Melbourne Business School News Meet the MBS MBA veterans redefining career success

Meet the MBS MBA veterans redefining career success

From leading troops in conflict zones to navigating the complexities of the corporate world, these veterans are thriving in their new roles.

Roger Gray (FTMBA), Simon O'Brien (EMBA 2020), Kylie Scholten (SEMBA 2014), Steve Cotterill (EMBA 2017), Joel Bell (FTMBA 2024)

Observed on 25 April each year, Anzac Day commemorates members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who served at Gallipoli in the First World War, and more broadly, the service and sacrifices of all members of the defence forces.

To mark the occasion, we asked veterans in the Melbourne Business School community to share stories from their time in service and how their experiences have shaped their careers today.

Roger Gray: From logistics officer to CEO

Roger Gray, FTMBA 2000, CEO of Port of Auckland

Full-time MBA alum Roger Gray has held senior executive positions in Air New Zealand and Goodman Fielder, and is now the Chief Executive Officer of the Port of Auckland. His path to business leadership began not in the corporate world, but in the Australian Army where he spent the first 20 years of his career running logistics.

“I had the opportunity to serve as part of an Anzac unit in Cambodia on active service,” Roger said.

"That was a unit of 500 Australians and 50 Kiwis, and we went to Cambodia as part of the UNTAC [United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] that was there to provide peace for Cambodia so they could have their first free election after 20-plus years of civil war.”

After relocating 16 times in 20 years for his military service, Roger was keen to settle down. He also started to wonder if he could “cut it” in the commercial world — a leap he took at the age of 37 after being promoted to lieutenant colonel.

“The journey of transition into the corporate world is tough,” he said.

“The thing that really allowed me to transition was I was given a taste of the corporate world at SOCOG [the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games], but I was also working on something that was serving a purpose. And our goal was to put on the best games ever.”

Another key to Roger’s transition was beginning a Full-time MBA at Melbourne Business School, where he obtained a partial scholarship. For the Melbourne-born father of three, it was also an opportunity to come home.

“What Melbourne Business School did for me was two things. One, it codified the skills I had developed in the Army but didn’t have a physical qualification to reflect on.

“But what it really did was it made me commercial. You know, sitting in Ian Harper’s lectures really put a corporate and commercial edge on me.

“All of that experience and knowledge I gained through the MBA was fundamental in transitioning me from being a good cost manager into being a much more successful businessperson.” Roger completed his MBA in 2000. Decades after leaving the military, his experience as a veteran continues to shape his leadership style and work ethic.

“Things like punctuality, delivering what you commit to, being reliable and consistent, only promising what you know you can deliver, are critical to me,” Roger said.

“The military has taught me – the best way to lead is through others and to rely on and trust your people because they are the ones who do the work.”

Simon O’Brien: From cavalry officer to commercial property director

Simon O'Brien, Executive MBA 2020, veteran, Program Director, Property Transformation, NAB

Executive MBA alum Simon O’Brien initially joined the Army “for something fun to do” – but ended up graduating top of his class at the Royal Military College, Duntroon ACT.

Simon was commissioned as an Officer into the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, and later led 75 soldiers on several combat missions in Afghanistan as part of Mentoring Task Force Three (MTF-3).

Eighteen months after returning home, Simon felt he had achieved what he considered to be the pinnacle of military service – leading Australian soldiers on operations – and wanted to turn his focus to other goals, including starting a family.

“I left the Army in 2014 and became a Project Manager at a mid-sized construction company in Melbourne,” he said.

“The company grew exponentially in my first few years, and I started to become more interested in the running and growing of the business rather than the technical construction aspects.”

That experience led Simon to become interested in studying an MBA, and he was encouraged to apply by an Army colleague who had attended Melbourne Business School. Simon graduated in 2020 and by the time he left the construction firm the following year, he had become its Head of Operations.

“The School was able to consolidate a lot of my knowledge and experience in the first part of my career and overlay a commercial understanding and financial acumen that took my abilities to the next level,” he said.

Today, Simon is Program Director, Property Transformation at NAB, where he leads a team managing the bank’s commercial properties around the world. He is also an avid golfer and cyclist, as well as a father of two children.

“The Army teaches you to be resilient and fight through challenges, even on the toughest days,” he said.

“People are relying on you to be calm, measured and provide clarity in the worst circumstances. These experiences are all directly transferable to corporate challenges. It’s just that the stakes are different.”

Kylie Scholten: From maritime officer to senior public servant

Kylie Scholten, Senior Executive MBA 2014

A former Maritime Warfare Officer with the Royal Australian Navy, Kylie Scholten is a Senior Executive MBA alum who has held senior federal and state public service roles in Canberra.

“I have a long family history of military service on both sides of my family, mainly Navy, which always inspired me,” said the mother of two from originally from Tasmania.

“I have many great memories of foreign port visits across the Pacific and Southeast Asia and undertaking community building projects with locals building schools, medical centres and improving local living conditions, especially after cyclone events.”

Kylie’s fondest memory is of undertaking a maritime patrol in the Antarctic region, working together with the French Navy to disrupt large-scale illegal fishing operations whilst at sea for over 40 days.

“Life at sea was never dull,” she said. “We worked hard, were always busy and it was professionally challenging.”

But after a number of years of spending 10 months at sea each year away from friends and family, Kylie decided it was time for new challenges.

The transition was “bumpy”, but Kylie leveraged her Navy experience and network to propel her into various roles across Australia and overseas.

This included working in the disability sector and vocational maritime education in NSW, improving Aboriginal health outcomes in the Northern Territory and helping to start a new business in San Diego.

“It wasn’t until we came back to Australia and moved to Canberra that I entered the public service by chance. Maybe being able to serve again just in a different capacity drew me to the public service,” she said.

Since then, Kylie has worked in various senior government positions including at the Australian Border Force, the Department of Home Affairs, the Department of Defence and the ACT Government.

A firm believer in the importance of lifelong learning, Kylie enrolled in the Senior Executive MBA upon the encouragement of a manager – who was herself an MBS MBA alumni. Having graduated in 2014, Kylie encouraged veterans who were interested in public service roles to find ways to leverage their transferrable skills, build networks and seek mentors, and embrace lifelong learning.

“My military experience and leadership training formed the foundations of my success today,” Kylie said.

“Transitioning from military service to public leadership can be a rewarding journey but it requires adjustments.”

Steve Cotterill: From cavalry officer to leadership coach

Steve Cotterill, Executive MBA 2017

Steve Cotterill is an Executive MBA alum whose experience leading teams around the world during his 15-year career as a cavalry officer laid the foundation for starting his business as a coach and facilitator focussed on leadership, strategy and culture.

“My time in the military taught me how to operate successfully in complex environments, where you don’t know the rules or the right answers, and how effective decision making is enabled by seeking information and understanding,” he said.

“Teams in these environments need to be well connected with trust and common purpose to enable effective reactions and adaptation, and I saw how well this can work when leading teams in perilous situations in Afghanistan and Lebanon.”

Steve completed his Executive MBA while working full time and graduated in 2018. He then left the Army and worked briefly in consulting before finding his current niche.

“I help my clients understand that before we define or attempt to solve any strategic problem, we need to understand whether they are operating in a complicated or complex environment,” he said.

“A lot of the tools people use to problem solve are built for success in complicated environments where we own all the variables inside our four walls. That’s not the world we live in anymore — the environment has a vote, and things like COVID showed us it is a bigger vote than we want.”

“Once I help my client define their environment and problems, then we build a program to solve it. This co-creation is a big part of how I work.”

Steve’s time at the School helped him conceptualise his skills and experiences from the military and his MBA to build the toolkit he uses with his clients now.

“I love the unique space I'm given access to by clients, where I'm the person in the room who isn't part of their team and can sit back to witness the unsaid or unconscious things. I can then name these and help them work through whatever comes up,” he said.

“That's when teams can really unlock trust, connection and alignment. This helps build the cultures that help people want to turn up to work.”.”

Joel Bell: From army engineer to aspiring startup founder

Joel Bell, FTMBA 2024

Current Full-time MBA student Joel Bell’s proudest achievement in the Australian Army was being part of the leadership team for the evacuation of thousands of civilians when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021.

“We rescued over 4000 people from a pretty dire situation,” he said.

“I had soldiers who went five days without sleep to get that job done. Seeing the looks on the faces of the people when we rescued them was quite profound and is something that will stay with me forever.”

As Chief Engineer for Australia’s operations across the Middle East, Joel’s team of four were tasked with building a 2000-bed refugee camp from scratch within 72 hours.

He also had to take charge as the camp’s ‘mayor’ — arranging medical facilities and transport, helping the elderly and unaccompanied minors, and even ensuring the healthy delivery of six babies — in a camp where no one spoke English.

“It was a real challenge, but extremely rewarding,” he said.

But after 16 years in the Army, Joel felt it was time to move on.

“I had achieved a lot of things that I wanted to achieve. I'd reached the rank of Major. I'd commanded a sub-unit. I'd deployed on operations twice, done a heap of really excellent jobs – I knew my time was up.”

After his military service, Joel didn’t want to go into the construction industry like many of his peers did. Instead, a mentor had suggested he study an MBA.

“This is part of my transition into civilian life and a new career,” Joel said.

“It was definitely the right decision for me.”

Moving forward, Joel is now planning to launch a startup called All Dogs, an online marketplace for buying and selling dogs and puppies.

“That’s an industry we looked at as part of the innovation course here at the School,” he said.

“We looked at the industry and there’s a whole heap of problems in the customer journey, the supplier journey, the dog breeders.

“If I can build a business that solves that problem and also makes money, then that’s a great opportunity.”

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