because what’s happened before, it’s all been organised the other way around. To get to fairness, you are going to have to do it. But I think we have to prioritise women, the issues that women face in society about getting to equal really hard right now, to me, we get to that fairness.

As I said at the start, Hilary, many of those are hidden, because we have these biases about that’s just the way things are. It shouldn’t be just the way things are, but we have to uncover those biases and then fix them. And that will require prioritisation.


Hilary Lamb: Thank you, Stuart, for that answer.  I really enjoyed talking to you today. It sounds like Lion is implementing some great initiatives.  Already you have gender equality high on your priority list of strategies, so really appreciated your time today.

Thank you so much.


Stuart Irvine: Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you about this. It’s something I’m, with my team, really passionate about and I’m glad to be able to share it. Hopefully this will make a difference somewhere, and that people can go away and think what could they do in their own little, or big, circles of control to make a difference.

And if we all make a little bit of difference in what we do, like Lion is trying to do in our own little world, then we’ll move the big world along with us.


Hilary Lamb: I’m sure we will. Thank you for your time.


Stuart Irvine: Thanks Hilary.