In her own words
When I reflect on challenges in my career I think back to when I became Group CEO of Keolis Downer (2014), a French transport group operating the Yarra Trams and the Gold Coast Light Rail, when people frequently said to me ‘you don’t know anything about rail.’ There was an assumption that to be able grow in transport and be in the position of CEO you needed to have spent your entire career working in transport.
Keolis Downer approached me for my commercial skill set and my experience in infrastructure and stakeholder management, particularly government, rather than the technical knowledge of transport. I certainly felt I could do the job and during this time learnt a lot about transport. But the comments were challenging. Sometimes you can be your own worst enemy spending time doubting yourself rather than getting on and doing the job and leading the organisation.
I think change has occurred since then. A lot of skill sets are recognised as transferable, and we are seeing more women coming from different sectors now into the transport industry. Barriers are starting to be removed because of the lack of depth in the talent pool and greater acceptance that to catch up on gender parity, leaders have had to look at what skill sets are transferable. I am optimistic; it is an upward trend. Transport is a complex sector, but it can be integrated and benefit from the experience of people from other sectors.
I have worked and sat on Boards across a number of different sectors, but the industry that really lights me up is transport. It’s the most complex and fascinating one and it is the one that touches the everyday life of everyone, from the moment you walk out of your door until you come back.
TAHE is the custodian of a large and iconic portfolio of assets and there as so many opportunities to unlock the value of these assets, deliver better places for the communities and sustainable revenues that can be reinvested in the transport network. I feel very privileged to have been appointed as the inaugural CEO. It is a challenging role, but it came at a time when in my career when I was ready for the next challenge. TAHE has a real purpose, and it does give me energy to build the team, establish the organisation and its culture. I spend a lot of time engaging with stakeholders to explain TAHE’s operating model and its benefits.
Earlier in my career when I was working at environmental company Suez, they looked at their high potential people and identified 40 out of thousands across the organisation. Of the 40 emerging leaders there were only two women including me. It was a massive wake up call for the company and they implemented a mentoring program for all the top 40 where participants were mentored by a different gender. It was one of the best experiences that happened in my life. Some sessions were tough, but I needed it. It was a real turning point in my career. I learned to push myself outside my comfort zone and realised if you want the job, you must ask for it rather than waiting for people to come to you. My mentor really got me to see a different perspective, because whether you want it or not there are female and male leadership styles. It has been a journey for me to accept that I can have my own style of leadership while at the same time be as ambitious, constructive, and collaborative as male leaders.
Trust is fundamental
In my own team I give a sense of ownership and I spend a lot of time building trust. Whether it is an internal or external relationship, trust is fundamental. Things may not always go well but with trust you can have the hard conversations you need to have respectfully and constructively.
The advice my mentors gave to me, and I now give to others, is to surround yourself with good, supportive people. Leadership roles can be quite lonely so continuing to be mentored is helpful. Take the time to invest in yourself. And for those considering joining the transport industry I say ‘go for it’. It’s a complex but purposeful sector and you can grow as an emerging leader in a variety of roles.
Regenerate for the future and celebrate our present
The future of the transport sector is with our youth. We should regenerate the industry with youthful enthusiasm and bring in more younger staff. In the same way we are looking at diversity by gender, we should be looking at diversity in age and accept that you can have leaders who don’t necessarily have 30 years of experience but who have far greater digital skills and are part of the community. A better understanding of the transport industry through public education and celebration is also needed. I don’t think we promote enough to the public the work people in transport deliver for the community everyday – all the work that sits in the backstage. We should celebrate it as we do for other frontline workers.