Olivia Ruello, CEO of Business Chicks Australia offers sage career advice
Have you ever spontaneously burst into tears at work or let your water cooler chat get a little too personal? Top marks – you’re going places, baby! Modern disruptor Olivia Ruello is championing the exit of crusty, old, emotionless leadership styles and business culture and, in the process, is enabling 44,000+ women to harness their full potential.
Olivia Ruello talks all things Business Chicks
Olivia (35) took a break from her hectic schedule as CEO of Business Chicks Australia to chat with me about doing business “the human way”: where empathy, authenticity, kindness and connection are celebrated, not maligned. When Olivia’s having a bad day she owns it. Emphasising how important it is to be “real” she explains that, “employees don’t want their leaders to pretend they know everything and have all the answers. It’s disingenuous and disempowering.” And, if employees are happy, the bottom line will be too.
On a mission to create a generation of leaders who care, Olivia talks openly about her insecurities: “I was always concerned about whether my style of leadership stacked up against the traditional authoritarian, task oriented, direct style. But vulnerability is powerful, particularly for women.”
Back yourself! Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder.
Starting her portfolio career in industrial relations before becoming the General Manager of an award winning recruitment company at 24, she then teamed up with the inimitable Emma Isaacs at Business Chicks to head up Partnerships & Brand strategy. Having an itch to scratch in the corporate world, she spent four years in Leadership and Culture at Commbank, and received the CEO award for establishing a women’s support network within the organisation. The welfare of people seems to be the common thread: “enabling people to find a role with purpose and to live successfully resonated with me. I’m fascinated with leadership and the strong connection between “head and heart” business: how people lead and how they connect and empathise.”
Say ‘yes’ to opportunities even if you don’t have every single skill set listed then work out how to do it later.
Facing fertility problems, she called it and reigned in the hours. Then, in 2015 Emma Isaacs – Founder & Global CEO of Business Chicks USA – made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: to be Business Chicks Australia’s first CEO. And, now she’s pregnant.
Congratulations on your pregnancy! How’s the morning sickness going?
There was no point pretending everything was OK.
I’m 30 weeks now, nearly there! The first trimester was hard: I couldn’t travel for eight weeks which was difficult because I travel every week. But, I have strong leaders in the business and they had my back. I was very real and open with them about my struggles – there was no point pretending everything was OK.
It’s going to be tricky to juggle everything! How do you think the pregnancy will affect your career?
When women step out of the workforce to have children, it is a blip in time. Organisations need to back women for the long term and women need to back themselves too. If you’re pregnant, put your hand up for that job, ask for that pay-rise when you’re on maternity-leave. It’s not the end of your world when you have a child, it is the start of a new chapter and the contribution you make to the workforce will be even more enriched.
When women step out of the workforce to have children, it is a blip in time.
I often suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’. Do you?
For sure. My greatest challenge has been getting over my self-diagnosed ‘imposter syndrome’. In previous roles, I would ask myself,
‘Did they pick the right person for this job? Why would I be doing this?’
Now I know that wherever you are is where you should be. I need to trust that, own it, make mistakes and know that people will have my back. Playing small, doesn’t serve anyone.
What do you think the secret is to a successful corporate culture?
Happy employees. If your people are happy then your customers are happy. The end result is the customer experience and no matter what industry you work in, there’s a customer at the end of it.
If you don’t empathise and understand your people and your customer, you will be left behind.
What do you think the traits of a kickass leader are?
It’s important to be real, vulnerable and authentic in the workplace. Your people feel inspired when you stand up and admit that you don’t have all the answers and explain, for example, that ‘…I’m having a really tough day because this hasn’t worked out the way we wanted but I’m doing everything I possibly can, with your help, to fix it.’
It is still difficult for women to advance their careers within the existing corporate landscape.
Backing up Olivia’s views, this study demonstrates “the need for executives to share more personal stories and communicate beyond just company strategy, especially for companies hoping to recruit and retain top, young talent.” bbc.com
So, how do you reconcile this philosophy with corporate structures that pit staff against each other for promotions and pay rises?
The collective mindset needs to be more prevalent in the corporate world. I.e. you don’t have to pull others down to get to the top. The minute you take a protective mindset. i.e. ‘I can’t give anything up because it’s taking something away from me’, you shrink as a person.
Collectively, when you win, I win. When you succeed, so do I. This is what the Business Chicks community is all about.
Women are good at the collective mindset but, to date, haven’t had the opportunity to exercise the skill because it is still difficult for women to advance their careers within the existing corporate landscape. I think more and more women are starting to take a collective mindset: championing other women within a company.
Collectively, when you win, I win. When you succeed, so do I.
You do a lot of work with The Hunger Project (an organisation which aims to end world hunger by 2030) and you have led three of their leadership trips to India. Have these experiences influenced your leadership style?
Absolutely. Some of the women I met in India who have been marginalized and subjugated, who have been completely veiled and have emerged, after decades of living this life with the strength to say: ‘I don’t want this life anymore for myself, my family, my children or my community.’
For this transformation and level of leadership: these women are my heroes.
Do you think we need to ‘up-the-ante’ when it comes seeing more women in senior leadership roles?
Yes. Try clicking out of this screen to Google the word “boss”. Are 90% of the images white middle aged men? Yup. It is difficult for women to advance their careers within the existing corporate landscape. A lot needs to change.
At a personal level, women need to keep pushing for a seat at the table. Structurally, there needs to be more access to affordable childcare, quotas, and a shift in the dominant ideology that women are the primary caregivers in the home. There also needs to be better mentoring programs – a lot of women take more convincing to believe that they can take on, for example, a promotion. We need men to be part of the conversation and support this shift too.
We have not achieved equality in this country until we have as many mediocre women in leadership as we have men.
What advice would you give to someone feeling like a “fish out of water” in the corporate or business world?
Back yourself! Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder: put your hand up for a promotion, a job, a pay rise. Say ‘yes’ to opportunities even if you don’t have every single skill set listed then work out how to do it later. Own your decisions, own your career.
There is a tribe of women out there who have your back.
Don’t be scared of failure! Women feel an immense pressure to make their business/careers work and, if it doesn’t, they are personal failures. Instead, analyse why it didn’t work, learn from it and try something else. You’re not even taken seriously in Silicon Valley unless you’ve had three failed start-ups! And remember, there is a tribe of women out there who have your back.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I have a really ugly tattoo. Symbolically it’s beautiful: my dad died when I was young and it’s my Dad’s name. It’s on my stomach so it’s getting bigger as my belly grows!
About Business Chicks
Business Chicks is a community of over 44,000 women and men from all fields. It publishes Latte, a quarterly magazine, and runs over 100 events, annually, with past speakers including Sir Richard Branson, Diane von Furstenberg, and Arianna Huffington. Business Chicks also facilities a buzzing online network, where members can connect, collaborate and pick each other’s brains.
Elissa chats with Olivia Ruello, CEO of Business Chicks Australia