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Katie Lahey

04 October 2011

Our Katie is from Yorkshire originally. She’s tall, blond and wears pin stripe with panache. (To all intents and purposes, she’s also been extremely sensible when it comes to her English rose skin, because looking at her quickly makes you realise what women of a certain age can be like if they’ve been careful in the Australian sun.)

One of Australia’s top-flight business women, Katie Lahey moved here 40 years ago when she was 21 and has never had a single regret about that or any other decision she’s made in her life, albeit she found leaving her mother ‘heartbreaking’.
(One of Katie’s life ‘learnings’ is never to dwell on mistakes it will sap your confidence. Instead, she believes we need to be resilient and flexible, analyse what we can from our actions and move on.)

Along with travel and the women’s agenda, Australia is, in fact, one of Katie’s major passions. It’s a place where distance from the rest of the world, she believes, has given her the space to concentrate on who she is and what she wanted to do and be.

Trad V Mod
“I think if I’d stayed in the UK I’d still be in Sheffield pottering around. I’d have been distracted by all the old ways, all the things you are supposed to do. Coming to Australia didn’t allow me to do that and my mother had always instilled in us as children that nothing was impossible and good hard work was nothing to be ashamed of,” says Katie, whose first husband, an electrical engineer, couldn’t get work in the UK and so they decided to emigrate.

“We had choices. Canada had too much snow, and when you’ve lived in Yorkshire you never want to see snow again. The [emigration] form for South Africa actually asked: ‘are you and all your relatives white’? I couldn’t believe it, so that went in the bin. Australia it was.

“Years later, when I was CEO of the City Of Sydney during the city’s Olympic Games bid [and eventual win] I’d go to the Citizenship ceremonies and I’d never fail to be moved to tears. I think it was because I was a migrant and have had such a wonderful career and life here. I’d see these people really choosing to adopt this country and it was very emotional. The hardship they’d endured and the reasons around how and why they came to be in Australia were very different to mine, but what they felt about the country was the same.”

Katie Lahey’s successful business career has spanned five CEO roles in various sectors including the Public Service in Victoria in 1980s when John Cain was premier and determined to professionalise it. His vision was something, Katie says, afforded her and many others amazing opportunities and benefits, including the chance to do an MBA in which, much to her astonishment, she topped the class.

Katie’s various appointments to the C role began with that “startling” academic success, and each appointment includes another interesting sidebar: every time she has been the first female. Don’t think that makes her a lone wolf. Katie has long been firmly committed to the progression of women in business and some of her successors in her CEO roles have been female. ‘Getting women up the ladder’ is something Katie says she can talk about under wet cement.

On the cusp
“I’d been with the Business Council of Australia for nearly 10 years and on a couple of boards, David Jones and Carnival [the world’s largest cruise ship line]. I was thinking about a new challenge and deciding that to get out of bed in the morning the position had to be something I could own and run. Board positions are fascinating but that operational level is not what they are about.

“A recruitment group came to me with something in mind in 2010. When I heard what it was in more detail I was so excited that, against the advice of my husband who is in HR, I rang the next morning to tell them, I was in. The job had my name on it,” says Katie, about her recent appointment as Managing Director Australasia with Korn/Ferry International, a global provider of talent management solutions.

Katie admits she’s never run an executive search firm, a professional services firm, or worked a partnership before and that being part of a global publicly listed company all present new ‘learnings’. But there are two or three things in her skills quiver, she modestly admits, which pointed toward her successful appointment.

“The big focus at the top end of town is on women and the women’s agenda. There is no search company in Australia headed by a woman and we want our business at Korn/Ferry to capitalise on this. We want to expand our business with the biggest companies in Australia, more activity at the CEO level and board level, and my background at the Business Council puts me in a perfect position to do that.

“I have the basic networking contacts and CEO experience, not in this sector, but in others. I’ve managed staff, managed to a bottom line, and managed to a board. Korn/Ferry was interested in all of this,” says Katie, a flash of perfectly manicured fire engine red nails accompanying her explanation as she builds toward what really excites her about her new role.

“For the first time, I really believe we are on the cusp of something happening for women in business and corporate life. Initiatives such as the ASX guidelines – establishing the need to increase female representation in upper management and flexible work practices – as well as The Australian Institute of Company Directors and its mentoring program are starting to get traction,” says Katie, noting that when businesses are hiring, they’re actively asking to see women candidates.

Male Champions
But the biggest inroads are coming because men are now ‘owning’ the subject.
“Men are talking to men about the issue,” says Katie. “It’s no longer us girls whinging about why women are being left behind, and men rolling their eyes and saying, here’s Katie talking about women’s issues again. Does she ever talk about anything else? Instead, men are talking about women and that’s what we want and need because the last 20 years of us talking certainly hasn’t made much of a difference.”

Some of Katie’s initiatives in her previous role at the BCA also form part of this groundswell. As part of an association of chief executives from Australian corporations, Katie contributed to public policy debate and helped shape key economic and business reforms in Australia. On the agenda she had women and their career issues, but she often found it getting sidelined, even with the sympathetic male ears she had found over the years.

Then, in the last two years with the BCA, Katie set up a panel to begin discussing the issues around women and getting them up the ranks into the C suite. The panel consisted only of men. Men who had been sympathetic to what she had to say about productivity and the barriers to entry or re-entry (after children, for example) for women.
And what Katie found was, the male champions mattered. Katie’s extensive experience in operational and organisational strategy and change management, advocacy and business development, has proved to her over the years there are times when you bite your tongue and use what’s being supplied toward achieving the outcomes you want.

Now, at Korn/Ferry, she is determined to position the business as female friendly and the place to come for female talent, because in her view many women out there at mid-level wanting to move up into the executive ranks do not find the search world particularly encouraging.

No Silver Bullet
The women’s issue, in Katie’s mind, is much bigger than women on boards, although that does of course come in to the brief. What’s important is getting women into the C jobs (CEO, CFO, CIO, etc) and improving productivity. Once there’s traction in the C suite space, she says, we’ll know we are making change.

“Productivity in Australia has been falling for the past 20 years and we still haven’t got a mechanism to fully utilise half our population. There is often no simple way for women to get back into the workforce after maternity leave. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle and no single initiative will be the Silver Bullet. Child-care is certainly one issue, flexible work practices another.  Quotas are something I believe we should have in our back pockets to be used if none of this works.

Resolving the Unconscious Bias
“My feeling is there’s something else that is stopping us utilising the full potential of our female population and that’s unconscious bias. I am determined to play a positive part in solving a puzzle that may include unconscious bias.  We at Korn/Ferry now have an in-house training programme for our team to explore unconscious bias to ensure it’s not affecting our candidate selection.
“Quite apart from solving the puzzle, bias in a search firm aimed at being the search firm for women is just poor business practice.”
A fair and logical comment from a leader who believes that for things to work you must have a well-articulated vision and a team with the right skill-sets, including flexibility, resilience and enthusiasm, to implement that vision.

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1 comments

  • Larke Riemer

    Larke Riemer 8 years ago

    Fantastic interview of Katie - what an inspiration to us all on how to be persistent and really believe in what you are doing. I am sure we will all see Korn/Ferry become the top provider for women in the recruitment space under Katie's leadership.