Australia Markets closed

Kerry Chikarovski reveals her biggest mistake in politics, and how to turn your career around

The New Investors video series brought to you by Yahoo Finance reveals the secrets of the most successful entrepreneurs and business people in Australia today. This is the tenth episode of the season.

“I think the biggest mistake I made was that I didn't talk to anyone about it,” she says.

The mistake that 63-year-old Chikarovski is referring to is one that played a big part in her decision to quit politics.

When Chikarovski, entered politics in 1990 and went on to quickly become the first woman to lead the NSW Liberal Party, she tread a path few women had before.

With few female politicians around her to learn from, Chikarovski, or Chika as she’s widely known in Australia, found it tough to talk about some of the daily struggles of an always-on job.

“As leader of the opposition, I had to be on call 24/7,” Chika said. “So it's very high powered and stressful.”

“But the one thing you can't do, particularly as leader, is admit that you're not coping.”

While the World Health Organisation recently classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon, the term wasn’t common in the 90s, and indeed non-existent in politics.

But today workplace burnout is a huge issue, and talking about everyday challenges with close friends or colleagues has been found to be one of the best ways to combat it, or cure it.

Rather than doing that though, Chika chose to “grin and bear it”, but says that move cost her a role as Premier.

Kerry Chikarovski and Yahoo Finance's Sarah O'Carroll chat on The New Investors. Source: Yahoo Finance

And the former politician doesn’t think she got the work-life balance right either.

“I became a minister after 12 months, and that was kind of a bit of a shock to everybody, I think including my husband,” Chika said.

“I got so consumed by it all that I was always making sure I had time for the children, but I didn't have time for him [her husband], and that's being totally honest about it,” she said.

But she said she could have changed this.

“I’m always encouraging women to step up and to actually push themselves, and to try things which they don’t think they can do.

“But I always say to them, ‘You need to do two things when you do that. You need to have confidence in yourself, but you also need to make time for your partner, your kids and yourself.’”

The importance of mentors

Chika was fortunate to be born into a political family. Her father worked for the United Nations during a stint in New York, and was later involved in local government back in Australia.

This meant she had plenty of connections in the field already, but it was John Howard who mentored her and helped her win her pre-selections.

“He said, ‘Look, there's one thing I would say to you. Do not harp on about being a woman, because it’s clear that you are a woman.’”

Rather than sell her gender, Howard told Chika to sell her skills and qualities: “What you need to do, is talk to them about what you can bring to the parliament”.

So, she persuaded them on the night that she could do the job.

And the importance of believing in yourself

The former Liberal leader had a five-year plan to get into politics, but she was veered off course when the leader at the time, John Dowd, announced his resignation four days before the 1991 election.

This meant, a mere eight months into her plan, she had to gear up for something she was completely unprepared for: her pre-selections.

“I mean, I had an opportunity thrown at me, which I didn't expect as quickly as it came.”

“Instead of saying, ‘Oh, I'm not ready. Maybe I'm not good enough. Maybe I shouldn't step up,’ I said: ‘Absolutely, I'm stepping up. I'm having a go.’”

You can change careers in your 30s - even your 40s

Chika was a lawyer by trade, but it was never her passion, nor her goal, to be one.

Ironing her kids’ school uniforms on a Sunday night, Chika started bawling her eyes out.

“I'm standing at the ironing board, balling my eyes out, and my then husband, Chris turned around and said, ‘What's wrong?’”

“I said, ‘I'm 34 years old. All I've ever wanted to do is be a politician, and I'm nowhere near my goal.’”

So, she changed her life.

She rang up her local member, John Dowd, organised to meet him for lunch, and quite plainly said: “I want your job.”

Years later, Chika came to another fork in the road when she faced her exit from politics.

Used to a jam-packed diary of daily duties, Chika was once again in tears during a dinner with her children, after she realised her diary was blank for the following weeks.

“I said, ‘Well, I've got nothing to do with my life.’ My daughter then said, ‘Go find something else that you can do.’”

Sound advice, but for Chika, finding something else to do wasn’t without its challenges.

“I walked out without a job. I had nothing to go to, which was pretty scary because I had two kids and a mortgage.”

Jobless and juggling children and bills, Chika realised she just needed to have confidence in her strengths and abilities, and make it work.

On the other side

People started to come to Chika because they needed some advice with bureaucracy issues, and she started to help them.

After realising she could actually charge for her skills, her government relations business, Chikarovski and Associates was born.

Chika and her daughter run the business, and work with start-ups and young entrepreneurs to help them navigate the media maze and tackle challenges like how to interact with government and bureaucracy.

Small businesses need help addressing legal aspects, so her skills in dealing with privacy considerations, the ACCC, and getting products to the market are in high demand.

“I'm not as passionate about being a government relations person as I was about being a politician, but I'm still passionate about making sure I get really good results for my clients,” Chika said.

Chikarovski’s advice to others?

If you’re changing careers in your 30s, 40s or even 50s, Chika’s all for it.

While she said you’ve got to be practical, if you don’t like what you’re doing, you should definitely go and find something that you do like.

But, she advises that whatever you do, make sure you’re passionate about it.

“If it's not working for you, move on and do something else.”

But, Chika said you need to be passionate about whatever you’re doing in the moment too, because people appreciate passion and commitment, and you might just find you learn to enjoy it.

The New Investors video series brought to you by Yahoo Finance reveals the secrets of the most successful entrepreneurs and business people in Australia today. This is the tenth episode of the season.