I started my career as a lawyer. After doing Arts/Law at Sydney University, I worked as a lawyer in private practice for 10 years, including about seven years as a partner in a law firm in Sydney. But there was something enticing about getting closer to where the commercial decisions were made, so I joined the corporate environment, undertaking legal roles in the first instance and then branching out into broader general management roles.
I soon learned there was a lot more to being a good leader and manager than simply being a good technician. I was fascinated by what constituted a good leader and manager and knew I needed to learn more. Happily, an opportunity arose. My then employer was running a pilot leadership program and I put my hand up. The course was terrific and, when it concluded, my employer suggested I undertake some more study. So, with their support, I applied for what was the first scholarship offered by Chief Executive Women.
To my great surprise, I won the scholarship which enabled me to undertake studies at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management. And so started a new journey for me.
I loved every minute of the course. It opened my eyes and broadened my perspective. I wasn’t a particularly diligent student while doing Arts/Law but this course felt very different. I was fascinated by everything I learned and keen to put it into action. When I returned the office, I took up a new position as the General Manager of a corporate support division. It was an entirely new role (in fact I had to effectively create a new division) and I certainly felt the course had been of great assistance.
I have absolutely no doubt my studies at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management were pivotal in the development of my career. They enabled me to tap into, and develop, my capability in the leadership and management space and underpinned my moves into leadership positions.
Let me share some of the key learnings from my experience:
1. Maintain a mindset of continuous learning. The skills required to be a good manager and leader are very different from the technical skills we develop in our early university education. Formal leadership and management training is very valuable as you transition from a technical role.
2. Seize opportunities when they arise – they may never come again. Putting your hand up can be daunting. It takes courage and confidence. But it’s worth the effort. I believe I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t volunteered to participate in that pilot leadership course. It set off a chain of events that ultimately led to me being where I am today.
3. Broaden your perspective. Different experiences will open up opportunities for you. With the benefit of a good educational underpinning, there are many opportunities to “stretch” you in both paid and unpaid work. This makes you an attractive candidate for many different positions as you move through your career.
4. Stay the course. You will face many challenges, and even some moments of potential derailment, throughout your career. While education will hold you in good stead, you need to adopt a mindset of being robust and resilient. I have spent most of my career in male-dominated environments, and this mindset has proved to be particularly valuable.
Helen Conway is Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, an Australian government statutory agency. In 1992 she was the recipient of the first scholarship to undertake management studies awarded by Chief Executive Women.