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Unfiltered Conversations: Transforming business/operations and how things have always been done

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 Amanda Leach and Michaela Chan

Unfiltered Conversations pairs brilliant business women who are disrupting the status quo, for an honest, intimate and authentic conversation. In this feature, 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 within the Child Health Division of the Menzies School of Health Research, Professor Amanda Leach.

Amanda Leach

Here, Michaela and Amanda talk candidly about the importance of trust, vision and generosity in making change.

Michaela Chan is the former CMO of oOh!media, and is currently using her transition time to act in a consulting capacity as the Global VP of Marketing for Ai-Media – a successful for-purpose Australian tech start-up. She’s also an advisor to HeartKids – a cause that she feels personal resonance with ever since her son underwent open-heart surgery at just five months of age. 

Professor Amanda Leach’s clinical trials research focuses on eliminating social disadvantage caused by hearing loss and ear disease. She led the update of guidelines for otitis media (OM, the medical name for middle ear infections), including the creation of an app allowing health providers to diagnose and provide evidence-based treatment for Aboriginal children with OM. Amanda also co-chairs the Hearing for Learning initiative, which funds co-design of ear and hearing support services in remote communities through local skills training and employment.

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Change begins with trust and understanding 

Michaela: Hello, Amanda. I just wanted to say an amazing and huge congratulations on winning the award. 

Amanda: Thanks, Michaela. I know how much work judging is, so very much appreciate what you all do. My first question is this: what's been your most challenging transformation point?

Michaela: When I went to the US, I was a young female relocated to manage the Chevron brand, one of North America's biggest and most loved brands. It was very much a male-orientated environment. A lot of engineers. Most people had been with Chevron for 10 or 15 years. So my biggest challenge was gaining trust. And also building relationships.

Amanda: That's very personal then, isn't it?

Michaela: Very, very personal. For me relocation was that personal change, but also taking a back seat and really hearing about the context of the business, understanding what people’s different roles were - understanding people on that more personal note.

"When you first start a role, or you're in a new challenge, you don't have to be the smartest person in the room." 

Michaela Chan, former CMO of oOh!media

In actual fact I've found that the people who say the least actually have the most to contribute. And sometimes people who say the most actually have the least to contribute. That's been important for me going into new industries and new roles. It's okay. We'll just sit back and listen and try to get the lay of the land.


Tech with vision can be transformative 

Amanda: I wanted to talk a little bit more about the tech thing, because one recent development in my research portfolio is to develop an app. Now everybody's doing apps. But this is a medical one. And I have to say it's been quite an extraordinary experience. Essentially, it's a comprehensive clinical practice guideline. It's all the evidence that you need to work with this complex condition, otitis media, in Aboriginal children. And we think that we're the first in Australia to combine all these elements.

Michaela: Oh, that's awesome.

Amanda: I think it has been transformative. I think people are so on board when they hear about this. I talked to GPs and Aboriginal health practitioners and they all can't wait for this to be launched.

 It’s been a really exciting jump into technology for me. I first saw it with rheumatic heart disease years ago. They had an app. And I said, “Oh my god, I want an app! I want an app!” We knew from our data that kids are not getting seen. They're not getting a diagnosis and they're not getting any management. I needed something that would cope with this high turnover of staff in remote communities to train them up quickly, educate them, and break down their set ways. So this is another part of my big plan.


Keep outcomes in mind, always

Michaela: Tech definitely drives transformation, but there's also an element of really understanding what your guardrails are. Sometimes we can get caught up with the tech and not focus on what the outcome is that you’re trying to drive. So I think you need to really understand where you want to go and then you set your guardrails. You then have that ability to be a lot more agile and to pivot.

 Amanda: And it's a bit about mitigating risk too, isn't it? Because there's so much in tech – we don't hear about all the things that fall over and have a really tough road. But I imagine it parallels with what we're doing in terms of researching the market, the demand, the appetite for this change, and how you help people to embrace it. Help them realise you're not just a blue-sky person. This is real. It can be done. So there's that big gap in the middle, isn't there?

 Michaela: You have to be able to take that informed leap, take a little bit of a risk, and know that you will land. But maybe it's the incremental steps to get there. And I suppose there's a little bit of magic as well.

 Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the parallels with what we're doing are truly there. But with us it's not only about the technology risk, it's about the ideas risk.

 Michaela: That's so interesting.


Leading from within the team

Amanda: We’ve been talking a bit about leadership. So what qualities do you think are important in leadership?

Michaela: I suppose for me, for where I am right now, it's very much about being part of the team. It used to be ‘you lead from behind’ or ‘you lead in front’. I'm probably more about pragmatism now and working alongside and within teams - particularly during times of transformation.

"Leadership is being available, being there to listen, being authentic."

Michaela Chan, former CMO of oOh!media

Probably where the pragmatism's come in during times of transformation, and in particular as I am in transition, is being really vulnerable. It's being able to share experiences with people and enabling them to be vulnerable.

 The best thing you can do as the leader is if something doesn't work: own it. I think the vulnerability and accountability is something that is really, really important. And that's not just from a leadership point of view, that's sort of across the board. Putting your hand up if something's not working.

Amanda: I think that's very important, too.


Small steps can make you a role model

Michaela: I'm going talk a little bit about mentors, Amanda. Have you had any inspirational mentors in your life?

Amanda: We're talking about this quite a bit at work at the moment. Leadership, mentoring, supervision, coaching, all these sorts of things. And to be honest, I haven't had a mentor in the real sense of the word, but I've had amazing leadership role models. These are the words I've used in my career.

I probably do informally experience mentoring myself and offer mentoring to others without really realising that that's what I’m doing. 

"It's important to be generous and to give. Even if it's just a pat on the back."

Professor Amanda Leach, Child Health Division of the Menzies School of Health Research

I try and have an open door and encourage people to not be daunted by coming and having a chat.

Michaela: Sometimes we get so busy. So that simple gesture of saying thank you, two minutes of just acknowledging the hard work – it’s important.


Rewriting how things have always been done

Amanda: In a way, that is bringing the personal to the professional. How do you navigate that?

Michaela: One thing, on a personal level, is my son was born with a congenital heart defect. And just working through that as a working woman, as a wife, and then also too as a mother. Just trying to work through how you balance having a sick child and getting through that and looking after yourself, but also being a breadwinner. I suppose for me, personal and business is my connected life. I've never separated it, and I don't really want to because that's who I am.

A lot of people ask me, ‘How have you been able to have a career?’ And for me, my husband's been incredibly supportive as a stay-at-home father.

And you've had such an impact through your work, but how do you balance that?

Amanda: I would say not very well! Work-life balance… because I enjoy my job so much it's really hard to make a good separation on that. I think if one's not enjoying one's job it's probably quite easy to get up and leave at the end of the day and sign off or hand over or whatever your workplace does in that scenario. But research is always getting your brain working; you kind of don't really leave it alone.

I'm very good if I go away on a holiday. But during the week, the everyday stuff is pretty hard for me, to be honest. I think when the kids were younger my family was also incredibly patient with me. They knew I was passionate.


Small steps get you there, eventually

Michaela: One thing I wanted to talk more about was the real world change that businesses can do.

Amanda: I would love to know that I'm having an impact on the health of Aboriginal children in the long run. That's the endgame. It's a hard road. They're small gains. But they're there. You’ve just got to keep the foot on the accelerator, I think. And I guess it's about knowing what a real-world change is and appreciating that small things are important.

Michaela: I think that's been my learning. The big impact is actually through the small steps. And so it doesn't have to be a grand gesture.

Amanda: It’s been quite a journey for me.

Michaela: Thank you for this conversation! Bye bye.

Amanda: Bye.

For more Unfiltered Conversations, 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 Managing Director of Avon Valley Toyota, Leonie Knipe, as they talk about dealing with the boys’ club, nurturing female leadership, and what diversity can mean for business.

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