• Laura Hay, Leadership |

Although it’s not easy to sum up the career of a woman who rose quickly and beat many challenges along the way, I usually find that there’s an underlying mantra that accompanied each woman through the ups and downs.

In the case of Sydney’s Gillian Larkins, her advice to the next generation of women is clear: “There’s an upside to the downside if you’re resourceful and focus on what you need to do.” With an impressive career in financial services, the CFO of the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) told me that, “Corporate life is tough, but if you’re resourceful and remember there’s a bigger picture, you can work out your place in all that.”

Learning to face the downsides:

During our conversation, Gillian admitted that things weren’t so clear when she began her rapid professional ascent. After earning her C.A. in New Zealand and flying straight into an amazing job in London, she described how: “I was incredibly naïve, coming from the other side of the world. I had the challenges of being a foreigner, my youth, my sex and my lack of experience against me, but I had the idea that to get anywhere you had to work hard to prove you could do the job.”

She also learned how to turn an obstacle into an advantage. Gillian recalled how, “I wasn’t invited out for drinks with the men, but I also saw that they weren’t so good in the morning, so I worked out how I could take advantage of not being included. I knew I was a lot sharper at eight o’clock the next morning than my peers.”

Even though Gillian is nonchalant about the challenges she faced in her 20s, she told me how she became more aware of gender challenges later, when she moved to Australia to assume more senior roles: “My first real shock as a woman occurred when I told my boss I was pregnant with my first child. After the congratulations, with his second breath he told me that he would be advertising my job.”

Although Gillian describes herself as, “quite a compliant person - like the kid who works diligently to get praise for a good report card,” she surprised herself in that moment by getting angry and warning the senior executive that he couldn’t replace her since it must not be legal.

When the executive backed down on his threat, Gillian didn’t let the matter rest: “I wised-up pretty quickly, and while I was on maternity leave, I found another job in the papers and didn’t return. I had my retribution and it was probably the best thing I could have done.”

Taking a chance on the upside:

Gillian pointed out that she has been on the ‘upside’ of many opportunities too: “At the age of 32, I was hired as the CFO of an investment bank. I’m forever grateful to the person who hired a mother with a toddler. This same man took a risk on me two years later when he asked me to come back from my second maternity leave to become Group CFO. That was quite a revolutionary thing.”

She also acknowledged that she had to convince herself to say “yes” to these opportunities: “I was thinking that, ‘I can’t do this job,’ but luckily I was married to someone who believed we could have equal careers. He gave me the security to give the job a ‘jolly good go,’ and he reminded me that it’s not the end of the world if it didn’t work out.”

Be resourceful, to find the silver lining:

When I asked Gillian for her advice to other women building careers, she drew upon the lessons gleaned during her own climb: “You have to be resourceful, by being aware of the broader, outside world and staying current with what else is out there. Know that your current job isn’t forever, and make sure you have more tools in your tool kit. Be relevant and resourceful, and every time you get knocked back, reframe yourself and work out how you are going to step ahead.”

Since the ups and downs can be jarring, Gillian advises that getting through the tough days might require carving out time to separate work and personal life: “I know there’s a bigger picture than just your corporate life, so I run, do Pilates, and make sure I’m there for my family. Then every morning I get up raring to go.” 

As I reflected on Gillian’s story, I reminded myself that women need to find the inner confidence to pick themselves up, see the upside, and chart their path forward. In Gillian’s words, “Sometimes women are afraid to take the lead, but there will be moments where you have to make the decision and not be afraid of the consequences. Each time I did that, it was the most worthwhile time in my career.”

For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.Kpmg/mindthegap.

More about Gillian Larkins: Gillian is the Chief Financial Officer of ASX, the Australian Securities Exchange, recognized as one of the world’s leading financial market exchanges. Appointed to this role in late 2018, she is responsible for ASX’s finance, investor relations and national facilities functions. With more than 25 years of experience in finance, strategy and management roles across industries, Gillian was CFO and Group Executive, Transformation, at an Australian investment advice company. She was previously CFO at a major regional institutional bank and was Group CFO with a global bank in Australia and New Zealand. Gillian studied economics, accounting and finance at the University of Otago in New Zealand, before beginning her banking career in the UK with a global investment bank. She earned her MBA from Macquarie University and has served on many boards including Hastings Funds Management and The Trust Company (Sydney Airport).

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