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Leading by example: a conversation with Ita Buttrose

Managing Director of Robert Walters, Andrew Hanson, and Managing Director of behind closed doors, Donny Walford, recently co-hosted a conversation between Ita Buttrose AC OBE, Chair of the ABC, and Julianne Parkinson, founding CEO, the Global Centre for Modern Ageing. The conversation between Julianne and Ita discusses change management, workplace diversity, and proving the critics wrong. Take a read of their conversation below:

Julianne Parkinson: You’ve led a very successful career in media and journalism, and you’ve served on several boards. We'd love to hear a little bit about the early part of your life. Can you tell us about your transition, at the age of 15, from school to journalism?

Ita Buttrose: I entered the workforce right at the beginning of what was going be an evolution of women – when our aspirations changed… At 15 years’ old, I left school because I'd heard there was a job going as a copy girl on the Australian Women's Weekly, and what I wanted to be, more than anything else in the world, was a journalist.

…And so I went in and applied for it, and I got it. And that was really the beginning for me. I didn't intend to be a copy girl for a long time, because it's the lowest you can start.

But it's good, really, to start as low as you can, because when you get to the top, you understand a lot of the frustrations of people lower down the ladder. And it's a very important thing when you're in management to understand that.

JP: You've worked with some notable names in media and journalism, for example, Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. What were the workplace skills or traits that you adopted to not only survive, but to thrive under their leadership?

IB: Well, you just had to do the job they gave you. It's really as simple as that.

…When I went to the Women’s Weekly, my brief was to change it because back then it was a tabloid. So I had to bring it down to the standard size that magazines are today. Also, it was losing money; it was losing circulation. So I had a huge job and I delivered, and if you deliver what you've been asked to do then there’s really no problem. They love you, in fact! I was successful at changing the Women’s Weekly but it wasn't easy.

Change is the toughest job in management.

… And I don't think the fundamentals of managing change ever change at all. The change itself might be different, but when you've got a large workforce ultimately, you've got to persuade the workforce that – whatever it is you're doing – it's going be for the better. It's going to enable us to grow as a business, and it's going to enable us to give you, the staff, more opportunities.

… You've got to have a very clear vision in your own mind about where you're going and why you are making this change, and why it will be exciting.

Question from the audience: I imagine you've probably been one of the only women on many [of the] boards that you've served on. And what were some of the things that you did to make sure that your voice was heard?

IB: Firstly, you have to read the board papers exceedingly well. You have to understand them, and you must always read the supplementary papers, too. I’m so conscientious – I read everything. So: read the board papers and understand them, and if you don't understand something, go and Google it. Make sure you do your research.

… And then, trust your knowledge… Believe in yourself because you're there for a reason. You don't get appointed to boards – you don't get directorships – unless somebody thinks you've got a certain ability. So, keep that at the back of your mind.

JP: On the topic of board diversity, let’s talk about ageism, as well. We do have older people represented on boards but older people are not necessarily reflected or well represented in the workplace.

IB: You've just reminded me: when I was appointed Chair of the ABC, somebody at The Australian said that I was too old, and that I was ‘in the autumn of my career’.

So, I emailed him and I said: ‘autumn can be quite brilliant. Why don't you just wait and see?’

But really, it's offensive, isn't it. I've said this in public before, but I'll say it tonight: older people know what it's like to be young, but younger people have no idea what it's like to be old. Do not try to walk in our shoes until you have earned the right to do so. Only age affords you that benefit.

… There's a lot of active, older people in Australia who would love to be working, but they're discriminated against merely because they're old.

We can change these attitudes by leading by example. The more of us who remain in the workforce as we get older can show, by example, that our work ethic is still strong. Our brains are still working quite efficiently! But you do have to lead by example. 

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