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Unfiltered Conversations: The sometimes lonely path of being a trailblazer for women

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors who write to help Australia’s community of small and medium businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors who write to help Australia’s community of small and medium businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

With Launa Inman and Leonie Knipe

Unfiltered Conversations pairs brilliant business women who are disrupting the status quo, for an honest, intimate and authentic conversation. In this feature, join 2003 Telstra Business Woman of the Year and Non-Executive Director of Super Retail Group, Launa Inman, and 2019 Telstra Western Australian Business Woman of the Year and Dealer Principal and Managing Director of Avon Valley Toyota, Leonie Knipe.

Leonie Knipe

Here, Launa and Leonie talk candidly about dealing with the boys’ club, nurturing female leadership, and what diversity can mean for business.

Launa Inman has had an illustrious career including leading Billabong International as CEO and Managing Director, seven years as Managing Director of Target, and a role as a Non-Executive Director of Commonwealth Bank. She serves on two
not-for-profit boards: the Alannah & Madeline Foundation and Virgin Melbourne Fashion Festival.

Leonie Knipe is the 2019 Telstra Western Australian Business Woman of the Year and the Dealer Principal and Managing Director at Avon Valley Toyota and Isuzu Ute. Leonie has found incredible success in the traditionally male-dominated
auto-industry and her experience has led her to value and foster diversity in the workplace, particularly along the lines of gender and race.

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Leading the way as women in business

Leonie: Hello, Launa.

Launa: Hello Leonie. It's a fabulous year ahead of you. Well done. I'm thrilled for you.

Leonie: Thanks. I don't think when you're day-to-day running a business that you actually attach titles like “trailblazer” to yourself.

But when you reflect on where you've come from, what you've done, and just how few women are doing what you’re doing – particularly in my industry – by default of being one of the few and one of the first, you are a trailblazer.

How about yourself? Do you ever think, “Look at me – I'm a trailblazer”?

Launa: I have been a trailblazer, but like you, I never really thought about it. When I reflect back, I'm the first woman to run Officeworks, the first woman to run Target.

Certainly, I was a trailblazer at Billabong, being the CEO of a huge surfing company. I think that was a complete and utter shock to everyone that a woman could be the CEO of a company that was all about snowboarding, surfing, skateboarding, etcetera.

Leonie: Did you actually have people say that to you – that they were shocked a woman was doing what you were doing?

Launa: They said it straight to my face. I will never forget, it didn't matter whether it was the fund managers or journalists, or even if I went to make a speech somewhere, the very first question I would get always was, “Do you surf?” And I would have to say, “No, I don't.” They always looked aghast at how I could have the audacity to think I could run that company if I didn't surf.

I remember saying back to one of the journalists: "Do you ask the CEO of Myer and the CEO of David Jones, who are both men, whether they wear dresses and perfumes? Because, if you think about it, 70% of their customers are women, and their growth has been apparel and cosmetics. Do you ask them that question?"

They stepped back and said, "Well, that's actually a point." I said, "Well, I think you need to look at us in an equal manner."

Leonie: Yeah. I’ve had it a little bit myself.


Not just one of the boys

Launa: Let me ask you a question. Working in a male-dominated field, have you found there's been pressure to present as one of the boys?

Leonie: In the early days, yes. But I think the pressure came from myself. I don't think it was being imposed on me by the men. I was all football and cricket. If I was going into a room full of men, which I had to do a lot – still have to do a lot – I would almost try to study the sports scores so I had something that I thought that they'd want to talk about.

I definitely don't do that anymore, because it wasn't authentic. I'm not particularly interested in cricket and football. I did discover that men were quite interested in talking about family and general news though. I don't know whether you've had similar experiences?

Launa: Yes and no. I became aware that I needed to not lose my femininity, and I still dressed as a business woman, but similar to you I would try and understand what was happening on the back page when it came to sports. And I found that did open up some acceptability to me. 

"Did the men treat me a little bit differently? Even though they were incredibly polite to me, I know that at times I did feel a little isolated."

Launa Inman, Non-Executive Director of Super Retail Group

When I would be the only woman at the conference and all the guys would be saying, “Well, let's go for a 6:30am run,” or something. And they never ever thought to ask me if I wanted to join them.

I don't think it was done deliberately. And I probably may not have even gone, but it would've been nice to have been asked.

Leonie: That professional isolation is something that I have definitely experienced. At the end of a conference they'll go off to the bar or go off to the casino and not to think to invite me. Like you said, I don't think it was out of rudeness. I think it was just out of a perception that I wouldn't be interested.

Launa: How did you manage it?

Leonie: In the early days it did bother me. Now it hasn't changed, but it doesn't bother me anymore. I appreciate that we are all different.


Embracing diversity 

Launa: I think people are aware of diversity, but it's one thing being aware of it, and it's another thing making sure it happens. One thing I've found is that you can have diversity in the workplace, but it still doesn't mean inclusion. You can put your hand up and say, “Yes, we've got diversity.” But unless they're actually included and made to feel part of the team, it's still not a solution.

One of the things that I learned is you have to make an effort to be included and embrace whatever that company offers you. What are your thoughts on it?

Leonie: Yeah, I definitely agree with everything that you've said. I never wanted to be in a position where I had a checklist for diversity hires. I didn't want it to be just a tick and flick. Diversity is important, but it still does need to be, as you said, managed.

I also think it makes a big difference for customers coming into your workplace. They're far more comfortable walking into an organisation that is diverse because they are all diverse.

Launa: Totally. One of the businesses I'm involved in now, they've been doing some quite senior appointments. And the question we posed was can you make sure there are some women on that list? They came back and said, “We haven't really found any.” I said, “I don't buy that. There are many smart women out there, and the head hunter just has to go and find them. They’re just going to have to work harder for it.” I think that's really important. I think with diversity, you've got to keep pushing it all the way, not only within your own company but elsewhere.

Leonie: I think part of that pressure, particularly in my industry, comes when you need to think outside the box. The motor vehicle industry still has very set ideas around, for example, ‘a salesperson must work these hours on these days and their job description looks like this’. If you mix that up a little bit and look at flexibility around hours and the job description in itself, that opens up a whole broader group of people applying for the position. 

"Flexibility allows you to have people putting their hand up to come to your business that you might have otherwise missed out on." 

Leonie Knipe, Dealer Principal and Managing Director of Avon Valley Toyota

Launa: I call that reframing how you look at it. And I totally agree because in the past in some of the organisations say, “Flexibility can be negotiated. We can be flexible.” But it's not necessarily the norm. If you reframe it and say, “All jobs have flexibility, we’ve just got to work to make it flexible for you and also good for the company.” Suddenly everyone looks at it differently and that's how you get your diversity and your inclusion.


Fostering female leadership in business

Launa: What do you think businesses should be doing to encourage the development of more female leaders? Because that's what we need. I mean, it's very lonely at the top.

Leonie: I think that we need to encourage the women who are already doing it to take other women under their wing. I think that we need to become more than just mentors. I think we need to become sponsors. In my organisation, if I identify a young woman who is wanting to progress through the ranks of the industry, I’d be taking her under my wing and encouraging her and helping her to kick down those doors. And I think that's what Australian businesses need to do. It might have to be driven by the women who are already doing it.

Launa: I would agree on that. I think organisations need to also appreciate that they do have family commitments and be flexible on that. So I think that that's the first starting point. 

"Organisations need to recognise that they need more women in senior roles."

Launa Inman, Non-Executive Director of Super Retail Group

The second thing is I feel that women need to have mentors and sponsors, and they need to try and get them into a habit of meeting regularly. I could have learnt a lot from someone who met me on a regular basis. Who wasn't just a sounding board, but gave me some really good common-sense advice and pulled me up when I was not going in the right direction. Because you’ve got to have tough love as well. You need someone who is actually going to say, ‘No, I don't think you're handling this one right. Have you considered another approach?’

Companies also need to understand why there are not more women leaders in the senior roles, because often you look at these graduate programmes, they might employ 20 people, 10 women, 10 men, but yet three years later, a lot of those women would have moved on or the men have had a more rapid promotion. I think companies need to be looking internally as well and saying, what are we not doing right? What is the issue? 

"We really have to encourage woman to be upfront and honest and to ask for things, not expect it to happen."

Launa Inman, Non-Executive Director of Super Retail Group

If women want support and they need help, go in and ask for it. Because the only thing that can be said is no, but they might just get it. So I think it's teaching people to communicate better both in the management levels but also for people to ask for more.


It’s business, unfiltered

Launa: Leonie it was wonderful to chat with you.

Leonie: No worries. Thanks to you, too.

Launa: Bye.

Leonie: Bye.

For more Unfiltered Conversations, join Telstra Business Women’s Award Judge and former CMO of oOh!media, Michaela Chan, and 2019 Telstra Northern Territory Business Woman of the Year and Principal Senior Research Fellow at the Menzies School of Health Research, Professor Amanda Leach, as they discuss how trust, vision and generosity help drive change.

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