April 30, 2020

5 Questions with Dr Catriona Wallace

We sat down with Dr Catriona Wallace, CEO & Founder of Flamingo AI to discuss crisis leadership, how she manages a business across continents, and the background to the colourful name of her company, Flamingo AI.


You’re a founder and Director of an ASX-listed company, a renowned expert and speaker across a range of topics, maintain a life and business between two countries… and a mother of five. What does a day in the life of Dr Catriona Wallace look like?

5am: “My day starts quite early, around 5 or 530am. I wake early and start with my daily meditation practice for 20-30 minutes, following by some yoga and stretching. I practice mindfulness as a form of meditation; I’ve learned the hard way that it’s an essential everyday practice for me!

7am-11am: Next up, it’s time to get my day started. Out of my five children, two are still at home- one in high school and one in university. I help them get out the door and drop one to school. Around this time I’ll ring the Flamingo AI office on the East Coast; our USA branch is located in Connecticut so my conversations there are either early or late in the day.

Following this, I’ll head into the Australian Flamingo office, in Sydney. My involvement with the business is primarily centred around brand management and business development aspects, so I’ll be having conversations and meetings with clients and the team around those topics.

12-5pm: Later in the day, I might go out and do a talk, or present at an event. I generally have 2-3 speaking engagements per week, and although these have mainly transitioned to an online format given the COVID-19 impacts, my schedule remains quite full!

My topics centre around AI, ethics, and women in leadership, as my primary subject matter sources. I’ve also recently launched a new consultancy business, Ethical AI Advisory, which focuses on supporting companies develop ethical approaches to AI systems and design. Given this, moving forward I’ll be doing an extensive amount of additional reading, writing and research around AI and Ethics and best practices.

6pm: After my day at work, I’ll head home, feed the kids, maybe help with some homework, and wind down the day. I’m a runner, so I may try to squeeze in a run around 9-930pm.

10pm: With the time change, it’s now morning on the East Coast of the USA, so I might be on one last call for the day with the team in Connecticut.

Why this topic? What’s inspired you to speak on the important of crisis leadership?

I’ve seen and personally felt the impact of leadership decisions in a time of crisis. My family was deeply impacted in the recent Australian bushfires, when our family farm and cattle station in New South Wales was burned to the ground. The 10,000-acre property was completely incinerated, and I closely watched the leadership decisions, and lack of centralised response, play out during that period. Only weeks later, our family holiday home in Rosedale on the South Coast was one of the few properties that narrowly survived another wave of fires- the Rosedale community itself was torched.

I became deeply involved in the community within Rosedale, and through this time I conducted some research around crisis leadership, and really dug into this topic. I found that many of the current, traditional models of crisis leadership don’t support the crises of today. From this I started to uncover newer models, better able to support us through crises we’ll experience in the future.

There are 6-7 key attributes, which I’ll be covering in my keynote, that are critical for any leader navigating through crisis.

What learnings do you think the crises of 2020 will create for Australia, collectively and as leaders?

It’s an interesting time for Australia, as we’ve been doubly hit: just as we were emerging from the bushfires, we were hit by COVID-19. With the pandemic, we had some time to observe this playing out on other stages globally so I think there have already been some learnings in terms of managing an escalating crisis.

In my research I’ve uncovered a defined set of core leader behaviours for effective crisis management. These include early signal detection, political agenda management, and special interest group management, amongst others. Failure on any of these will significantly compromise a leader’s response ability to manage an escalating situation.

What’s very interesting here is that female-led countries such as Finland and New Zealand are being held up as exemplary leaders during times of a crisis. On this, McKinsey research has shown that many of the critical leadership behaviours are most often demonstrated by women.

You’re the Executive Director and Founder of Flamingo AI, an ASX-listed company that provides Machine Learning-based technologies. That’s certainly a colourful name for a cerebral industry: why Flamingo?

This is a fun one – I love telling this story. The name started in the early days, with one of our engineers using the term Personalised Experience Profile- PeP. This evolved into the term ‘Peep’ within the team, which was then playfully joined into the sound Flamingos make.

When we were preparing to launch the business, we splashed out on branding research, and tested the name recommendations. For fun, we also tested Flamingo- purely as a joke- and it outperformed the other sleek tech recommendations by miles! But as a name, and in principle, it’s a great representation of the values of our business.

Flamingos are engaging, social, loyal, light. They’re also vibrantly pink, which as the first female-led business to be listed on the ASX, is a perfect nod to our DNA.

In 100 words or less, what’s your best piece of advice for leaders, both emerging and established, who want to become more adept at leading through crisis?

I have a lot of thoughts on this, but I’ll distil to two things:
1- Instead of assigning crisis to a category, we need to assume crisis is the new norm. It’s not going away, we’re not going ‘back to normal’.
2- We used to talk about change being constant- it’s now safe to assume that crisis might now be constant. We need to develop behaviours to manage this across all leaders moving forward. As uncovered in my research, these behaviours include data-driven critical thinking, and knowledge of advanced and emerging technologies.
As the fastest growing tech sector in the world, we’ll start to see a much greater use of AI across industries. It’s vital that leaders are familiar with this powerful tech, and how to manage it in an ethical manner.

Dr Catriona Wallace has been recognised by the AFR as Australia’s Most Influential Woman in Business & Entrepreneurship. Based between the Australia and the US, as the Founder & Director of Artificial Intelligence company Flamingo Ai, Catriona was the second only woman led business ever to list on the Australian Stock Exchange. Catriona is also the Founder of newly launched consulting practice, Ethical AI Advisory.
Catriona is an Adjunct Professor at the Australian Graduate School of Management and is one of the world’s most cited experts on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics, Women in Leadership and Crisis Leadership. Interestingly, Catriona was once a police officer and … also owned a night club. Recently the Royal Institution of Australia recognised Catriona as the one of Australia’s pre-eminent scientists. Catriona, sits on the Board of Responsible Technology Australia, is a philanthropist, human rights activist and …. mother of five.