Talking courage with a CEO

(4 minute read)
Cathy O'C
Cathy O’Connor is the Chief Executive Officer of NOVA Entertainment (formerly dmg Radio Australia).

Cathy entered the radio industry in sales roles at Sydney’s 2SM and 2GB in 1985. Her management career began at Austereo in 1991 where she held the roles of Agency Sales Manager, General Sales Manager and then General Manager. Cathy joined dmg Radio Australia (now NOVA Entertainment) as Managing Director in January 2003 and was appointed to the position of CEO on 1 October 2008.

Since joining NOVA Entertainment, Cathy has been involved in the completion and evolution of the national Nova Network, including the launches of Nova Adelaide and Brisbane, as well as the smoothfm stations in May 2012.

Cathy has served on the Board of Commercial Radio Australia since 2006, and held the role of Chair from 2009 to 2012. Cathy is also a Governor of the Board of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.

What does courage mean to you?

I see workplace courage at a number of levels.  Courageous thinking for me is about being prepared to think differently or take a chance on an idea, strategy, opportunity or a person, when it seems for whatever reason to sit outside “the way things are normally done around here.” Having done that, it’s about backing yourself with conviction to your Board and to your team.

Workplace courage is also about being able to have the real conversations with your team.  In my experience, when the conversations get real, then progress and teamwork flourish.

It’s very common in business however, that executives are either too passive, or too nice to each other and out of fear or respect, are often reluctant to say what they’re really thinking.  That doesn’t just mean having a conflict situation, teams can also lack the courage to say “thank you” or to express gratitude for the support or guidance they have may have received along the way. They may lack a willingness to acknowledge their own shortcomings or mistakes with a view to continuously improving the collective output.  It’s these kinds of honest interactions which take courage and also build trust.  And, when we trust and feel supported, we’re more inclined to take a chance and push ourselves to high performance.  Without strong and ethical leadership however, such interactions can be reduced to workplace conflict or politics.  To avoid that, a strong and clear sense of shared purpose and values is essential.

What does courage look like in your workplace?

When I first became CEO at Nova Entertainment, I was intent on bringing in new people into the business that had not worked in Australian radio before.

cath o'cWith that, came some risk, that these executives may not get the nuances of the local markets or Australian culture.  I also felt however that this was a blessing in disguise as there was no “history”  or “sacred cows” about what it took to win in radio and so the approaches were always going to be “fresh”.

Prior to the new team, it was considered that Nova had to be “different” to the main competitors and it couldn’t therefore play a hit music format (which our competitors did). Our new team held no such beliefs and felt that differentiation could be dialled up in other ways such as talent on the air, marketing and brand attributes.  The result of those moves, considered courageous at the time, was the reinstatement of Nova to the No 1 network position in Australian radio through its “fresh hits” format.

A similar dynamic played out with the launch of the highly successful smoothfm station in Sydney and Melbourne. At the time in 2012, the “conventional view” in Australia was that a “soft” music adult format such as smoothfm would not be a commercial success because it did not attract the big name shows of other stations such as Nova or KIIS.  In fact, we found a way to use big names such as Richard Wilkins and Mel Doyle on the weekend in different ways, preferring to let the unique brand of easy music do the work for the stations in the weekdays. Each of the smooths have achieved the No 1 FM position in their markets in the past 12 months and there are no signs that the growth cannot be sustained.

It’s a great example of going to the edge in looking for new ideas.  In our case it brought some risk, but ultimately far more rewards for the company.

From your point of view, to what extent are our world leaders leading with courage?

I believe that Australians from a business point of view, are generally more open and forthright than other countries.  In terms of the workplace courage I’ve described above, I would say Aussie companies perform above the average in terms of honesty and transparency.

I don’t however think that levels of innovation, which is a positive form of risk, are as high in Australia as they should be.  Something about the laid back, “she’ll be right” nature of our culture contributes to this where Australian business at times, lacks the ambition of other countries.  I think Government policy could also encourage more risk taking by offering more grants for new business initiatives and reducing the tax and administrative burdens on small business more generally.

To date, we have shared the perspectives of courage of many diverse people (with many more to come).  For your reflection:

  • What themes have you noticed?
  • What points of difference stand out?
  • What resonates most with you? What do you disagree with?
  • How have these interviews shaped your thinking about courage?  
  • How have these interviews shaped your willingness to act with courage?

It would be great to hear from you,


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