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From teller to CEO: How Gail Kelly conquered Australia's banks

From Sheena McKenzie, for CNN, and Nina dos Santos, CNN
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meet Gail Kelly, CEO of Australia's second largest bank, Westpac
  • Mother-of-four was a bank teller before becoming boss of country's oldest company
  • Westpac now has 40% women in senior management jobs, thanks to Kelly
  • 62nd most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

(CNN) -- Is Gail Kelly the most powerful woman in Australian business? She's got to be up there.

This is the chief executive of the country's second largest bank -- Westpac -- overseeing a whopping US$613 billion in assets and over 36,000 employees.

It's quite a portfolio, and all the more impressive considering the 57-year-old mother-of-four started out as a bank teller a little over 30 years ago.

Born in South Africa to British parents, Kelly originally taught Latin at high schools, before working at Nedcor Bank in Johannesburg -- becoming head of human resources just five months after giving birth to triplets.

Westpac CEO Gail Kelly wants 50% women in management positions by 2017.
Getty Images

The family moved to Sydney and in 2002 Kelly became the first female CEO of a major Australian bank -- the Commonwealth Bank.

Today she is the 62nd most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes, but admits the notoriously male-dominated banking world has been a "tough area to crack."

Now the boss at Westpac, Kelly made it her mission to have 40% women in senior management positions by 2014 -- a target she smashed in 2012.

How has she achieved her phenomenal success and what is her vision for the future of Australia's oldest bank? CNN's Leading Women sat down with the financial trailblazer to find out.

"I grew up in a very strong, nuclear family. My father was a sportsman. He represented South Africa in a couple of sports, so he was a very positive person and someone who encouraged you to be your best and give your best with everything that you do. And so I grew up in this environment that was nurturing, supporting, but certainly encouraging."

"42% of our management team are women. So we've reset the goal to 50% by 2017. Because that's when Westpac becomes 200 years old as an institution -- the oldest bank, and indeed the oldest company in Australia. So that's a lovely point to reflect on."

"When I got to be a CEO I said: 'Right. I'm now going to tackle gender inequality head-on. I'm going to make a difference, and lead by example, and actively put in place policies and practices to support women.'"

"I was in a forum yesterday where there would have been 60 leaders of banks and insurance companies and I was literally the only woman.
Gail Kelly, CEO Westpac

"The banking world is a particularly tough area to crack for women. I was in a forum yesterday where there would have been 60 leaders of banks and insurance companies and I was literally the only woman."

"My husband being a paediatrician was awesome. With four children -- three of them triplets -- I needed a lot of help and support at home. He did more than his fair share of everything in the home and I could not have done what I've done without that."

"Nelson Mandela was an outstanding leader and a mentor for me. I was in South Africa at the time he was released. I was in South Africa when he was inaugurated as the first president. And he - after the 27 years of imprisonment, a lot of it in solitary confinement - truly understood that his vision, his purpose, was to transform South Africa, a reconciled South Africa."

"My advice would be: dig deep. Gather all your courage in your hands. You've been offered this opportunity because you are worthy. You don't have to be 100% ready for this job. You don't have to be 80% ready for this job. You do need support around you and you do need a determination and a preparedness to work hard. But back yourself."

Read: Death of the banking 'boys' club?' Female trailblazers to watch

Debate: Is Aussie politics too blokey?

Learn: Five things you didn't know about Janet Yellen

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