Be brave & back yourself: Tips from women in leadership

by Jacqueline Garcia

Despite the progress women have made in the world of business, there is still an undeniable lack of equal gender representation in executive and senior management ranks. Role models can play a significant role in helping both men and women navigate their career path, however with fewer women in positions of power, there is a smaller pool of female role models to look to for inspiration. With a strong cohort of leading women in our Blackdot community, we decided to shine a light on some of them to gain their insights and learn from their experience.

Every country in the OECD has a gender pay gap in favour of men, with women earning 15.1% less than men on average.1 While there are several factors that influence the gender pay gap, including women being more likely to be primary carers for family members and to engage in part-time or casual work, lack of representation in senior management positions plays a notable role. Women have been found to represent just 5.2% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies and hold only 26.5% of senior management roles.2

What can we learn from women who have been successful in achieving senior management positions in leading companies?

Sometimes your career can take you in unexpected directions

Rachel Stotter, Head of Sales at Goodman Fielder New Zealand – a leading regional food company – started out as a secondary school history and English teacher and initially thought she’d stay in education forever. But various opportunities presented themselves and she found herself moving into recruitment in the UK, then onto organisational development and running sales transformation programs. From there it was a natural move into senior sales roles. Commenting on the evolution of her career, Stotter says: “My first love is people and my second love is driving transformational change in a way that benefits everyone and in a way that turns businesses around. So put those together and sales is a good fit!”

Blackdot’s People & Capability Advisory Director, Sally-Anne Lyster originally studied for a career as a lawyer but found herself disillusioned by law firm culture when she interviewed as a graduate. Instead, she decided to go into the world of business, starting out as a tax accountant at EY where she said she realised “that probably wasn’t going to be the path for me”. She decided to follow her ambition to travel, moving to the UK and taking on strategic change roles in investment banking. After moving back to Australia and taking on a role in finance at the Commonwealth Bank, Lyster jumped at the opportunity to take on some group-wide strategy projects. This experience enabled her to progress quickly into multiple GM roles during her 13 years with the bank, shifting from finance, to customer strategy, to HR in the process, before moving on to her current role in management consulting.

Keep an open mind on different industries

Randi Ingram works at Aristocrat – one of the world’s leading providers of gaming solutions – as Senior Director of Transformation – Sales, Service & Marketing. Although she’s been in the industry now for over 30 years, originally coming from Detroit, Michigan, she never thought she would wind up working in Nevada in gaming. It was an initial accounting clerk role while still studying at university that was her foot in the door to the industry, eventually leading to a sales support role reporting to a VP of international sales. “That’s where I really learned how to take care of a customer,” said Ingram. From there it was a natural transition into sales roles, including managing strategic accounts and more recently representing sales in a major transformation project.

Rachel Savio has built an extensive and varied career at News Corp Australia – one of Australia’s largest media companies. Savio’s career path was initially in real estate and property and she planned on studying land economics, however, after taking on a sales role at News Corp around 20 years ago, her mindset on career preferences changed completely. From that point she became focused on pursuing a sales leadership career and has since progressed through a range of roles across multiple News Corp businesses, and is currently Group General Manager, Network Strategy. Commenting on her career progression, Savio said: “I’ve had the fortune of working for a very large organisation that has provided me with a great career path and unlocked opportunities for me to move into more senior level roles over the last few years, so that my career has actually advanced within a single organisation.”

It pays to vary your experience

Ingram has worked for a number of slot machine vendors in the gaming industry, but spent a few years working for a casino business “to see how the other half lives”. Ingram describes it as being a very enriching experience: “When you’re trying to sell a product, if you’ve been a purchaser of that product, it just gives you additional insights and things to consider. It completed my practical understanding of both sides of the business, from selling to purchasing.”

Gaining exposure to other parts within the business can also be extremely valuable. Ingram cited a role where she had the opportunity to be mentored and spend a lot of time with the business’ legal department: “This was a huge advantage and learning curve for me and this exposure made my business decisions that much stronger.”

“When you’re trying to sell a product, if you’ve been a purchaser of that product, it just gives you additional insights and things to consider.”

Randi Ingram, Senior Director of Transformation – Sales, Service & Marketing, Aristocrat

Be brave and back yourself

Stotter said she wished she realised earlier in her career that you don’t have to be able to do 90% of a role before you take it on. She said that this is an area where men and women differ: “Men back themselves into all kinds of stuff whereas women seem to feel like they have to be able to do every last little detail. Back yourself, back yourself, back yourself!”

Savio echoed this sentiment, saying “It’s okay to not be able to tick every box. As you mature as a leader and understand more about yourself, you realise that to be a great leader you need to tap into the areas that you’re not necessarily strong in and surround yourself with a team that can offset those weaknesses. Build an amazing, strong team of people who complement each other and you won’t have to be the best at everything.”

Savio also emphasised the need for women to be more confident when it comes to self-promotion. “I think one of the challenges women often face in their careers is that they can be overlooked because they’re not as confident as some of their male colleagues in promoting their own achievements and results,” she explained. “I think a lot of women think their work should speak for itself and they fail to see that they actually need to visibly and confidently promote their capabilities – not just wait for people to discover what they are capable of.”

“To be a great leader you need to tap into the areas that you’re not necessarily strong in and surround yourself with a team that can offset those weaknesses.”

Rachel Savio, Group General Manager, Network Strategy, News Corp Australia

On facing this confidence challenge, Lyster shared advice from a previous manager who said: “Just be confident – your voice is just as important as everyone else in the room.” Lyster pointed out however that this can be a hard one for people to get their head around and it’s important to be brave and back yourself: “I used to think that everyone else had a better opinion than me because they were more experienced, which isn’t always the case.”

Play to your strengths

Lyster spoke of the tendency of women to take on roles in what are considered support areas like communications, HR and marketing and being less likely to take on business roles. She said however that there is probably a missed opportunity here for women: “A lot of the pure business roles – particularly sales roles – are large people management roles and I think that type of role does play very well to women’s strengths.”

Ingram similarly felt that women have a natural inclination towards leadership: “It’s our tendency as women to be more nurturing, and part of leadership is growing and developing other people and I think that’s a foundation that women have intuitively, giving us a more natural foundation to be leaders.”

“A lot of the pure business roles – particularly sales roles – are large people management roles and I think that type of role does play very well to women’s strengths.”

Sally-Anne Lyster, Director – People & Capability Advisory, Blackdot

Create the flexibility you need to do your best work

Stotter highlighted the challenges of juggling family and work but pointed out the empowerment that came with realising that creating flexibility was completely within her control. “If I strove for the bigger role with more responsibility, then I could set the expectations for flexibility.” She also emphasised the importance of learning to delegate early on.

“If I strove for the bigger role with more responsibility, then I could set the expectations for flexibility.”

Rachel Stotter, Head of Sales, Goodman Fielder New Zealand

Both Stotter and Lyster spoke about the role that organisations should play in encouraging men to take time out for the children as well – making it easy and acceptable for that to happen. Lyster commented: “Until workplaces provide men with the flexibility they may need to share parental duties, it will be difficult for women to make progress.”

Regardless of family situation, it’s important to manage flexibility to enable you to put your best foot forward. Says Ingram: “I really love to work, so often I don’t manage work/life balance well, but it is important to take the time to recharge so you have the energy to do your best work.”
Sources:
1 Workplace Gender Equality Agency, International Gender Reporting Schemes
2 catalyst.org Women in S&P 500 Companies