Take Charge of Your Own Success: The skills you must have for an executive suite career

November 21, 2017

A Conversation Club Expert Insights event with Anna Green, Partner and Managing Director of Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Georgette Nicholas, CEO and Managing Director of Genworth Mortgage Insurance Australia.

The third of four “In conversation” articles from two of Australia’s pre-eminent businesswomen.


For women who want to develop their own career plans to the executive suite, what specific things could you advise them to do today to plan to achieve that?

Anna: Let’s just jump to one very practical thing and then I want to talk more broadly. To that specific point, to be successful in any organisation you have got to know your numbers. And I would say as a female executive, make sure that you can talk to your numbers 24/7, and that you are on top of them. Because, I absolutely know that still to this day that people look much more closely to female executives as to whether or not they are on top of the economics and financial implications of certain actions.

I think more broadly to answer your question, what I have found is that lots of people who do well find their own path within an organisation. While most organisations have good intent, certainly within Australia, most good organisations think about how to support their female employees. (But) they are never are going to do it perfectly and not everyone is always going to be on-board. So how do you find the right people who you want to work with? Who you want to learn from? And find your channel up through an organisation through pairing with the people who you respect and who you think will provide the right learning environment.


Could you explain the difference between sponsors and mentors?

Anna: To me, a sponsor is very much an advocate for you. When I think about the people in my own career, I would expect and imagine that a mentor is there for one on one support and guidance, and be able to really create an open, two-way conversation. Whereas a sponsor is really standing up and taking a level of accountability for your success and are really proactive in how they do that.

Georgette: I think a sponsor is someone who is interested in you and is willing to commit to your career and help you develop. Someone who can push you out of your comfort zone. They see something in you sometimes before you even do. Someone who takes an active advocacy role, recommends you for projects when they come up; thinks of you as a valuable part of the business. Whereas a mentor is someone you talk to and you can have a two-way conversation with, who provides guidance and information. A sponsor can do some of that but is more about being an advocate.


Does Genworth and BCG assist people to get sponsorship and mentors or is it up to the individual?

Georgette: I do believe it is hard to assign a sponsor. And it’s equally hard to assign a mentor. I am a firm believer that you either connect with someone or you don’t. I think that that connection from a mentor perspective is important. I think from a sponsor, you can start that – and that is often someone who you are working with on a regular basis. Maybe not your manager, but someone else in your organisation that may not be in the same function, but maybe you’ve worked with or connected with and is willing to be your advocate. We have tried a mentoring programme. As a senior management team, we tried to ensure that we are developing people through their careers. But as individuals we have to be responsible for selecting the sponsor and be willing to devote time to developing that relationship and showing your value.


How often should you meet with a sponsor or mentor?

Anna: As often as you want. It’s about the relationship that you develop. I’ve been very fortunate in that I have had some that I work with on a regular basis.

: And I think that you can have more than one.

: At BCG we have done something a bit different on sponsors. We set up a model which we call “business partners” where it’s separate from mentors, separate from sponsors, separate from a career advisor. By definition, a senior BCG partner – one who is commercially successful – is assigned a senior woman. Every one of our senior women has a business partner. And that business partner is responsible for their commercial success. So they don’t give mentoring advice. They ask “have we staffed them in the right place? Have we set them up on a return from leave if they decide to have kids? How are we enabling this person to build a successful commercial career so that they can be one? Or one, promoted to partner and two, be successful when they’re there.”

We’ve created this and sometimes it works better than others. We track it. We ask the business partners every six months to talk about how their business partner is going and the female partner sits there and challenge asks. I think that it is really important. It has made us make some really different decisions on how to staff our senior women.


What else can we do to make an executive career more of a likely thing for a woman in management?

Georgette: I think it is starting with a technical skill and then building on that. Having a specific knowledge. Whether it’s the financials, whether it is the portfolio that you are dealing with and the risk profiles with that – it gives you a foundation to build on. And I think it is being open to developing the other skills that you need.

We don’t always know what path we are on so by being open to opportunities and being willing to try things is important.

And it is about developing a clear idea of what it is you want to do and not being afraid to voice that. In your annual review, on a regular catch up basis – make it known that you want opportunities to work on big projects if you are not getting those and being open to different challenges.


How should women communicate to ensure that management know about our ambitions? How do we keep it front-of-mind for our employer?

Georgette: Talk about it. Don’t let it go. Sometimes we as women are not as vocal at following up. We mention something once and somebody doesn’t do anything and we let it slide but you have to stay on it and keep after it. Which is hard.

And you need to consider: “How do I add value?” One thing that I have always kept in mind is: “How do I add value to the organisation that I am working with?” It is a two-way relationship and I think that as you look at that, you always have to be thoughtful that you are adding to the business. The more you do that, the more people will consider you for projects and opportunities and recognise those that your name is on. Visibility is always important.

Before you go!