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21 Aussie female executives share the key to success

What would you tell your former self? Source: Getty Images
What would you tell your former self? Source: Getty Images

There is an ongoing debate in Australia about the lack of female executives on company boards.

One industry, in particular, all too familiar with this challenge is the tech sector.

While significant headway is being made – last week the Australian government announced a second round of $8 million for the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship (WISE) grants program – there is still more progress to be made.

Business Insider asked successful Australian female tech executives currently working in the sector what they would tell their younger self, in the hope that it provides guidance for young women in the industry with similar career goals.


Here’s what they had to say.

Nicole Brolan, Product Director at SEEK

“I wish I had known that there are lot of non-technical roles in the tech industry and started exploring them earlier. I always had the assumption that to work in the tech industry you needed to be an engineer and that it was not that a creative space – how wrong I was! It is incredibly creative and there are roles to suit any skill set.”

“I would also like to remind my younger self that it’s ok not to understand what people are talking about straight away, particularly in very technical conversations – you just need to ask well thought out questions to get people to break things down for you.”

Libby Roy, Managing Director of PayPal Australia

“Lessons that I have learned over the years that I wish I’d known when I was younger… is that “It is more important to be effective than right”. Putting this into practice is easier said than done. You need to really understand your stakeholders and see things from many different perspectives to map a path that everyone will buy into and make happen.”

“Lastly, own your career. Career paths are made up of many compromises along the way as we juggle our personal, professional and family aspirations. There is no right answer. Every journey is different and you need to own yours. Don’t wait for the next opportunity to come along or wait for that promotion before you stretch yourself. If you have capacity and are interested, sign up for that challenging project or demonstrate that you can fill a gap. In the words of Nike “just do it” and you’ll be surprised at how the formal promotions and opportunities will come as people see what you can achieve.”

Carolyn Breeze, head of Australia at Braintree

“If I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be: “trust yourself, and own your strengths”.

“By nature, I have always had a fascination for and an interest in people – how they work, why they work, and what makes them tick. As the local lead for a company that’s built its success on not only reading and predicting buying trends well, but also on the diversity of its people, being a “people-person” has proven a huge asset. But for years I was taught to believe that my style would never work. By way of well-meaning, friendly advice, I was told by peers and bosses alike: “Being a people person will only get you so far”. What a farce that turned out to be!”

“In the business world, emotional quotient has long been treated as the poor cousin to intelligence quotient. The truth is, while technologies evolve and the way we purchase change, people remain the constant. Without people (both employees and customers) you don’t have a business, and without real interactions, genuine connections are impossible. This is no truer than in in the technology space, where wars will be fought and won on customer service, consumer loyalty and the values businesses represent.”

“So start early. Strive to meet people who see the world differently, give yourself permission to be challenged, and never accept that business acumen and people skills are mutually exclusive traits!”

Amy Foo, VP of Finance and Operations at Zendesk APAC

Move fast and break things. If you are not breaking things, we are not changing fast enough: “When I was working in the public accounting world, I visited many clients’ workplaces and was fortunate to experience different industry paces and cultures. Some were slow, and some were fast. I knew back then that I wanted to be part of a fast-moving industry, which meant taking a job that was considered risky. I joined my first software technology company in my mid-twenties, and the future then was very much unknown. Fast forward to today, there is a software application for every problem you need to solve and “fast” is an understatement to describe the current state of the IT and technology sector.”

Stay curious : “‘Staying curious’ is an important thing I learnt and will continue to do. Learning is the key to progress and pushing yourself to improve. It does not mean changing jobs or going on sabbatical every time you feel you are not learning as much as you could be. Staying curious can be more refined. To me, it means “think differently” about how you’re doing something on a day-to-day basis; to challenge and innovate the status quo. It also involves gaining a deeper understanding of other people’s perspectives, motivations and walking a mile in their shoes. Flexing my curiosity muscle on a daily basis makes me happier at work.”

Vanessa Doake, Co-founder at Code Like a Girl

“The advice I would give to my younger self is to educate myself more about different professions. I would also seek out more people in different roles to understand what their day-to-day looks like.”

“It’s exceptionally difficult to decide what you want to do when you finish school without having the chance to experience it. Sites like LinkedIn can be a great tool to do this. Make a list of the professions you’re interested in, and find individuals or companies who are leaders in their space and ask if you can spend a day or a couple of hours to learn what they do. When I was younger I would have been petrified to do this, but over the years I’ve come to see that people in senior positions leading companies are just people too, and often exceptionally generous with their time and investing in those starting their careers.”

Melissa Ries, Vice President and Managing Director APAC at Skillsoft

Develop a vision: “It’s hard to know what you want when you’re young and easy to be led astray by setbacks or new opportunities. Work on developing a vision of what you want your life to look like, not just your career but also your personal life, and believe you can make it happen. This makes it easier to put what’s happening today into perspective and make better short-term decisions because you can visualise the bigger picture.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff: “Small issues or conflicts can seem so big in the moment, but in the context of your career they mean virtually nothing. Whatever you’re dwelling on will pass and you’ll have wasted your energy. Keep in mind what’s important to you.”

Melanie Power, the Head of Bookkeeping for Xero

Keep focused on your goals. Get several mentors.

“I have always had mentors from a young age, and many times when I have been faced with significant decisions, having someone from the outside looking in and being able to state facts and provide clarity around the situation really has given me a great check and allowed me to comfortably and confidently execute on a decision.”

“You need people around you to challenge you, keep you accountable, celebrate your success and also give you direct feedback when you need it. Having people that are essentially “yes” people does not help you move forward. One of my mentors very early on said to me “Surround yourself with people whom are more experienced, more intellectual, soak it up and take everything in.”

Karen Lawson, CEO at Slingshot

“So what if you don’t have a degree, your fellow peers might all be male, 10 or 15 years older than you and have more experience, but it’s what you do that counts. You care more about your customers, helping them to solve their challenges is what you do best and you will outshine them all. Be your best. Be you. Be memorable for all the right reasons.”

“Don’t take things too personally (especially when that old dude told you that your baby blue M&S skirt dress should be replaced with one from D&G so you had gravitas — yes it hurt but he had a point!) Learn from every moment and you will forge your own path. #DoItYourWay”

Bridget Loudon, CEO, Expert360

“Don’t let lack of experience hold you back. Always back yourself and learn to trust your gut. When building a team you should hire for character, which can’t be taught. There will always be people who can fulfil a role based on skill, but they need resilience, tenacity, drive and integrity to be truly exceptional employees.”

Leah Rankin, Vice President of Product & Engineering at Nearmap

Never sell yourself short: “Don’t feel like you need to tick every box outlined in a job description to apply for a role. I once hear that women will only apply for a role if they think they can do 100 per cent of what’s been asked, whilst their male counterparts will apply if they can tick at least 60 per cent of the boxes. I’ve tested this theory over the years with friends and colleagues and sadly I feel the sentiment is true!”

“But this is not how you decide if you are good enough to apply for a role. If I followed this rule I would have never applied for the Head of Engineering role at Nearmap — after all, I’m not a Software Engineer! Yet today, I am the Executive Vice President of Product & Engineering.”

Leave office stress at work: “One my fiancé will certainly agree with — leave office stress at work. It’s important to share what goes on at work with your partner, friends or family, but don’t let it impact your personal life. If it does, then take a long hard look at what you are doing; perhaps it’s time for a career change. We spend so much time at work, it’s important we have work-life balance and that means leaving work at work. In my experience this makes you a healthier and happier person, and allows you to be even stronger at work.”

Sharndre Kushor, Co-founder and COO of Crimson Education

Listen, ask and learn more: “Investing in learning and developing your skills is very powerful. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and don’t be afraid to acknowledge when you don’t know what you are doing and are trying to figure things out as you go.”

Remember what is important: “Make sure you always do things that are important to you so that you are guided by your own personal mission. The journey ahead of you is long, it’s windy and sometimes will have very steep uphills. Your ability to stay connected to your own values and be focused on your goals will help you to navigate north. If you are ever stuck or don’t know what to do, ask yourself “what would I do if I wasn’t afraid of failing?” Be bold with your actions. Believe in yourself. This is especially important for women. Believe that you can conquer anything and overcome any challenge.”

Oksana Goncharova, Managing Director of Material Information Platform at Ansarada

“You will face obstacles, everyone does, but you will find the support and drive to face these head on. Everyone faces setbacks, it’s how you address them that matters. I’d tell myself that the best way to deal with setbacks is to treat them as a learning experience, take ownership of what you do, and move forwards.”

“I’d tell my younger self to enjoy the process of working hard, networking, and discussing ideas. Stay open-minded and believe the dots will connect in the end. You know the why, focus your efforts and drive towards the how. Rely on your passion, drive and ambition, and seize every opportunity that presents itself. Never stop learning, whether that is from books, experiences or the people that surround you.”

Anne Moore, founder and CEO, PlanDo

“You’ve found your passion. Believe in it and believe in yourself. Deep down you know why you’re here. You have everything you need for success. Don’t compromise and don’t doubt you can do it. It will take longer than you think and it will be hard. Sometimes it will feel impossible, but don’t give up. You were given a purpose and particular strengths, follow your heart and keep your wits about you. Listen. Be courageous and put one foot in front of the other. Relax and breathe. Be good to yourself, you have a journey ahead.”

Marissa Senzaki, Head of Talent Acquisition & Weployee Experience at Weploy

“I spent most of my twenties working hard in toxic situations in order to prove myself. My advice to my younger self would be to focus on understanding yourself and speak up. What that means is, you need to know your goals, values, and “non-negotiables.” Identify what type of work environment is important to you; be able to speak to your immediate goals so you will be identified for opportunities; and don’t be afraid to push back or ask for help when needed. Finally, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to walk away – something better will present itself.”

Siobhan Hayden, COO at HashChing

“Always say yes to opportunities, in and out of work, as you have the ability to learn from everything you expose yourself to. I have had, or still have a security license, gun license, bus license, worked as a security guard in nightclubs (for seven years) and as a private protection for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.”

“Also, when you work from home with little ones, be grateful that you were able to balance work and family and not be critical you were not 100 per cent in either camp.”

Elizabeth Whitelock, CEO at Veriluma

“Don’t pursue a career because someone said you were smart or creative enough to do it. Recent surveys show half of us are miserable in our jobs and a quarter of us feel we made the wrong choice of profession. This is a major commitment – do what you love, what makes you jump out of bed, and pursue it with passion.”

Jennifer Maritz, CEO at Nvoi

“Seize opportunities offered even if you are not 100% confident you are capable. Don’t be afraid or change, embrace it and experiment.”

“There were a few occasions when I was presented with opportunities for working in different divisions or changing roles, but I felt I wasn’t confident enough to take the new position, since the move would have required me to draw upon skills I wasn’t sure I had.”

“Moving to Nvoi showed me that it’s OK not to know everything, that’s what a team is for, and while experimentation has its ups and downs it is very rewarding.”

Deb Zimmer, CFO at Inabox Group

“Be prepared to take risks, push yourself further than you think you are capable of doing right now, it’s a win win – you get growth in your career and your employer gets an upskilled, happy employee with a longer tenure but you have to be prepared to put in the hard work.”

“Plan your finances, boring I know but let’s face it we are not all at work for love, we have other interests and personal goals we want to fulfill, buying a house, having kids, travelling etc. Get some advice early on to help you pave the way for work life balance that means you feel fulfilled inside and outside of work.”

Sophie McGill, Executive Director at MSMCI

“Throw yourself in the deep end and work your ass off. Put in the hours, work hard and learn as much as you can from everyone around you – work harder and smarter than your superiors expect, it’s a sure way to create respect and longevity in your field.”

“It’s difficult to tell in the beginning if you’ve chosen the right career path or even the right industry but hard work is always respected by anyone whose respect is worth earning and will stand you in good stead wherever you go. Focus on doing your best now rather than worrying about where you’re headed.”

Beth Worrall Marketing Manager at Buddy Platform, Inc.

“I would tell a young Beth Worrall to relax and enjoy the journey. It’s OK if you don’t know what to achieve long term – in fact, you might never know! Every career and life experience will be an opportunity to learn and grow, and as you follow your interests and passions your career will unfold like a map. Pack plenty of common sense, initiative, a sense of humour and chocolate.”

Julie Demsey, General Manager of SBE Australia

“Trust your intelligence and your gut. When other people in the room see things differently, it doesn’t mean your viewpoint is wrong or less important. Don’t let others place limits on you and more importantly, don’t place any on yourself. Breathe, meditate, exercise, eat well, have fun with friends and loved ones, this will re-charge you and keep you from burn-out. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And if you are going to have a life partner, make sure they are supportive of your career and not intimidated by it – that will hold you back, it’s OK to excel!”

– Business Insider

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