Women In The Black

Confidence Is Key For Young Female Executives

Confidence is key for young female executives

Taking on a senior position as a young woman can be a daunting experience, especially when you are in a male dominated industry.

Kellie Northwood, Executive Director, Australian Catalogue Association (ACA), says confidence is key for young female executives. The trick is to not to worry if you say something wrong as you’ll learn from it for next time.

“I feel younger women may not have enough confidence to speak up in a meeting and voice their opinions. I remember in my early twenties sitting in meetings, too scared to take a sip of my coffee, let alone contribute to a conversation out loud. As the meeting progressed, some very senior executives would say things I had been thinking and I’d wish I had spoken up more,” Kellie says.

At age 38, in addition to her role at ACA, Kellie is also the Executive Director of Xsd, a brand and communications agency, and Two Sides Australia, a movement to raise awareness about the environmental credentials and effectiveness of paper and print. 

“All you need is two ears and one mouth. When you’re young, you can fall into the trap of feeling like you need to prove yourself all the time. You don’t. You’ve been put into the position because you have talent and experience – people believe you can fulfil the requirements of the position,” Kellie says.

With International Women’s Day, Kellie says the age-old ‘war of the sexes’ is evolving.

“While different industries have varying complexities and issues, I have found employers in design, media, marketing and publishing sectors are offering far greater flexible than ever before with more and more women in leadership roles,” Kellie said.

Women In the Black had the pleasure of this interview with Kellie:

How long have you held the Executive Director title for?

A. 12 months

How old are you?

A. 36 years old

It must be hard to prove yourself as a young Executive Director, how do you go about facing this challenge?

A. I can honestly say I have never experienced ageism, however when I was younger, I used age as an excuse. For example, I used to say “I didn’t get that opportunity because they think I’m too young.” In reality and hindsight, I was simply inexperienced, despite my ambition and motivation. I simply didn’t have the experience to fulfil certain roles I was aiming for.

I believe young talent is well recognised in Australia, particularly in the print industry. I feel that younger workers may not have enough confidence to speak up in a meeting and voice their opinions. I remember in my early twenties sitting in meetings, too scared to take a sip of my coffee, let alone contribute to a conversation out loud. As the meeting progressed, some very senior executives would say things I had been thinking and I’d wish I had spoken up more.

Confidence is the key for young executives. Don’t worry if you say something wrong, you’ll learn from it for next time.

What sort of challenges do you face in a male dominated industry?

A. Whilst I haven’t experienced ageism, I have experienced sexism, or as I prefer to call it ‘sexualisation’. I think there is a difference. Extreme sexist behaviour tends to fall into the area of sexual harassment and this area is culturally and morally unacceptable by most men and women alike. I’ve had the privilege of working with men who express the same irritation at these sorts of behaviours as the women in the workplace. Having said that, I have unfortunately also experienced and witnessed some shocking examples of inappropriate behaviour.

In regards to sexualisation, something I encounter more regularly are things like “you go and butter him up”, or “he loves it when you call on him” and “use your feminine charms”. These comments aren’t intended to be derogatory and I don’t believe my male colleagues are referencing these with the intention to criticise. I believe they see these comments as a compliment. However intended, the underlying message is “you’re successful because of your gender, not because you’re intelligent or can sell as well as I can”.

The war of the sexes is age-old and there will always be experiences which affect us in different ways, to any young executives, male or female. My advice is regardless of what you encounter, learn from all your experiences and stick to your path.

Tell me about how it’s like working in a traditional industry like print?

A. I started my career in advertising and fell in love with the idea of the glamorous life of an advertising executive. I envisioned that role revolving around parties, first class travel and champagne. I think anyone from advertising reading this understands what a myth this perception is. In reality, it’s a grind. During the recession, the advertising industry came under enormous pressure and young graduates like me were often the first to go. As a result, I fell into print because I needed to work.

After that happened, the first company I worked for was one of the largest printing groups and I loved being in a corporate environment. They trained me, they sent me on sales conferences and motivational seminars – I couldn’t believe how encouraging the company was.

I had an opportunity to work with a variety of people in my position – everyone from the formal corporate suits to the casual press operators in shorts and t-shirts. Despite the company being located at multiple sites, we still felt connected and were all an important part of the overall result.

This role made me realise that print was the right direction for me to pursue.

I love print’s history, its craftsmanship and its modernity today. I’ve never felt apologetic for print being ‘traditional’, because I’ve always been engaged by it as a medium. There have been very difficult times in the industry. Working with stakeholders to build the argument of why print must be part of the marketing budget has had its tough moments. However, the evidence is there to support print’s effectiveness and engagement, the toughest part is competing in a highly competitive industry and getting heard through the digital clutter.

How do you go about addressing the miscommunication about the print/catalogue industry?

A. Research, research and more research. There are countless amounts of research studies and reports on the effectiveness of print in the marketing mix.

During my many discussions with senior market leaders, 9 out of 10 agree with me that print is king; however they need the evidence to support their instinct. Providing the right data and the tools to include print into the marketing mix is the most important piece of the puzzle.

I see that you wear many hats, how do you juggle having so many high responsibility roles?

A. I sound like a cliché, however I honestly love what I do. I really enjoy each of my roles and whilst we all have our moments, I think the fact that I enjoy my work keeps me motivated.

I am also one of those people who are always thinking of the next thing – wherever I am. I come up with all these wonderful ideas when I’m holidays such as “what if I studied next year?” or “we should launch X campaign internationally”. I then remind myself that there are days I struggle to eat, let alone launch a campaign across the globe.

In order to juggle all my responsibilities, I have to keep myself in check every now and then.

How do you manage a work/life balance? Do you have any advice for those who are trying to juggle a career with raising a family?

A. Work/life balance is managing time to suit me. I have two primary school aged girls and they are my number one priority. When I’m 80 years old, my girls will be sitting beside me. However, I’m pretty sure the print industry will have long forgotten me once I reach that age.

Sometimes when I’m feeling under the pump or that I have over-committed myself, I remind myself of that. It provides me with the perspective I need to put the things that matter the most first.

My girls are awake from 8am to 8pm each day. They attend school from 9-3:30pm.

Due to their schedule, I start my day early, sometimes at 4am. This allows me to clear out some emails or read new research. Then I’m offline for an hour sorting school lunches, the school drop-off, pony-tails and all the day-to-day things of family life.

I pick up the girls up from school after work; we go home and have a snack. After a while, the girls start their homework and I get back to work in the study. Sometimes I don’t, sometimes I end my day at 3pm and spend the afternoon in the park. I used to feel incredibly guilty for having children and taking time off if they were sick or the dreaded school closure days, now I simply manage my time. I say to my staff, you’re an adult, you manage how you do your job. Sticking to a 9 to 5 schedule when working is not something I promote to my team.

I have a wonderful partner who helps and contributes to running the family, however I’m a mother, and like many mothers out there, I like to run my home. It gives me satisfaction to know I’m nurturing my family and I’m providing for them in my own way. My partner and I have actually had arguments because he has done the washing before I had a chance. Silly, however at the time I felt like I was being replaced because I’d been travelling for work or attending a function. My advice to those juggling a career, children and relationships is to find the time to breathe.

Manage your time to suit your family and think outside the 9 to 5 schedule, build up the support networks around you (cleaners, someone to do the ironing, gardening or get the grandparents to pick up the kids once a week) and don’t try and be everything to everyone all the time – breathe and make your space.

What do you foresee the future being like for women in leadership roles?

A. Whilst I think different industries have different complexities, the world is far more flexible now than it ever was and I think women in leadership roles is no longer an abnormality, rather slowly becoming the norm. Having said that, the journey up the corporate ladder can still be daunting. I fear we lose some wonderful talent when women have children and take themselves out of the workplace for six to seven years.

Companies need to think about how to accommodate bringing women back into the workplace after a career break. My career stalled when I had children for four to five years. Despite me returning to work after maternity leave, I still was unable to hold down a senior position because of my commitments to my family.

Having said that, there is much greater flexibility now for women and some of my male colleagues challenge this as being biased. However I think they would also agree that there is greater flexibility for men also. Dads have to run off to pick up kids or attend Christmas concerts too.

All leadership roles and how we do business is shifting. Working with your team rather than directing from afar is important as well as being inclusive rather than exclusive. The way in which Australia is doing business is shifting to a more global platform and this brings challenges to our leaders also.

Do you have any advice for someone who is stepping into a leadership role, especially at a young age?

A. All you need is two ears and one mouth. When you’re young, you can fall into the trap of feeling like you need to prove yourself all the time. You don’t. You’ve been put into the position because you have talent and experience – people believe you can fulfil the requirements of the position. Listen to those around you, consider what is presented to you and then you can provide your leadership.

I remember a quote from the Dalai Lama:

 “To only talk and not listen means you’ll only ever know what you already know.”

Stick to your path, don’t take things personally and find someone you trust in your workplace. Someone you trust can help you when you’re frustrated and need to vent without having to gossip. One of the worst things, male or female, is to get caught up in is gossip. It destroys your motivation, your ideas and your opportunities.

Who is your mentor?

A. I have been very privileged to work with some amazing people in my life and I have had several mentors throughout my career. Some have been clients, line managers, CEOs, COOs and suppliers but all have been inspiring and taught me many useful things. I see myself as a sponge and when I see someone I respect, I watch and learn as much as I can while I have the chance to work with them.

I think if I ‘outed’ my current mentor I’d embarrass him, however I find how people communicate and persuade others without being rattled or emotional, most intriguing. They are always in control, and because of this, provide the opportunity for themselves to say intelligent things.

As for famous mentors, people I have read and learnt from include; Ita Buttrose – a lady in every sense of the word and her determination to succeed is inspiring and Sydney Poitier – his journey before film is incredible and his calm, considered approach to adversity is admirable.



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