The need for risk, courage, diversity and authenticity in leadership: A conversation with Suzanne Steele, Adobe’s Australian MD

By Dana Lightbody


It’s a sunny day in North Queensland, of course, and I am on holiday with my two children. This is the first trip I’ve taken solo with both of them, and I have to admit it is a lot more stressful than I was anticipating. This morning I managed to take a glorious hour away from the kids to ‘sit down’ with Suzanne Steele, the Australian MD of Adobe. By sit down, I mean that I teleconference her from my hotel room, I wouldn’t expect her to fly to the tropics just for the interview.


I’ve met Suzanne before, in Adobe’s beautiful offices in Sydney. Since we’re video-conferencing I tactically angle the camera across my messy hotel room so none of the mess is visible. I’m a woman in business and I want this other very impressive woman in business to think I’m professional.


I needn’t have worried. Suzanne is warmth personified. She’s also not using her camera, so I’m off the hook.


Suzanne herself is travelling, back to her native UK to spend time with her adult children. Her state of travel makes me feel more at ease with my current situation and I ask her about the inevitable work/life balance. “I have to say it’s easier these days because my children are all grown up and live on the other side of the world. When they were much younger it was very difficult, and I think it is very difficult for anyone with young children to balance life and work. Particularly today, life and work are the same thing. We’re 24/7. I believe that if you love the work that you do, the team that you are a part of, then you can find that balance. If you’re having fun and if you’re really passionate about it. I also ensure that I take the time to switch off my phone and be in the moment with my family and that’s really important to me.”


She goes on to add that having a supportive family is what helps her be the leader she is today. She speaks of her husband being her biggest support, her strongest mentor and her harshest critic, a relationship and a support that has grounded her for most of her career. “My husband is my biggest coach and biggest supporter and also my harshest critic. I think you have to have people around you that can help you.”


Having a strong mentor is something Suzanne credits to getting her to the top. She’s had a less than typical career. Leaving school at 16, Suzanne had no formal qualifications. She cut her teeth in a start-up whose founder and CEO remains her mentor to this day. She humbly credits him with her business acumen, “he saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. He really gave me a chance, taught me a lot about business, how to get things done, how to lead with passion and energy, how to get things done and how to fail. It was vital.”


Clearly the lack of formal qualifications didn’t hold Suzanne back. She moved from strength to strength, leading and motivating management teams across data, software and analytics businesses in North America, the UK and Singapore. This included senior roles at Visa Europe, CACI London and Morgan Stanley. She clearly had quite a lot of role diversity under her belt before being headhunted into her current role at Adobe.


When asked about what it took to get to the top, Suzanne admits that she took risks and indeed encourages anyone, not just women, to take risks with their career. “I am pretty quick to make decision and I use a lot of intuition. I can honestly say I have never gone into a role where I have felt this will be easy. I’ve got this.” Her openness about risk taking and the steps she took to further her career leads me to ask the topical imposter syndrome question and she laughs gently at me, “I feel if you stop feeling imposter syndrome then I might stop feeling successful… If I didn’t have imposter syndrome, I would question it. And I overcome it by asking for feedback from people.” She clarifies that while a little bit of job insecurity can be motivating and force you to become better, too much makes it problematic. “You have to build your confidence by putting yourself in situations where you will have imposter syndrome and delivering on it, then ticking that box and moving on… but I think if it’s too severe and it’s forcing you to question everything you are doing in your day-to-day job then it’s a problem.”


I bring her back to her statement of asking for feedback and ask whether she thinks ongoing feedback is important. She wholeheartedly agrees, “I overcome (fear) by asking for feedback from people. Over the years I have learned to recruit people onto my leadership team who are different to me, who think differently to me and who will actually challenge my decisions. So, I balance my risk taking by having a balanced leadership team.”


When I ask her whether it’s difficult to overcome the innate desire to gravitate to, and therefore hire people that are like oneself, she seems genuinely surprised by the question: “I don’t need lots of people around who are like me, I need to fill the gap with people who have different skills sets, who have different backgrounds and ages, I feel that the easiest way to balance my risk taking is to have that balance around the leadership table.”


All this talk about risk leads me to ask about the biggest risk she has ever taken. I’m surprised that she talks candidly about getting fired. Having been fired from a job before, I know the toll that it took on my pride and sense of self. How it made me realise how much of that sense of self was gathered from being good at my job. It’s not something I like to talk about, let alone tell complete strangers about, but Suzanne doesn’t shy away from honesty. She talks about a time in her career where she questioned her senior management about errors in the books and was instantly fired. She believes her senior management thought her too green in the role to take action, having only been in the role 10 months. Clearly the underestimated Suzanne Steele. As she tells her story it’s hard not to be impressed by the passion with which she talks about this time, how hard it was but how much it was worth it. It was worth it not because she won, but because she was eventually validated. She stuck by her values, honesty and integrity and it paid off. “Financially it was a big ask to take them to the High Court, but it was a matter of principal. I would accept being fired if I thought I was bad at my job, or that I hadn’t done what was required of me, but I was fired for being honest and so that needed to be righted and challenged.” How did she recover? “The thing that helped me pick myself back up after the 18 months it took to go to the high court? It’s the letter of apology that I have framed in my study.”


It is no surprise that Suzanne took those lessons forward into her career. Acting with honesty and integrity may have got her fired from that particular role, but it clearly didn’t stop her star from rising. She credits authenticity as the key to being a strong leader, regardless of gender.


“You can’t be authentic if you’re not honest and you don’t have good values. Authentic leadership in business is really about doing the right thing for the business, doing the right thing for your customers and your people, and actually ensuring that the last thing you are thinking about is doing the right thing for you personally. I don’t think it’s difficult, particularly if you’re in a job that you love and you’re passionate about. Doing the right thing for the business, doing the right thing for the customer and doing the right thing for the talent – that should deliver on what you need to do personally to be successful.”


And with that her assistant calls time on our interview and Suzanne has to go off to do whatever it is that CEOs need to do whilst they are travelling. I thank her for her time and leave the interview feeling inspired to be a better leader for my own people, and to do it for the right reasons.


Suzanne Steele is speaking on day two of the Women in Leadership Summit 2019.


Leading with Authenticity, Adaptability, Agility, Vulnerability and Empathy

Marnie Baker is a mum, a spouse, and also MD of Australia’s fifth largest retail bank. We took some time out with her ahead of her keynote at the Women in Leadership Summit 2019 to discuss what it takes to be a strong leader and a human being at the same.


What are the top skills every woman in leadership should have?

“I don’t believe there are explicit gender-specific leadership skills, but a successful leader at any organisation must display some core leadership qualities. The qualities that are particularly important in my eyes are; adaptability, agility and empathy.

These qualities are crucial to ensuring engagement from staff across the organisation and in reassuring all stakeholders of your leadership capability.

A successful leader – male or female – must be able to; adapt to different leadership and working styles, be agile and open-minded to respond positively to change, and empathise with all stakeholders.

Another important, and often overlooked, trait in leadership is vulnerability. While many may see it as a weakness, in reality vulnerability is a strength because vulnerable leaders tend to inspire, are more authentic, and they build bonds that lead to increased performance overall.

Embracing vulnerability means having the courage to face our fears. A vulnerable leader is willing to experience all the ups and downs that come with it and they know they can confront the brutal realities while maintaining faith they will ultimately prevail and also learn.

Combining all these skills underpins my efforts to bring others along on a journey with me.

A key part of any leadership role – across any organisation – is to support all employees to be the best they can be by providing them with the tools to thrive – and with that – so too will you.

If you’re leadership is lifting the tide of all of those within your organisation, you know you’re doing the right thing.”


What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?

Being a naturally curious, positive and self-motivated person, I relish a challenge and in fact, seek challenges out as opportunities to grow, learn and improve.

The biggest challenge of my career is not something that I have necessarily overcome but a challenge that I have come to better understand and manage – the ability to maintain an appropriate level of work-life balance.

In the early years of my career, I was told that women could have it all, a successful and rewarding career, a loving marriage/partnership and family, and a working environment that encouraged this balance. This perception was accentuated by women who as leaders would portray themselves as being able to achieve this balance.

The fact is, we can’t have it all. It is an unfair expectation that is placed on women.  Like most things in life, it is about decisions we make, compromises and trade-offs, and as individuals only we know what the right ones for us are.

Releasing the pressure I placed on myself to always get the balance right and agreeing in my own mind what I was willing to compromise on helped me to manage this challenge. For example, I promised myself that regardless of what was happening at work that I would attend every one of my children’s school sports – a promise that was important to me and my children, and one I am pleased to say I fulfilled.

I have learnt that as women we place higher expectations on ourselves than our employers, colleagues or families do and just being more kind to ourselves means we are better employees, leaders, and family members.”


What does authentic leadership mean to you?

“My leadership style is genuine and honest. I believe people want to hear authentic communications from authentic people – not generic information that could come from almost anyone. Authenticity breeds authenticity.

As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken”.

The value of authenticity, as we have seen play out recently in the financial services industry cannot be understated. In this post-trust era, trust and authenticity are our most valuable assets – they are the currency of business.

I strive to communicate with a guide of paying less attention to what I think people want to hear from me and concentrate on what my authentic self needs to say. As a leader, it is my responsibility to encourage this authentic behaviour and authentic dialogue. This is critical.

Listening is also just as important. If your people can see that you actively listen to them and you demonstrate this through action, they will feel more valued and engaged.”



How do you balance life and work? Is it possible to devote enough time to both?

If you love what you do, it becomes less of a balance. That is why I have always said that finding an organisation with values that mirror your own is one of the greatest things that I’ve learnt in my career.

That said, giving yourself permission to dedicate attention to what’s important to you and your personal life is very important. When you have balance in your life, work is a very different experience. Work is one part of your life that connects with and supports the other parts and it all needs to work in harmony.

My personal values align directly with Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s and they align with my organisation’s purpose, which is to feed into customer and community prosperity, not off it.

This isn’t by chance. I simply wouldn’t be the MD of Australia’s fifth largest retail bank, if they didn’t. Our organisation recognises that we can’t have a successful bank, if we don’t have successful customers, communities and people and if we don’t enable our people to succeed and operate with integrity – it would all fall down very quickly. These principles sit perfectly with me. I value and respect them.

I am also passionate about the role customers and communities play in Australia’s economic and social fabric and strongly advocate the role of business and government in communities.

I love my job and maintaining a healthy work/life balance can be a challenge, but it’s one I constantly and consciously manage daily.”



Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome in the workplace or elsewhere? How did you overcome it?

“I think everyone has at least one stage in their career. The difference is to not let it overwhelm and to have the confidence and resilience to back yourself.

Last year, I stepped into my new role as the first female Managing Director of the country’s fifth largest retail bank. As one of the few Financial Services industry Managing Directors and certainly one of very few ASX-listed women CEOs/Managing Directors, I started in this role as we strive to be Australia’s bank of choice in an environment challenged by disruption, low consumer trust in business, changing consumer preferences and more demanding consumer expectations.

But this presents a huge and exciting opportunity for me personally. I strongly believe my 30 years’ experience in the industry, my resilience and ability to evolve with disruption and not become disrupted by it, my leadership style, personal values, the strength, purpose and vision of our organisation and our unique position, will stand me in good stead. Combined is helping us take advantage of the situation to deliver better outcomes not just for me, but for all of those who are engaged with our Bank from our employees, to our customers, shareholders and community members.

Regardless of your personal situation, rising to the opportunity is as much of a test as any challenge is. The difference is how you approach the opportunity and how you apply your attitude and ability.



What are some simple steps we can all take to ensure a supportive workplace culture?

“At Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, our Diversity and Inclusion framework centres around a core theme called Belonging@Bendigo. This platform supports our commitment to our people where we strive to grow a community where “I want to work, where I am valued and where I belong.”

We put our people first, so our people can put our customers first. By striving to be inclusive and diverse, we create positive change that enables our organisation to be commercially astute, innovative and socially responsible. However, what it really means is that everyone can truly be themselves, so they can do their best work. I firmly believe if your values don’t align to the values of the organisation you’re working for, achieving success will be much more draining and exhausting for you.

Flexibility is a core part of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s value proposition and a key reason why our people stay with us long term and work so hard.

Many of our staff really value access to part time work/compressed hours, ABW (Activity Based Working) and the ability to work from home. It allows them to feel valued as an employee, achieve a sustainable work-life balance and ultimately, perform to a higher level.

We genuinely care deeply for all our staff and I believe our company policies and the culture it supports help to foster a supportive and dynamic working environment.”


Marnie Baker is Managing Director at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank. She speaks on day one of the Women in Leadership Summit 2019 on 25 September: Staying true to your values: The role of authenticity, integrity and community in leadership.


In Conversation: Janine Allis’ Leadership Tips

Janine Allis leadership tips blog

Running out of money, breakdown of relationships, hiring the wrong people and not being customer focused are just four reasons business fail according to Janine Allis.

Janine Allis is considered one of Australia’s most successful entrepreneurs. Having grown Boost Juice from the confines of her kitchen walls, to 467 worldwide stores and over $2bn in sales, it’s easy to see why.

However, it’s not just the numbers that make a business successful, it takes good leadership. Having won numerous business awards, including Telstra’s ‘Business Women of the Year’ and being inducted into the ‘Business Women Hall of Fame’, we spoke with Janine ahead of the 3rd annual Women In Leadership Summit to find out why she believes so many businesses fail, why leadership is so important, and how she empowers people in her workplace.


You have had so much success with Boost Juice and other Retail Zoo brands, but we really want to know why you think so many businesses come and go, why do you think they fail?

There is often not one reason, but below are some of the top reasons:

Run out of money: Young businesses are cash hungry and often people simply have not got access to the resources to continue.

Relationship breakdown: The breakdown of a partnership is often difficult in business. When people have different visions for a business, this can cause for business to fail.

People: Getting the wrong people in your business and not being strict with the people who you bring in. And finally,

Customer: Not focusing on the customers and continuing to deliver what they need.

You started your first company from your kitchen. There are so many out there who dream of leaving the corporate life and setting up their own business, what’s your advice to those reading this?

My advice is that having your own business is not for everyone. Often you need to risk your own finances which may have taken years to accumulate. The transition from corporate to your own business can be difficult as you are used to being surrounded by teams of people who are experts in their field and then you find yourself on your own.

There are both positives and negatives to corporate and to starting a business. Make sure you consider them all before you hand in your resignation letter.


One of the things you must consider is leading an organisations, but a lot of people don’t see themselves as born ‘leaders’. Do you think you were and how have you grown as a leader over time?

We grow all the time, as people, as leaders, as students. Life is a constant evolution of yourself. I think the key is to be yourself every day. If you are a leader, be a strong, confident leader that can make decisions and follow through.


Keeping on leadership, you must see so many ‘leaders’ and business owners with such apposing approaches and styles, especially as one of the Sharks. What do you think makes a successful leader today?

Clear communication of the vision that you want to achieve, strong decision making and good listening skills. A leader does not HAVE to be liked but aims to be respected while working with integrity. They do what they say and say what they do.


So, this year’s event is all about Empowerment, what does this word mean to you?

Empowerment for me is taking ownership of everything I do. That I own the outcomes for all my decisions. I do not blame outside forces for what happens in my life.


Can you give me some examples of how you try and empower people in your company?

My Digital Manager is a gun. When he came on I told him that my job was to clear the freeway for him and his job was to create campaigns and programs that have never been done before and to make us the leader in the Retail digital space.


What is your advice for other leaders and business owners when looking to empower women in their organisations?

Do not look at them as women but look at them as valued team members and treat them as such.


So, your session at WILS 2018. You’ll be touching on the not so pretty side of business. What has been the most challenging aspect of building such as successful business and what’s your advice to other business owners and managers out there?

I am not sure that my presentation talks about the ‘not so pretty’ but more just what it is like to be in business. It is neither pretty nor ugly, it is just what it is. My session will be an honest look at my journey from a young girl from the burbs to a business owner, who was working it out as she went.

To hear from Janine Allis in person, as well as other leaders including Michelle Bridges and Leigh Sales, book your seat to the Women In Leadership Summit – empower yourself and those around you!

In Conversation: Advice on Criticism and Misogyny from Leigh Sales

We spoke to Leigh Sales, award-winning journalist
From passion and determination, to fantastic bosses, and the #MeToo movement, we spoke to ABC award winning journalist Leigh Sales!

Leigh Sales is one of Australia’s most hard-hitting journalists. Having interviewed the likes of Malcom Turnbull, James Comey, Hillary Clinton and Paul McCartney – just a few highlights for us – her no frills approach has led to numerous awards including the esteemed Walkley Award for Broadcast Interviewing.

But before we turn the tables on Leigh for real at at WILS 2018, we thought we’d get a little practice in with ABC’s leading journalist. We caught up with Leigh to discuss a bit about her career journey, the people that have helped her along the way, and how she deals with the heat of the studio spotlights.

You can hear more from Leigh at the opening session of this year’s WILS. We’ll be kicking off the event with an in-depth conversation so get your questions ready as we’ll be taking lots from the floor.


Hi Leigh, I wanted to start off by asking a little about your career and where it all began. What was your biggest drive and was it always journalism/writing?

My biggest drive was that I loved reading and so I always wanted to write. I loved creative writing at school. Journalism seemed to me to be a way to making a living out of writing. I have always had a secret dream to have a stab at fiction-writing though so hopefully I’ll get a chance to do that one day.


We all know how important mentors and role models are along the way, was there anyone in particular that helped you develop and grow professionally?

I think one of my first bosses, John Cameron, has been a huge influence on me. He was a real stickler for the basics – correct grammar, writing conversationally for television, being balanced in your reporting and so on. He passionately cared about the quality of the product the ABC put out. Even these days, if I say something grammatically incorrect on air or use an Americanism, I think, “I hope Cammo didn’t’ see that.”


On this note, is there anything in particular you do to help encourage and empower young women in your organisation?

I try to lead by example as much as I can – by not being aggressive or opinionated on social media, by being thorough and fair and professional in my work, by trying to demonstrate that character is more important than appearance. I try to encourage the young women AND men on my team by giving them positive feedback when they do great work.


Your field can be a pretty harsh environment at the best of times, especially when you’re constantly in the spotlight. How do you deal with/approach misogyny and criticism in general?

I think that it’s important to ignore criticism from people you don’t respect and especially from anonymous people on social media. I see a lot of people get upset about what people have said about them on social media. When it’s a stranger, writing under an anonymous handle, why care? Constructive criticism from people you respect on the other hand is useful. It’s always good to have a couple of people you trust on whom you can rely for advice or honest feedback. I’m lucky that my current boss, Justin Stevens, has amazing advice and input into my work. He also couches it in a positive way so that it doesn’t feel like criticism. I’ve also been incredibly lucky in that I don’t feel I’ve experienced a lot of misogynism in my career – certainly, the men with whom I’ve worked most closely have been incredibly supportive and always encouraged me to take on opportunities that have exceeded my experience on paper.


What’s your advice to our readers who have experienced this in their workplace?

I feel a bit of a fraud giving advice on this, as I’ve not been in that position. But my general view is don’t accept it. Call it out. These days I think a lot of workplaces are very conscious of trying to stamp out behaviour that is sexist.


Movements such as # MeToo have created a platform in which people can speak out, what’s your view on these as a medium to talk about such important issues? Do you think they have an impact on employers, and why do you think it’s it taken a # to address this at an institutional level?

I think #metoo has generally been really positive to encourage women to speak up and also to educate men as to how prevalent some of that kind of behaviour is. I think it’s been really important to helping companies realise they need to take a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and abuse. I think it’s also sent a clear message to sleazy men that if you harass women, you risk everything.


With this said, organisations are slowly changing their approach to gender issues. What do you think is the single most important approach an organisation can do to have a positive impact on these debates?

I think the most important thing organisations can do is to listen to their female staff and take their concerns on board. I think it’s also really important to have women visible in high-profile and senior roles. I know that a lot of young women come up to me when I’m at public events to say it means something to them to see a woman doing a job like mine. To be honest, I think there is another issue as big as what happens in the workplace and that is what happens at home. Women still carry a disproportionate amount of the load at home and when it comes to organizing a family (the “mental load” as it’s called). All men who have a partner or a family should think about their contribution on that front.


Support is so important in organisation regardless of the topic. But, as an award-winning journalist, tv broadcaster, author, podcaster, and mother of two, how do you manage and find the time and what’s your advice to other working mothers out there?

I don’t want to sound painful but I don’t procrastinate and I don’t waste time. Otherwise I can’t get done everything that I want to get done. I prioritise what is important to me and I try to say no to everything else. I try not to take time away from the children by doing things that are unimportant but that you get caught up in, like having a coffee with somebody you don’t really want to see but who has nagged you. These days, I try to just say no.

Five Lessons to Accelerate Your Career

Article written by Pip Marlow, CEO Customer Marketplace, Suncorp Group.


I grew up in a small New Zealand town, in a middle-class family with parents who believed that girls could do anything that boys could. We didn’t talk about it. We just lived it. Our family of seven worked hard whether it was chopping wood or peeling potatoes with consideration for ‘jobs for the boys’ or ‘jobs for the girls’. My parents’ values – hard work, diligence and equality – were ingrained early, and I now realise became my foundation as I entered the workforce and started my career path.

That career starting line was in IT – an industry that I fell into by chance but stayed in by choice for 25 years, the last six of which as the Managing Director of Microsoft. I moved into Financial Services 18 months ago – a leap of more than just industry. Reinventing and disrupting myself was something that I had been doing for decades, and this was another opportunity.

The last few years have taught me that leadership in an era of disruption is industry and role agnostic. Leaders are not leaders because they have the title; and no industry can thrive without leaders who embrace disruption. I hope my learnings can help others considering the next chapter in their career. Let me share a few of my favourites.


Self-disruption is not an option

Darwin says it best – adapt to survive. The difference in this lesson is about timing. Are you waiting for the change to occur and following the trend? Are you constantly looking for signals that guide how and where you develop the skills and capabilities for the future? In my career, stepping into emerging business areas came with both great risk and great reward.


Purpose is the secret sauce

Leaders can often clearly articulate bold goals that call out ‘what’ you want to achieve, like ‘be #1 in market share’. But if that’s as deep as you go, then the people you lead will wonder what’s the point. Great leadership comes from taking the time to articulate ‘the why’.

I know for a fact that most of the people I work with don’t get out of bed to sell a widget. At Microsoft, my purpose was to help Australians from all walks of life use technology to realise their potential. Now I’m at Suncorp, I’ve found my purpose hasn’t changed that much. I do what I do to support Australians to have a better life. I get to help people buy the homes of their dreams, grow their businesses and sleep soundly knowing the things they care about are protected. Never forget to articulate why you do what you do and share it with others.


Exercise mindful authenticity

I often get asked about authenticity, especially by women working in male dominated industries or companies. Do you need to be one of the boys? How can you be authentic but still accepted? It’s a complex area which touches on how inclusive your work environment is.

My advice is be true to yourself but remember that authenticity doesn’t excuse poor judgement. Let me explain. People tell me I’m funny and I like to think so too (at times!). Often in a meeting, a funny quip might pop into my head in reaction to something that’s been said. As funny as it might be, and as authentic as humour is to my personality, good judgement should always prevail. Always ask yourself – what is the best part of me to bring to this moment?


Your fear is a fear, not a fact

This is probably the most important lesson I have had to learn, and I still must work hard to remember it. As I went into new roles and companies or took on responsibilities where I didn’t have the subject matter expertise, I had to fight the self-talk of my fears. A voice that said things like, ‘you’re not good enough’ and ‘other people don’t think you can do this.’ This voice would tempt me not to step forward or speak up – but that is just me listening to my fear. Yes, I’ve made mistakes and asked silly questions, but I always pushed myself forward. The fear of failure should never hold you back because being scared to fail doesn’t mean you will.


Pay it forward

My career has been bolstered by those who went before me, broke glass ceilings, believed in me before I believed in myself, and mentored and sponsored me. It’s not about throwing a ladder down after you. Cast your net wide and help the next generation of women.

In Conversation: Gillian Franklin’s Guide to Leadership

With only $200 in her back pocket, Gillian Franklin arrived in Australia almost 35 year’s ago and would go on to have a successful corporate career and become the founder of her company The Heat Group, with annual retail sales of over $100M.
It’s safe to say Gillian is one of Australia’s entrepreneur success stories. From corporate heavy hitter, to start-up founder, to successful business women. Driven by the desire to run a business that encapsulated her personal values, The Heat Group won the rights to Procter and Gamble brands Max Factor and Covergirl, and managed the distribution for those brands in Australia for more than a decade. The company now has over 100 personal care brands in their portfolio.
Gillian is known for her passion for supporting women in the workplace, and is often found sharing her business experience, leadership skills, financial acumen, strategic thinking, and values-based lessons, through formal and informal mentoring initiatives. Gillian attributes her success to working incredibly hard, networking, and always surrounding herself with inspirational people.
So, we caught up with her before October’s WILS event to discuss what it takes to drop everything, go it alone and build a multi-million dollar business.

Can you tell me a little about your journey from Corporate Exec to Entrepreneur?

I was in a corporate role for more than 20 years when I decided to become an entrepreneur, although at the time I didn’t associate my next step ‘as an entrepreneur’ per se, it was more that I wanted to have my own business. The benefit to me of having worked in the Corporate world was that I had been exposed to a high level of professionalism with systems and processes and so I was committed to taking these disciplines into my new (albeit little) business. From the outset I established a professional Board (who were also shareholders) and established good foundations in our business processes to set us up for future growth and success. I don’t think Heat Doward would be as successful as it is today if I had started out without this experience under my belt. Having said that, it was still a very daunting experience knowing that you were now totally reliable on your own personal success to pay the mortgage and indirectly the mortgages of your staff – a very different kind of pressure.


What inspired you to make the move and what advice do you have to others who have just started a new business?

It was the late 1990’s and consumers around the world were challenging companies and brands to have “values” that were true to their brands and their behaviours (remember consumers throwing bricks through the Nike windows when they discovered the product was made in sweat shops in China?). It made my think about what kind of company I wanted to be proud of and how I could be more in control of my own destiny and my values. I was also passionate about supporting working women, especially working mums, and had recently launched the “Self Made Girl” programme to encourage young women to be financially independent. These two things encouraged me to resign from the safety and security of my corporate job and go out and create my own company that could be commercially successful but also contribute to society in some way – hence the Heat Group was formed with a passion and commitment to supporting women. This has been very rewarding and the advice I would give to others is take the plunge but with a robust plan, and most importantly surround yourself with great expertise that you can draw on, either as a Board or mentors/advisors, as you will experience many unforeseen hurdles, and wisdom from more experienced people is invaluable. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!


What have been the biggest challenges you faced since starting The Heat Group?

Learning about the importance of cash flow. In my previous corporate roles, cash was readily available – this changes dramatically when you have your own business. The other challenge is finding the best people. Whilst we would all say we know this, the success of any company is directly linked to the quality of your people and this is often not recognised or taken seriously enough especially in a smaller company where individual performance can be so material to the outcome. And attracting the best person when you are a small company can also be difficult, so you need to find compelling reasons for the best to join your business. I did this with very competitive, relevant and attractive benefits that went beyond the salary, for example I offered full pay for 3 months maternity leave – and this was 18 years ago when it was unheard of!


What has been the most rewarding aspect?

Influencing the culture and values of the company. Integrity is very important to me and so having the authority to frame how we work, what kind of people I want to spend my day with and what values we work by was key for me. Your company becomes an extension of who you are as a person, which is very rewarding.


What is the best advice someone ever gave to you?

When preparing any contract, assume that the relationship will sour, and review the contract again in fine detail, with that perspective, to make sure you are completely protected in the (hopefully very unlikely) event that it occurs, before you sign. This doesn’t come naturally to me because I am an optimist at heart, but this approach has helped me out on numerous occasions.


What advice do you have for other women in the corporate sector who dream of running their own business?

  1. Surround yourself with people who are more experienced than you, as Board members and mentors

  2. Never compromise on the quality of your team

  3. Do your financial plan assuming at least 20% of your plans will not eventuate, and ensure you can still survive and be successful under these circumstances.

  4. Cash is king


Our main theme this year is Empowerment. What does this word mean for you?

Empowerment means being able to make your own choices and not compromise on your values, in a way that delivers both success and happiness to you. Being true to my values in everything that I do is very important to me. No exceptions. Empowerment is also about accountability, because ultimately, if empowered, you are fully responsible for your performance.


How do you, as a leader, seek to empower your staff?

We have a WIP process that is focused on KPI’s, learnings and achievements with a report that is presented to each manager by their team member at every meeting covering each of these topics. This is important as it empowers people at all levels of the organisation, gives them direction and recognises their contribution to the overall company goals on a regular basis.


What is your advice for other leaders and business owners when looking to empower women in their organisations?

Make it clear that employees are rewarded for outputs, not hours worked. Women are often so guilt-ridden about the need for flexibility and this is both unfair and unnecessary. Women should feel proud of their achievements and they should be rewarded for their performance and deliverables. In my experience, if you trust them, for example to work from home if required, they will repay you in spades. Loyalty and respect are key requirements for success in my view. And from a commercial perspective, as working women are the most important economic segment of the market (after all, they spend more in the economy than any other demographic!), it is in all of our interests to empower women and make them more successful.


Why do you think larger organisations still struggle with gender equality, especially in more senior roles?

I would like to approach this question differently and rather than consider what the organisation should do, consider what women can do to achieve more success.

a) I feel that women today still sell themselves short. They don’t push for the promotions in the same way men do, don’t demonstrate corporate courage and are not as experienced negotiators. Ask for the promotion and network to achieve it – don’t wait for it to be offered.

b) Due to pressure on their time at home, it is important women need to plan, as best as possible, to have adequate support for their non-work duties, so they can deliver what is expected in the corporate environment- be that home help or flexibility in their role.

c) I encourage all women to have formal and informal mentor relationships, who can develop the skills they are lacking, to help them be successful (on their terms). Women should also join as many business groups as possible to expand their networking with business leaders. Above all, think of yourself as a brand that requires marketing.

In Conversation: Sue Hollis, Adventurepreneur

From corporate role to self-made entrepreneur, Sue Hollis exclusive Interview with WILSummit

Sue Hollis’ story isn’t your classic rags to riches fairy tale, it’s not event your conventional corporate role to self-made entrepreneur! The self-titled “Adventurepreneur” packed up her high-flying corporate life with an international airline to start her own company, TravelEdge. Wanting more than the ‘career success trajectory’ had planned for her, Sue was desperate to build something for herself, something many of us always dream of but are too scared of leaving the salary, job security, and corporate benefits that have become so comfortable.

Sue’s story is a fascinating one. In our extended interview, she opens up about building her dream company to over $250 million and then, leaving it all behind to bike across The States, and write her book!

Sue will be sharing her story at this year’s WILSummit and I can’t wait to find out more about this Adventurepreneur!


Hi Susan, thanks for taking some time out to talk with us today. As a founder of the company, your journey to the C-Suite hasn’t been all that conventional. How did it all come about?

I don’t think my journey could ever be called conventional!

I was a corporate heavy hitter with international airlines for over twenty years working in sales, operations and global strategy, where my feet were firmly planted in the career success trajectory! I lived and breathed my work – it gave me excitement and adventure beyond my imagination.

But it wasn’t enough. I realised that I wanted to build something of my own…I wanted to create a values-led business that delivered amazing results for customers and perhaps even more importantly, to create an environment where my people could learn, grow and flourish both personally and professionally.

In 2000, I walked away from corporate life (and all its security!) and with my partner Grant Wilson stepped into the wild world of entrepreneurship to start our own business – TravelEdge – a business that would eventually become a multi-million dollar company.

Initially, Grant and I did everything – there was no delineation between roles as we scrambled to bring our business to life. But as the company continued to grow, specific roles emerged for both of us. Although we didn’t realise it at the time, one of the strengths of our partnership was that despite our core values being totally aligned, we had completely opposite skill sets.

This led to Grant taking responsibility for the strategic development of the company, while I managed of the operations – with my role eventually growing into the CEO for the 5 separate businesses within the TravelEdge Group…and so yes – a particularly unique path to the C-Suite!


What were the big turning points of pivotal moments from taking an idea, a concept, and building it into a multi-million-dollar organisation?

In the past 18 years, TravelEdge has been through a number of pivotal moments – moments that certainly could have gone either way for us…but fortunately, most of them have helped create the strong company we have today.

Key moments for us included:

Getting started: For six months Grant and I wandered around trying to fine -tune our business model to make sure it was perfect. We weren’t prepared to start the business until everything was completely in alignment and under control. But the stagnation began to overwhelm us– until we learnt the invaluable lesson: Start before ready – you’ll never be ready!

Weathering the Storms: In our first year of operation, in one week alone Ansett Airlines went bankrupt – they owed us money…our largest client Gate Gourmet went bankrupt – they owed us a lot of money and then the tragedy of September 11 occurred – meaning all international flights ceased. In a newly minted business, the cash flow implications of these events were staggering…but we dug deep and learnt we could withstand just about anything.

Holding your Values: We stand by our values – they drive every business decision we make and are integral to the success of our company and our people. This means that we’ve turned away potential business where the company involved was not aligned to our values, and we’ve walked away from existing customers whose culture and values have had a negative impact on our people. Even in tough financial times, and in times when the commercial impact was significant, no matter what – we have stood by our values.


Many founders talk about their mistakes and failures as important as their ‘wins’. Has this been the same for you and your journey?

It’s funny – I think I remember the mistakes far more than the wins…because their lessons have been far-reaching and impactful.

A brilliant mentor of mine once told me, that if I wasn’t making mistakes then I wasn’t pushing the boundaries enough. We’ve certainly pushed boundaries in our business – some have been incredible successes – some have been significant failures…but you don’t get to “great” by settling for average.

In our business and for our people, a mistake is only a mistake if it’s repeated. If we don’t take the learning and do something differently, then that’s a failure…but if we’ve gone into something full prepared and have still gotten it wrong – then we chalk it down to experience and move on. But we’d rather try and get it wrong than not try at all.


I guess as a founder, you didn’t have a lot of mentors from within the business. Was there anyone who really helped you on your career path and in building Travel Edge?

I was fortunate in my corporate career to have had two exceptional mentors, and their generosity of spirit, knowledgeable support and unwavering belief gave me the courage to step into the life of entrepreneurship, but after that, I was on my own – although having an amazing business partner helped.

I’m not sure I would have had the courage to have started the business by myself – but having a reasonably brilliant partner sharing the load was a significant bonus!

The beauty of starting my own business though was that it was a real-life MBA learning experience every day…there was no theory involved, just hard facts, tough decisions and impactful consequences…I learnt fast!


When your business kept growing and you evolved into essentially the CEO, was there anything that you found particularly challenging? How did you overcome this?

There were many things that I found difficult as the business grew and my role continued to evolve.

Some of my biggest challenges include:

  • Learning to work on the business and not in the business – understanding that as a CEO my role was strategic, not tactical (my safe place!) was hard
  • Learning to let go – accepting that I had great people who were infinitely capable of making good decisions without me!
  • Not taking people with me – when the team was small, it was easy for me to impact and inspire…but as the business grew, my reach was not as personal, and I had to work very differently in order to ensure everyone was committed to our vision
  • Keeping the values and culture alive – again, it’s easy for a company culture to be vibrant when there are 10 people – it’s very different with 150 people. It took the development of systems and frameworks to ensure that our culture is consistent, and our values are lived – no matter how big we become
  • Investing in growth before we were ready – you have a choice in business – wait till you get the growth and then put the support structures in place or go out on a limb and establish them in advance so that your business has space to grow. We always chose the latter – but it was a scary place to be!


One challenge many CEOs cite is juggling the work/life balance and you’ve openly talked about this. What is your secret to achieving ‘balance’?

I personally don’t believe there is such a thing as “work/life” balance. I think it’s impossible to expect that you are going to be perfect in all aspects of your life 100% of the time – and striving for that impossible standard just creates incredible pressure and stress.

I’ve learnt to trade “balance” for “harmony” – and to accept that if you’re going to do amazing things in your life and not settle for “average”, sometimes you are going to have to be out of balance – and that’s OK. “Balance” is not for driven people!

Instead of trying to balance everything evenly at all times – work, family, relationships, your personal life – harmony is about tipping the scales one way when you have to, and then swinging them back the other way when you have the opportunity.

Sometimes I’ll need to work on something till 0200 in the morning – and that may mean that my family doesn’t get to see me, or I’ll miss my morning run – but that’s OK. That’s life. That’s the way it is. My performance is better, and I am far less stressed when I’m completely present and focused on the task at hand.

But when the deadline is over, I tip the scales back the other way – and invest in the other vital areas of my life and importantly, I never beat myself up about not achieving the impossibly fictitious standard of “balance”.


You’ve just written a new book “Riding Raw: A journey from empty to full”. The book is a very true and raw tale about finding fulfilment. Why is this so important in achieving success?

I believe there are two types of success in this world – head success and heart success.

Head success is about achieving the traditional measurements of success – the accomplished career, financial security, status and prestige, a lifestyle of opportunity…maybe a little power…it’s all the things that we’ve been taught from an early age to seek – believing they will make us happy.

And whilst head success is great – it’s absolutely fine to strive for head success, so long as it doesn’t define us – real happiness, real fulfilment comes from heart success.

Heart success is about being brave enough to step into the fullness of who you’re truly meant to be in this world. It’s about living a life of purpose and meaning and creating a life that makes a difference – a life that matters.

True success then is then finding the harmony between achievement and fulfilment in order to design a life of epic proportions!


Work/life balance is so important, especially for mental health. Having been the corporate heavy hitter, to the “adventrepeneur” – a term you coined in our early correspondents – what’s your advice for other women out there who are seeking to find this balance?

As I mentioned, I think work/life balance is pretty much an unattainable standard…and relentlessly striving for it creates unnecessary pressure and stress.

The trick in this world – particularly for our own well-being, is to create a life of meaning – a life that inspires, ignites and energises…and we do that by getting clear on what’s important.

I use the phrase “Adventurepreneur” to describe myself because, on my journey from corporate heavy hitter to entrepreneur, I realised that there was one thing that truly gave me joy. And that was adventure – be it racing motorbikes, climbing mountains, hiking glaciers…I realised that when I introduced elements of “adventure” into my world, my life took on a whole new perspective. Adventure completely fulfilled me.

And so, in my commitment to living a life of meaning, I’ve consciously created a lifestyle around my passion for adventure. I have set up businesses and taken on roles that give me space, the opportunity and the freedom to do what I love whilst still allowing me to engage in the “real” world!

Whilst I appreciate that I’m fortunate to be able to dedicate large amounts of time to follow my passions, we all need to find something that’s of real meaning to us and commit to carving out space to step into that place of joy on a regular basis.