From trolley boy to global change-maker

Entrepreneurship expert and academic from The University of Queensland Business School, Dr Lance Newey, shares how his journey from stocking supermarket shelves to travelling the world as a consultant has led to an unexpected career path and a whole new outlook on life.

My career started at Woolworths supermarket, not in a corporate head office but in the supermarket, working as a trolley boy. I grew up in the north of Brisbane and had to finish school early, missing years 11 and 12. I worked my way up in store management, but spent my days looking at the clock and my lunch hour reading textbooks. I knew intrinsically that I was yearning for something more.

Without a great deal of formal education behind me, I didn’t have many options, so I took myself to TAFE and started a business course. I quickly realised I had a real love of learning, which led me to apply for university to study business.

I excelled academically and gave it my all. Some of my professors and fellow students suggested I’d be a great teacher. It had never entered my mind before, but the more I thought about it, it started making sense. I completed my PhD in 2005, and since becoming an academic I've never clock-watched at work again – I believe that's a sign of having found a calling, more than just a job.

Over my years in academia, I developed a lot of knowledge about developing businesses and entrepreneurs. In 2011, I decided to take this knowledge to people who might not otherwise have access to it, in remote communities in Australia and Latin America. I thought I was going to teach them; little did I know they were actually going to teach me and change the course of my career.

Through this experience, I learnt that in working with some communities they won't listen to you unless they believe you want to genuinely understand and participate in their social context first. This was despite the fact that we brought free technology to purify their drinking water. We couldn’t talk business until we engaged them socially and earned their respect and trust, regardless of what we were offering.

It got me thinking that I knew a lot about business and very little about communities. The ensuing search to find out more about communities and how they develop and grow guided me to my current research, and something I'm passionate about – understanding the wellbeing of societies.

In developed nations, the wellbeing of a society is often measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) alone, and that strikes me as missing so much. It's an indicator of economic health, but what about the many other components that contribute to the fabric of a society? I'm a big-picture thinker, and I knew there had to be a better way to measure wellbeing.

Working with leaders across the globe, I set out to create a framework that would measure wellbeing across economic, environmental, social, cultural, physical, psychological, spiritual, and material components. Different to many models, the framework doesn’t measure these areas in isolation to give a score – instead, it looks at how they counterbalance each other. For example, economic growth takes a toll on natural resources and the environment will be impacted, and that relationship needs to be considered when measuring overall wellbeing. 

Today, this framework is in practice for businesses and communities. I am currently working with the leadership of Anchorage, Alaska, where the mining boom created wealth, but this wealth has not been enough to create a place where people want to work, live and play. The sense of community was lost somewhere in this wealth generation process.

Now that the mining companies have left Anchorage, young people are leaving in droves; crime and antisocial behaviours are on the increase. Using my new wellbeing framework, we are looking at how we can change things to build a sense of community that sees Anchorage once again become a desirable place to live.

Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage, Alaska

While it’s excellent to see the model at work in communities, another thing that I am really passionate about is making sure young people get a better grounding in the concept of wellbeing and truly understand how to drive change from a young age.

Through my research projects, I get to work with primary and high schools across Queensland to start teaching these values to the next generation and help them to understand how the different components of wellbeing work together to create a quality of life. They need a good sense of how and why wellbeing breaks down in themselves, in businesses and in communities.

It’s important that the future generations of leaders are aware of the tight link between business and community, and play an active role in developing the communities they work in. I hope, through my teaching and research, to help future leaders see that wellbeing must be at the centre of their organisational mission.

As a teacher, it’s my privilege to enrich the lives of others through education every day.

My aim is to empower students to enrich the lives of others through their actions as global citizens.

Question Everything. Except Your Curiosity.

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