While women often feel the pressure of being ‘the only female in the room,’ a conversation with Sydney-based Georgette Nicholas reminded me that we may also face the self-imposed pressure of comparing ourselves when there is another woman nearby.
Georgette knows what it’s like to face extra scrutiny from a room full of men, ready to criticize your every comment. Fortunately, early in her 30-plus year career, she learned how to add value. And today, as CEO of one of Australia’s leading providers of lenders mortgage insurance (LMI), she has the perspective to manage both the peer and self-pressures a woman may feel at the top tiers of the financial sector.
Having started her career in public accounting – and being sent to audit diverse industries – Georgette told me that she was often the only woman on a factory floor. She recalled how people treated her differently and scrutinized her every move: “I had to find my voice to be heard, especially the way I asked questions. And this taught me the value of listening, to understand what people were looking for.”
When she realized that the men talked about unfamiliar issues, and she wasn’t invited into the conversation, she designed her response: “I could have just complained, ‘That’s not fair,’ but instead I taught myself what they were talking about. If they’re going to play golf and talk about stuff, I’m going to learn golf and study ISO 9000. I had an underlying curiosity to grow myself and understand their industries.”
Georgette noted that it wasn’t easy in the beginning: “Sometimes I had to fight my way into meetings, but I realized I had to prove my value by really engaging with people and asking them questions to find what mattered. I used my curiosity to show clients that I could hear their issues and have an impact on their business. And later, people started to search for me and asked me to participate because of my abilities.”
Communicating to reach new heights:
Georgette’s combination of communication and analytical skills helped her rise to new challenges at the company, including overseeing SEC reporting obligations and serving as CFO of the US mortgage insurance business when the Global Financial Crisis hit.
“From my days as auditor with personnel on the plant floor, I learned to understand different people’s priorities and how they reacted to issues. As I moved up, I integrated this thinking into senior management discussions and dealing with external stakeholders,” recounted Georgette, noting that these skills helped her move to Investor Relations and later relocate to Sydney to help the company launch an IPO on the Australian Stock Exchange.
That said, Georgette admitted that, like many women, she sometimes had to push herself to consider new opportunities: “When I made the decision to come to Australia, it wasn’t easy. But, instead of just saying ‘No, I’m not interested,’ I said, ‘Let’s talk about what this means.’ I discovered that when I opened up and listened, it can lead to something pretty transformative in your career. I really encourage women to have the conversation about the opportunity, because often you can address the challenges that make you want to say, ‘No, I’m not interested’.”
Patience to face self-imposed pressures:
While Georgette’s early learnings helped her battle external pressures, time and perspective has helped her manage the scrutiny you may impose on yourself: “When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I wanted it all to happen right away. Now I realize that it takes time to develop and not be afraid to acknowledge your own view of what you want your career to be.”
Georgette explained to me that, “There is often a very defined pattern to what people view as success and it’s easy to compare yourself to others and wonder why they are higher. I think you learn after a while that this doesn’t matter. Whether you want to go all-in and become CEO or take time at home with the kids, it’s really about what’s good for you and that you are comfortable with your choices. It takes patience to work all this through.”
Georgette has also come to realize the importance of organizational culture in an individual’s success: “When we consider a new job or changing companies, we often focus on the role, but I’ve come to realize that company culture is an important piece. You need to feel that you have the same values and it’s a company you can grow with.”
My conversation with Georgette reinforced for me that women can withstand the pressures - including the scrutiny of others and the pressures we place on ourselves. As she summed up, “You can easily sit back and just let the world go by, or you can apply your curiosity and find a place where you can add value. It may require patience but take the time to find what makes you happy and build the skills to grow into the career you want.”
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.
More about Georgette Nicholas: In 2016, Georgette was appointed Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of an Australian provider of lenders mortgage insurance, she held the post of Chief Financial Officer at a subsidiary, having also worked as Senior Vice President, Investor Relations, Public Relations and Ratings Agencies. Georgette was Chief Financial Officer, US Mortgage Insurance, where she helped lead the business through the economic downturn following the GFC, and Global Controller for both the US mortgage and international segments. Before joining the company in 2005, Georgette was a Director at Deloitte, serving clients in diverse industries. With a Bachelor of Science in Accounting degree from the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Georgette is a Certified Public Accountant and Chartered Global Management Accountant. She is also a Director of the Insurance Council of Australia.