Three Big Lessons from Four Pioneering Leaders

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”   ― Philip Pullman

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
― Philip Pullman

In an age obsessed with business cases, statistics and data-points we can sometimes forget that storytelling remains the most powerful way to put ideas into the world. Stories delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, and challenge. They communicate ideas and unpack issues, not just intellectually but as a personal, emotional experience.

Stories have enormous power; the stories we tell ourselves, those shared with us, and particularly the ones that captivate us in such a way that they become norms, folklore, great works of fiction, or form the rich tapestry of our history.

Stories are also core to driving change- you can’t shift an outcome without shifting the story- be that internally or externally, individually or collectively.

Last Friday, I was privileged to MC and moderate the Layne Beachley Aim For The Stars Foundation ‘Women in Leadership Forum’ as we celebrated the stories of four incredible female leaders: former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Opera House CEO Louise Heron, Deloitte CEO Cindy Hook and CSIRO Deputy-Director Dr Cathy Foley. Importantly, the fundraising event was in aid of catalysing and empowering the creation of the next generation of women in leadership stories through supporting the Foundation’s scholarship program.

Our four speakers, each a trailblazer within her respective field, provided fascinating insights in to the challenges of getting to the top, being the “first” and navigating major leadership positions. We covered off handling criticism, overcoming doubt, how to have your voice heard and the deep importance of self-knowing and pursuing your passion. There was also a lot of discussion around what needs to be done to change the game when it comes to gender equality at large. It was an uplifting and energising event- and if, as the old adage goes, ‘you can only be what you can see’ the significance of having four pioneering women share their stories shouldn’t be underestimated at a time where we so desperately need a new collective story about women in leadership in Australia.

So for those who couldn’t be in the room, here’s my attempt to synthesise the smorgasbord of wisdom in to three key lessons:

1. Resilience: strong foundations + disciplined practice
In the flood of social media question suggestions I received in advance of the event the number one thing people wanted to know was ‘how do you handle criticism/failure/attack/sabotage?’ In Julia Gillard’s autobiography ‘My Story’ she reflects on resiliency having typified her three years as Prime Minister. On Friday she talked a lot about what she believed enabled her to weather the challenging times of her political career: carving out the time and space to get crystal clear on her purpose and what she stood for; being able to distinguish between fair critique and vitriolic attack (her hint: if it’s after midnight on twitter it’s probably alcohol not acumen talking!); and the critical importance of having a solid support crew around you.

As we start to lose the word resiliency to the grips of buzzword-land, we can begin to misguidedly look for the magic ‘silver bullet’. The key all of our speakers came back to was embedding strong foundations of self-knowing and, as Deloitte’s Cindy Hook put it in drawing parallels between CEO preparation and marathon preparation, putting in the consistent, hard work to build up your resiliency muscle. Do your best to foresee the rocks and prepare specifically for the sorts of situations you can foresee will call on you to exercise your resilience.

Adding to this, Opera House CEO Louise Heron spoke about the idea of ‘detachment’- the importance of having a healthy distance between your work and your identity, which she said had proven key to being able to remain resilient during periods where work had been particularly challenging. She described her own role as having stewardship over the cultural icon for a period of time, with the continual awareness that just as she had been preceded she would be succeeded. Again, it was emphasised that the ability to do this isn't magical nor immediately bestowed on you at first crack- it's honed through the disciplined practise of ensuring you invested in non-work related activities and relationships.

2. Risk: punt on yourself, regularly
You’ve got to risk big to win big, and as our line-up spoke to on Friday, leadership studies still show a demonstrable difference between the preparedness of woman take a risk on their own capabilities. As the Harvard study we’re probably all too familiar with says, women will wait to meet 4 of 5 criteria before they apply for a job, whereas men will apply when they meet 2… that’s not good math (side note: it’s also not great that only 6% of girls in year 12 are studying advanced math… but that’s a soap box item for another day). Having the confidence to put yourself forward and parking the fallacy of ‘waiting til you’re ready’ (here’s a bubble burster: readiness is a mirage, so don’t delay decisions for something that’ll never materialise) is vital; your career will rise in proportion to your preparedness to put yourself out there for opportunities.

Cindy Hook (the first female CEO of a big four accounting firm) punted on a move from the US to Australia, while Dr Cathy Foley up and ran a childcare centre alongside her scientific work at CSIRO to build her exposure to business management and governance challenges to broaden her experience base and help advance her career. Both spoke to having an awareness of the skills needed to advance to the heights of your career aspiration and ensuring that while you continued to play to your strengths you sought to continually put yourself in environments outside your comfort zone that would stretch the reach of your capabilities. As Cindy said, in articulating why the out-of-my-comfort-zone-hustle was key to her growth, “when I knew the very least I performed at my very best”.

3. No one is an island: cultivate, build and invest in relationships
All the speakers talked to the importance of those they surrounded themselves with: the significance of a strong support network, the power of mentorship and sponsorship and the criticality of bringing people with you and surrounding yourself with a brilliant team. The comment was made that perhaps they had swung too far towards mentorship at either the expense of (or in the absence of) sponsorship- an interesting point worth a quick elaboration; a mentor is someone who’s a trusted sounding board or advisor, while a sponsor is someone who goes in to bat for you and helps open the door to opportunities. While all speakers had been the beneficiary of both mentors and sponsors when it came to securing opportunities, it was sponsors who’d made the difference. Working with people who back you and/or ensuring that people who back you are aware of your aspirations so they can support you in achieving them were stressed as keys to ensuring you can leverage the power of sponsorship.

Emphasis was also placed on learning from the right people- taking roles alongside leaders you admire, investing in coaching and development and taking breadth roles (say in community organisations or on boards) that would give you exposure to a different cohort of leaders and a different context in which to learn from how they work.