Women in leadership: Australia’s female leaders give their top tips for success

By Robert Half on 19 January 2017

Robert Half's debut 'Leading Ladies' event invited over fifty business women to a panel discussion on how to drive a career in finance.

The objective? Broaden the community of women in leadership within the finance industry and give helpful tips to women to drive their career.

With only 27% of key management personnel positions occupied by women, according to the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the time has never been more pertinent to nourish the careers of women in finance.

The panellists included Alison Harrop, CFO at Dexus, Kellie Egan, APAC HR Manager at Atlassian, Anna Harper, CFO at Society One and Stacey Brown, Deputy CFO at News Corp. Topics ranged from managing the unique demands of the CFO role and tips on how to navigate a career towards the CFO position, to the role of mentors and education in building a successful career.

In Part 1 of a two-series blog of this event, we share some of the key insights from these inspiring women in leadership:

1. How do you prepare yourself for the demands of a CFO role?

While most of the panellists agreed that nothing could ever have quite prepared them for the role of CFO, they did have some great tips to managing the transition. Harrop advocated shadowing as a way of learning the ropes of the role: “I’ve been lucky in my career – when coming into a CFO role I’ve been Deputy CFO first, to shadow the CFO and understand the pitfalls of the business.”

Brown reflected: “As a working female and as a mother, being really organised is the key to being successful in a senior leadership position. I also have a great team around me and an excellent assistant.”

Brown also added the importance of staying true to oneself amidst the transition to a senior leadership role: “I also think it’s really important to be genuine. People will respect you for being yourself. I’ve seen women in leadership put on more male characteristics because they feel they need to in order to succeed. In my opinion, you are taken more seriously if you are yourself.”

2. What was the biggest change for you, when you stepped into the CFO shoes?

For Harrop, the biggest change was broadening the scope of her role. “The breadth of the CFO role is mind-blowing,” says Harrop. “I didn’t really know that was going to be case. Traditionally, in a finance role, you have a role with a certain jurisdiction and then when you are CFO, you are responsible for a much broader scope. For example, I now spend 20% of my time on finance and 80% of my time contributing opinions to, and making decisions on, other parts of the business.”

In addition, Harrop has found that most of her time is spent influencing the key decision-makers in the business – other senior leaders and the board. “Since stepping into the CFO role, I have to spend more time looking sideways to my peers in my executive committee, and presenting up to the board. As an introverted accountant, presenting was not my strong suit but I’ve trained myself over the last ten years to look them in the eye with confidence, and gain their trust.”

When asked about how to gain the trust of the board and manage investor relations, Harrop added, “I approach those big meetings like I would approach an exam. I study and commit numbers and percentages to memory. And above all, you must project confidence.”

3. As women in leadership positions, what practical advice do you have on how to self-manage your career?

For Egan, self-awareness and personal branding is the key to forging a successful career path. “As women in leadership, I think it’s important to think about your individual personal branding. Ask yourself these questions: ‘How do people perceive me? Am I seen as someone who gets the job done? Challenges the thinking? Makes a strong contribution? Am I seen as a happy person that people want to be around?’ People make general assumptions and it’s up to you how you present yourself as the person you want to become.”

For Harrop, the key to driving a successful career is about building resilience. “You have to remember your career is a marathon not a sprint. There will be times when it doesn’t go according to plan, or you didn’t get that job, and it’s really important to build resilience within yourself.”

In addition, it’s important to give careful consideration to skill development. Harrop added:

“Be deliberate about the skills that you acquire. Try not to pigeon hole yourself too much in one particular skill set. My attitude has always been: ‘New year or new job - what skill am I going to get? What am I going to learn that is new, what can I add to my CV or my LinkedIn Profile?’ In doing this, you are demonstrating to a potential employer that you are adaptable and flexible. They will be much more willing to take a risk on you and give you the job you are after.”

4. Did you have a mentor or coach throughout your career?

For all the women on the panel, it wasn’t just one person who guided their career and development, but a number of key influencers, mentors, coaches and sponsors who played a different role at key periods in their careers.

Said Harper, on the varied mix of people who have influenced her career: “I’ve had a variety of people who have influenced me throughout my career. I currently work for an incredible female leader; I actively observed her and sought out opportunities to work on close projects with her. I also undertook further education and that gave me access to other networks, and I was able to connect with a number of different coaches who I bounce ideas off and who offer me a completely different lense.”

Egan stressed the importance of finding a sponsor. “Reach out and find someone who can be a sponsor,” said Egan.  “A sponsor is someone who is really well networked in the organisation, is a really big supporter of you and can share stories about you in a positive way. You’re not always in the position to do that yourself.”


5. What does career progression mean to you – is it more about skill set and development, or is it about role and title?

The panellists agreed that in order to progress, women needed to be more specific about the role and titles they were after. Said Harrop: “You don’t have to be aggressive, but at every opportunity you should be out there saying what role you want. People are busy and they aren’t necessarily in tune with what’s going on in your head. You have to be deliberate about letting people know what you want.”

Egan reflected on the difference between the sexes when it came to career values and overtly chasing a role. “I’ve worked with many leaders across all different levels, and I’ve found that males are typically very focused and ambitious, whereas women in leadership are more focused on quality of life. Often, women are waiting for that tap on the shoulder.”

Similarly, Harper was very deliberate about the roles she needed to acquire in order to achieve her career goal of CFO. Harper explained: “When I was a finance manager at JP Morgan, I identified a company that had that growth potential, and the role that I wanted in that company. For two years I developed all the skills that I needed for that role, and then I went for it. Once I had worked in that role, I identified that I needed to work in a start-up, and so I sought that out. I’ve been very deliberate – I have been actively researching and identifying different opportunities and forged my career path.”

6. Do you recommend any further education to other women in leadership, or who are seeking leadership roles?

“At a certain stage in your career, and MBA can be helpful,” said Harper. “For me, I was very set on where I wanted to get in my career and there were certain skills that I couldn’t develop within my own organisation. An MBA gave me access to networks, case studies and frameworks for thinking.

Egan added: “I have found my MBA very useful - the relationships that you build are lifelong. And, the MBA brings great credibility in your business when you share what you are learning.”

Whatever the education, the panellists stressed that it is about the quality of what is learnt, versus the qualification. “It’s important to remember that it’s not about getting a piece of paper, it’s about what you are there to learn and bring back into your workplace,” stressed Harper.

Brown agreed. “It’s the combination of experience that is most important, whether that be through an MBA or skills that have been learnt through a number of different jobs.”

The panel of women in leadership covered a wide range of topics affecting women in finance, from navigating a career in a male-dominated workplace, to how to successfully balance work and family life.

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