Encouragement and Sponsorship

In their own words - Women in leadership

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Annabel Spring

 


My belief is that most people want to do the right thing, and by opening their eyes to possible unconscious biases that they might hold, makes a big difference.

1. Tell me about your background and career journey.

I’m the Group Executive for Wealth Management at the Commonwealth Bank and have been in this position since October 2011. I look after CommInsure, Colonial First State, Colonial First State Global Asset Management and our advice businesses. Wealth Management accounts for about 13% of the operating profit of the bank.

I came out of University and I knew that I really enjoyed working with people as well as being absolutely fascinated with numbers. Fresh out of an Economics/Law degree at Sydney University, I chose to work for a bank, where I have enjoyed quite a lot of different experiences. I’ve worked in Capital Markets, I’ve worked in M&A, I’ve worked in Asset Management and I’ve worked in Strategy and Treasury.

2. Did you have a plan when you started out?

I didn’t envisage needing a plan, I just envisaged a role that I would enjoy. A role that allowed me to be the best that I could be in and something that took advantage of my love of numbers and my love of working with people.

3. Have you had to make any compromises along the way?

For me, this is pretty simple – there are just some compromises that I will not make. I won’t make compromises around personal integrity, and my view of service to the community. I grew up in a family where these were the fundamental, bedrock principles to life and they have served me well throughout my career. They resonate particularly well with what I do at the Commonwealth Bank.

4. Have you had mentors and role models?

I’ve really been fortunate with the people that I’ve worked around and that I have worked for. I’ve learned from them what to do and in some cases, what not to do. Some I’ve watched and some have given me really frank feedback. Through all of that, what I value most is their friendship.

5. How would you define success?

If you look at every role that you play in life, the three important things are work, family and friends and service to the community. My definition of success sits in these three buckets. At work, success is doing something that has a deeper purpose and that is interesting. A deeper purpose in my current role is easy to explain – we provide advice and we help people think about their future. This is critical.

With family and friends, it’s simple. Happy and healthy family and friends is vitally important. Finally in regard to community, anyone who is lucky enough to have a successful life has a duty to serve the community. I sit on the board of the Salvation Army and this is an important role for me.

6. What do you see as some of the major barriers for women in regard to career progression?

Coming back to Australia after having spent quite a lot of time in America one thing that has struck me is the lack of accessible and affordable childcare. This is an issue for every parent, but particularly women who have already taken some time out of the workforce to have their children. I’m not sure what the solution is, but this is a real problem for the country.

I think that in respect to women particularly, there is also the issue of self-perception that can be a real barrier. A recent UK study that looked at students coming out of University and applying for the same role showed that 45% of the female graduates thought that they had the necessary qualities for the role, compared to 59% of male graduates, even though the women had significantly higher grades that would suggest that they were more qualified. So self-perception and self-confidence can be a real barrier for women in the workplace.

I think that in respect to women particularly, there is also the issue of self perception that can be a real barrier. A recent UK study looking at students coming out of University and applying for the same role showed that 45% of the female graduates thought that they had the necessary qualities for the role, compared to 59% of male graduates, even though the women had significantly higher grades that would suggest that they were more qualified. So self perception and self confidence can be a real barrier for women in the workplace.

7. What, if any, unhelpful assumptions do organisations have about ambitious women?

I think that we have passed that stage now. Very few people hold conscious assumptions about women. The broader challenge in this discussion is about unconscious assumptions and unconscious bias. My belief is that most people want to do the right thing, and by opening their eyes to possible unconscious biases that they might hold, makes a big difference.

A large number of Commonwealth Bank executives have now undertaken unconscious bias training and I think that this has been a large part of our progress towards meeting our gender targets and how we think about filling roles.

8. What is your view regarding gender quotas and targets?

I think it is important that people are free to put the right person in a specific role. There should always be a meritocracy at work and there should always be an environment where the right person is placed in the right role.

But I do think that targets have a value, as a metric and as a measure of progress. Targets need to be paired with policies that support them, so that it is not just a number. In regard to recruitment, it’s about having a woman on the decision panel and at least one woman in the pool of candidates. Targets need to be paired with gender pay equity reviews at remuneration time. Targets need to be paired with policies around return to work and parental leave. Targets also need to be paired with policies regarding flexible work practices in order to be most effective.

9. What do you think organisations need to do better to attract, retain and promote women?

It’s about long term, multi-pronged commitment – and that commitment needs to start from the most senior levels of the organisation. The commitment also needs to convey the message that this is a business imperative that is about attracting diversity of thought and perspectives; reflects the diversity of our clients;realises the potential of our talent; and makes people happy to work here. I want people to be able to bring their whole self to work every day.

I think that organisations play a role in ensuring that there are policies and practices in place to assist women. One thing is to ensure that organisations have a diverse representation of candidates applying for roles as well as having a diverse selection panel when reviewing applicants. This forces the conversation about what the organisation is really looking for and who could possibly perform the role. It forces organisations to look further afield for quality candidates.

10. What advice would you give young women starting their career?

Have a go. Stick your hand up and say “I’ll do that”. Assume you can do it and then find someone who can help you do it. There are opportunities everywhere if you are willing to give it a go.

  The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not EY.
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Thérèse Rein

 


If an organisation doesn’t consider the stresses on people’s lives they won’t get the best levels of productivity from their people or the best levels of diversity within their organisation.

1. Could you tell us about your business and how you got started?

My background is that I am a rehabilitation counsellor. Ingeus is founded on principles of psychology which address reversing helplessness and helping people to flourish. We are the largest and preeminent provider of ‘welfare to work’ services. We started in Australia but we are currently delivering services in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

We assist people to transition from long-term unemployment, and feeling like they have no hope of ever re-entering the work force to being in decent, lasting work. We assist people to go from having no confidence in themselves or their capacity to contribute, to being confident and being valued for their contribution.

The service that Ingeus provides is not just about finding people jobs – it’s transformational work. We assist people who have had injuries, to work out what they can do, what they would enjoy doing and what gives them energy, by helping them design action plans and assisting them to build the courage to implement these plans.

We directly employ about 2,500 people, in 11 countries. And we indirectly provide employment to 3,500 additional people such as sub-contractors.

2. How did you make the step from being a rehabilitation counsellor to running your own successful business?

I was originally employed by another organisation, and discovered they were engaging in what we might call sharp practices. I resigned on the spot, as integrity is very important to me. The organisation was renting rooms from a physiotherapist in South Brisbane and when I resigned I went to speak to her to let her know that I would no longer be working there.

She asked me whether I had ever considered setting up my own company, which I hadn’t. She let me know that if I ever decided to, she would happily invest in my company. She believed that South East Brisbane needed an ethical, vocational rehabilitation provider. She told me that she believed that I could do it and that got me thinking. At the time, I had no business training. I has studied constitutional law at University and had some knowledge of legal methods and contracts and some knowledge in commercial law, but no direct business knowledge.

So I took an A4 piece of paper and mind mapped what a counsellor, a psychologist and an occupational therapist could do, how much they would cost each month, what kind of services they could deliver and whether there was any money left over at the end of each month. What I actually did, which I now understand, was put together a profit and loss cash flow budget – but really at the time, I just made it up.

This was not something that I ever thought of doing. But having someone say that they believe in you was immensely enabling. When I discussed the plan with my husband Kevin, he was very supportive, including the fact that I needed to borrow $7,800 from the bank and secure the loan against our house. He said that he thought that I would be really good at running this kind of business. So now, I had two people telling me that they believed in what I was trying to do – and this was immensely important.

3. Have you had to make any compromises along the way?

We are a very mission based organisation. The drive to achieve the mission, helping people to aspire, to believe in themselves, is of primary importance to us. We are a very values based organisation as well. Our values are - excellence with integrity. Excellence means challenging ourselves to do things better. Excellence is also about asking ourselves whether we can deliver more transformation to more people. We are continually learning. We don’t want to promise things that we can’t deliver. Being accountable and transparent is really important. That is something that we won’t compromise on. What this has meant over time is that sometimes we have had to walk away from business opportunities. We have been uncompromising in the tension between values, purpose, and opportunity.

So where have the compromises been? For me, there has always been a compromise between aspiration and practicality of implementation. Sometimes I say to myself that it would have been nice to have had this yesterday, but the practicalities do not always align with my aspirations and sometimes this feels like adjustment and compromise.

The other compromise has had to do with running a growing business and all that that entails and ensuring that I don’t lose sight of the things that are most important to me. Each year, I sit down with my diary and circle my children’s birthdays, my husband’s birthday, our anniversary, Christmas and Easter. These are sacrosanct family days and I plan the year around these days.

The reality is that my house was not always clean, my clothes were not always ironed, and as soon as I could afford to outsource these chores, I did. There are people who are much more competent at cooking and gardening than I am. Finding the balance was really important in my personal relationships and not sweating over the small stuff. It wasn’t me working in the school tuck shop and it wasn’t me making the slice for the children to take to school. But it was me reading to the children, it was me building a solid relationship with them and it was me loving them. I burnt the perfectionist stick that a lot of women beat themselves up with.

4. What do you think Australian organisations need to do better to attract, retain and promote women?

I think a lot of organisations are starting to change. Many organisations want to support people as they deal with being pulled in different directions such as family commitments and work requirements. Someone who has, for example an elderly mum who is sick and no longer coping with living independently, that is really stressful for people. If an organisation doesn’t consider these stresses on people’s lives they won’t get the best levels of productivity from their people or the best levels of diversity within their organisation.

The Federal Government’s move to paid parental leave was also a very good first step to assist people starting their families. Organisations need to have real discussions with their employees about their personal needs as well. For example, when a woman is going to have a baby, there needs to be a real discussion about what she wants - does she want to come back part-time or full-time and approximately when. There needs to be an acknowledgement that any decision will depend what the family unit looks like and what can realistically be expected. Offering flexibility is helpful. Staying in touch with the individual whilst they are away from work is also helpful. Offering access to training, to continuing professional development and keeping them involved in the goings on of the office are all very important. Really thinking about the re-onboarding is crucial.

5. What is your view on the introduction of targets and quotas?

This is a leadership question. Senior ranks in organisations should take a positive decision that they will have a balance within their organisation that is representative of the community. Changing the makeup and culture of an organisation might feel a bit awkward, and it might feel a bit new, but senior leadership can decide to make that change.

Should leaders in organisations and the communities need a quota imposed on them? No, I don’t think that they do. The problem with quotas is that there will be questions asked as to how people made it to positions of leadership. An example that I have is a friend of mine who is an African American, who in the early 1980’s won admission to Harvard, without any mention of his ethnicity in the application. Many people at Harvard thought he was there on a quota. He walked around with that burden for the entire time he was there, repeatedly having to explain himself.

Quotas can be avoided if we, as leaders, take responsibility to get diversity right.

If we are talking about targets, we should be aiming to normalise female representation on boards and in senior executive positions in organisations. 35% - 40% seems to the tipping point of normality. This is when there are almost equal numbers around the decision making table, where women are no longer an oddity. This is when people start relating to another not as women or men, but as colleagues – a group of people with a diverse range of views, thinking styles, leadership styles, and collaboration styles and that is going to give us the best possible outcome. With the right focus, we should be able to achieve these numbers in the next five years.

  The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not EY.
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Ask most men what their strengths are, and you get an immediate and comprehensive list. Ask most women, and you’ll get an uncomfortable pause, followed by some qualified statements: “people tell me… I suppose…” This is not a judgement: it does not mean men are arrogant and women are modest; or men are confident and women are not. It’s just a ‘tell’ that explains one of the reasons women don’t get promoted.

In many cases, left to their own devices, women typically fail to recognise their strengths, lack confidence in their abilities and don’t push themselves forward within the male paradigms of leadership – especially in the early stages of their careers. In traditional career development systems, which rely on self-identification and self-promotion, a tendency towards poor self-perception is stopping women entering the pipeline that would take them into leadership positions.

Instead of expecting women to change their behaviours to fit within the current male-centric models of self-promotion, we need to take a closer look at our performance management and succession planning systems.

We also need to challenge how we define ‘talent’ – not just seeing it in terms of traditionally male characteristics but to value the skills that women can bring to the table. Unless we proactively identify and encourage a broader spectrum of talent, many women will not achieve their potential.

For example, Ingeus founder and CEO, Thérèse Rein, had never considered running her own business, until someone she respected offered to invest in her ideas. “This was not something I ever thought of doing. But having someone say they believe in you was immensely enabling.” This endorsement led to Thérèse founding the world’s largest provider of welfare-to-work services, currently with offices in 11 countries.

The questions then are: How many women have failed to reach their full potential, purely because no one recognised or encouraged it? How many women fail to explore all their options, simply because they don’t see them? How many opportunities is Corporate Australia missing by not engaging with and supporting a wider talent pool of both men and women.

Annabel Spring, the Commonwealth Bank’s Group Executive for Wealth Management, believes it could be quite considerable. She cites a recent UK study looking at graduates applying for the same role. “Only 45% of the female graduates thought they had the necessary qualities for the role, compared to 59% of male graduates – even though the women had significantly higher grades.”

Each year, Australia spends billions of dollars educating our people, only to derail its return on this investment for half of the population by failing to capitalise on female potential in our workforce.

We need to revisit our talent systems and ask some hard questions:

  • Are we overlooking promising candidates – both male and female - due to out-dated systems for identifying talent?
  • Are we questioning enough how we define talent and what it looks like beyond our traditional paradigms of leadership?
  • Is self-promotion even a quality we want in our leaders?
  • What role can successful women and men play in acting as the catalysts for women to consider all opportunities available to them? (Who are we believing in?)
  • Why aren’t successful women sharing their insights with decision makers about what needs to be done to drive gender equity in the workplace?

“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” Douglas Adams