THE POWER OF THE COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE
It was getting to the end of what felt like a ‘Women in Leadership Luncheon’ circa 1980.
I stared into my glass of red wine as a group of executives spoke about gender inequality and the pay discrepancy between women and men.
Don’t get me wrong, these are important topics, but we’ve been reversing over them for years. It clearly isn’t working. I was underwhelmed and disappointed. The most exciting part of my day so far was the delightful chocolate mousse concoction that had just been dropped in front of me.
But then Clare Harris stepped up to the microphone. “Today’s discussion has been focused a great deal on men versus women,” she said.
“To be honest in my career this hasn’t been my issue. My issue has been with other women. If we want to see more women in leadership roles and more gender equality we first need to support each other!”
I almost choked on my chocolate tuile! I needed to meet this woman!
So I did.
Clare Harris is the CEO of Surf Life Saving SA. She is also a member of SA’s Chief’s of Gender Equality and a member of the SA Premiers Women in Sport Taskforce. She cares about women in leadership and she takes no shit.
I met her at the organization’s headquarters in West Beach. She greeted me with a genuine smile and a strong handshake making me feel like an old friend. We had a quick chat about the joy of the end of school holidays and I quickly realized something. This CEO is a real life human being. Smashing it in her career, but a mum who like everyone else on January 30 is pretty damn happy to drop the kids off at school and regain some sanity.
A CEO with no University degree, Clare is proof that hard work, determination, resilience, self belief and of course talent can certainly take you further than any piece of paper could. Living in Sydney, Clare studied to become a travel agent, then tried her hand at accounting – she hates maths. She studied Marketing and Public Relations and then scored a job in marketing and accounts for David Jones and her potential was clearly recognized – she was promoted four times in three years to ultimately become National Corporate Services Manager.
During this time she also fit in having her two children, returning to full time work just six months after having her first child. A much needed management restructure meant that Clare took a redundancy after ten years with David Jones. Like a true leader Clare turned this in to an opportunity rather than a crisis and moved with her husband back to his hometown of Adelaide to try her luck in her own business.
Clare bought Coastal Kids Childrenswear on Jetty Road thinking that owning her own business would buy her more time with her family and more financial freedom. The opposite was true. She found herself working seven days a week, going backwards financially, at risk of losing her home and putting a massive strain on herself and her family. Clare says that this period ultimately led to the demise of her marriage. She closed this business down after two years. I could hear the disappointment in her voice, she is a driven woman wanting to pave her own way but her place was in the corporate world, so that’s where she returned.
After going through some interesting interviews, Clare finally scored a role as Business Development Manager for Certegy Ezi-pay and then moved on to Business Development and Membership Manager for SA Great (now Brand SA). Here she expanded her network in an environment in South Australia that Clare believes is a lot about ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you know’. Through these contacts she scored her next role as General Manager, Commercial Operations at Netball SA.
Clare spoke with passion about her time at Netball SA where she and her team turned the club around and were responsible for the re-branding of the Adelaide Thunderbirds. After a stint as acting CEO Clare wasn’t kept on in this role and eventually left to take on her current role as CEO at Surf Life Saving SA. Clare is passionate about getting more women in to positions of leadership and is running a program called ‘Surf sisters’ to encourage young women to develop the skills and confidence to take on these roles.
You can see that Clare has had quite the career and I haven’t even touched on what she went through to stay at the top in the corporate world. What Clare refers to as ‘white-anting’, undermining, gossip and unproductive talk behind her back mostly by women has plagued her career. She’s had women at the top pushing her down, and women underneath pulling her back. Her 'take no shit' attitude and extreme level of resilience has served her well and she’s always managed to come out the other side.
Resilience is a key asset for any leader. But should Clare really need this next level resilience just to survive? And what is that saying to an up and coming female leader who wants so much more than just survival? Do they give up? Or not even bother trying?
Clare’s family is also involved in Surf Life Saving and during her time as CEO she has experienced a marriage break down, entered in to a new relationship and watched her children experience bullying because of the position she held – all in the eye of the people she was working with. After all, as well as being the CEO she was just a ‘Nipper mum’.
I asked Clare if she felt that being a woman in a leadership position people took more interest in her personal life than they otherwise would. Without hesitation she said ‘Absolutely.’ If there’s a male CEO it seems people barely even think about the fact that he might have a family. For a female CEO people are looking for the story. They’re looking for the gory details, they’re looking for the weakness.
I asked Clare how she managed to stay strong and remain resilient through all of the trials she’s experienced and I absolutely loved the answer she gave.
‘When all else fails you need to stick to your values and your
ethics. No matter what happens don’t lose sight of them and
you can go home feeling good about yourself.’
So, back to this issue of men vs. women and gender inequality? We can’t keep letting women off the hook. We need to look at what women have to do with the slow progress of women. Let’s talk about how we treat and support each other. We all absorb the same subconscious biases and beliefs, subjected to stereotyping from an early age. A young boy likes to take charge? A born leader. A little girl likes to take charge? Bossy. Conscious of it or not, we all carry this with us.
As women, we all want equality, we all want to see women in leadership roles so that we have an equal voice. It simply makes sense for businesses to have a broader perspective for innovation, sustainability and new ideas.
Do women support women at work? Absolutely. Do they sometimes sabotage and undermine each other? Absolutely.
Many women are very supportive of other women, I’m thankful that I’ve witnessed this many times. But I’ve certainly witnessed it the other way around as well. I don’t believe we do this consciously, which is why I’m addressing it. Awareness of these behaviors enables us to catch ourselves and make a choice to lose the biases, to communicate openly and respectfully, to be more supportive and more understanding.
Women can contribute to having more women at the top. Let’s create an environment where we can all thrive. It starts with you.