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07 March 2011

It's not every day you hear the CEO of one of the top publicly listed companies in this country admit that if they knew what they now know they would have run a million miles the other way. Not that Gail Kelly is contemplating running away... but it is weirdly comforting to know that people who reach the top suffer moments of doubt just like everyone else.

Speaking on leadership skills at a lunch for 120 women business owners and corporate types (a few token men thrown in for look), Gail admitted that when she first received the news she'd landed the Westpac role it crossed her mind she wasn't sure she could do the job.

Such thoughts aside, Gail continues to lead and believes it's because she has the right people in the right roles and the wrong people off the bus. She also believes that making both sides of that decision requires courage and resilience, and the ability to identify and communicate simply, honestly and clearly your values and the values of the business.

Steps up

I don't know how many times I've heard human resources people comment on the difference between the approach men and women take to stepping up the career staircase? But it goes something like this: women when they look at the requirements of a new position will invariably not try for a promotion if they can't do everything on the list. Men, on the other hand, will go for it if they can do just 40 per cent of what it requires. You'd have to think this is two extremes of the one continuum? Certainly, this month's Ruby of the Month - board director and top-flight business leader - Diane Smith-Gander does. She is of the firm view that we should split the difference, be capable of 60 to 80 per cent of the role, and stretch to the final 20 per cent or so - otherwise, what do you learn.

Speaking with Diane about climbing what she prefers to think of as a spiral staircase rather than a corporate ladder, words such as courage and resilience crop up a fair bit.

She related a particular story in her working life for which I do not envy her.

Back in the 1990s country retail bank branches were being closed. Diane was advised to do the courageous thing and announce the closures personally and take it on the chin. In doing just that she soon learned the impact the closures were having on the towns... and it was not what many may have expected.

Diane says: \"Many people in country towns were going to larger regional centres for services and a range of goods already, so doing their banking there was not really a problem... It was the loss of the people in those smaller towns that mattered. Sometimes, the bank manger was the president of the school's P&C (Parents and Citizens group), or the wife of the accountant convened the local childcare facility, or the bank employees' kids leaving the school forced the local school to drop grades because there were not enough kids left to make a class.

\"These were the issues. Understanding what was happening and being able to at least acknowledge all those affected, and being prepared to be empathetic, was really important to making the best of those closures and to getting understanding in the community.\"

Try these shoes

Empathy is exactly what two American authors, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, want their readers to feel when you pick up their book \"Half the Sky: How to Change the World\", published by Virago. (It's also about having courage and resilience.)

According to a \"Guardian\" journalist reviewing the book, \"WuDunn and Kristof make an unashamed pitch for the reader's support and engagement. They want to recruit readers to join the movement to emancipate women... To open their hearts and join in.\"

\"The ambition,\" continues Ed Pilkington, \"to inspire us to action, to foment what they call a modern abolitionist movement, informs every page of the book. It's not just evident in the direct appeals they make to readers; it is also subliminally present in the way they [Kristof and WuDunn] manage their information. Specifically, they wanted to avoid a numbing effect where readers would become so overwhelmed by the grimness and apparent hopelessness of the lives women lead that they would sink into depression, rather than leap into action.

\"So WuDunn and Kristof studied psychological papers on what gels people to participate, and discovered that statistics are particularly bad as motivational tools. By contrast, focus on individuals is key.\"

The authors also focus on where \"terrible wrongs have been overcome, proving that seemingly immutable problems can be shifted.\"

Apparently, \"genital mutilation was practised regularly in England until the 1860s\". It has been eradicated.

100s of thousands of copies of \"Half the Sky\" have been sold in the US and it is now available in the UK. TV docos are planned and even a video game to reach a different audience. US book club members have begun fundraising drives and readers have put down their lives and travelled overseas to see what they can do to alleviate the plight of women.

According to Germaine Greer's assessment of the book, which is somewhat harsher: \"One of the best parts of the book, unexpected given its own brief, is the short discussion of female genital-cutting and the success of a grassroots organisation called Tostan in changing attitudes.

She goes on to say: \"The impulse behind 'Half the Sky' is a good one. Anyone who has endured the talkfests of the UN for decade after weary decade, and seen massive aid projects miss their mark and collapse in a welter of bad faith, will echo the authors' certainty that it is now down to ordinary people to do practical things for other ordinary people. It is tempting to believe that with \"our loose change we can loosen chains\" and that the internet will make real help possible as it has never been before. The only really enviable privilege that the privileged have is the chance to do good. Kristof and WuDunn make it sound easy. It's practically impossible, but 'Half the Sky' does make you want to try.\"

Hopefully, there's a way of changing attitudes and making a difference.

Repeat myself

During October the National Breast Cancer Foundation will have its pink ribbon month to raise money for breast cancer research. One of the events is the pink ribbon breakfast.

Is anyone having a long-distance breakfast via Facebook and Twitter as a way of raising donations? If so, it would be great to hear about it.