Stand out and succeed: Leadership tips for Projects, Strategy & Change - Caroline Hungerford
As part of our ongoing commitment to our specialist communities, we interview accomplished leaders on a monthly basis to bring you insights on their career progression and advice that will help you progress your career further.
Caroline is a highly accomplished IT professional with over 15 years of experience in cross-functional technology and leadership positions. Caroline has used her invaluable experience to build successful teams, design tech and digital strategies, and improve overall enterprise-wide technological capabilities. She is a strong advocate for encouraging people to find their strengths and giving them the opportunities to progress on a path that is right for them.
Caroline is also passionate about women in technology and being a voice for women in this space. Her current role is the Director of Digital Enablement at the University of Sydney where she leads the development of technology strategies and connects new digital products to foster continuous improvement in the University's ways of working.
1. What factors do you think have been critical to the success you have achieved in your career?
I think it has been finding different opportunities and being willing to try new things, don’t ever be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try something different. There is a lot to be said for seeing an opportunity, being brave and having the courage to give it a go.
Even if you think you don't have all the skills and experience and can't tick the box on every aspect of the position description, still put yourself out there.
Work out what skills you do have and how they can be applied to a certain position and then focus on gaining the additional skills and experience along the way.
Sometimes things may not work out, but you take the learnings as you go. You must continue to move on and you then become more valuable from the skills that you accumulate.
You have to always think “well what's the worst that can happen”. Have a go, put your best foot forward and back yourself.
Sometimes the path ahead isn't straight forward, you have to take sideways steps and sometimes backwards steps just to get the experience that you want and I think being ok with that is really important.
2. What's the most valuable piece of advice you have received in your career and how did it help you?
There's two things that really stand out to me here.
- Find positive role models. You should always try to surround yourself with people you admire and who inspire you. Build your circle around where you want to be, not where you have been. Network with people who have done more than you or have more or different experiences. By surrounding yourself with people you want to be more like, you can learn from them, develop relationships that matter to you and the networking opportunities can typically come back and help you in your career.
- Don’t look back and make decisions for now based on the past, make them from exactly where you are today based on the information you have. I got this from a manager a long time ago and there is a story to it. As part of my work, I had booked and paid for a conference which involved travel and accommodation. At the time there was a significant amount of money attached to that trip and it had been booked 3 or 4 months in advance. It came the week before and we had a go-live on a major system upgrade happening, things hadn't been running as smoothly as we would have liked and I was in charge of the department running this go-live. I really wanted to attend this conference but I also really knew that I had to be with my team and support them through this difficult process. I sat down with my manager at the time and I explained the situation. We had spent thousands of dollars on this conference that would have been really good for me to attend, but I just knew it wasn't the right thing to do and I really had to be with the team. He said to me, we make decisions with the best information we have at that moment, at the time when we booked the conference we thought it was the best thing for you to do, the money is already spent whether you go or not. What's important is that you make the right decision for where we are right now and not where we were 3 -4 months ago.
3. What's the most challenging situation you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
If I think about a common theme over some of the situations I have faced, it’s when I've felt like I am not being taken seriously. And this can be because of many reasons, be it your gender, age, culture, background or whatever differentiates you from the people making the decision and even though it may not be pointed at the particular thing, it can feel like it is.
I think I first experienced this when I was in my late 20s, mid-career, middle management. My manager at the time was retiring and in his mind and mine, it was clear that I was going to be his successor, he had been working with me for 6 months or more, preparing me to take on his role. I wanted his role, everyone in the team thought I was going to take his role but in the eyes of the senior executives, I was still seen as the young girl who started in that organisation as an 18 year old, and that was ten years prior.
It really didn’t seem to matter that I had been promoted within the department and also outside of it so i had cross-organisational knowledge, I had already completed my degree whilst working part time, at my own expense and I had been nominated for awards so I had lots of success that was recognised beyond my work group. However, because I had worked there since I was 18, to the senior executives, I was still seen as that person.
This is going back over 20 years ago so things were different back then, but it was such a jump from being a middle manager to a senior manager in that organisation that they weren’t sure if they could back me in that position.
In the end they did, but it was in a way that was slightly insulting. They did it by giving me a 6 month secondment to trial me in that role. I could have rejected and said “it's permanent or nothing” or I could meet them halfway and take it on, give it my best shot and show them that by the end of the 6 months, that I was the best person for the job, so that's what I decided to do. Even though it felt a little insulting and I had to grit my teeth in order to get through it at times, I showed them that I could do it and I was quite successful in that role and the rest is history.
4. If you were starting your career now, what would you do differently?
I have been working now for 35 years and there's a lot of water under the bridge in that time, but I must say I am very happy with where I am at.
Everything that has happened in my career has led me to where I am now and I'm very grateful for the opportunities, organisations and managers I have worked with. But things have changed a lot in those 35 years and when I think about starting out now and working out what to do, it would be a different path to the one I took.
When I left school, I lived in a regional country town and maybe only about half or just under half of the school leavers went to university. One of our key issues was that we had no local university and if you wanted to go you had to travel and move away, and for me that wasn’t an option.
For me, it was important to start earning money to support myself rather than go and get that education so I had to earn money first before I could start my education.
That meant for me that I had to play a lot of catch up and at an appropriate time when I could afford to do my degree I did it and did it part time while working full time. So if I was starting out now, that's not the way I would do that, but at the time and the situation I was in, I didn't have any other option.
So nowadays I think I would recommend getting your education first, finances permitting of course and even still today that is an issue for some people. But I think by getting your education first it gives you those key skills around being able to focus, research, make connections and meet deadlines, so it definitely gives you great skills that are going to be applicable across pretty much any job you work in.
Finances permitting, I would definitely recommend getting your education first but in any situation where we are faced with a decision we should always choose the option that is going to give us new skills and experiences.
We can always have these great 5-10 year plans but you don't always have to stick to the plan, as you are moving forward in whatever capacity that looks like for your personal situation.