Why some women are forced into success

Plenty of us are born with burning ambition, or at least develop it along the way, but for some a specific catalyst will be what drives a desire for success.

Sometimes, that desire comes out of necessity: a sudden need to earn more income, a desperately-required promotion to be able to have more say over a career, the realisation that we need to work in a field we enjoy in order to retain our sanity.

Yesterday, National Breast Cancer Research Foundation chief executive Carole Renouf shared with me her thoughts on finding her career feet a little later on in life, noting that "sometimes we need to be forced into success".

Approaching her 60th birthday, she says she only really ramped up her career in the past 15 years. And it happened out of financial necessity.

When Renouf became a single parent after she separated from her husband, she knew she needed to step up her three-day-a-week job to full-time. She spoke to her boss at the WWF and landed a promotion and her first management gig. It meant less time with her daughter, no time for work/life balance, but a chance to financially support her family – and it put the accelerator on her management career.

Of course, Renouf's feelings about success and career are relative – she already accomplished plenty of milestones before venturing into the world of leadership. She'd been a teacher, spent a year chasing an acting dream in New York, and worked extensively across health education writing books and even organising Australia's first national HIV/AIDS conference, back when nobody was talking about it.

And she's a woman who's accustomed to change. The daughter of Australian diplomat Alan Renouf, she spent her childhood moving from country to country, never settling for more than two years at a time.

But she believes her then boss at the WWF gave her leadership opportunities that may not have come about if she hadn't suddenly become financially ambitious.

Since then, her not-for-profit management career has taken off. Her first CEO gig was with the Garvan Research Foundation where she spent five years and dramatically ramped up the organisation's fund-raising efforts. Two years ago she was appointed to the National Breast Cancer Research Foundation role, a position she says has been her most challenging yet.

Renouf says working at the top of high-profile not-for-profit organisations has given her access to some incredible business minds. Her chairmen have included former Qantas boss Geoff Dixon, former Perpetual managing director Graham Bradley and venture capitalist Bill Ferris. "That pulled me up by my boot straps!" she says.

Coming into leadership roles with plenty of life experience, she's well aware that learning never ends. "I've learnt a lot more in this role about leadership and really that leadership has to mean different things in different organisations, depending on how you find the organisation," she says.

Currently, she's learning about change management. A "change junky" herself, she's come to appreciate and understand that change isn't easy for everyone and that she needs to be sensitive to those who find it difficult.

While there's much more to learn, Renouf wonders where she'd be if she'd found her place in leadership a little earlier. "I could be running a small country!" she said.

Have you been 'forced' into success?

Watch out for a full profile of Carole Renouf, including her plans for the National Breast Cancer Foundation, in the coming days.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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