Pamela Hackett, CEO, Proudfoot

Pamela Hackett loves her job. “It’s probably the job of a lifetime. I’ve lived all over the world. I landed in South Africa the year that Mandela took over, and I landed in Hong Kong the year of Tiananmen Square,” she tells us excitedly. “When I go to these amazing places, I still stand there and go, ‘Holy crap—the little girl from the suburbs of Sydney, and I get to do this?’”

You also get a strong sense that things worked out because Hackett never believed they couldn’t. Despite a widely-held perception that Australia at that time was, in Hackett’s words, “all about the boys,” she never felt like a career of the calibre she has now was off-limits to her. Surrounded by an inspiring group of women growing up, she says of her peers: “Most of us really grew up thinking we could do anything.”

Put your hand up

“I was a kid who worked from fourteen years old. I did five shifts a week at a little McDonalds store in the suburbs of Sydney, and realised only much later in life how lucky I was because I was surrounded by women. A lot of these women went on to take up management positions while they went to school, like me. It was deemed to be a part-time job, and yet, in hindsight, we worked full-time. It was, she says, a gender-blind environment in which hard work was both expected and rewarded. “Now some of those guys are CEOs of their own businesses and other businesses.” Hackett remains in touch with a lot of them.

Put together your own personal board

With this as her foundation, Hackett went into Proudfoot happy to roll her sleeves up. “I started out as a straight-at-the-very-bottom consultant.” Undaunted, she even worked with the mining guys out on the floor. “I never really thought about the fact that this is something that girls don’t necessarily get involved in.”

Hackett is also quick to credit her father for being the inspiration behind her confidence: “He would say to me, ‘Pamela, you can be anything you want.’”

“I’d love for my dad to be alive today, to be able to see how far we’ve come,” Hackett says. “It’s not as far as women would want it to be—but boy, is it a different world to when I joined the business 30 odd years ago.”

It’s a revealing comment for what it says about what came next. Because Hackett didn’t enter professional services with her guard up, it wasn’t immediately obvious that the environment she was in might be particularly challenging as a woman: “It sort of snuck up on me,” she says.

She recalls several times when male colleagues and seniors have underestimated her because of her gender, dismissing her as unable to cope in the C-suite, or denying her the same privileges as her male counterparts. While based in Canada, for example, the company asked her to move to Europe without any kind of expatriate “package”; “That was quite a different world to the boys who had houses and allowances and all sorts of other things.”

“You can’t help but sit back and say, ‘This is unbelievable—how can this be the case?’ Particularly when you come from a world where you really didn’t think or look through the gender lens as you went along.”

“Back then, I never thought, ‘Oh boy, I’d better fight tooth and nail for a package,’” Hackett explains. It taught her an important lesson: to be proactive in pursuit of her goals. “You have to put your hand up,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s a girl or a guy thing, but the fact that you put your hand up allows people to recognize that you’re in the game and you want to be in the game.”

In fact, Hackett puts all her main career moves down to being vocal about what she wants. Becoming an analyst, for example: “I asked to go into that role because I was fed up—to be very brutally honest—fed up with seeing a lot of men in my business making a lot more money than me.” It’s also how she came to lead Proudfoot’s Asian business: “I was looking at a failing business so I thought, ‘I don’t want to be on the sidelines here.’ I put my hand up.”

By doing so, Hackett was often breaking new ground: “In most of the roles I had taken, I was the first girl in the role,” she says, “which is really a little bit frightening when you look back at it.” But things have changed: “It’s certainly not the case today. I have a number of women who are in senior leadership roles which is very different from how things were years ago.”

Indeed, Hackett believes that the future for young women starting out in professional services is very promising now: “I think there’s never been a better time to be a woman in business if you are starting your career,” Hackett tells us. Many of the most harmful prejudices belong to an older generation, who have much to learn from their younger colleagues. “I really do believe that the next-gen leaders, those younger people that I see coming up through business today, have a more gender-blind, race-blind approach to the world.” Her younger board members are focused above all on finding the best person for the job, regardless of gender or background, asking, “Does somebody do great work? Do they work hard? That’s how I’m going to judge them.”

But, mindful of the need to maintain the momentum that there is, Hackett’s keen to play an active role in helping women to make the most of their talents. At dinner a few months ago, she found herself in conversation with the president of a mining company; “At the end of the dinner he said to me ‘Pamela, do you mind if I ask you a question and a bit of a favour?’ I finished the sentence for him and said ‘Yes, I’ll have lunch with your daughter!’”

What advice did she give her? “Make sure you surround yourself with people who are going to be able to support you. Put together your own personal board.” For Hackett, one of the secrets to success is helping other people and letting other people help you.

She said the same to a young man who asked her about the one major thing she thought he should do: “Put your own personal board together. Really gather the people around you who you know are interested in helping you.” Within a competitive environment, she suggests, it’s immensely valuable to create a supportive bubble in which people are open to learning from each other and boosting each other up.

It’s an echo of some of the best advice Hackett received herself, which was that women don’t support women enough. Hackett explains: “Men will have little fisticuffs at work, and then they’re out on the golf course, or going and having a beer, whereas women will really think about it and they’ll need to sleep on it. We don’t necessarily offer a supportive environment to one another.”

The comment has always stuck with her. “It’s one of those key things that I think about as I look at other women in business,” says Hackett. “I should track that woman down and tell her that those words were so important.”