Business women Changing Australian Finance

13 October 2015

Over the past decades, women in Australia have made leaps and bounds in how we are respected as leaders – from business owners to managers and policy changers. We’ve even had our first female Prime Minister.

Ahead of the Women in Leadership Conference 2015, we hear from five female leaders in Australian finance about how they became such influential businesswomen.

For more stories from these five influential women in finance, download the free Women on the Road to Leadership eBook or register to attend the conference. This year’s conference will be held in Sydney (17-19 November).

Find mentors to help and encourage you

Louisa Francis, General Manager and COO of IB&M, Commonwealth Bank

Louisa Francis built and ran management teams in India and China and was a role model for others in the way she adapted her leadership style to suit different cultures. She established the Diversity Council for Institutional Banking and Markets at the Commonwealth Bank.

An important decision when Ms Francis would have appreciated the input of a mentor was the decision of how best to return to work after having children. “I made the mistake of thinking I should take a seat back – ‘to give myself a break.’ This resulted in me losing confidence and enjoyment in what I loved doing. Then I put everything on hold mentally because I knew I was going to have another baby, although that wasn’t for another 2 years.”

Fortunately, everything worked out, but she wishes that she had called upon mentors and sponsors to help her make these decisions differently at the time.

Lisa Claes, Executive Director, Customer Delivery, ING Direct

Lisa Claes was a young, female barrister in the 1980s, a time when courtrooms were the domain of white, middle-aged men. She spearheaded the introduction of electronic identity verification for Australian banks, so that customers didn’t have to take reams of paper documentation into their local branch to open an account.

She points to the power of a support framework that includes a coach, sponsor, or mentor, and the importance of nurturing strategic networks. She says learning these “skills no one teaches you” is an essential part of advancing your career.

Enable work-life balance

Louisa Francis says she believes workplaces need to switch their focus from training and development programs for women, to enabling a balance of paid and unpaid work for both men and women.

Larke Riemer agrees. “Flexibility is very important. The lesson I’ve learned is pick a good employer that gives good staff benefits.”

Sally Kincaid points out that flexibility is not “a women’s issue”, “nor is it only relevant to parental responsibility”. She says flexibility must be the norm, and work should be focussed on outcomes instead of the hours you put in. Leaders must role model this first: “Leaders should role model how they work flexibly and how they achieve success in both their personal and professional lives.”

Don’t be afraid to fail

Larke Riemer, Director of Women’s Markets, Westpac

Larke Riemer has worked in financial services for 31 years and now mentors young women in the industry. She created the Women’s Markets division at Westpac and the ‘Ruby Connection’, which is now considered best practice in all banks globally.

She worked her way up from the bottom rung of the financial services sector, forcing herself into bigger and bigger roles to provide for her family as a single mum. She applied to jobs she knew she didn’t have the experience for, because she knew “I was intelligent, a quick learner, a good communicator, a good leader and I believed in myself”.

She added, “I pushed myself for newer and bigger jobs and I didn’t worry about failure. There have been times during my career where I have gone for roles that have turned out not to be right for me. I’ve learned that you can put yourself in a position of risk in your life, but you have to learn from your mistakes.”

Sally Kincaid, Chief of Human Resources, QBE

Sally Kincaid ensures that women step up into new roles through QBE’s Connect sponsorship program. QBE was praised at the 2015 Australian HR Awards as having the best workplace diversity and inclusion program.

She points to research that shows that women are typically reluctant to put themselves forward or to take a risk when it comes to career progression. She says, “Taking on projects and being willing to put my hand up for opportunities outside my comfort zone has helped me gain skills and experiences that have been invaluable at later times.”

Be aware of your subconscious bias

Linda Macpherson, Associate General Counsel and Member of Executive Team, Suncorp

Linda Macpherson was one of the leading lawyers behind the maternity leave revolution and realistic part-time working arrangements for parents. She says the biggest hurdle she faced in her early career was unconscious bias and a lack of flexibility in working arrangements.

She says, “We all know that working women apply themselves and adapt to work challenges while managing a family. [Equal opportunity] policies should be widely publicised and supported at all levels of management, rather than being documents prepared but not actioned.”

Build your personal brand

Larke Riemer, Director of Women’s Markets, Westpac

Larke Riemer says that to be a good networker, you must understand what makes you different and believe in yourself.

“You need to stand out, push yourself and recognise that there is something about you that is special. Every single person on the planet has something about them that is really special. You need to back yourself because if you don’t, how can you expect other people to believe in you?”

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