Seven female leaders share their stories of success

Seven successful female leaders on how they achieved their success and how other women can break down any door.

TEN YEARS AGO a female partner of one of the top four professional service firms was invited to attend a dinner celebrating her new partnership. When she arrived, she was refused entry as it was being held at a gentleman’s club.

On seeing her, a senior male partner at the same firm, simply said, “unlucky”, and walked right in. In 2016, the widespread recognition that gender diversity increases productivity and improves the bottom line means that there is an industry-wide commitment to increase the number of women in senior management roles. Here, seven senior female leaders give their hard-won advice on how women can break down doors.

Elizabeth Broderick, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner 2007-2015. Overall 2014 winner of the 100 Women of Influence Awards.

In developing the Male Champions of Change strategy, Elizabeth Broderick believes that our fundamental concept of work needs to be reimagined. “Let’s put talent at the centre and let work wrap around that.”

Once flexibility becomes the starting point the whole conversation changes, says Broderick, who describes the introduction of the all-roles flex initiative as “running like a wildfire” across diverse industries.

Broderick is convinced that the best way to promote gender diversity is the better sharing of paid and unpaid work between men and women.

“If you have more male managers taking primary parental leave this shifts the whole stereotype. That’s what will really help women advance because it sends a strong cultural message that you can be a serious player at work and be a father, whereas any number of women with young children doing that will not change corporate culture.”

In 2001, Broderick was the first partner at law firm Blake Dawson (now Ashurst) to go part time. She had two young children and her mother was dying of leukaemia, and her employer gave her full support.

This flexibility “buys loyalty in a way that money never can”, she says.

Her advice to younger women is to be solution focused. “There are enough people who can tell you what the problem is, not enough people who can explain creatively the solution.”

Theresa Gattung, formerly CEO of Telecom. The first woman to run a large New Zealand public company. Co-founded My Food Bag in 2013.

In the five years since Theresa Gattung has chaired AIA Insurance she’s seen a transformation from “no women on the board and in senior management to half-half”, a trend she sees across the financial services sector in Australia and New Zealand. Gattung believes that what you do is so much more important than what you say. As well as senior women helping bring others through, “you need a mixture of women. Some who’ve got kids, some who haven’t… Diversity within diversity.”

While governance on boards “is fine” it’s also about putting capital to work. “Some men do choose just to do boards but many do things that involve investing money, taking risks, building businesses. I think women tend to be less prepared to do that.”

In part that’s because the image of entrepreneurs is still male. Stepping up as an entrepreneurial role model herself, Gattung co-launched her new business My Food Bag two years ago which now turns over A$60m a year. The fail fast mentality, where you own the learning and move on, is key to success, she says.

Gattung admits she’s always “approached life as a sprint not a marathon”. She now recognises that: “Life is a very long time. You’ve got time to do everything, just not all the same week, though.”

Deanne Stewart, CEO of Metlife Insurance, with 20 years of experience in the financial services sector in Australia and internationally 

After 11 years working in London and New York, Deanne Stewart was surprised at how blokey Australian corporate culture was when she returned in 2007.

“Many people talked about this myopic, quarterly-return, aggressive, cost-cutting type of working environment; some even used the word toxic.”

This determined the next steps in her career path.

“I wanted to run a company and create an environment which is fun and caring but where you’re very clear about your goals and what high performance looks like.”

Fast-forward and Feldman has a leadership team handpicked for its diversity. The result: a turnaround in culture and more innovation.

Stewart thinks that for women to attain and sustain senior roles, there needs to be a 50/50 split at home, not just at work. What’s crucial are “constant conversations” with your partner.

In the workplace it’s not only about doing a good job.

“You’ve got to have an understanding of the commercial acumen and the P&L of a company.”

It’s also about actively finding sponsors as they “are sitting around tables determining succession planning”.

Lastly, Stewart urges women to be courageous in their career choices.

Terri Janke, lawyer and founder of Terri Janke and Company. Finalist in Telstra NSW Business Women’s Awards 2015

Terri Janke encourages younger women to become clear on their personal values and align their career with them and spend time writing out goals.

Once you’ve strategically looked at your path and managed the risk, you need resilience. Regular training helps, as do formal and informal mentors.

Janke has found her board positions helpful in learning financial skills and advancing her position as a director.

“I get to see how other board members think strategically. These people are better than an MBA especially when dealing with a crisis.”

Seeing firsthand how bigger businesses work has had a direct “flow on effect” in her own business while widening her client base.

As an Indigenous woman, she finds the biggest challenge is getting pigeonholed.

“I always felt I had to try even harder to prove myself. You feel you have to overcompensate so it’s been about developing that confidence and not doubting myself for being Indigenous and for being a that. Persistence is the thing.”

Kerry Doyle, CEO of Heart Foundation, recipient of Public Service Medal for Services to Science and Medical Research 

As a mother of five, working in a male-dominated profession, Kerry Doyle says that wherever you are, find a champion.

“It’s critical for some of those champions to be men. You’ve also got to find role models, somebody who looks like you that you can believe you can be.”

And if you’re the only woman?

“Don’t be afraid to be a pioneer.”

Doyle says when she started out it was almost impossible for employers “to conceive of someone with a large family having a career”. She doesn’t like to say that her “partner has been supportive, it sounds like they are doing us a favour. My time is as equal to his.”

To get ahead, she urges women to “be very self-aware”, gain experience in public speaking and presentation; and develop a virtual network through LinkedIn, Twitter with like-minded women.

“Back yourself. If you’re offered an opportunity, take the risk.”

Jane Halton, Federal Department of Finance secretary, former secretary of the Department of Health and the first woman to hold both these roles

Jane Halton didn’t start out thinking she was going to be a secretary of a department, but once in “striking distance” she thought she could do those jobs “as well as the chaps” in charge.

“You always want to work with someone from whom you will learn — somebody who is different to yourself and looks to be an expert.”

And when things go wrong, don’t crumple at the first knock.

“Often it’s not the making of the mistakes, it’s how you recover and learn that will be most formative. When I’m recruiting, theory is fine, but I want people who have had their feet in the fire and continued to walk afterwards.”

Halton says that even though she loves her work, her life isn’t defined by it.

“When I am home, I am at home.”

She likes to reflect on the day, how it’s gone and could have gone better. Her policy is always to ask if she doesn’t understand, to communicate, and to be inclusive in her conversations.

“I don’t think you can have a dialogue about a genuinely equal relationship between men and women if you don’t have men as part of that conversation.”

Norah Barlow, formerly the CEO of Summerset Group Holdings Limited, which became a NZX 50 company

Norah Barlow says that in her career, she hasn’t had other women around at all: “The people I’ve looked up to, my peers and my bosses, have always been men but I’ve never felt judged.”

When she was on the NZX 50 Index, she was the sole female CEO.

She never “pretends to be anybody” other than who she is. She thinks that too often women try and emulate men.

“Women in general are more consultative, wanting to make decisions from a big base of information, but men are more inclined to be quite speedy and make their decisions off limited information. Women try and act like that, instead of adhering to their natural principles.”

Whatever you do, she says: “think and act like you are in management from early on. Never think that a job is beneath you. Get into what you are doing as if you own it, as if you are it, then people respect what you are doing.”•

Download the article PDF: Seven female leaders share their stories of success

How stories transform company culture

Happy New Year to you all! It’s hard to believe it’s already February. Despite everything that is going on in the world and I think you’d agree, things can feel pretty crazy right now, the stories we tell ourselves and others are more important than ever. During this year on my Wordstruck blog I’m going to be exploring and explaining how you can use stories to create change in your life and in your organisation.

There are three parts to how stories work in business:

  • Storytelling
  • Story triggering
  • Story listening

In order to lead persuasively, whether you are leading an entire company or a team of three, or simply yourself, you need to know how all three work together.

When I coach leaders and CEOs one-to-one we start with storytelling. Once they’ve mastered the four story patterns that we use as part of the Storytelling for Leaders program™,  they are ready to delve deeper into the process.

We can move to using stories to create and shape the culture of an organisation. This is the start of a new and exciting phase. This marks the shift from using stories to communicate to using stories to influence and transform work culture.

So what is story-triggering?
It’s a way to create or amplify the culture you want. As a leader, your actions can trigger stories that are then re-told — both positively and negatively. This is the core concept of story-triggering. It is the equivalent of ‘walk the talk’. If there is misalignment between what you say and what you do, people around you will notice. As American author and businessman, Stephen R. Covey says, ‘You can’t talk your way out of what you’ve behaved yourself into.’

Now, over to you:
1.    Can you think of a time when you triggered a positive story in your organisation? What was the impact?

2.    Can you think of a time when, without realising, you may have triggered a negative story? With hindsight, what could you have done differently?

3.    What change do you want to affect this year? What is one thing you can do, so people repeat that positive story of change?

Look forward to hearing your thoughts!

How unconscious bias affects us all

The hottest phrase on people’s lips at the moment is unconscious bias. I’ve been speaking to CEOs in insurance, professional services, in start-ups and in government, and they are all saying that to improve gender diversity we need to address our unconscious biases.

Google kicked off this trend in May 2014 when it published its woeful diversity statistics and pledged to do better. Since then, writes Ellen Huet, in Forbes, the search giant has put its 50,000+ workforce ‘through workshops on how to understand and stop unconscious bias, which is the set of deep-in-the-brain automatic preferences that almost all humans have.’

Facebook has followed along with countless other corporates worldwide. Even though these workshops can help in showing up our prejudices, experts in the field worry that there isn’t enough follow-through to make long-term change.

At Anecdotewe know that when we run Storytelling for Leadersworkshops, one day isn’t enough. That’s why we have a six-month ongoing program to help embed the changes.

We also know stories can shift entrenched views. Unlike an argument which is a push factor, stories are a pull factor. When we argue with someone and give evidence to prove a point, it can actually trigger someone’s confirmation bias. This means they believe their viewpoint even more strongly — making it harder to win them over.

Now, there are literally dozens of different biasesthat we can have which prevents us thinking or perceiving rationally. Even though our brains are powerful machines, all humans make errors in processing information. This means that when we meet someone for the first time — man / woman; black / white; abled / disabled — we can quickly come to a misguided conclusion about that individual. Canadian bioethicist and futurist, George P. Dvorskyspells out the 12 common biases in more detail.

So, what fascinates me, is how we can use stories to effectively overcome our biases. This was illustrated perfectly last month when I went to a Women in Leadership lunch at the American Chamber of Commerce. On the panel, Dana Feldman, Head of Enterprise Sales Solutions at LinkedIn was describing how they are addressing gender diversity in the Sydney office.

I’m paraphrasing here. Feldman described how, at a casual lunchtime group for men and women, they addressed unconscious bias. After the meeting one of the men went to do an interview with a new job applicant for a sales role. It was a female applicant and at the end of the interview the male LinkedIn employee felt that she wasn’t right for the role; on his feedback form, he wrote that ‘she was too aggressive.’

He went to the recruiting officer and dropped off the form. As he got in the lift to go back to his desk, he had one of those Ah-ah moments. He asked himself, would he have had written that if it had been a man? No, he probably wouldn’t. He turned around, went back down the lift and changed what he’d written on the form.

The female applicant went through to the next round of interviews. Not only that, she got the job.

For me, this is a stunning example of how powerful unconscious bias training can be — but also how a story in so few words can illustrate this. And, of course, how it has the potential to change lives.

Over to you. How can we use story to overcome our unconscious bias — and to really affect change?