Keeping people glued attentively to their seats was not a hard ask for The Hon Helen Coonan at last week’s Executive Women Australia Masterclass session. But for the former Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, women need to avoid languishing in what she terms the “sticky chair”.
In discussing ‘How to know when you’re executive ready’, Helen stressed not to wait until you feel confident and equipped for a role.
“Be recognised for the right reasons,” she said. “Don’t hang back. Put your hand up for the tougher gigs and you’ll be the obvious choice for jobs down the track.”
In reflecting back on her career it’s clear Helen definitely didn’t wait for opportunities to come to her. She turned down a partnership in a top legal firm taking a “sideways” step by start her own legal business. When taking on the Wentworth pre-selection battle in 1995 she proved she didn’t step away from a challenge. Even though she did not win it was clear her skills and presence were noticed. The year after she was elected to the Federal Senate.
So what are the key attributes she sees as essential for women moving to the C-suite?
Leading from the front, inspiring people to come on the journey and being able to authentically communicate the direction were identified as key qualities that will help women move up the ranks.
But the key message she wanted women to remember was that different times call for different leadership skills and there’s a need to continually develop and adapt once reaching the top. “That’s what will give you the x-factor … the ability to adapt to complex demands.”
However, she stressed you can never entirely be in control. Juggling the work life balance act is an “extreme sport” and for Helen she is a big believer that you can have it all but not necessarily at the same time.
“You need to look for organisations that carve a space for family commitments both for men and women,” she said. “You need to embrace who you are and the lifecycle you are at. And it’s important to remember there are always opportunities further down the track.”
Now enjoying director and advisory roles for organisations including Crown, the Snowy Hydro and JP Morgan, Helen could never be accused of getting stuck. She has had three diverse career paths and passionately believes she has a responsibility to not kick the ladder out from behind.
“I’d like to be remembered as someone who created a pathway for others,” she said.
Looking at the audience writing down her tips, there’s no doubt she’s inspired others to keep moving forward.