It’s surely one of the hardest career decisions many professional women make: What direction will they take after maternity leave? Will they push the clutch into ‘drive,’ and return to work full force to prove themselves? Will they go in ‘reverse,’ and bow out of the workforce, due to all-consuming family obligations? Or will they shift into ‘neutral,’ and find a lighter, safer role that’s easier to balance all demands?
Sue Houghton, CEO of Asia Pacific with Australian insurer QBE, refused to settle on any single gear. Instead, she chose to ‘gear up and down’ among various part-time, developmental roles while raising her children, at a time when flexible return-to-work programs were uncommon. And, as I learned during our recent conversation, Sue succeeded by being herself, pushing through boundaries and being upfront in solving challenges.
Choose your own route
The first thing I realized about Sue during our chat is that she refuses to be ‘placed in a box.’ Although she was groomed for a career in audit, she jumped at any chance to expand her business expertise, from strategy, to risk, to insurance claims, to operations: “I always enjoyed finance from the commercial side, so less the balance sheet and more about how you run the business, and that helped broaden my perspective.”
And this was a maverick direction, when you consider that she graduated into the accounting field with no visible female partners or role models to suggest she had prospects in c-suite roles.
At the time, Sue’s peers pressured her to be more aggressive and adopt more ‘male attributes’ in order to succeed. However, she elected to ignore their advice: “I decided very early that I couldn’t do that, since it wasn’t me and I would be very unhappy. I made the decision to try and do things my way. Instead, it served me well to say, ‘This is who I am and this how I’m going to interact in these circumstances.’”
With that mindset, Sue focused on doing each job to her best ability, with the belief that “People will recognize good results and they will want to work with me because it helps them.”
In tandem, she dealt with gender bias by, “Influencing, rather than trying to be the loudest voice in the meeting. There are many ways you can work behind the scenes, including offline conversations to help shape the right outcome.”
But Sue is quick to confess that she didn’t master the career ladder without a few missteps: “Things have gone wrong, and it’s not the end of the world. My advice is to be completely transparent and tell people early on what’s happened and what you propose to do. Don’t try to fix it yourself and hope no one notices. Instead, talk about it and people will help you fix it or help you move on.”
Return from leave on your terms
Sue continued to set her own course both times she returned from maternity leave, opting to return to her career on a part-time basis, or by assuming project roles, over an eight-year period. “I didn’t go back full time, but instead I worked a couple of days a week or between school hours. I kept energized by learning new things, and I was willing to go sideways if I felt I would gain new experience. I tended to accept project-based duties and that was really helpful to prepare me for future opportunities.”
Sue admits that, at the time, structuring her own customized, return-to-work plan hinged on having a strong support network: “My husband was really supportive, and he had a bit more flexibility to help with the family obligations. And, I sought other supports to make it work. All my money went to things like childcare and a house cleaner, but it kept me moving in my career.”
Having lived this experience, today Sue tells women, “Don’t be afraid of coming back. Yes, it becomes scary when you leave for a couple of years. The workplace has moved on and things change, but make sure you push through your fears and keep going. Say, ‘I’ll try, and if it doesn’t work out, I can always step back again,’ but at least give it a go.”
To do so, she encourages women to set boundaries: “It’s not easy today, since everyone is on their phones or internet all the time, but I was quite strict about logging off when I would pick up my kids from school and log back on when they’d gone to bed, to do a couple hours of work. People would say, ‘You’re working 24/7,’ but I was actually taking four hours off in the afternoon to be with my kids and that worked for me.”
Choose employers that share your values
Sue emphasizes that women will have an easier time navigating any career challenge if they choose employers with similar values to their own. “I’ve been lucky, since I’ve worked for some of the leading organizations that are family-friendly and have the right supports in place,” she says.
She credits QBE for implementing policies that support women’s return to the workforce while caring for children, including a flexible pay parental leave for women and men, and programs to spur female career development. “It’s about increasing female leaders in our talent pipeline, from middle management up. We can do this by setting really robust recruitment policies, gender pay equity, and all the things in place to support women, particularly when their children are young, to keep them in the workforce, engaged and able to carry on with their careers.”
She adds that, sometimes it’s small things, that each of us can do. “Recently, my 21-year-old daughter came home from her part-time job and told me that she had made a suggestion at a staff meeting but, when no one responded, she felt unvalued. I told her that she mustn’t take it personally and she must keep trying to contribute. At the same time, it really reminded me that every day we must allow people to speak up and, even if we don’t agree with their point, acknowledge them and ensure that person feels heard.”
By doing so, organizations can make it easier for all employees to feel comfortable and deliver their beset work: “As diversity and inclusion permeates more workplaces this will become the norm. But for now, I really urge women to be yourself, find your passion, and seize those opportunities that come your way, including sideways things and challenges that move you around. This enabled me to step into different roles at different times, and it ultimately gave me the real breadth to be a CEO.”
More about Sue Houghton: In August 2021, Sue became Chief Executive Officer, Australia Pacific, with QBE, the Sydney-based international insurer and reinsurer with a presence in 27 countries. Sue has more than 20 years’ experience in the financial services sector and, prior to joining QBE, she was General Manager, Insurance, with BT Financial Group, Chief Financial and Operating Officer with Arthur J Gallagher & Co., and Managing Director, Insurance for the Westpac Group, overseeing Wesfarmers’ three insurance divisions. Over a 10-year span with Insurance Australia Group (IAG), Sue held diverse roles, including Financial Controller, CFO and COO, IMA, Acting CEO, and Head of Claims. Sue began her career with KPMG in the UK, where she served various audit roles before transferring to Australia. She is a member of the Champions of Change Coalition and is a director and immediate past President of the Insurance Council of Australia. Sue completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the University of Reading, and advanced studies from INSEAD, Business School of the World.