Cassandra Kelly is an international advisor, speaker, and company director. She is Chair of Treasury Corporation of Victoria and Fulcrum, and co-founder of Pottinger and Atomli Inc. Her thinking on gender equality, philanthropy, and business leadership has been featured in articles, speeches and books.
1. Can you please tell us why you started The Glass Elevator initiative and have you achieved your initial aim for this initiative? Please kindly tell us a bit about your journey on starting this initiative to now it's going to be expanded to USA.
The short answer is really because something had to change. If we wanted to see more of the women who were ready to be given the opportunity to take up senior roles, intervention was required. I wasn’t prepared to sit back and hope any longer. I wanted to play my part to help move the needle and the discussion forward.
There are lots of problems that I would like to solve but when people ask me why I felt compelled to tackle this one, well there is of course a back story born out of personal experience. When I started my career in financial services at the beginning of the 90s, I couldn’t help but notice how few women there were (back then, even at the graduate level, there were far fewer women receiving offers). Even in the late 90s, when I looked up at the executives or Managing Directors running products in investment banking, there were almost no women. I knew only one. And she wasn’t spoken about very kindly! The language used to describe a woman that had made it in this kind of environment was not complimentary – it was offensive and hurtful. There are now articles out there about the inappropriateness of labelling capable and strong women “bossy” and “bitches” but there was nothing of that back then. And the personal attacks didn’t stop there: I recall the whispers about such women being barren or an undesirable mate: the subtext being that it was a consequence you deserved for trying to make it.
Management consulting was kinder but there were still few very women at the top.
And in both the cases, although the numbers at graduate levels are better today, the numbers of women at the top are disappointing.
In my 20s I kept asking myself: where are the women? What is wrong with us that we can’t make it to the top? And then I realised the question I needed to ask wasn’t what was wrong with women but instead: what was wrong with the system; what was wrong with the selection criteria; and the more insidious question, why were we being kept out?
At school, we follow a pretty clear track. We climb a ladder that is really quite predictable. But once we enter the corporate world, we can’t always see the next rung on the ladder. The ladder twists and turns. Rungs might be missing: maybe no one has gone that way before, or maybe one of the rungs has been removed to add a level of difficulty.
Thankfully, today we have mentoring programs, but we didn’t have those when I was going through the ranks. No, if you wanted someone to give you feedback and advice, you had to seek them out. And if I wanted to get advice from someone that looked like me, well that was near impossible.
So years later, when I had forged business and government relationships based on my reputation for being trustworthy, daring and generous, I set out to use my networks for good – for others’ benefit. I spoke with a colleague of mine at the time (now friend), Olivia Loadwick, and we agreed that something must be done.
And so Glass Elevator was born. Because it had to be.
Olivia and I consumed reports: reports telling us that organisations that embraced women did better; reports that told us how few women ever made it and reports that told us how many were leaving the workforce. It was the latter that I found most disturbing: the fact that women who had hung on, who had excelled and made it to indirect report to CEO were leaving in numbers. This loss of talent, this waste was something I couldn’t stand by and watch.
Glass Elevator was there to connect, inspire and engage women. To open their networks, to show them that they weren’t alone, to help them continue their climb and to encourage them to stay in the workforce so that they could demonstrate to others that it was possible to make it.
One of my companies, Pottinger, funded the Glass Elevator from the outset. I had the support of all staff and my co-founder. We designed a program to bring together female indirect reports to CEOs, from different industries, in both public and private sector. In an intimate setting, these women, who had been nominated by their CEOs, would come share ideas and experiences facilitated by leading CEOs and board directors. They could look around and be inspired, learn and see they were not alone.
And I am delighted to say that it has made a difference: the promotion rate increased and far fewer women in the program have left the workforce than the original statistics.
And not only has it benefited the women who have been active within it but it has helped others around them because the ripple effect that was part of the contract with the women who joined the program: we would help them but they had to help others. Paying it forward is how some describe it.
So how do we bring it to the US? Starting the Glass Elevator in the US comes with different logistical challenges. In Australia, business is transacted in only a few major cities and so it is easier to find ways for women to get together. In the US however, the geographical spread of businesses is much greater making it harder to bring people together.
Glass Elevator Australia demonstrated the importance of women coming together across industries so that ideas can be shared to reflect the current reality: that sectors are increasingly interconnected.
In the US, one of the most influential sectors globally is technology which cuts across all sectors. There is, helpfully, a concentration of technology related businesses in just a few cities. Alongside this, women are known to be very entrepreneurial and yet the stories of women fighting for air time and respect and funding in the male world of technology are reminiscent of those days in investment banking. So we are focusing our attention on technology and particularly on the world of start ups. We want to help create a different narrative and reality for women and the businesses they can enrich and improve.
2. You have been actively voicing and raising awareness on gender equality and closing the gender gap. Have you particularly interested in helping other women? Why?
I have a particular interest in justice and equity, human rights and decency. And one of the most egregious issues that faces the world is the mistreatment, discrimination and financial exclusion of women and girls.
So why do I care? Because it matters, because it is urgent, because it is the right thing to do. Because I won’t come to the end of my living years and lie there wishing I had tried to do something.
I am tired of hearing the stories of women pulling up the ladder behind them. I am sick of the stereotypes. Some of the most wonderful allies, mentors, and the very best cheerleaders that I have had are women. I want to help us find our tribe. I want to connect women with other great women.
Years ago I spoke at the Opera House in Sydney, Australia and I called for action, for a movement: women supporting women. We have all heard that behind every strong man stands a strong woman.
Well I want a new universal truth: that behind every strong woman would be another strong woman. Or alongside. I called for us to lift each other up.
3. Do you think it's crucial to have women in board management position? Why and what differences can women bring in terms of overall well being of the company and decision making?
It is critical that women reach executive and board positions, not only because it is fair, but because in these roles they are able to have the most influence. Although no employee, male or female, should wait until they have the top job to display leadership, the reality is that once you get there you have your hands more directly on the levers.
Let’s set aside for a moment whether women have different attributes to men that might be valuable . Instead let’s just focus on raw ability. If you believe that women are as capable as men (which clearly I believe and the research shows), then choosing employees from 100% as opposed to half of the world’s talent pool just seems rational and good business sense. Doesn’t it?
Sure, I believe that women can bring a different perspective and certainly women are well regarded for qualities such as compassion, empathy, inclusiveness, and at the same time daring. But I rest less on these arguments because great men also possess these attributes. The trick is to choose from a pool of both men and women of modern leaders. To make decency, boldness, collaboration , empathy and compassion minimum standards.
4. How do you think women leads differently than man, and it's an advantage or disadvantage for women? Why?
Again, I am less interested in defining how women lead better and instead how we can ensure that good women and good men stand an equal chance of leading in the first place. We need all the good leaders we can find. The world isn’t in the current predicament because there has been an over abundance of fabulous leaders. So I say to leaders who want to cling onto the status quo, who guard jealousy their power, who rely on what they know and lack the agility to solve problems needed for business to be successful today and tomorrow, step aside!
5. What is your advice for women in the leadership position?
As a friend of mine, Julie Birtles, once said to me “hold your power”. I have used this expression often since to other women. It is all too easy to hand over your power or opportunity to influence to someone else. I would add to holding your power to actually owning it in the first place. Be clear on what you do well, what you have to offer and what you have achieved and have left that you can achieve. Don’t expect others to remember what you have done or to be able to divine what you are capable of in the future.
Hold it. Own it. Share it. Show it. Be it.
- Don’t hand over your power
- Be respectful of the power you have
- Use your power to make a difference/lift up others alongside you or above you
- Lead by example when it comes to work and home
- Listen to your moral compass. Don’t try. Be
6. What has been your greatest challenge and how do you overcome it?
The greatest challenge has been for me to learn to be more compassionate with myself. To get to a place where I wake up and feel and know that I am enough with all my imperfections. I am my toughest critic. I have high expectations of myself as a friend, family member and employee or employer.
I have done deep work on myself to wrestle with the harsh critic that lives on my left shoulder, the inner voice that is always ready to provide unsolicited feedback about whether I am up to scratch.
And I count myself lucky, because I can tell you that I have achieved much in that regard. And I see so many struggling with their own criticism so much so that it may paralyse them. Through speaking with the right people, listening and practising new behaviours, I can say that I have quietened down the critic within and more often than not, the voice waits its turn to be asked when I want feedback. And the feedback is becoming more helpful and constructive.
So to all of you who put a lot of pressure on yourself, take a moment to celebrate you and all that you are achieving and to remind yourself that you matter and are enough. Be kind to yourself!
7. What advice can you give to our next generation readers?
- Don’t wait to be a leader before leading. The world urgently needs your best, whatever that is.
- If you want to make a meaningful contribution commitment and decency are important in business relationships not just personal.
- Practice some humility among the haste. I am thrilled that the younger generation are impatient to contribute and we are seeing some wonderful examples. But bear in mind that there is some wisdom and benefit from experience and so, know your limits at any point in time. Demonstrate respect for the experiences of others. Be open to learning and understand that some learning can’t be crammed into a few brief months.
- Peel the onion! Don’t stop at an internet search. Use your critical thinking. Question. Wonder. Probe. Solve.
- Find your tribe. Look around for people that you can collaborate with and who share your dedication and passion. This will help you to get your ideas into effect more quickly and stave off some of the loneliness that can sometimes accompany bravery.