Advice I'd Give Myself

100 Women Leaders

The experience of successful women leaders is invaluable for younger aspiring women to hear and draw on. This theme of this paper highlights the reflections of the women we interviewed on the knowledge they see as vital for women to have to progress their careers, as well as their thoughts on what they did right – and sometimes what they got wrong. Perhaps the most useful advice is to keep looking forward, understand your capacity for change and as one woman told us: ‘Don’t define yourself by your past’.

100 Women Leaders is a national study by the Reibey Institute, aiming to identify the pathways and key success factors for women leaders in corporate Australia. Advice to self is one of eight themes identified in the series.

We spoke to 100 female leaders and asked them what advice each of them would give to their 20-year-old self as they embark on their professional career.

  • What they wish they had known earlier in their career?
  • What were the best moves they made for their careers, ones they would do again?
  • What would they do differently?

Their reflections fall into 3 categories.

  1. Self belief, career flexibility and taking risks are key
  2. Create networks and relationships and make them work for you
  3. Relax about family life

Belief, Flexibility and Risks

Networks and Relationships

Relax About Family Life

Self belief, self promotion, risk taking and adaptability

The women we spoke viewed the baseline for success as working hard and being highly competent. Confidence in yourself and your abilities, speaking up for yourself, putting yourself forward and not waiting for others to do so is critical – and so is personal integrity. Being adaptable and flexible in identifying and pursuing career opportunities as well as the ability to identify opportunities and take risks are also critical ingredients to successful careers.

The women often talked about being surprised that they were put forward for a role: one even related that she explained so many of her weaknesses in her interview for her current CEO role that the interview panel told her to start talking about what she could do!

The women in our study urged younger women not to wait to be offered their chances. Take control, believe in yourself and seek out opportunities. Don’t leave it to chance and the hope hard work will speak for itself. One woman mentioned that one of her supporters saw in her things that she couldn’t see in herself, but his/her belief in her enabled her to develop her own.

To plan or not to plan, how to do so and whether it is valuable emerged as another discussion point. The consensus seems to be, on looking back at their careers:

  • Progression does not occur in a linear way but changes and evolves alongside the industry and the general environment
  • Plans can be useful but don’t let them box you in! Adaptability and seizing the moment matter.


  • Have a voice.
 Do things you want to do and not try and please everyone else. …….Be a bit selfish
. Stop judging
. Stop feeling guilty
  • Courage in yourself, know what you are good and are not good at and put your hand up for what you want to do and are good at and for what you need



  • Flexibility was good for me – ie not having a 5 year or 10 year plan that puts you in a box and more important to know what you don’t want to do and look at everything else.
  • I wish ….in the first 10 years that I had broader horizons. About what I could do. Or what I could get involved in. I had a very narrow view of my discipline. I wish that I had much earlier had found more about the industry I was in and the company I was with and not just focused on my own discipline. …..I did not have a wide enough vision and view.
  • Look for opportunities outside your comfort zone best challenge and experiences and confidence (and self awareness)
  • Don’t be caught by the parameters of your degree


Identifying opportunities/taking risks

  • You don’t need to know everything before you try for something
  • Make your own opportunities when you see that something needs to be done – get in and make an opportunity and own it
  • Look outside the normal realms of opportunities, put your head up and look everywhere, stretch yourself and back yourself
  • I knew I was technically good but I never thought I would be a GM. But then I went for it and I am glad now.
  • Get comfortable with the worst case scenario


  • Don’t plan too far out, can mean you are not flexible
  • Be flexible and dont beat yourself up
. Dont need a plan by 30 doing this and 40 doing this
  • There are many pathways to a destination

One woman said she was constantly overlooked for promotion to partnership level until by chance she was asked by a senior colleague who was a partner, why she had not applied, possibly she was not interested? When she confirmed she was, he  asked if she had discussed with her internal sponsors putting her forward and supporting her application. She commented, “Then the penny dropped. That’s why everyone was making all these connections and even in my mid 30s I thought it was all based on work. I just did not know and no one ever tells you that either”

“Try things that are really interesting.  I am glad I took the risks I did because I wanted a variety of experience.  There are other pathways than the well trodden.”

Olivia Loadwick, Executive Director, Pottinger

Networks and relationships: make them work for you

Get going early in creating networks and cultivating relationships within your workplace, as widely as possible, and within your industry and your profession. This lets you tap into the experience of senior people whom you can ask for insightful, reliable and relevant advice. And it makes you known for your enthusiasm and interest in advancement, helping differentiate you from others (creating your personal brand). A sponsor or mentor needs to know you and have faith in you to feel it is worthwhile advocating for you. And while there is a need to put yourself forward for opportunities, a sponsor can point these out to you and support you.

The other point that emerged from the women’s experiences was that engaging with organizational politics was unavoidable and essential – but had to be done for maintaining personal integrity.

Some stories

One woman confided in her sponsor that she had doubts about pursuing a promotion. He told her she was the top of the list of rankings and encouraged her to go for it: exactly what she needed to hear.

Don’t cast your net too narrowly when building relationships in an organization. One interviewee commented “I knew I had a strong sponsor in the CEO but when we merged and he took redundancy, I was left out on a limb and got pushed aside.” The word network implies more that one and so it is important to make connections throughout the organization.

Make sure you cultivate those relationships and take an interest in others as well. “I make a point now of catching up with my initial sponsor twice a year. He has become a friend too.”

  • It is important to understand company politics early. I shied away from it and judged it as being bad and thought “I am so much better than that.” The reality is they exist and you need to be consciously aware of that and be political to serve your outcomes but of course, do so with integrity
  • It’s not just about working hard.
 Invest in relationships and networks with old colleagues
  • It’s not just about merit, its about how well you connect, there is a need to be proactive and plan
  • Network network network – it drives a career and gives more options
  • Networking – it’s all about networking! Doing it and being good at it, creating relationships and helping people
  • Align in organization with a sponsor and advocate and mentor: you don’t know how important that isBut [it] must be [with] more than one person because if that person leaves then you have a problem

  • Even if you have a report due – go to that event! Even if you hate football, go.

“Shape and create opportunities, don’t wait for them to come to you.  Find a kindred sponsor to help you navigate the opportunities and try things that are new, as paths are always opening.”

Margaret Cowle, Partner, KPMG

Relax about family life (and the rest of it)

Nearly ¾ of the women in our study had children. There was no evidence that there is an optimal time to have children. Most had partners when the children were school age and younger, some were single parents, and over two thirds of those with children had in-home care (often in combination with other arrangements). What did they think of the juggling act they had to perform? Overwhelmingly they said they had worried too much about doing it all! Their advice? Let go. Outsource to nannies and other in home help. Allow and encourage – maybe even insist – your partner does more. They enjoy family life too. And relax about your work, being happy in yourself makes for a better parent, partner – and leader. It is more likely you will spot opportunities, adapt and have time to network if you are not trying to do it all at home as well as at work.

Don’t worry about kids and work, it can work, it can be done.

Let your husband plan the kids birthday party!

Balance Family life and don’t feel that have to be a fantastic person that has it all because that is a fallacy

Go easier on yourself
. Not all decisions are life changing

Don’t worry about navigating a child and career, it can be done

Career is a marathon not a sprint. I was ticking boxes throughout my 20s over managing my career but I missed life.


Other interesting advice that we heard included:

Do a Sales course! Even if you don’t have clients you have to know how to sell yourself and sell your role and function in the organization.

“You can have it all, just not at once. Don’t put off having a family for a career. Enjoy it…… it will be over in the blink of an eye.”

Susan Purdon-Sully, Federal Judge

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