Before Gabrielle Upton became a politician, the NSW family and community services minister had the high-flying career in investment banking. She lived the upper Manhattan life and ran point on big deals as a lawyer and then investment banker.
But working in the intensely competitive environment of investment banking and top tier law firms, it didn’t quite fill her soul, Upton told Business Insider.
She said it was the search for something more – a “calling” as Upton, who turns 50 later this year, described it – which led her down the garden path and smack bang into the position of Member for Vaucluse and a minister – sport and recreation for Barry O’Farrell and now the sensitive and difficult family and community services portfolio for Mike Baird.
“I think politics is a calling, I don’t think it’s a job, I don’t think it’s a profession, I think it’s something you have to want to do more than anything else because it requires everything,” she said.
Upton is about to clock up her first term in office and is gearing up for the state election in March, which is probably a good time to figure out how this corporate lawyer has coped in the world of political games and powerbrokering.
“Politics – you bring your life to it. There aren’t many technical skills you have to have to run for politics,” Upton said.
She said without many prerequisites you end up working in a “diverse” environment.
“People come from very different parts of New South Wales to myself. They are different age groups, they’re different work experiences and that’s the strength of democracy – That all of those views are in parliament,” Upton said.
“There’s anyone from police officers, lawyers to nurses to teaches, journalists and it’s really, it’s energising because you can come together on a policy outcome but to get to that there’s usually a lot of exchanges of people’s perspectives.”
Upton brings her technical training to the job and she says every minister does that.
“I think it’s very helpful to have a background, it doesn’t have to be my background, but to have some life experience,” she said.
With almost 12 years experience working in large organisations there were a few ways of doing business that have come along for the ride in her new political life.
Here’s are some of the things Upton learned from corporate life and has applied to public life.
1. Getting rewarded for the work you do made Upton look at outcomes more closely.
“There was a very direct connection between you doing your work and being remunerated so a very sharp focus on reward for effort, precision for detail – attention to detail and strong accountability which is, I suppose, the way I approach this work here,” she said.
But working in the corporate world, Upton said she found she was “only as good as the last client you’ve helped and [who has] paid their bill.”
She said it’s about, “The biggest deal you’ve advised on. In investment banking it’s the same – you’re measured everyday on the outcome and it’s usually measured on a client relationship that’s stronger [or] by further work that they give you.”
“I bring some of that reward to effort approach to policy making in that portfolio.”
2. Learning that deals can always be done gives you more confidence.
Working in the world of briefcases and shiny shoes, Upton does have a slightly different approach to handling the deal making which goes on in politics.
“I bring an optimism because I’ve seen amazing things happen in both of those roles – being able to work as a lawyer and a banker to make deals happen to provide jobs,” she said.
“There’s that tension between doing a deal and getting paid but also relationships so that’s similar in politics – you can’t be transactional all the time because at the same time when you’re doing a transaction in banking or as a lawyer you want to have a good relationship with your client.”
3. Learning to form a solid argument as a lawyer helps close political deals.
“As a cabinet minister you have to make a strong argument about the things you want to do about policy, but at the same time you need to have compelling arguments because people won’t support your argument because they have nothing better from which to judge it. So there’s a real test to the merits of the policy you’re putting forward,” she said.
4. Building relationships with clients helps you make stronger connections in politics.
“You’re also building relationships and trust and I think trust in politics is pretty important. The public is a bit dubious about whether they can trust their politicians, but it’s fundamental to what I do,” she said.
5. Learning how to negotiate deals in the corporate world helps you build policy.
“With the stakeholders you work with to build a policy, with your cabinet colleagues you need to build relation,” she said.
“It’s not only the policy at hand you might tweak, the great thing about democracy is you can seek other people’s views and change reform – maybe not fundamentally – but make it work, reforms have to work, policy has to work – but [all the] while you’re trying to have [everyone] agree.”
6. Being upfront about your views builds reputation.
“The most important thing for me, to have people to say about me, and we may have a difference of opinion, is that I’m willing to listen and tell people where I have a different view. So be very frank about where those differences are,” she said.
7. Learning how important family support is helps balance work and personal commitments.
The long hours, public scrutiny and pay cut means Upton’s public career need to be a “family undertaking”.
“Any job that involves a big undertaking or commitment is a family enterprise,” she said noting partners have to take on a bigger workload at home when work takes over.
“I couldn’t do the job I do unless my husband believed that what I do is worthwhile.
“I put in very long hours and so there are some jobs I think where the demands are less and also the public scrutiny is less.
“Sometimes I won’t be at things I would otherwise be at because of commitments with ministry.”
8. Learning to work in brutal environments prepares you for politics.
“I had worked as a lawyer, a banker, I worked in a Wall Street law firm, two banking institutions where it was intensely competitive and pretty brutal, I think politics can be a bit that way so those very competitive environments prepared me for what I do now,” she said.
9. Working well in a male-dominated environment makes you a political pragmatist.
“I’m a pragmatist so I think you accept the environment in which you work for what it is and you have to deal with the cards as they’re dealt,” she said, adding politics isn’t about dreaming it’s about making incremental, realistic changes.
“We’ve got to achieve what we can broker between the parties, it’s very much about what’s possible.
“That experience of working in a competitive, male dominated environment for most of, or all of my career really is nothing that I’m uncomfortable with, guys are great to work with, I’m married to one too [and] I’ve got a great son.”
10. Being an investment banker first and a politician second shapes the policies you drive.
One of the key politicians behind the NSW State Government’s Social Benefit Bonds, Upton has managed to add a touch of banking to political policy – taking advantage of a strengthening social investment and corporate social responsibility movement in Australia.
The first of two bonds launched last year was centred on improving parenting skills and has already returned 7.5% to investors.
“The idea of a social bond resonates with me having had my experience before, thinking we should be innovative around how we’re going to help vulnerable people, there are other ways other than government writing cheques and there’s an appetite for the community to step up and investors who want good social outcomes as well,” she said.
“I see it can be good for everyone, it can be good for government, it can save government money, it can provide investment opportunities that are competitive and also have a feel good element.”
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