In Her Shoes gives us the rare opportunity to briefly step into the lives of the women who inspire us and discover the strength, courage and ingenuity that has got them to where they are today.
Meet Catherine Williamson, the first female CEO of Wittner. Catherine sits down with The Grace Tales to discuss her journey to becoming CEO at 35 and her 14-year connection with the Wittner brand.
“I like to say I don’t keep it all together. Earlier this year I spoke at a Women in Leadership event and they gave me a topic which was, How to Have it All, managing stress and anxiety, and I just laughed.“
Was becoming a CEO a goal of yours?
Yes. It was just one of those things that I plucked out of me. I was like, ‘I’m going to be a CEO by 35.’ And then I vision boarded it. I love making vision boards. There was no particular strategising on a trajectory, it was just out there. And then I had my girls when I was a few months past my 34th birthday, so I thought ‘okay, I’m not going to achieve that milestone.’ But I was lucky enough for it to happen. I really believe in manifesting it. And if you put it out there and you say it and you believe in it, then things have a funny way of energising and circulating to them.
It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but you’ve got to make these dates for yourself. And then you gravitate towards them. And then you make the decisions that you know will get you there, consciously and sometimes unconsciously.
You used to be a Wittner employee, so what are your earliest memories of Wittner?
Once I finished my honours, I moved to Sydney and a group of friends and I all said ‘we need to find some money.’ So we walked the corridors of Warringah Mall, and I put my resumé in with Wittner. So I worked at the Warringah store, I loved it. One of those critical decisions you make at that time is where are you going to get the best staff discounts. So that was like a win-win! And I had a great time there.
I was a casual employee, and then I was asked to have a coffee with the regional manager. Now, this regional manager, I’m going to name her because she is an icon within our business, her name is Sandy Bos, and she had worked for the business for 35 years before she retired recently. And Sandy said to me, ‘We’ve got to get you to head office. One of the Wittner family will call you.’ And I still remember like yesterday, because the time that was set up to call me, I was at a Ben Harper concert. And I was at a time in my life that I wasn’t going to give up a Ben Harper concert. So I took the call in the toilet, and I still laugh about that to this day with Michael Wittner, that I was there just like, ‘shh,’ hoping no-one flushed the loo, to take this call.
And he gave me an opportunity. I came down to Melbourne and I started my internship at the support office for Wittner. I stayed there a couple of weeks until basically, no one said anything and I kept showing back up. And I worked my way through to run the product team. But why I love that story is because it is all about opportunities, and for someone believing in you, maybe before you believed in yourself, and it’s very much in terms with the culture that has been ingrained within the business, that look anywhere and look within.
It’s something that I’m very, very proud that we’ve continued. We have internships running at the moment where we ask any of our store team, ‘If you want to put your hand up, please do,’ and we’ll find a way that we can utilise your new thinking and your skillset. We’re about to partner with RMIT and to do an industry partnership. And we hope from that there will be opportunities and pathways that come through for that graduate talent and younger talent. It is a critical thing that one coffee, 30 minutes of someone’s time, can actually change the course and trajectory and opportunities for anyone. So give that time.
Wittner has hundreds of staff, and we were just talking about how tricky that is right now, given the lockdown. So tell me about the company culture you’ve created and what you have learned personally about hiring great staff?
I am very fortunate to step into a business that has a family element and has fostered a culture very much in terms of support and encouragement and dedication. I think now we have to think about the work-life balance and what that means. We’ve definitely put the health and safety of our team first.
What I’ve learned in terms of hiring great staff is looking for grit and determination. And that’s definitely where they’ve got the sparkle in their eye, and they’re very much hungry and they want to push themselves and they want to do a good job.
There’s a base level of knowledge that is transferable. So I don’t think it matters what industry you’re in, you could absolutely pivot from one to the other. I think formal qualifications really do help as a foundation, but they’re not critical for what’s required, it’s definitely how that person is in terms of how they show up and how are they willing to really have a go and understand.
You are the mother of twins. And as you just spoke about, you basically had your twins and then you got the big dream job, so it all happened at once. A lot of people talk about the motherhood penalty, which refers to the decline in income and perceived competence and chance for career progression that comes after a working woman has children. So have you ever experienced this?
Personally, no. But it’s worth unpacking that in terms of with my friends, and my cohort and people I knew, I was one of the later to have my children.
I caught up for coffee with some ex-colleagues who had come back into work and had taken that path, and one said to me, ‘it was the biggest regret I’ve ever had. Because I was then at a level where I was working with colleagues who are single, who have no responsibilities of children at home, and who are showing up with extended hours, and have a capacity that they could take on board other projects.’ So her advice to me was, you go the opposite and you go up, try and put yourself in a position that you try and get a promotion. Because it’s a level of bureaucracy and understanding that the higher you get up, the more you can manage your diary, for instance, the more that you can have some flexibility in your hours and your time. And that was probably the biggest piece of advice.
When I then transitioned back into the workforce, I actually had the biggest projects I’ve ever had in my career to date. And it was ‘okay, well, I’m going to just keep coming and keep showing up. I feel really uncomfortable. I’ve got to adjust my life. I literally have to drive home to jump on the breast pump. But we’re here. We’re here, and tomorrow’s another day.’ So I think that for me is the critical thing, knowing that often it is your self-selection, and then choosing which works for you because you have to answer to yourself.
How do you keep it all together? How do you do the job, and be a mother? What keeps you sane and keeps everything ticking over?
I like to say I don’t keep it all together. Earlier this year I spoke at a Women in Leadership event and they gave me a topic which was, How to Have it All, managing stress and anxiety, and I just laughed. I absolutely laughed. We laugh still about it in my house. When I showed up, I said to everybody, “Look, I’ve been assigned this topic. They’ve asked me to speak about it. I’m happy to do it. I’m coming here as a CEO, I’m responsible for 500 people’s lives, I take that. But I have been burnt out once that I admit in my life, and a lot of other times that I’ve become exceptionally close.” And I suppose I share that and I talk to people openly about that because it’s a work in progress.
Every phase is a different phase, so I’m very much about daily habits. And from a micro level, ‘okay, what do I enjoy?’ At the moment, my girls will still be with me in the morning so I have a coffee with them in the morning, every day, in bed. And I have a time with them that’s not going to last forever, so I might as well have that now. And then I suppose I go through and I say, ‘what’s important to me?’ And there are critical moments in their life are important to me so I always put those first.
And then as I mentioned to you I love to have a vision board and feel like I know where I want to go, this is what excites me, this is what brings me energy – and then how do you lay that out in your life?
I could work 23 hours a day and absolutely love it because I genuinely like what I do, but I can recognise when I have to pull back and stop. And if you have that trait, I think it’s really good to have somebody that can lean into you and say, ‘You need to stop now,’ or ‘You need to pull back,’ as an extra safety mechanism.
It’s also about modelling. The best bosses I’ve had, for instance, wouldn’t email late at night, they don’t set a precedent about 24 hours a day and immediate responses. It’s about considered timing and understanding those boundaries that everybody has.
In reality, if everything is urgent, there’s a bigger problem. And that’s where you have to sit down and work through. And I remember at this conference speaking to this lady and she said, ‘I take my phone into the toilet in case an email might pop up.’ And we all just looked at each other and laughed. And the thing is, we’ve all been there, right? But it’s not necessary. It’s ridiculous. We all have to take a break from these things. And that’s where I think it’s such an important conversation about the bigger picture, about purpose and about alignment there. Then you understand the overall, how everybody’s working together and what you’re all thinking, it’s way more important than an immediate urgent response.
A special thanks–
Interview: Georgie Abay Photographer: Annie Jeffreys.