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Rising stars flicking career switch

08:50am October 05 2018

Prue Burns, one of several women taking part in Westpac’s Equilibrium program. (Emma Foster)

For many people who’ve hit double-digit anniversaries in the same profession or industry, switching to a completely new career seems daunting.

But for Prue Burns, the first woman promoted to partner in law firm Maddock’s Sydney office a decade ago at 29, the opportunity to gain new skills and do something different eventually won her over.

“I knew I’d be giving up something great that I had helped to grow,” says Burns, a participant in this year’s Westpac Equilibrium program, an initiative to attract more senior women to the bank.

“But when I looked at… the opportunity to expand my knowledge, and learn and develop new skills in an entirely new sphere it wasn’t that difficult a decision to make.”

Burns isn’t alone, being one of five external participants who recently resigned from a senior role in a non-financial services sector to go through the paid, year-long learning and development program. Despite the benefits, it isn’t without risk. Participants swap secure, senior roles elsewhere for 12 months of in-depth rotations across the bank, occasionally at lower pay.

As the fourth Equilibrium gets underway, the program’s director Sandra Casinader says while fast-tracking female leaders into the bank’s senior ranks remains the goal, an “equally compelling” opportunity for the bank is attracting diversity of thought.

“We felt that by bringing in women who are extraordinarily talented, and who have a different way of thinking, they come with a very inquiring mind. They don't have the subject matter expertise, so they have a fresh set of eyes and their questioning is quite incisive,” she says.

It was this opportunity to challenge norms that attracted Linda Minassian, who joined the 2016 cohort, after leaving a senior strategy role with beverages major Lion, where she’d worked for around eight years.

“You know that adage ‘great minds think alike’? I fear that. When someone says that, it's a signal to me that we may have got it wrong or there may be an element of ‘group think’ clouding the decision making,” Minassian says.

Linda Minassian, a 2016 Equilibrium participant, now heads up Westpac’s new integrated merchant service, Presto. (Emma Foster)

Despite the stark differences between the fast moving consumer goods and banking sectors, particularly regulatory environments and success measures, Minassian says the key similarity is a focus on the customer, and there’s much banks can take away from other industries.   

“In an organisation as large as Westpac, there are so many …different ways to navigate around to get something done,” says Minassian, who has recently been promoted to head up the delivery of Presto, Westpac’s new integrated merchant payment service for business customers.

“Whereas Lion was a lot smaller, you could just create a virtual team and do a lot of ‘test and learns’ to see if it works. That's definitely something that I’ve brought across with me,” she says.

“At Lion we would talk about the ‘golden triangle’ being the three-way-win – the customers (or retailers of Lion’s products), Lion, and the end consumers. At the bank it’s all about our customers and the end to end experience we provide.”

Equilibrium – which also includes five participants already working at Westpac – forms part of a number of programs incrementally growing the number of women in management across corporate Australia. But much work remains.

Just 16.5 per cent of CEOs and fewer than 30 per cent of key management personnel roles are held by females, and at the board level around 28 per cent of directors in the ASX 200 are women, according to Workplace Gender Equality Agency and Australian Institute of Company Directors data.

At the same time, employers – and employees – are facing into the need for future skilling as new technologies displace and change jobs.

Casinader says Equilibrium considers these twin issues, noting almost all previous participants have risen into permanent senior positions.

“They’ve got an incredible ability to back themselves however nerve-wracking it might be. They know that they've got a proven track record (but) they've also got a deep seated desire to learn and grow,” she says.

After having the last of three children – now four, six and eight – while at Lion, Minassian says the opportunity for a change came at a point in her career where she needed to do “something different” with her brain. But she concedes the decision was difficult.   

“The reluctance wasn’t about starting something new, because that was the exciting part and I'm a big believer in ‘purposeful discomfort’ from which you can grow,” she says.

“It was more that I was jumping from something where I was a known measure – I'd earned my stripes so to speak and had credibility – to somewhere nobody knew me and they didn't know what I was capable of.

“The choice was either jump hard into a new role or stay in my comfort zone…incrementally as I got through the Equilibrium application process I found myself increasingly wanting to land in the role.”  

Burns says her legal experience and skills will be transferable in banking. (Emma Foster)

Like Minassian, Burns’ decision to apply was opportunistic.

After a 16 year legal career with Maddock’s, she was weighing up whether to continue along a pathway of specialising, or pivoting to “make a contribution” in other ways. Listed in this year’s edition of The Best Lawyers in Australia, Burns wasn’t actively looking for a dramatic change and was acutely aware of the greater scrutiny facing the banking industry from the Royal Commission.

But on balance, she says her background and skills are an asset.

“A lot of people have said to me when I told them I was moving that it was a very brave thing to do,” says the mother of two children, five and eight.

“But actually so much of my knowledge and skills are transferable. I’ve moved from a role where I was helping people solve complex problems within a highly regulated environment.

“With my skillset and my legal way of thinking, whilst it is a difficult time in the banking sector, there is a real opportunity for me to come in and make a really valuable contribution.”

Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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