A graduate of Women on Board’s Next Generation of Female Leaders program, Fiona Lawrie recently stepped into a new role as Senior Sourcing and Quality Strategy Manager for Officeworks after seven years as Sustainability and Aboriginal Affairs Manager with Wesfarmers. Here she talks about the importance of developing ‘soft skills’, identifying your weaknesses and how small actions can have a big impact.
Why did you take part in the Women on Boards Next Generation Leadership Program?
I participated a couple of years ago (2017) and I did it for a couple of reasons. One reason was to just meet a cohort of really interesting people from across the country and in a wide range of different roles and industries. And that for me was one of the greatest benefits.
The other reason was to equip myself with some of the soft skills that I needed to continue on my leadership journey. I'm quite a reflective person and one of the things I wanted to get out of the program was recognizing where my weaknesses were and what skills I needed to build to take the next step in my career. And the program certainly delivered that. I had the opportunity to meet all these fantastic women who were doing really interesting things. I could learn from them and get ideas that inspired different parts of my career. But the second part of it was getting the opportunity to be paired with a coach.
What were the soft skills you wanted to develop, and how did the program help?
I think I had the technical skills to develop my career in the various areas that I wanted to.
I'd done a Finance for Executives course with INSEAD, a Masters in Corporate Sustainability and had developed my language skills (I'm fluent Mandarin). I wanted to develop soft skills like negotiation skills. I also wanted to develop improved presentation skills. While I’m very comfortable talking in front of a large audience, one of the things I learned through the program was that presentation skills are not just for large audiences, they're also important when you're in a meeting with a much smaller cohort. And you need to know how to project your voice, convey your opinion, speak up at the right time and to communicate your message. Equally, there are times where it's important to absorb, listen and take in what others are saying. The program definitely provided those skills.
You recently moved from your role as Sustainability Manager with Wesfarmers to Senior Sourcing and Quality Strategy Manager for Officeworks. Tell us about that move.
I had been in a sustainability role within Wesfarmers and working across all of our businesses for around seven years and throughout that time I took on various additional responsibilities including being responsible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in addition to sustainability, which was really exciting.
I took six months off twice when I had my two children and when I returned to Wesfarmers at the beginning of the pandemic last year I started to think about what was next for me.
I've got a strong background in corporate affairs and international relations but I recognized that my weakness was that I didn't have commercial experience. Despite Wesfarmers being a very commercial organization I hadn't had direct corporate or P&L responsibilities and I wanted to build that skill. So I looked for an opportunity where I could get that commercial knowledge.
I consider this recent move to be a horizontal rather than a vertical move, and that's been very deliberate because I wanted to absorb everything I possibly could about an operating retailer and really get into the ins and outs of how it works.
And there’s no better way to do it than in a role like I have at the moment where I'm responsible for sourcing all our private label technology products. I look after product quality, and safety for Officeworks for all the products that we bring to market to ensure that they're safe for team members and customers.
And I also am looking at our strategy and how we build our capability and outsourcing capability in line with the business needs. So, it's hugely exciting because it's a great time to join a business.
There’s no better time to be doing it right now where the business must be going through a huge amount of change given COVID and the change in people’s shopping habits and the current demand for home office products.
Absolutely, and to see that firsthand and to be in a role where we're directly responsible for sourcing products that customers really need that’s hugely exciting. My task and working with my team is how do we source the products that our customers need and bring them to market as quickly and safely as possible?
What are the particular challenges that the pandemic has presented?
I think for myself the personal challenge when you take on a new role means you can’t meet people directly. So I haven't had the opportunity to spend time in the office where you can have those water cooler conversations and meet people and have these casual interactions. It does mean catch-ups are a bit more formal.
I think that you do have to be quite deliberate in terms of putting yourself out there and getting in touch with people and saying ‘Can we have a chat?’
That’s compounded by the business pressures where things are moving very quickly as we try to bring products to market, as quickly as we can for our customers. That definitely makes it a challenging environment.
Do you feel that some of the skills that you learned on the course and in other leadership courses that you've done have helped as well, in the transition to your new role?
Absolutely. So one part of the Next Generation Program involved spending time interviewing different leaders. This was a fantastic opportunity. Our group primarily interviewed WA-based executives including Michael Chaney, the Chairman of Wesfarmers, former Wesfarmers Managing Director Richard Goyder and other BHP executives. To hear their leadership stories was very interesting. They had all made very deliberate decisions throughout their careers to take different opportunities and not take other opportunities. That, for me, was particularly useful in charting my own course when thinking ‘Ok, where do I want to get to, and what tools and skills do I need to acquire to get there?’. The program gave me the courage to take this next step.
I've always admired people who make deliberate changes to their career, such as people who go back and study medicine in their 40s because they've always wanted to do it but maybe the timing wasn't right 20 years prior, or people who suddenly decided to try something new. It's scary initially, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives particularly when it comes to personal growth.
I’m quite reflective. And so I think it's important to be self-aware of what your strengths and weaknesses are and perhaps even if a weakness is that you don't like trying new things, that that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. In fact, you should do it more. You should really try and put yourself out there and, and try and give something else a go.
So where to next?
I’m very passionate about sustainability, and that's my expertise and experience and is an area that I think I can make a tremendous contribution. So combining this with commercial skills has been a deliberate decision.
A piece of advice I received years ago was if you are really focused on sustainability, the best thing you can do is to be in a very senior role where you are influencing and use your sustainability expertise for good.
So I find myself now in my current role looking at how we can source products more sustainably? How can we make sure that we use less packaging? How can we pack the product, when it goes onto a ship, so that there are more products in the container so we're using less resources to transport it? How can we make sure that the materials that we're making these products out of are innovative and renewable, and that the product can be recycled at the end of its life?
And, what are the small things we can do that will have a very big impact?
One of the reasons that I chose to work at Officeworks is because it has such a strong sustainability culture and that is being embedded more and more every day into different parts of the organization, which is really exciting. So for me it’s about looking at interesting roles where I can use my expertise and experience and have a big impact.
What advice you would give to other women looking to improve their leadership potential?
Work out what you want and then communicate it confidently. It’s something that hasn't come naturally to me but that I've had to hone as a soft skill over the years. It’s about no being afraid to say: ‘This is the opportunity that I'd like to go after, can you help me?’
I don't think you can expect your manager to be a mind reader and know what you want. I think some women might be a little bit embarrassed about saying that they want the CEO role or they want to run this department. But more and more I'm learning that you should be clear about what you want.
Also, be aware of your strengths and your weaknesses and surround yourself with a team of people who do have strengths in different areas.
About Fiona Lawrie
Fiona Lawrie is Senior Sourcing and Quality Strategy Manager for Officeworks. Previously, Fiona worked as Sustainability Advisor with Wesfarmers Limited, based in Western Australia. Fiona is also the Executive Director of the Australia-China Youth Dialogue. Previously, and was based in Beijing for a number of years where she was responsible for helping to establish and run Thirst, a China-based water conservation organisation. In 2013 she was recognised by the World Economic Forum as a Global Shaper. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne and a Master of Sustainability from Monash University. She speaks fluent Mandarin.
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