What I know about leadership

4 September 2014

Helen Conway

This article was first published on Women’s Agenda on May 7, 2014.

We asked a number of leading women who are speaking at the upcoming She Leads conference what they’d like younger women to know about navigating the career in front of them. Below, Helen Conway shares her personal leadership story, and why all leaders should value diversity and difference.

I started my career as a lawyer. After doing Arts/Law at Sydney University, I worked as a lawyer in private practice for 10 years, including about seven years as a partner in a law firm in Sydney.

While I enjoyed the practice of law, there was something enticing about getting closer to where the commercial decisions were made, so I joined the corporate environment, undertaking legal roles in the first instance and then branching out into broader general management roles.

I soon learned after joining the corporate environment that there was a lot more to being a good leader and manager than simply being a good technician. I was fascinated by what constituted a good leader and manager and was very keen to learn more about this.

Fortuitously, an opportunity arose. My then employer was running a pilot leadership program and was looking for volunteers to participate. I put my hand up. The course was terrific and, when it concluded, my employer suggested I undertake some more study. I undertook these studies at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management. And, so started a new journey for me!

I loved every minute of the course. It opened my eyes and broadened my perspective. I wasn’t a particularly diligent student while doing Arts/Law but this course felt very different to me. I was fascinated by everything I learned and was very keen to put it into action.

I returned to my employer when I completed the course and took up a new position as the General Manager of a corporate support division. I subsequently took up similar positions in other organisations and now head up an Australian Government agency, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Over the years, I’ve also undertaken a range of community and voluntary activities. There is no doubt I have received more in return than I have given through my participation in these activities.

Having come from a relatively privileged middle-class background, these experiences have opened my eyes. I’ve learned to value diversity and difference, and I’ve encountered inspiring, committed people. Ongoing commitment to this sort of work keeps you grounded and in touch. In many respects, it is the most important work you do.

These experiences have provided great learnings for me. Here are a few of the key ones:

  1. It is critical that you understand deeply who you are and what’s important to you, and don’t compromise your integrity. This will provide an essential framing for making decisions, and will facilitate the successful navigation of difficult situations.
  2. It is very important to maintain a mindset of continuous learning. The skills required to be a good manager and leader are very different from the technical skills we develop in our early university education. Formal leadership and management training is very valuable as you transition from a technical role.
  3. It is instructive to invite feedback on, and challenge to, your proposed decisions. It’s amazing how much you learn and how much it improves the decisions you make.
  4. You should seize opportunities when they arise. They may never come again! This can be daunting and takes courage and confidence. However, it’s worth the effort. I’m quite satisfied that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t volunteered to participate in that pilot leadership course. It set off a chain of events that ultimately led to me being where I am today.
  5. Broadening your perspective and experience will open up opportunities for you. With the benefit of a good educational underpinning, there are many opportunities to “stretch” yourself in both paid and unpaid work. This makes you an attractive candidate for many different positions as you move through your career.
  6. You will face many challenges, and indeed moments of potential derailment, throughout your career. While education will hold you in good stead, you need to adopt a mindset of being robust and resilient and staying the course. Having spent most of my career in male-dominated environments, this mindset has proved to be particularly valuable!

Helen Conway is speaking at the She Leads conference in Canberra on May 13. See more on the event here.

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.