John Karagounis is an unfailingly optimistic person. He’s enthusiastic, passionate and seems to have boundless energy. However, ask him to recall his early days in charge of The CEO Circle and, for a very brief moment, he gives you the look of a broken man.
“I took over The CEO Circle on 1 February 2008. I had put everything on the line to purchase it. It was a precarious time for me, both financially and professionally, as it often is when you make a momentous career change. I made the decision to forgo the opportunity to explore a secure, well-paid role in the financial services industry to buy a business that had lost its way,” he says.
In the background during John’s purchase of The CEO Circle was the fomenting cauldron of events that would come to be known as the global financial crisis. While Australia mostly managed to ride out the worst of the GFC, the old maxim that ‘When the US sneezes, Australia catches a cold’ held in many regards.
A few short months after acquiring The CEO Circle, John watched on as Australian companies started showing executives the door. Belts were tightened, budgets slashed. It was not a good time to be in charge of an organisation that relies upon C-suite executives for its membership base.
“When the GFC hit, we stood firm. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times I questioned my decision to buy,” he says.
“The number of people in transition requiring assistance, guidance and advice increased with every passing day. But that was okay because in adversity there is always opportunity and that’s how I chose to look at it. This was the perfect time to be doing what we do. People needed and wanted to get together around a boardroom table, to connect with like-minded peers, and share, learn and grow. I thought this is when we can really help people. This is why we exist.”
Baptism of fire
The GFC was a baptism of fire for John and the newly reborn Circle. At the same time as dealing with the fallout from the GFC, John embarked on a restructuring of the business.
Founded in 1994 by Peter and Gloria Knight, The CEO Circle had set out to provide a collegial organisation specifically for chief executives, with members joining a Circle chaired by a senior leader and with meetings conducted under the Chatham House Rule.
The Circle grew and even expanded internationally for a time, but it faltered. Before acquiring The CEO Circle, John had extensive experience in banking – moving up the ranks of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia into a role with executive responsibility for the growth of a wealth management portfolio comprising the bank’s top one per cent of clients.
He then joined UBS Wealth Management before taking a role as a director at St.George Private bank, where he led operations in Victoria, including having overall responsibility for the establishment and launch of a new private banking and wealth management business.
Though adept with numbers, John’s real passion is people. As a voracious networker and someone who is always seeking to make authentic connections, his interest in people spurred his move from banks to a membership organisation.
“I started my corporate career in banking and knew right from the word go that I had an affinity for people. I wanted to understand what made people tick. What motivated them, what drove them to act the way they did,” he says.
“Before taking over The CEO Circle, the first thing I did was answer my ‘why’ question. Why do I exist and what is it that I am setting out to achieve? The answer was simple: to make a difference in every person’s life that I touch.”
Why he wrote a book
In 2017, John wrote a book called Why I Wrote This Book: For Greater Success as a way to present his ideas on leadership and inspiration. The book draws on John’s years with The CEO Circle, his corporate banking career and his personal story.
All of this is woven together and underpinned by John’s philosophy on success, which is based on understanding the achievement of greater success as being more than just professional. He says true success has to encompass things like happiness, gratitude and giving back to those around you.
“For a number of years, I had a burning desire to get a message out; to write a book and share my insights, views and observations around this all-important word, ‘success’. I wanted to write a book to make people think and to help them put things into perspective and focus on the most important elements of success.”
“Happiness is greater success. When you think of success, please think of happiness.”
Partly, he was inspired to write the book because he could see the people he worked with, some of the CEOs who were members of the Circle, often struggled to integrate their professional success into personal satisfaction and happiness. The pursuit of success had often taken the place of the pursuit of happiness.
“Happiness is greater success. When you think of success, please think of happiness. It saddens me that many people define success so narrowly and leave happiness out of the equation.”
As the son of Greek migrants who came to Australia for a better life, John’s thinking on happiness and success owes much to the example set by his father, and to the Greek ideal of philotimo.
“When I think about success, the word philotimo is always central to my thoughts. I grew up with my parents making reference to this Greek word all the time. They highlighted it not only through their words but also their actions and behaviours, so this word formed much of who I am today.”
John explains philotimo is difficult to define in English as it carries with it a rich set of meanings. “When you break down the word, ‘philos’ translates to friend and ‘timi’ means honour. It encompasses both these words and can even be interpreted to mean ‘love of honour’. But it means so much more. It’s a complex configuration of the highest values and beliefs,” he says.
The ideas John has laid out in his book have come to serve as a manifesto of sorts. He hopes he can inspire leaders to start seeing success and happiness as concepts that can be successfully integrated at an individual level, and spread by leaders to those around them, including employees, family, friends and the broader community.
Lonely at the top
“It’s a lonely job as a CEO,” John Moller said to an audience at an event in Melbourne last October to celebrate The CEO Circle’s 25th anniversary.
“You take on the responsibility of the company. You can’t really talk to your direct reports. You’ve got to go to work every day positive. You’re providing the leadership through the mire and you’ve got to do it all on your own a lot of the time,” said the former James Hardie executive, current Non-Executive Chair of GPC Asia Pacific and current Melbourne CEO Circle Group Chair.
Several other speakers echoed John Moller’s sentiments at the event, and John Karagounis sees issues like social isolation as one of the biggest challenges for executives. He says in the past decade he has talked to more than 500 CEOs and the thing he hears most often is that nothing fully prepares them for the role of CEO.
“There is no handbook for this job. When they start in the role, CEOs soon realise it’s the loneliest job in the world. The cliché about it being lonely at the top is spot-on,” he says.
“They have a yearning to connect and engage with like-minded people who are in the same situation as them. They understand the best advice they could receive will be from their peers, who have nothing to gain, who have been through what they are going through and understand and empathise.”
While the Circle is still a place for debate and discussion about professional matters, John says the focus has shifted onto aspects of the personal experience of CEOs, the psychological and emotional elements that contribute to success.
"We bring CEOs together in completely confidential surrounds to connect, share, learn, discover and grow for greater success."
“That’s what we do. We bring CEOs together in completely confidential surrounds to connect, share, learn, discover and grow for greater success; for their greater personal, professional and organisational success.”
Enabling leaders to achieve greater success
The 25th anniversary of The CEO Circle has seen John thinking even more about what role the organisation plays in the lives of its members; about how to better achieve its ‘why’. A member survey has helped point it in the right direction in this regard.
“We asked the hard questions about what we could do to change and stay relevant. We want to consider the key themes around thought leadership. ‘Let’s think about the future – what does it look like?’ We want to be proactive about that.”
A significant part of John’s renewed vision for The CEO Circle is to focus on the wellbeing of its members. To give them the tools to better perform their demanding roles, as well as a forum to better understand themselves as people.
For John, the two objectives go hand in hand. “We held a couple of breakfast events in conjunction with beyondblue a few months ago as part of our commitment to mentally healthy workplaces,” he says.
“Julia Gillard, who is beyondblue’s Chair, spoke about the shift in leadership models from a ‘hero’ model to an enabling model of leadership. She was talking about how leaders had to take care of themselves – mentally, emotionally, physically – so they could also take care of others. It was a powerful observation and one that resonated with the room.”
John on success, dreams and self reflection
What’s an activity you do every day, without fail?
I take time to self-reflect and think about what I could have done differently to be a better version of myself and to make a greater difference.
How do you celebrate success?
I share my success with everyone in my sphere of influence. We stop, reflect and reconnect to what’s important, expressing gratitude.
What was your dream job as a child?
I’ve always had a deep desire to help people. My innate need to nurture, love and understand created an interest in psychology. I was persuaded to study economics instead. Ironically, in my life’s role, it’s the human aspect that I practice, that still drives me and that defines me.
Secret weapon at work?
My incredible Chairs, wonderful staff and outstanding Circle members, of course. You are as good as the people you surround yourself with.
How do you know something is a good idea?
I listen to my gut. I also have great people around me to act as a sounding board.
What do you wish you’d known 20 years ago?
That the focus on self is paramount. If we concentrate on being the best version of ourselves, only then will we be truly happy and others in our lives will benefit.
The CEO Circle has also embarked on a Leader Wellbeing Study in partnership with the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Business School’s Asia Pacific Social Impact Centre.
The study has been asking senior managers and executives to share their views on work satisfaction, wellbeing and engagement, with the results of the study to be shared more broadly soon with the readers of The CEO Magazine.
After more than 11 years at the helm, John says The CEO Circle has much more to do and many more lives to touch. As the organisation celebrates its 25th year, he reflects on its achievements and the journey ahead.
“I’m grateful. I have the best job in the world. I get to interact with these incredible, inspirational people. I get to play an important role in their lives. That’s such a precious gift.”