Throughout my career I have encountered strong and vibrant women. It has been a pattern in my working life to be in a team which is led, either formally or informally, by a woman of absolute substance. And I am not sure what working life would be like without it. I recently moved from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast, and with this change of office I leave an extremely high-functioning team. It has been established and led by Heidi Sick, the Section Executive for WSP’s Power team in Victoria, and the market lead for renewable energy across Australia. On top of my move, I am now on maternity leave and I find myself in a good place to reflect on my career to date, and my aspirations going forward. I thought a good way to approach this reflection would be to talk with some of these women who inspire, who create and who lead. I met with Heidi while down in Melbourne in March. While the discussion below outlines our quick half hour chat, there is so much more that can be said about this woman, who has been so supportive over the last two years, and who has been an incredibly valuable sounding board and personal champion.
Putting a team together
When Heidi started in her current role, in 2009, the team structure and mandate was very different. After a couple of years, she moved into a team management role, her first people management role with direct reports. Hers was a team of six, two of whom were women. She had no power generation background, but the person who interviewed her saw leadership qualities in Heidi and she was appointed to the role.
“I had no idea what I was doing, no idea what to do. I decided to focus on what the team can do, their capabilities, strengths, interests and passion, and to support them and make sure that they were fully engaged. I then had to get up to speed with understanding the market and the sector, build client relationships and focus on business development. I realised that if I didn’t have strong relationships with my team then they would leave. After a couple of years I went on maternity leave and came back to manage a larger team with different capabilities, which included wind engineering and networks.
Before I went on maternity leave I was fully billable, focusing on project delivery as my team was relatively small with limited management burden. Looking back my role felt more like an administration/management role rather than leadership. When I returned from maternity leave, due to a restructure I had a larger team with two additional capabilities to manage. I recognised there was no way that I could be an expert in all of these areas and I needed to rely on my team’s technical skills and expertise, and so a collective leadership style started to emerge. I asked a lot of questions, practised active listening and focused on understanding what they needed and how we could develop and grow each capability further. I used this intel to inform strategy and made key decisions to help shape the future of our team. Reflecting back, it was a collective leadership style, but without me realising it. It is interesting to me now, because the Women on Boards Next Generation of Female Leaders Program describes the leadership style of the future as being about collective leadership, where you draw out the strengths of everyone in the team. Because as a leader there is no way you can know everything.”
A pause here for some quick stats about Heidi’s team. There are nearly 30 people on board now, and women make up about 37%. What was interesting to me working in that team is that Heidi is the head of the entire team, with three managers under her, focusing on different renewable streams of work. And two of these three managers are women. Quite a few of the senior engineers are also women. So the 37% stat is impressive on its on, but it stands out even more when you know that the women on the team are leaders in their own right.
I asked her if diversity was a conscious decision. “50/50. Gender diversity is getting harder to maintain as the team grows. For graduate roles, I was focused on finding women to apply for roles in the earlier career stages. Whereas for the more senior roles it’s more about who is available, particularly in such a buoyant industry. Obviously in the current market there aren’t that many people available, however I was fortunate to come across some really competent and talented women. Once we interviewed a strong female candidate, and my colleague was concerned that she was too quiet and did not sell herself. However, I had no doubts that she would be amazing, which was exactly the case. It’s about understanding how women portray themselves and knowing that most of us have problems in promoting ourselves and really putting ourselves out there, particularly in an interview situation.”
So has being a female leader had an impact on the gender diversity of the team? Having this kind of insight in an interview must have an impact.
“Absolutely – women attract women. Some of my female team members moved across because of a female leader. One of my engineers could see I was working full time, with a family and juggling it all. She could trust that I was living it.”
I can vouch for this myself. Heidi has two amazing and beautiful boys, two years apart, at pre-school and primary school level. When I was interviewing for my role, I hadn’t worked in over a year. I didn’t have any care lined up for my son, because I wasn’t expecting to start working, and I wasn’t sure what I was looking for in the next few months. The idea of putting my son into care was intimidating. But during the interview process I really believed that Heidi understood my situation, was committed to ensuring I had flexibility in my work, and supported me in limiting my work to three days a week. I don’t think I would have been so willing to start working just then if I didn’t have this sense of flexibility, empathy and support.
So what traits do motherhood give a working woman?
“I think about the person I was before I had kids. I was really selfish. As soon as I had my children, I became much more open, caring and selfless and had a lot more empathy. It gave me a much better understanding of what other people in my team were going through. From morning sickness to failed IVF treatments, from fear of leaving work to fear of returning to work, fathers taking paternity leave and then balancing part time work. Looking back I feel grateful that they all were able to confide in me. Having already gone through it I knew what I needed to do, to empathise and support however I could.
For me, motherhood has helped me to prioritise what’s important at work, what needs to be done before leaving at the end of the day.
“Unfortunately I haven’t been as strict on that front as with consulting there’s often inflexible deadlines. After having children there is a greater sense of urgency and being efficient with my time. You know you have limited time and if you don’t get things done in that time it’s after hours. Limiting my work after hours is something I’ve been trying to focus on this year and it has been slightly better but it’s still not where it should be. Whenever I’m in dire straits I will ask for help, but then I feel like I am not managing well enough. I guess that’s one annoying trait is you always have mother’s guilt. Guilt for working, guilt for any time you have to yourself and guilt for feeling like you should be a better mother. Feeling like you’re not doing anything good enough is a common post maternity leave feeling. You’re not in the right headspace from sleep deprivation, or you’ve got so much on that it’s hard to be present when you’re at home with the kids or when you’re at work. Now that my kids are at school, it is getting better, but quietening the inner critic is a task in itself..”
Now Heidi and I have had a lot of chats about the inner critic. Previous female colleagues have also felt this heaviness, this monster that sits on your shoulders, undercutting your confidence. So I asked her how hers was doing.
“It’s pretty good actually. Sometimes, the more downtime you have the more it can creep in. If you’ve had some time off and you come back to work, and are catching up there are moments where that inner critic or the imposter syndrome raises its ugly head”
Heidi recently won a scholarship through the Clean Energy Council for a course called Your Leadership Voice. It’s a fantastic recognition of what she’s achieved. I asked if this has helped with silencing the inner critic (or at least muffling it.)
“Obviously getting the recognition and exposure has been really good. I often think that anyone can do my role and that its no big deal. But then the CEC’s speaker guide was published and there are 7 women from my team in WSP in the guide and that’s actually really fantastic.”
Women in leadership
The scholarship is not the first leadership course that Heidi is doing. She recently completed the Women on Boards (WOB) Next Generation of Female Leaders Program. So it got me thinking about how some men seem to be groomed for leadership from an early age, perhaps unconsciously. I asked if she thought it would have been a harder road without supplementing her role with studies?
“Speaking generically – women rarely put themselves forward for the next role. But for me, somewhere along the management pathway these leadership qualities started to come out. Thankfully, I had the opportunity with WOB and through the WOB course I had the headspace to recognise that I had some natural leadership qualities and that those qualities were valuable, and so it really inspired me to want to continue to develop those skills. I have so much to learn and develop and it is so interesting. It’s all about people, relationships, being human, connecting and engaging to achieve a common set of goals.”
This is a hard skill to quantify. It’s hard to compare it to technical knowledge, where you know how to size a bolt. But it’s important and interesting nonetheless, because in the engineering sector you often see what happens when a heavily technical person is put into a leadership position without these skills…
“Quite often men will confidently put themselves forward for the next role. As everyone knows, if there’s a list of six requirements in a job ad, guys will have a completely different approach to it, saying ‘I’ll be able to do that’ whereas women will say ‘I haven’t done that’ and they won’t apply for a job unless they tick most of the boxes. I’ve had a couple of experiences where I have had opportunities come up and just doubted that I could do the role. So I have had interviews where my heart wasn’t in it purely because I didn’t have the confidence to back me up.”
I asked Heidi if she had ever found herself chasing a female candidate who hasn’t put themselves out there, but who had potential.
“For me this is one of the most important things we should be doing as an organisation; identifying those women who are suitable for the senior level but possibly haven’t had the management or leadership experience. One of my team members is a great example. She said she wasn’t ready for a leadership role. After managing to convince her, she is now flourishing, she loves the people management and leadership side. It’s important to give women that opportunity, being proactive in identifying them, and helping them take that initial leap. I was fortunate that someone saw potential leadership qualities in me, otherwise I don’t know where I’d be. The last few years have been the most enjoyable of my career. “