Georgina Dent Reporter

Georgina reports on the legal profession, management, marketing, diversity, retail and emerging businesses. Before joining BRW, she worked as a lawyer in a commercial firm.

View more articles from Georgina Dent

How to be the CEO: A woman’s guide

Published 04 October 2012 04:12, Updated 04 October 2012 15:50

+font -font print
How to be the CEO: A woman’s guide

Microsoft Australia managing director Pip Marlow says taking a risk with promotions is a critical part of the journey to leadership. “I took some chances and took on roles that I was nervous about but being 70 or 80 per cent ready for a position is good.” Photo: Julian Lee

Statistically the managing director of Microsoft Australia, Pip Marlow, is an anomaly. So are Cynthia Whelan, Katie Lahey, Kathryn Fagg, Angela Mentis, Helen Conway, Christine Parker, Anne Ward and Christine Bartlett.

Each of these women has scaled the corporate ladder to attain senior leadership positions or directorships in some of the country’s largest organisations. It makes them standouts in an environment where the top 200 companies on the Australian Securities Exchange employ women in just 8 per cent of positions in the top three layers of management and a mere five of them have a female chief executive.

The good news is it hasn’t happened by accident. These executives share uncannily similar practical advice for younger women aspiring to corporate leadership, confirming that their own ascent did not occur by chance.

Public discussions around the continued lack of women in senior roles often focus on the structural barriers that impede gender equality. The female executives BRW interviewed all agree there are significant structural hurdles to overcome to make senior female executives the norm.

Improving access to both affordable childcare and flexible work practices are considered critical. But improvements notwithstanding, these executives are adamant that the c-suite is already within reach for ambitious women. So how can others follow their lead?

Believing it is possible is a good place to start. “I tell women not to worry about the glass ceiling,” Microsoft’s Marlow says. “Achieving professional success and getting to the top of any organisation is tough for anyone, regardless of gender, but it is absolutely attainable. You can only focus on what you can control and that is yourself.”

Lahey, the managing director of executive recruitment firm Korn Ferry in Australia and New Zealand, agrees. “You have to be open to career success and overcome any confidence barriers you have built yourself,” she says. “Females have a tendency to be self-critical. Sometimes females will have developed limiting beliefs even before they get to university.”

Whelan, the chief executive of Barclays, finds this dismaying. “I hear from young female graduates who have already decided they’re not going to pursue banking because of what they’ve heard,” she says.

“I spoke to a group of year 12 girls recently and was asked about investment banking and it was clear from their questions they had already established the belief that a career in banking would be too hard.”

It is disappointing for Whelan to hear because it means huge groups of talented and promising young women potentially will miss out on what can be a hugely fulfilling career.

“I tell young women it doesn’t operate the way they necessarily think,” she says. “It’s a fast-paced, professional and competitive environment that can be fantastic to work in if you’re attracted to that, which lots of women are. And those that are, tend to do really well at it.”

Achieving seniority in any company requires resilience, tenacity and hard work. “You need to develop resilience to work in this field,” Whelan says. “You don’t have to be aggressive or arrogant, but you do need to be a little bit thick-skinned.”

And women need to be more than willing to speak up. “Women can be guilty of thinking if they quietly get on with working really hard someone will notice,” Whelan says. “It’s important to make sure your effort is noticed and being valued. You can do that by being tenacious, asking questions and going that extra mile.”

Achieving seniority in any company requires resilience, tenacity and hard work, Barclays Capital Australia chief executive Cynthia Whelan says. “You don’t have to be aggressive or arrogant, but you do need to be a little bit thick-skinned.”Photo: Paul Miller

Learning to market yourself is an important skill, National Australia Bank’s executive program director, Christine Bartlett, says . “You have to spend time building a network of friends and associates within the company as well as getting the job done,” she says. “There is no point doing a fantastic job if no one knows you and what you are capable of.”

Bartlett says there is also value in letting your professional aspirations be known to your managers. “I’ve had conversations with men and women over the years who were disappointed because they weren’t considered for a particular role and yet they had never expressed their aspiration to fill that role,” she says. “It is always easier to manage someone when you know where they want to go.”

The path to the c-suite is never short and the female executives are unanimous that aspiring leaders require patience and flexibility. At some point in their careers, almost all the executives interviewed took up an opportunity that meant fleeing their comfort zone. For Westpac’s group executive of human resources and corporate affairs, Christine Parker, this meant moving from manufacturing into insurance, into food and finally into financial services – and trying out a variety of functions along the way.

“I had a plan in terms of where I wanted to go but once I was in an organisation, I was willing to try different things,” Parker says. “I started in finance but took roles in HR and corporate affairs, and having that broad base of experience has definitely benefited me.”

The chairwoman of Qantas Super, Anne Ward, is another whose career has evolved through stages. She started out as a commercial lawyer in Melbourne and quickly progressed to partner. From there she moved to National Australia Bank, where she stayed for a decade as a legal and management executive. She now manages a portfolio of board positions. “Career paths are so rarely linear that it is really important not to be too dogmatic,” Ward says. “You have to be prepared to change your path when an opportunity presents itself, even if that means taking a sideways step.”

Conway, the director of the Equal Opportunities for Women in the Workplace Agency and former NRMA and Caltex executive, says that is how her career unfolded.

“My career has taken the path it has because I took opportunities as they arose,” she says.

It often required stern inner dialogue but Conway persevered. “I’d say, ‘Oh yes I’ll do that’ and then I’d get really nervous – but at the end of the day I was prepared to back myself and work hard enough to make it work,” she says. “The issue is if you don’t take a chance another opportunity might not arise.”

Participating in a six week live-in management training course at Macquarie University was a pivotal decision for Conway.

“NRMA were offering this course and some people thought I was crazy but I put my hand up,” she says. “For the first two days I felt shocking, very inadequate. It was intimidating because I thought everyone was so much more impressive than me and I had an almost irresistible urge to run away.”

Korn Ferry Australia and New Zealand managing director Katie Lahey: “You have to be open to career success and overcome any confidence barriers you have built yourself”.Photo: Michel O’Sullivan

With some encouragement from her husband she stayed and it was one the best experiences of her professional life. “It was incredibly fun and it flipped my thinking out of law into management,” she says. “Afterwards I took up a general management position within NRMA and I wouldn’t have got where I am without it.”

Microsoft Australia’s Marlow says taking a risk with promotions is a critical part of the journey to leadership. “I took some chances and took on roles that I was nervous about but being 70 or 80 per cent ready for a position is good,” Marlow says. “It just requires some confidence and the self-awareness to know where you need to close the gap.”

In confronting all of the challenges that establishing and executing an executive career entails, being surrounded by support is absolutely vital. From mentors to nannies to parents to spouses to friends, all of the executives say their professional achievements have been facilitated by having practical help and some unconditional supporters in their corner.

“I had the benefit of an amazing female boss who was a role model for me from day one of my career,” Barclays’s Whelan says. “Since then I have had fantastic mentors and sponsors – both male and female – who have helped me to build confidence in my choices and ability.”

Away from work, Whelan says it’s just as important to have a strong support base.

“The first thing I say to young women about combining a family and a career is to marry well,” she says. “In my opinion it is incredibly important to have the emotional support from someone who is grounded and dissociates you from work. Someone who sees you as a talented woman, not as an employee.”

Conway also attributes a deal of her success to her husband. “I’ve never really had a mentor other than my husband and I would say in relation to his support, I’ve been very advantaged,” Conway says. “He is incredibly supportive and not at all competitive or ego driven.”

Mentis, the executive general manager of NAB Private Wealth, says that level of personal support is invaluable.

“To pursue a career which demands long hours and extensive travel wouldn’t be possible without knowing I have the support and encouragement of my husband and my parents,” Mentis says. “The importance of this kind of support cannot be underestimated.”

Ward couldn’t agree more. “Building a practical support network is critical,” she says. “One of my great ‘secrets’ is that my husband is a terrific cook. It makes a hell of a difference.”