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Unfiltered Conversations: Daring to work differently and carving an authentic career path as women

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors that write to help Australia’s community of small and medium businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors that write to help Australia’s community of small and medium businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

With River Paul and Sadhana Smiles

Unfiltered Conversations pairs brilliant business women who are disrupting the status quo, for an honest, intimate and authentic conversation. In this feature, join Sadhana Smiles, CEO of Property Management for Harcourts International, and River Paul, 2019 Australian Capital Territory Telstra Business Woman of the Year, and Chief Economist and Statistician of the Australian Financial Security Authority (AFSA).

River Paul

In this raw and open conversation, Sadhana and River talk about their experiences and drive to work differently in their respective industries.

Sadhana made the choice to become a CEO almost a decade ago, and with no clear path laid out for her, had to carve her own way towards her goal, and uncover a version of female leadership that felt authentic to her. She is now CEO of Property Management for Harcourts International. While she is not alone as a woman at the top, Sadhana is concerned that there are fewer younger women following in her and her colleagues footsteps. She is also passionate about societal issues. During her career she has founded Links Fiji, brought Walk a Mile in Their Shoes to Victoria, and raised funds for White Ribbon. Within the business community, she would like to see business leaders do more to enact inclusivity in their workplaces. Sadhana was named the Victorian Telstra Business Woman of the Year in 2013, and is also a published author.

Fascinated by data and statistics' ability to shape society through policy and ideas, River Paul has known she wanted to be an economist from a young age. Today, she is the Chief Economist and Statistician at the federal government agency, Australian Financial Security Authority (AFSA). She is a strong believer in data as a major public asset, and an advocate for opening government doors to the public. While River has seen great success in her work at AFSA - in particular, the rapid expansion of published statistics, which makes information open and easily accessible to the community - she has also faced challenges. River talks about her search to find balance between following passion projects versus her personal career ambitions, as well as being true to herself as a female leader.

As well as being a Telstra Business Women’s Award state winner, River also won the Australian Capital Territory Public Sector and Academia Award, which recognises women who have dedicated themselves to making an impact in education or the public service. 

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Starting out in a career that you love    

Sadhana: Do you want to start by telling me about yourself, River?

River: Oh, sure. Okay. I've worked in statistics and economic analysis in the public sector since 2004. I've always loved economics. People always say, ‘Did you grow up really wanting to be an economist?’ The answer is yes. It's the framework for everything we think about, every day. How do we make decisions? Where do we invest our resources? All those sorts of things. Then, statistics give us a toolkit to analyse that.

When I think about my career, really what I've been doing is looking at what that broader system looks like. Then thinking about opportunities where we can change things in the existing status quo, to further strengthen that system. Sometimes that's going to be simple business processes and a really easy sell, but a lot of the time it's actually going to be about changing people's mindsets. That's something that we've seen a lot in the public sector, as well. We are trying to promote open data, and handing data back to the community so that they can use it in new and engaging ways.

Sadhana: I work in the total opposite realm, where we use user data to back our theory on what a property should sell for. But a lot of the time the sale of a property is driven by the emotion: ‘This is where I see my kids growing up’. Real estate is one of those highly emotional transactional elements that we all do in life, every day. It's one of the most important decisions that we make. As an industry, it's really interesting.

I fell into the industry because it was a job, going in as a receptionist. I started in it and then fell in love with the buzz and the excitement of the industry. In many ways, we do actually have a huge impact on not just the Australian economy. We underpin the economy market forces, really contribute to the success or decline of our businesses.

 

Working differently and in male-dominated professions    

Sadhana: Now I have a global role where I look after six different countries. Let me tell you, every country has a different way of doing business. The clients are different. The culture is different. How they see service is different. Technology plays a massive role in everything that we do now. I work in a space, for want of a better word, that is constantly being disrupted by all different elements. Never one day is the same. 

River: I guess when you think about such differences in those countries and everything, then I suppose for you then, working differently must come really naturally.

Sadhana: Yeah. It's one of the things I do. I don't know where it's been learned or something that I inherited, because I'm a migrant and I came here when I was 16.

"From a very young age I've learned to be the chameleon. Adapt to change. Integrate. All of those skillsets happened quite early for me in my life." 

Sadhana Smiles CEO of Property Management, Harcourts International

It comes naturally to me. I don't actually really have to do a lot of thinking about it.

One of the things I'm fascinated by yourself, River, I'm assuming that from the economist perspective, are you very much in a male-dominated environment?

River: Yes. Absolutely. One of the great things in the economics field is that that's actually been something that's really been focused on as a profession. There is a women’s economics network now, which is part of the Economic Society of Australia. That's really celebrating the achievements of our female economists, but also trying to get women into the field because we're seeing fewer and fewer women working in the field. They are dropping out after about eight years or so.

Generally, it's pretty standard for me that you're going to be one of, if not the only, female in the room. How about your sector?

 

Diversity and developing women into leadership roles

Sadhana: I work in the same environment, where quite often around board meetings or 99% of the meetings I go into, I'm the only female in the room.

"The interesting thing is though, 48% of our workforce is female in real estate, across the country, but at a leadership level, we have huge gaps."

Sadhana Smiles CEO of Property Management, Harcourts International

We've got a handful of women who are at that leadership level, either CEO's or GM's, but they've been there for a number of years. One of my concerns is that I'm not seeing a whole new bunch of women coming up behind us. You've got to ask the question why. I recently did a survey of about 200 female real estate agents, and asked the question, do you have the ambition to become a CEO or a general manager, or a senior executive in your organisation?

Seventy per cent of them said ‘yes, they do’, but only 32% of them actually had an opportunity to have that happen in their organisation. Then you've got to ask the question, what are we doing as an industry to make sure that we have a good platform for women to step up and take on those leadership roles?

Are the current leaders in our offices, in our businesses, noticing that they have only got men around the table? Or the one female who's the token female in the room, who's voice is never heard, whose ideas are never captured, who perhaps isn't taken as seriously as she should be? 

I also look at the whole issue of diversity in Australia and the conversations that we've been having. It's been very gender-based. Women on boards, women on leadership roles, etc. Yet to me, diversity is actually more than just how many women we can have in senior positions. It's about people, and it's how many different packages? Ethnicities, sexuality, and ability. Right?

"As a business leader, I think we've got to take a step back and look at our businesses and say, ‘Does my business actually reflect the communities that we work in locally, nationally, and globally?’"

Sadhana Smiles CEO of Property Management, Harcourts International

Because if it doesn't, then I think we have a huge issue. We won't be as competitive in the open market as we would like to be, because we like to do business at the need of the day with tribes that look similar to us. Have similar values to us.

I don't know if corporate Australia actually reflects the community that Australia is as a whole. One in four Australians are migrants, but when youlook at businesses, not one in four is of a different ethnic background in a business. 

River: Absolutely. That is a real challenge. It's interesting that you raise that. One of the  things that has come up in developing our diversity framework was that oneincentive for  migrants to join the public sector is the fact that we had things like a framework to support them that they couldn't see elsewhere.

One thing that I was curious with, with this transition from both junior levels up to the leadership levels in your industry. How do they then make the jump up into middle management and senior management, and leadership roles?

Sadhana: If I look at it from an industry perspective, there isn't much around. Our institutes are responsible for providing broad brush training. There isn't that training available to our guys, particularly for women to say, ‘Okay. I've been a receptionist, I've been a property manager, I've been an admin person, and I really want to take a step into being a manager of people. Into HR, or GM, or CEO.’

When you have women like myself who seven, eight years ago made the decision that I was going to become a CEO and I needed to sit down and ask myself what skillsets do I need? Who do I need as a mentor? What organisation do I want to work in? The answers that I got were not from within my industry. I actually had to go outside of the industry to find the right people, to have conversations with them, to get the skillsets, to expose myself to different people.

I knew that I needed to do a GM role before I went into a CEO role. It was a learning path because there wasn't a structured pathway for me to do it. I envy women in corporate Australia who work in organisations where they go in, and they have those conversations with people about where their career paths are going.

River: I think you're right about that element that you're going to have to look outside your sector to get some assistance. I think that applies in the public sector, for sure. Again, making that transition from junior to more senior levels requires people giving you an opportunity which 20 years ago, didn't always happen.

These days, as we've become more aware of diversity, I think that is improving, but it certainly has a long way to go. 

"I've had a situation where amazingly I was viewed as this delicate flower who couldn't handle some extra responsiblity that a promotion might entail. It would destabilise me. I had to go and really think and talk to people outside of my immediate sphere of how that perception could be." 

River Paul, Chief Economist and Statistician of the Australian Financial Security Authority

Is it just gender-based, or is it things that I need to address and reflect on, and think about, to progress to the next level? I think there's an element of stubbornness.

Carving a female career path    

Sadhana: I think we're in a world at the moment where there's the ability to use a lot of excuses not to do something, but I think there is a long way to go before men actually genuinely understand what it is that women want from businesses, to be able to drive a career path for themselves.

"It is very different. We do have babies. We do take time out. We do have other priorities from time to time. Our pathways to leadership have to be very, very different from a male pathway."

Sadhana Smiles, CEO of Property Management, Harcourts International

River: Absolutely. That raises an interesting question that we debate a lot at our workplace. We have established a formal mentoring program, but we don't have enough female leaders to serve as mentors without basically mentoring full time, and not getting their jobs done. 

"One of the questions that comes up for us is: 'As women, given that we do have such different paths, how important is it to be mentored by another female, as opposed to a male?' Particularly as you go up the chain?"

River Paul, Chief Economist and Statistician of the Australian Financial Security Authority

I noticed when you were talking about your role to a CEO, you mentioned that you really thought about who you would think as a mentor. How did you make that decision? What factors were you looking at?

Sadhana: Wow. There's a story behind that. I had no female mentors. All my mentors, all the people that I looked at who were great businessmen, were all male. There were no strong female role models ahead of me that I could actually go to. I had been taught by men, I had mentored and structured all of my behaviours by watching very successful men in my industry.

It wasn't until we had the Telstra [Business Women’s Awards] breakfast in Melbourne, and I'm sitting in a room with 15, 20 other women, and you share your story and your background and how you got there, and all that sort of stuff. 

"I'm listening to all these amazing women, and about halfway around the table, I'm like, 'Oh my god. I do business like a bloke.' This is what it’s like to do business like a woman. "

Sadhana Smiles, CEO of Property Management, Harcourts International

I was just horrified. Horrified at myself, but it was a real realisation for me that I needed to change.

It was like someone had held this massive, big mirror in front of my face and gone, ‘Oi, this is not who you are. You need to change.’ That's when I went looking for female leaders, and female role models, outside of the industry. I had to have that awareness. I don't know whether you had the same thing happen to you, but I did.

River: I think that's fascinating. I check in with myself every now and then about precisely that, because again, I don't actually have a strong pool of females to call on. It is something that I try to keep front of mind.

"One thing I want is to do things differently and be true to myself. Observe, and just take the bits that I think fit in with my style, naturally." 

River Paul, Chief Economist and Statistician of the Australian Financial Security Authority

I do think supporting each other is an important thing for females to do. Whether that's formal mentoring or where they may not even ever know that you played a role in their career, because if we don't support each other, who will?

 

Uncovering your ambition, the problem with ‘having it all’

Sadhana: The other thing that I find with women is that they don't like to be seen as too ambitious. 

"Ambition is dirty word, whereas I say ambition is a sexy word. We've all got to have it." 

Sadhana Smiles, CEO of Property Management, Harcourts International

How do you balance your ambition versus people thinking you're too ambitious because you're a female?

River: I actually don't think I have that balance particularly well. The reason I think that is because my career has jumped from area to area, instead of following a traditional path. Because I'm following systems where I think I'm going to add value or questions that I'm pretty sure I can answer for society.

The ambition's really related more to what I'm trying to achieve, as opposed to the level I’m at in my career. Sometimes I do have to back up and explain that to people, that actually I don't want to stay at the same level forever, and do this high-level work and not get paid for it, and have all this extra responsibility and just absorb that.

There does come a point where you can't take advantage of that, anymore, but for the external perceptions of ambition, I think that over time, given to my boss a disservice in some ways, in my career, because I haven't vocalised ambitions.

People think, oh well, she must be downtrodden. She hasn't got a promotion, because her ambition's been ignored. When in fact often, particularly early on, I didn't even articulate any particular career ambitions.

Sadhana: It's an interesting one, isn't it? I don't know about you, but I often get asked, it's such a stupid question: Can we have it all?

It just annoys me. It's just such an annoying question, because it's like, well what does 'having it all' really mean? Should we not be asking a better question? Every time I speak to women I say, stop asking yourself that question.

It means something different to everybody. 

"There's not this ‘Having it all’ award that we can all aspire to. Ask yourself a better question: what ambitions do I have?"

Sadhana Smiles, CEO of Property Management, Harcourts International

And share them. I'm always encouraging women to tell as many people as you can about what your ambitious are. Two things will happen. One: people who are on your side will support you to get you where you want to get to. Two: your directors, your leaders, will know that you are ambitious and this is the career path that you want.

Surprise, surprise. You might actually get what you want. But you're not going to if you keep it a deep, dark secret and only tell yourself in those quietest of moments.

 

It’s doing business, unfiltered.

Sadhana: Well, good luck. I will be watching with interest to see how far you get in those.

River: Thanks very much for such a great conversation. This is really fun.

Sadhana: Yeah, it is. All right. Have a great afternoon. See you later.

For more Unfiltered Conversations, join Tracey Spicer AM, multiple Walkley Award winning author, journalist and broadcaster, and Daphne Crowhurst, 2019 South Australian Business Woman of the Year and Managing Director of Crowies Paints, as they share their experiences of going it alone and succeeding in business.

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