Before she was tasked with cleaning up Crown Resorts, Helen Coonan sat down with me to discuss the challenges that women executives still face.
In the wake of the Bergin hearing, Helen Coonan was elevated to executive chairman of Crown Resorts, as the casino giant faces public pressure for a complete board and management cleanout. As Anne Hyland of The Sydney Morning Herald put it, “…heavy lies the crown on Helen Coonan’s head. The former federal politician and government minister has one of the ugliest and toughest jobs in corporate Australia – and of her career – to clean up the disastrous failings of Crown Resorts.”
The Big Smoke publisher spoke to Helen Coonan in 2014, about the challenges women in executive positions face, the lingering spectre of gender quotes and how women can have it all.
Alexandra: With young women in leadership wanting to move forward in their careers, they are often looking towards women who have paved the way. What do you wish you had known starting out in your career?
Helen: Well for me it was more an iterate of processes, because at that stage of my life there were not a lot of mentors and there were very few sponsors. So in a way, I think I would have liked to have found someone who had been on my journey or something similar who could in fact craft a pathway for me; or advise me strategically on how to do it. So I really had a bit of trial and error and that was the way in which I found my path in many respects; things happen to you and then you take up any opportunities. My advice to all women is to find out what they really love to do, and they will probably be good at it. That is always a good guide.
Alexandra: I find it easy to receive devil’s advocate advice saying that for example, “an industry is a saturated market and you shouldn’t go into it” – but it’s about deciding the best way to go about doing what you want to do regardless.
Helen: Really you have got to always take advice and then value it against your own criteria and whether it suits you. I mean, people can be very well-intentioned, but unless they have really detailed insight into your capabilities, your ambitions and can see your constraints –a lot of people don’t know what stage you are with your family or what may be impacting on your ability to take up opportunities. So you always have to temper advice with what you know about yourself, I mean you are the one who is most in tune with what you want.
Alexandra: What are your thoughts on gender quotas? It is such a contentious issue, where are you positioned in this argument?
Helen: Ok, well I personally don’t support quotas and the reason I don’t is that having gone through a political process, the last thing I would have wanted was to get to where I got because I got some sort of advantage that a quota gives you, and I think in a sense it can be very misguided. It will get you entry, but it won’t necessarily get you promotions because a lot of getting promotions is understanding who you have to work with, and bringing people along with you and I think quotas already put you at a disadvantage. Now, that’s just my opinion and I think it can be quite fluid and the momentum, while it’s heading in the right direction, is still glacial. So it may ultimately be that people who see the downsides of quotas will revisit them to see if they’re needed to at least get people into entry-level positions.
Alexandra: My concern has always been that the politics behind well-meaning quotas will result in tension at the ground level and between team members who feel someone is there due to meeting a target.
Helen: I think it demeans you and I think ability should speak for itself. What I think women need to do is increase the understanding and consciousness and place value of women in the people who do the promoting. That is really what we need to target. And there are some significant issues, such as men and women who think “well we have got enough women”, rather than looking at who is the best pool of people, where are the women that go into the pool of available women and qualified women, and I think that’s what you must do it inevitably women will get more opportunities. The “if not, why not?” principle is a pretty good one for now. As I said, I don’t think it’s set in concrete, it’s not a “set and forget” type of policy, we do need to keep our eye on it, and I do respect people who have a different opinion with me on this. I don’t think there is a right answer.
Alexandra: I think it has a lot to do with personality. It’s easier for others to push themselves forward. I have never felt my gender has held me back, but that’s not to say it hasn’t for many women in similar industries. Often it leads to women not feeling confident in their abilities.
Helen: I think that’s right, and I think it’s about timing, and what’s available. Are you in the right position at that stage in your life to take advantage of that opportunity which may come? I do think that personality comes into it – I think ambition comes into it, you have to be driven and you have to be bold. You don’t get anywhere by standing behind the door waiting for someone to recognise your inherent and wonderful talents. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a competitive world and you have to put yourself in a position to be noticed and to then be competitive.
It’s not an “either-or” and I think to put yourself in the best position to take up opportunities, you really have to try and experience a range of things as much as you can in the industry. That will never go astray.
Alexandra: I was fortunate to have worked full-time while completing my postgraduate education, yet many women feel they either cannot do both or do not need to do both. Do you feel that experience is more important than education?
Helen: I think these days, particularly in executive streams, not having an education is very difficult because it is often seen as giving someone who also has experience a competitive advantage. So it might help you to have experience at some levels, but I think ultimately in the executive streams both education and experience will count for you.
Alexandra: Well you can do both. There are so many flexible options if you are prepared to.
Helen: That is right, it’s not an “either-or” and I think to put yourself in the best position to take up opportunities, you really have to try and experience a range of things as much as you can in the industry. That will never go astray. I think having good mentors around you is important. Not only mentors, but sponsors where you can get into an industry where there are people who are looking out for you and giving you a boost. Mentors are a bit more “hands off” whereas a sponsor I think can really make a huge difference to a young woman who may be a bit reluctant to put herself forward. If you have a sponsor you have a buffer around you to vouch for you.
Alexandra: What advice do you have to manage yourself on a day-to-day basis?
Helen: There are no hard-and-fast rules. I tend to be pretty much a workaholic, I work most of the time. Not that I don’t enjoy my recreational things, but I tend to enjoy work and that is how I tend to organise my time. For other people, they need much more extended breaks and a different work-life balance. If you’ve got kids it’s very difficult to not make that a priority, particularly when they are little. The issue of maternity leave is critical, but it’s not going to solve the problem of school holidays when they are five. So it is a difficult thing. And I think that you can have it all, but perhaps not all at the same time. So there are stages in your career with a different focus. So one stage it may have a real focus on your workload and another time you require flexibility because you have children.
Alexandra: It is a hard thing when your career is determined more so on if or when you may want children rather than your ability. It seems an odd thing that people would even anticipate that being a concern when looking to hire or invest in a woman.
Helen: Well it’s insulting to think that you would be applying for a job you didn’t think you could do quite frankly, and anyone who asked me that question I would say something like “Oh I won’t leave them out in the rain” just being flippant, because women are good managers. Not that there won’t be moments of enormous stress. One of the great advancements of the workplace is the understanding that there are some stages of your life where you require much more flexibility than at others and I think that’s a very good thing, the understanding of people’s domestic situations.
The problem is that when some women have children they are criticised for not giving work 100 percent and then women who do give it 100 percent are criticised for not having children – there are no hard-and-fast rules, it’s a very personal choice. There are so many different ways to look at family and life balance but I think we are getting used to the fact that families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. We are much more tolerant about that, and so we should we. Surely we can get our heads around the fact that there are so many ways of being a woman?
Alexandra: I just realised I haven’t been on a holiday in eight years.
Helen: Well, you’re a workaholic too. It’s different temperaments and different stages in life and who knows, one day maybe you will go backpacking around Peru.
Alexandra: I really don’t think I’m the backpacking type…