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Diane Smith-Gander Director National Broadband Network Company and Wesfarmers

07 March 2011

\"There is a strong social justice motive for change in women's representation in all sorts of roles. I can make some inroads on righting that social injustice because I think I've got far enough to do that... but also by what I do and how I do it.\"

Speaking across the country via mobile phone with top flight business woman Diane Smith-Gander (appointed to the board of the National Broadband Network as a director in 2009 and on the board of Wesfarmers), it quickly becomes clear that her early 'mum-dad-and-the-kids' style thoughts on life progression have changed - rather dramatically - as her career has progressed.

Representing Western Australia in basketball until her late twenties, Diane put her energy and passion into playing the game. To support herself, and studying economics part time, she temped in a variety of roles and while working in a marketing and PR consultancy, found herself being convinced by the state manager to consider a corporate path. One of Diane's first mentors, his thoughts were being reinforced at home by her first husband - another great role model and mentor. And, coming to the end of her time playing basketball, Diane resolved to switch her energy to her corporate career.

Not that she followed any strategic plan. In fact, Diane's best moves have been unplanned - the result of unpredicted events that have often appeared setbacks.

Developing muscle

What she has always done courageously is address her skill gaps.

\"I was at Westpac for almost 10 years in the 1990s, and a General Manager for more than five years of that. I aspired to be a group executive and the feedback I was being given (and that I could also see from observing how other people did their jobs) was that I had a lot of depth in Australian banking but no global bank management. I'd also done a lot of operational work and tended to go to answers that were operational rather than answers that were strategic. My skill gaps were: strong strategic muscle and offshore experience.\"

Everything was brought into stark relief when Diane missed out on a senior bank position given to someone brought in from outside with overseas experience in strategy.

Off the back of that, she took the opportunity to go to America to the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, thinking she'd work banking engagements for a couple of years, get a \"real job\" in a US bank and then return to Australia into that senior role she hankered after.

\"Eight years later, having secured a partnership at McKinsey and worked in a variety of industries including the pharmaceutical industry, I returned... and to that role I'd aspired to in the first place.

\"Part of my plan worked and part went by the wayside but it was the initial setback that put me on the path to my end goal.\"

Retaining people

I wonder out loud if losing our talent overseas for such long periods of time is a good thing. Diane agrees in theory that it's not optimal. (But in practice, I am guessing, would have been loathe to give-up the excitement and stimulation offered at McKinsey.)

\"The bigger retention issue for Australia, in fact globally, is around flexibility in careers to allow people to do the things that are described as work-life balance,\" she admits.

\"I don't like the term work-life. I believe you have life and you live it. Work is part of that and caring responsibilities and child bearing and rearing are also part of that and it all needs to be flexible enough to cope. Both sexes need to be able to live life and that may mean taking breaks - it certainly means to retain people in the workforce we need to find a better relationship with work.\"

Through her work on the National Broadband Network Diane has gained an insight into what might be possible via technology. Improving bandwidth and broadband speeds, she believes, should make working from home more efficient and productive. Economic drivers are also incredibly important in developing a robust argument around the retention issue and finding answers.

The world of basketball, where it is increasingly difficult to keep talented players onshore, especially women, has been preoccupying Diane lately in her capacity as Chair of Basketball Australia. As a microcosm for the larger retention issue, she feels lessons here may have wider applications.

\"We could be more successful in growing our sporting talent and keeping it here if we developed ways to smooth income earned over lifetime rather than over the lifetime of a sporting career. I think there may be some lessons from this that we can relate to people and their work environments. It would be smart for organisations to think a bit harder about how they remunerate people who want to have flexible working arrangements.\"

This sporting life

In fact sport has, and continues to provide Diane with many a 'life learning'. Recognising early on that she was a \"solid introvert\", sport and team sports taught her about co-existence.

\"Sport's where I developed skills of empathy and an ability to deal with groups, because it's not something I would say comes naturally to me. It's also where I learned about trying and not necessarily succeeding - learning that failure and not always getting what you want is not actually life threatening.

\"And then there are the rewards of tenacity and how good it feels when you actually get there. In fact, that is the Ying of the 'learn-that-you-can-fail-and-keep-on-going' Yang.\"

Diane goes on to explain that it was her father, a professional sprinter, who taught her one of her earliest life lessons through the context of sport. During the nickel boom, the family was transferred to Kalgoorlie. Diane was at a stage where she needed friends and her father recognised that team sports were a way to achieve that... but there were no teams in town. Her father's solution: start a netball team.

\"The notion that things just come to you or will just be there for you was not something I grew up with. If you want something you go and do it,\" says Diane.

\"I've always been taken by people with real empathy in their armoury, who understand the views of others and are then prepared to translate that into real action. That takes courage.

\"I think we have suboptimal outcomes in our working live because we don't consider another's point of view, we don't walk in their shoes. Our education systems in Australia have let us down over the years. If you take the US, Americans are great communicators. They don't just have the gift of the gab. Instead, it's about compelling communication because the messages they're giving are grounded firmly in a good understanding of what the other person thinks about.

\"We have this cringe about discussing feelings. We think it's nosey and pushy to ask personal questions about what things mean for you, how they affect you... But I think it makes for a much better business outcome if you have a real understanding of what the customer wants and what the stakeholder is expecting and how your decisions might impact them.\"

Spiral staircase

Diane has begun developing a different language around career and success, work, opportunity and leadership. Often when we talk about career paths and women leaders we speak in terms of climbing the corporate ladder, hitting the glass ceiling, or getting off the treadmill.

For Diane, the climb is a spiral staircase. In winding around itself the spiral staircase allows people the opportunity to stop and contemplate before moving on.

\"Ladders are up and down and one at a time and you have to grip the sides. Spiral staircases, exemplified in the portfolio career, leave your hands free and more than one person or idea can be on it at a time, they're about amassing experiences and transferrable skills.

\"We need to recognise early on that it's not about staying in one place and putting one foot in front of the other but about looking around and looking at what the opportunities are that are going to help you build a portfolio of experiences and skills and taking them.

\"It's an area where women do very poorly. We look at a job and think if we can't do all the elements then we're not ready for it. Whereas men think they're ready if they can do just 40 percent of it. We should be splitting the difference - if I can do 60 to 80 percent of the job and the last 20 is a stretch then this is a stepping-stone and I should be going for it.

\"It's important to identify what you're missing in this equation and start building those skills,\" finishes Diane, just before we move onto defining her top achievements and passions.

Key Achievements

The partnership at McKinsey and Company in the US.

Building a portfolio career and the move into directorships. It's happening at a time when it is an important agenda item for women and it will mean I have an opportunity to give back to all those who've been part of my success.

The Bank of Melbourne merger in 1997-98 - done with a great team I'd insisted on.

Personal Passions

My family.


Celebrating the human experience.

\"When I first started out in life I thought I was going to do what my mum and dad did. Get married and stay married and have a bunch of kids and play a lot of sport.\"

\"Part of my plan worked and part went by the wayside but it was the initial setback that put me on the path to my end goal.\"