I moderated an American Chamber of Commerce panel event at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney featuring former Qantas Chairman Margaret Jackson, Telstra Group Executive Brendon Riley, and leading technology executive and entrepreneur Jamila Gordon (who also happens to be my wife).

Here are some of the key messages the panel shared about what it really takes to make it to the top in the corporate world.

Make conscious choices

If there was one overarching theme that emerged, it was the importance of making active choices, both in your career and in life. For example, Margaret Jackson has always been passionate about new and interesting challenges, and so she decided very early on in her career to get involved in a range of areas, from business, to the arts, to philanthropy, to medicine. This has lead to her developing relationships with diverse and fascinating people over the years, and has created an environment where intriguing opportunities often come her way. Her conscious choices have helped craft the life she wants.

Manage your own career

‘Treat managing your career like it’s your other job. You need to devote quality time to this, because no one else will do it for you’, said Jamila Gordon. I see this in my coaching practice: more often than not it is those who actively plan their careers that make it to the very top, leaving others to wonder why they missed promotion.

Be authentic

Brendon Riley spoke of the importance of being authentic and seeking to work in an organisation and environment where you can be true to yourself. The panelists embodied this authenticity. There is no difference between how Brendon, Margaret and Jamila come across on stage in front of two hundred and fifty people, and how they are one-to-one. Speaking to people in the audience afterwards, it was clear they sensed this.

Networking: how to go about it

Jamila underlined just how critical building a network is. ‘You can’t get to the top on your own. You need sponsors, mentors and others who support you – and vice versa’. She shared her approach to this critical aspect of career management. ‘When I first started developing my network many years ago, I did a lot of research. I identified people with whom I had something in common, and then found out as much as I could about them.’ She looked at things from their perspective, and asked herself questions such as ‘What issues are they likely to be facing right now? What are they interested in? What might be keeping them up at night? How might I be able to help them?’ Taking her research into account, she would then write them an email introducing herself, and follow up with a call to their office. ‘You would be surprised at what a positive response you typically get,’ she said.

She said she has made some wonderful friends through networking. ‘It has been incredibly enriching, not just from a professional perspective, but from personal one, too.’

Finally, she advised not to worry if you don’t get a response from someone, or if the response is negative. ‘For all you know, they may be having a tough time at work or at home. Either way, just put it down to experience, and move on. But do not give up.’

Learn from your managers – all of them

Brendon said that one of the best pieces of advice he could give was to learn from every manager you work with. He said that while he was very fortunate at Telstra, the reality is that over the course of every person’s career, there will be some managers that are more challenging to work with than others. The key is to learn something from every one of them, as some of the most valuable lessons can come from your most difficult bosses.

Have an answer to the question ‘What would you like to do next?’

Brendon was surprised by how many people don’t have an answer ready for this question. ‘It is really impressive when someone is prepared’, he said, and suggested a response along the following lines: ‘If that [e.g. Chief Digital Officer] position ever became available, I would really like to take it on.’ He said it is amazing how often that very role becomes vacant, and when the leadership team sits down to go through potential candidates, the name of the person who put their hand up is brought into the discussion.

Note the nuanced way that Brendon framed the suggested response. ‘If that … role came up, I would really like to take it on.’ This is very different to saying ‘I want the … job’, which could be construed as implying ‘…and if I don’t get it, I might leave’. (In my experience, organisations don’t tend to invest in people who are a flight risk.) Nor does the response suggest that you are unhappy in your current job. It simply and appropriately communicates a keen interest in a particular role. Even if you don’t get the job, you have still shown yourself to be prepared, ambitious and committed to the organisation.

I would add one caveat to Brendon’s advice: be realistic about which position you say you’re interested in. People moving straight from the mailroom to the executive suite might happen in the movies, but in real life, asking to be promoted multiple levels above your current role risks making you look naïve.

Define your personal brand

Be conscious of what message you send out to the world, and actively decide what you want to stand for. Early in Jamila’s career she decided that she wanted to be seen as feminine and approachable, but also conservative and professional. ‘That’s who I am as a person, and I try to reflect this in everything I do, from the way I dress to how I communicate with others.’ Speaking to the women in the room, she urged them to make conscious choices about how they wanted to be perceived by others, and to recognise the consequences of those decisions. She pointed out that there are many unhelpful stereotypes out there for women, and the best way to avoid having others apply them to you is to actively define your own brand first.

Never waste a crisis. Mistakes are how we learn

Margaret said that she saw crises as wonderful opportunities for positive change. And she urged the audience not to fret too much about making mistakes. ‘If you aren’t making mistakes you are probably operating in your comfort zone and not challenging yourself enough.’

Work/life balance

Every one of the panelists reinforced the need to have interests outside of work, and to make sure you allocate time to these. For example, Brendon said that if he ever feels he’s not getting his work/life balance right, he purposefully sets himself a major challenge or project outside of the office.

Margaret, Brendon and Jamila all set aside time for exercise as part of their daily routines, and said that this was a non-negotiable.

Finally, and reflecting Brendon’s earlier point regarding authenticity, Margaret spoke about how important it is for leaders to model the behaviours they seek from their organisation. This includes the area of work/life balance. She urged leaders to not only make the time to go and see their child’s school play for example, but also to be honest about where they are going. ‘We all have lives outside of work, and we shouldn’t hide that fact.’ (For more on authentic leadership, read my article here.)

Note: I would like to thank Michelle Cooper, National Manager – People & Performance at Peoplebank Australia Limited, who very kindly shared her notes from the event with me. These were a great help when writing this article.


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