Ms Elizabeth Foley
About the speaker
Our speaker today is Ms Elizabeth Foley.
Elizabeth is the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Research Australia, a peak advocate for health and medical research in Australia.
She began her career as a Brand Manager at Unilever, followed by 20 years in senior executive positions in financial services with MLC, Prudential, ING and AXA Asia Pacific.
Elizabeth is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), and is a member of the AICD’s mentoring program. She holds a Bachelor of Business with Distinction and the University Medal from UTS, and a Masters of Commerce from the University of New South Wales.
It gives me great pleasure to invite Ms Elizabeth Foley to deliver the occasional address.
Ceremony has always been very important for human beings, from celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, marriages and funerals to corroborees, thanks giving and the summer and winter solstice. Graduation day falls into the same camp, marking that enormous life milestone - completing your degree. So congratulations to all of you on your graduation from UTS today.
It was in fact, 30 years ago this year that I was here in the Tower, receiving my Bachelor of Business.
Those of you who studied tourism will of course know that 30 years ago Paul Hogan was just getting international fame for the 'put another shrimp on the Barbie' campaign! Apple had launched the Macintosh the year before, and no one had a hand-held mobile phone, or if the did, they were as big as a house brick. Nintendo was released on US shores and in Australia the Seven network launched ‘Neighbours’. Bob Hawke was only 2 years into his nine-year stint as prime minister and Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
How the world has changed since then…except perhaps for Neighbours. The rate of change and level of change is getting so much faster and greater we now call it ‘disruptive’ and we are looking for businesses, government, community, yes society to be ready for it.
So it seems appropriate on this occasion to reflect on change, and how to be both resilient to it, and indeed thrive in it by sharing some of my own career and life experiences and learnings.
As luck would have it, I came from an academic and career oriented family. Both my parents had degrees and met at university after the War. My mother was an architect and my father an accountant. I was number 5 of 7 children, and all my older siblings had all gone to university and so of course did I. I studied part time, and my very first full time job was as a superannuation clerk with MLC for which I was paid $5,000 a year. Note the type of work I did was completely replaced by computers few years later.
My first graduate job was with Unilever, I was assistant brand manager for Rexona Deodorant and Impulse. Having done well at uni, I was self-assured, an intellectual snob really... I must have been just awful to manage. I was in a hurry.... I wanted it all, recognition, money, career path…and down the track, marriage, children, probably have my own business. I very much planned my career, 3 years climbing the ranks at Unilever, then into financial services, where I would end up eventually spending 20 years.
And then life, as it so often does, took over. John Lennon’s lyrics from his “Beautiful Girl’ hit comes to mind. ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’. And so it was for me. I was 30, and had just met a sporty, young, electrical engineer who was doing his PhD. We quickly fell madly in-love when a routine blood test Mark had showed a high white cell count. Turned out he had chronic myeloid leukaemia which then had only a 20% survival rates beyond 3 years. Between us, we had 4 degrees and two university medals and we believed we could beat it. So we married 11 months after we met. All his sportiness, our collective smarts meant nought... Mark died aged 32.
Career success not only took a back seat, for a while it wasn’t even in the car. Having taken time off to nurse Mark in the last months of his life, I returned to work only part time for a year, and then left financial services, aged 36, and set up my own executive coaching business. Probably far too young, I was certainly an ‘early adopter’ of the technology. But it was the first thing that had inspired me since Mark’s death…doing something that ‘lit me up’ helped build my resilience.
I recall I used to ask some of my coaching clients to reflect on what success meant for them, first in their career, and then in their personal life. For their personal life, it seemed easy. ‘Married with kids and the house’. To which I would respond, ‘interesting, as a 38 year old childless widow living in an apartment in Pyrmont, I don’t see myself as personally unsuccessful ’. Of course they apologised, back pedalled. Such conversations helped them, and indeed me, to question traditional concepts. Are we making ourselves miserable by how we define success?
My take out is that success at work is not necessarily about being CEO, or having 10 people report to you, or earning a zillion dollars. It is about sense of self, and purpose, and it can be about community, and it can be a life raft. I came back into my career wiser, more tolerant of others, humbled, broadened by life. Not that I am recommending you go out and marry someone dying of cancer as a personal development plan.
I would like to speak a little now on Mentors and coaches. I have had a number of people who have met me through my work life, who kind of adopted and advised me (more like career fairy-god parents), over my career journey. One was in fact was Emeritus Professor Ken Miller, former Dean of the Business School here at UTS. People like Ken could see potential in me that I couldn’t see for myself and opened doors, not all of which I walked through mind you.
Mentors and coaches can be used throughout a career, not just in the early years and not always the same person. I have also had some more formal arrangements than the chance adoptions I have mentioned. In 2011, I was selected as a mentee as part of an Australian Institute of Company Directors’ program to get more women on Australian boards. And in my first couple of years as a CEO of Research Australia I sought the services of an executive coach, because a CEO can be a very lonely position.
I have also taken great delight in helping others along the way. I am always greatly flattered and honoured when someone asks me to be their mentor, so don’t wait for someone to pick you, approach someone you admire and know and ask them for their advice.
I must also put in a word for networking. Many people have asked me how did I move from Superannuation, Investment and Insurance into Government Advocacy for Health and Medical Research? Yes, it was an area of strong personal interest, both my first husband and my eldest brother had died of cancer, but you can’t put that on your CV. Yes, I had been on the board of a few not-for-profit organisations over the years. It was in fact someone in my network, who was on the board of Research Australia, who I ran into after not having seen her for a few years. When she heard I was ‘on sabbatical’ she asked if she could give my name to the headhunter, and the rest is history.
Networking helps you hear about opportunities, think of new industries and types of work. It broadens you to the outside world, when at times we get so caught up within our own organisation’s dynamic be it large or small.
As I work in the health sector, I want to take a moment to talk about wellbeing. Beware of burnout! Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot calls it ‘civilisation’s disease’. It’s certainly symptomatic of our modern age; disruptive change, the 24-7 news cycle, the pressures of parenthood and career. Burnout, stress and depression have become worldwide epidemics. Around the world, measures beyond economic indictors are being developed, to measure well-being and happiness of a country. The OECD has developed a ‘Better Life Index’; comparing well-being across countries. It declared Australia the world’s happiest industrialised country in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Significantly many world leaders are starting to recognize that well-being of their citizens depends on more than just a country’s quarterly growth rate, as important as that is, especially if this leads to policy changes – from job creation to family leave – that reduce stress and improve well-being.
I am trying to adopt this at a personal level in some simple ways:
- I know many people like me don’t get all the rest they need. To improve my health, creativity and productivity and my mood, I’m trying to get 30 minutes more sleep a night. I have started setting the alarm to go to bed.
- Movement is so important, so about a year ago, I got a stand-up desk at work.
- I am meditating for 10 minutes a day.
The last holiday we had we locked our phones and ipads in the hotel safe, and only allowed ourselves access to them for an hour once a day. I notice on Ted Talks, there is a movement promoting phone free weekends. It makes a huge difference!
Well enough about me, back to you.
What you have learned in your degree is so much more than the content of your lectures and text books. Let’s face it, with the rate of change, much of it will quickly become out of date. It is a about learning to think, learning to study and research independently, learning to work in a team and developing and feeding your curiosity....all so important for you to thrive, and even more important for the broader development of society.
Congratulations again, and best wishes for your career endeavours.