Amanda Place recently returned from a Women and Power course at the Harvard Kennedy School in Boston with a refreshed outlook on women, leadership and mentorship.
Our latest #LeadingLady started as a cadet in the newsroom and spent nearly 20 years in journalism before moving to in-house communications roles in the health space where she became an awarded writer.
Amanda shares advice on how to establish yourself in the workplace, tune in to your intuition, and push yourself outside your comfort zone to find a workplace you can thrive in.
Amanda, you’re an awarded journalist, author and corporate communications leader. How did you learn to demand space in challenging environments?
I’ve changed my approach over 30 years, obviously! Starting out as a 23 year old in a major daily newsroom, women tended to be given the softer, less exciting roles. I had to employ guerilla tactics – being super charming to the male editors to climb the career ladder. I hope this sycophantic approach is no longer needed.
Moving from position to position, I’ve encountered a few tricky characters and each time I’ve adapted my approach to cater for different management styles. I’ve gradually spoken up and demanded some attention and the more I’ve done this, the easier it becomes.
When embedded with the Victorian Health Minister, the bold and brave Caroline Hogg, I learned to speak my mind with more confidence. There was a sense of coming home, being surrounded by a strong team committed to social justice in an environment that was safe and receptive.
What challenges in the workplace helped you develop skills to benefit your career?
Early on I discovered a resilience I didn’t know I had, and a hunger for success by covering some really tough stories – ‘intrusions’ when I’d have to ask a grieving parent ‘how do you feel?’ and major events when I had to prove my mettle. Then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke gave me a death stare when I asked a difficult question and I gave it right back.
The newsroom was male dominated but we were part of a fun, dynamic team. There were strict rules for young women – if you spoke up, you’d often be shut down forcefully by the chief of staff. This made me reserved and cautious. I realised I wasn’t going to climb at the pace I wanted, despite my reporting skills. I needed to cut myself free to become more powerful. I moved on and it proved to be a brilliant decision.
I wish I’d realised how powerful anger can be, there’s a place for it. Dissatisfaction shows you’re not happy and aspiring for more. Anger has led to me being a leader, pushed me into new roles where I’ve demanded change.
What is your advice to young men and women looking to establish themselves in a competitive workspace?
Build resilience: In journalism it’s very competitive, you will have to keep pushing through and perhaps challenge your morals every day. As you become more confident and mature, you learn what’s right for you from an ethical viewpoint.
Adapt: Learn about yourself on the job and adapt your style. Keep your cards close at times, don’t try to please your manager all the time to the point where you jeopardise your own morals. If there’s a little alarm bell in your head it’s there for a reason.
Find the right fit: Shake yourself out of a comfort zone and find the workplace that feels right for you. I do my best work in an environment where I feel appreciated, within an ethos that suits me. In my current role I feel a strong sense of respect and high level of independence.
How can budding professionals learn to speak up and build their confidence?
It can be daunting to speak up at work but there are ways to build your presence that are subtle and powerful. It requires an emotionally intelligent response.
Here are some things to try out:
– Sit near the main influencer or the microphone
– What do you want to say? Write down your comment and practice saying it in your head
– Jump in with your comment because no one will wait for a silence in the room
– If you have a quiet voice as I do, learn to project, or do some voice training with a coach
– Employ positive self-talk. If you’re thinking ‘I’m only 22, I can’t do this’ you’re not giving yourself the right advice. Remind yourself that this is a new experience, taking you on a journey.
Interestingly, men are known to overcome the fear of asking a question sooner than women. They ask earlier and gain confidence from doing so. It could be useful to have a champion in the room who will create space for you by inviting you to speak. Word them up beforehand.
As the philanthropist Swanee Hunt told me, “Every time you have to speak, you are auditioning for leadership”, so you might as well get going and push yourself out there.
You’ve recently returned from the Women and Power course at the Harvard Kennedy School in Boston. Wow! What were the objectives?
It was designed for women who were already in positions of power or who were on the cusp. We learned how to leverage their career and make the greatest contribution they can. It was a seriously diverse group, aged 30 to 60, from all over the world. Five Australians made the cut. The energy in the room was astounding.
There were top police, military, judges, princesses – yes princesses – parliamentarians, grassroots activists, journalists and policy makers. We had a representative of the Muslim Sheros of Minnesota through to a judge who is investigating police corruption in Ireland.
I was feeling pretty intimidated until we all settled-in to listen and share. I soon realised we all face similar battles as female leaders.
What key learnings did you take away from the course?
We learnt practical ways to create fairer workplaces and communities. At the end of the day, it comes down to being daring. Daring to strategically challenge and to create a new environment for women to thrive.
We all had examples of invisible bias and myriad barriers which have been in place for generations. We were also able to cite great male champions, and women who were reaching out beyond their comfort zones.
The challenge is to encourage more women to seek mentors and networks so they feel brave in their workplaces and able to craft an environment that allows women to reach senior positions.
It’s also important to know and hold your adversaries close because they push you forward and force you to perform at your highest level.
How are you applying these meaningful learnings to the workplace?
I’ve been a member of the gender equity committee in my workplace for eight years and it is one of the most productive I’ve seen. We are determined to inject new processes throughout the organisation to ensure equity is applied in a systematic way.
As a manager of our public profile, I make a point of placing women front and centre of our annual reports, magazines, in videos, online and on the podium at events. By seeing more women succeeding in leadership throughout the organisation, we challenge the unconscious bias that has existed for a century.
How can mentoring and networking help to propel your career?
Having a mentor helps you learn about the world beyond your desk. They will help you identify your blind spots and ways you can develop your own ideas and networks; to identify your goals. Ask them about theirs and be ready to throw around ideas.
Seek out someone – male or female – who you admire and ask what you might be able to offer them. Be opportunistic, pragmatic and prepared to reciprocate. You definitely have something to offer even if you feel inexperienced. Older mentors also stand to learn a lot from younger mentees who often have a different ‘take’ on modern working life.
I am an absolute convert to networking. Make time for it and you will benefit big time. While the couch may be calling in the evening, resist and go for that drink after work. You’ll discover the issues you’re facing are not yours alone. You’ll discuss tactics and techniques that are bound to resonate. So empowering.
Unlike men, high-performing women tend to look outside their workplace for a network. They develop external relationships which open up their prospects. Join a group, or why not help to set-up a posse of women in similar roles to yours? You’re then a founder and can take it in the direction you’d like. It will create long-term, powerful support structures for your career.
Connect with Amanda Place.
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Photography by Courtney King.