Episode #1

27 Jun 2019 | Tales of the C-Suite

My tale begins when I was a debilitatingly shy schoolgirl, the youngest of six girls in a family that did not see beyond traditional roles for women. Through my own story and my conversations with women in the C-Suite, I explore the secrets to success in the corporate world.

I went to school with a boy who is now the CEO and Managing Partner of one of the largest and most prestigious professional services firms in the world.

We have many things in common: same age, grew up in the same social and political environment, same primary school in a beachside suburb, similar secondary schooling (he an all-boys school, me an all-girls school), stints working in London in formative stages of our career, married with children.

As a young girl it seemed obvious to me that this boy would grow up to be a leader, an ‘important person’, and enjoy career success in whatever his chosen field. Why not? His father was a highly educated professional, a leader, and a person of standing in our local community, so why would he be anything but?

My dad worked three jobs to support his six children. He didn’t have the time to attend school functions or be on school committees – nor would he have done so even if he did have time. Such community involvement and attention would have been totally out of his comfort zone.

This boy looked destined for leadership, success and influence. It appeared to me at the time that the path was clearly laid before him, following in his father’s footsteps. All the necessary skills were being prepared – debating, public speaking, leadership roles in the school, meeting and greeting parents at school functions.

I barely spoke for the first ten years of my life. I was debilitatingly shy, the youngest of six girls in a family that did not see beyond traditional roles for women. Success was defined as attending secretarial college and being married at 21, with a family in tow soon thereafter.

Yet, I have had a successful career in the corporate world. Both internationally and in Australia. I have done more with my life than I ever dreamed. I hold positions of leadership in my community. I regularly and comfortably speak to small and large audiences alike. I mentor high potential women. I’m told I am a role model for how women can lead with integrity and influence.

I’ve had time to pause and reflect on these different paths. How did I get here? What made the difference for me?

The short answer is, I just did it. I took advantage of the unprecedented benefits of higher education for women. I was part of the vanguard of professional women who forged successful careers in the 80s and 90s. There were opportunities and choices available because of the women who came before me.

Thinking a little deeper, there are some things that did make the difference for me:

  1. Curiosity and continual learning – having a learner’s mind, always curious and wanting to know more, trying to understand the world and navigate the complex and opaque norms of corporate life
  2. Courage to follow my own path even when it seemed scary, unfamiliar and risky to those around me
  3. Taking charge of myself – taking personal responsibility for my life and my career, taking time out to grow my personal skills and awareness, and spending time and money on that
  4. Inner work – the personal work you do will be the biggest factor in your success: resilience, emotional awareness, self-leadership, reflection and commitment to develop
  5. A breath of experience – operational experience, travel, working at global or national levels, gets you out of your comfort zone and gives you a bigger picture
  6. A working career is not Instagram perfect – it has its ups and downs. There will be inevitable stuff-ups, lessons to be learnt, and acceptance that we are human.

Perhaps my childhood observations of this boy were misguided or inaccurate. Several decades on, I know now, that we can never presume to know the road someone has travelled in life and career.

I also know that the professional and personal choices we make every day do make the difference. You can reach your highest potential no matter your backstory or the set of background conditions and events that led you to where you are today.

A once shy girl speaking at the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ Annual Women’s Lunch in 2018.

I’m going to enjoy exploring these questions further. I’m on a mission to unlock the unspoken laws of women at work and I hope these stories will help you discover new ways to navigate the corporate world.

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