As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Colleen Callander - Former Sportsgirl CEO, founder of Mentor Me for women and author of Leader by Design.
Geelong born and raised, Colleen was brought up in a hard-working business- focused family where there was always a job to do. After working in family businesses from as young as she could remember, Colleen had her first taste of retail at the age of 16. Unbeknown to her at the time, this summer job would be the start of a retail career spanning over 30 years.
Colleen is an award-winning CEO with a proven track record in building brands, creating winning cultures and building environments that allow people to be inspired and empowered.
Colleen is an inspiration to women of all generations. She wants to encourage women to have the confidence to believe in themselves and their abilities, share their voices and find their inner superpowers. With this book she aims to inspire and empower women to lead in their own lives – whether that be in boardrooms, organizations, communities or even the home. She wants women to believe it is possible to become the leader they always wanted to be, in business and in life. Together, women can create a new era of leadership – one that is centered in kindness, humility and self-awareness, and that puts people at its heart.
Colleen is a leader by design. In the early years of her career, she looked up to and admired people with titles, levels of authority and positions of power, labelling them leaders. She learnt over time that it isn’t someone’s title that qualifies them for leadership. In fact, Colleen shares that you don’t even need a title to be a leader. We all have the ability to lead every day, with every action, every reaction, every interaction and every decision.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As a teenager, her career aspirations changed regularly. One day I would share with her parents I wanted to be a vet, the next week a hairdresser, the next a lawyer. As it turned out, none of these were going to be my career path. At the end of year 11, I started a casual summer job at my local Just Jeans store, Geelong, Australia and this was the start of my fashion retail career that would span over 30 years.
I started as a sales assistant and was very quickly promoted through the company. Then in 1999 I was approached by Sportsgirl, a brand I had grown up with and had always dreamt of working for and it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. This is where I then spent the next 20 years of my retail career with 13 of those years as CEO across Sportsgirl and Sussan, until I resigned in March 2020 to follow my passion projects.
Today I have my own business Callander&Co which consists of my ‘Mentor Me Women’ program, Leadership and Business Coaching and Keynote Speaking. I also wrote my first book ‘Leader By Design’- Be empowered to lead with confidence in business and in life. I share my story from finishing school at the age of 16 to CEO and everything in between including how my upbringing influenced the women and leader I am today, hitting burnout, the power of kindness, how to find your superpower and how we all have the ability to become a ‘leader by design’.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?
Well, I’ve never been very good with directions and I’m still not. I was 20 years of age and was promoted to Area Managers of 16 stores in country Victoria, Australia. I was given a company car, petrol card and a Melways and off I went. (For those of you who are too young to know what a Melways was, it was a huge street directory book with over 300 pages.)
So off I went, I was super excited for my first ever store visit. The store team were expecting me to be at the store by 11am and I arrived at 4.30pm. I had headed off that morning in the complete opposite direction to where I should have been going.
What I learnt from that situation was to always take someone with me that could read a Melways!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I credit my parents for much of the success I have achieved as a woman and leader. All my life, they have both been a constant source of inspiration and guidance. I am so extremely grateful I got the best of both of them in my genes and habits. My business acumen comes from my dad; my caring and nurturing ways from my mum and my strong work ethic and intrinsic tendency to work hard came from them both. I remember very clearly my sliding door moment where I said to my parents that I wasn’t going back to school to finish my final year of school and complete Year 12; instead, I had decided I was leaving school and taking a full-time job in retail as a sales assistant. The disappointment was transparent on both of their faces but even in that moment of disappointment, my parents found a way to encourage me.
‘Be passionate, love what you do, work hard and never give up,’ were their words of wisdom to me and ones that have stuck with me throughout every day of my life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I started my business Callander & Co early 2020 my vision was two-fold. Firstly, I want to empower women to step up, have a voice, live with purpose, believe in themselves become the leaders they want to be in business and in life and live with real confidence.
Secondly, I want to inspire organizations to embrace a new era of leadership – one based in kindness, compassion, collaboration, trust and authenticity, and that encourages more women to take the helm.
As a CEO, my purpose was to engage, empower and inspire people to be the best version of themselves, and now in this next chapter of my life, my purpose is exactly the same! Whether that be through my book ‘Leader By Design’, my ‘Mentor Me Women’ program, through my business and leadership coaching, speaking events, interviews, podcasts or through sharing my story and insights in articles such as this one.
Having a clear vision is important, however I have always believed that people follow the leader first and the vision second. If people are not committed to you as a leader, they will not be committed to your vision – no matter how well you communicate it.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
With 30 years of retail under my belt and 13 of those years as CEO I am no stranger to uncertain or difficult times. In my experience the only way to deal with uncertainly is with honesty and transparency.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
At the age of 36 I hit burnout.
Looking back on this time I liken myself to Formula 1 race car – one that had not been refueled, serviced, had its tires changed or pulled into the pit stop in a very long time. I had just been going and going and going. I knew no boundaries and said ‘yes’ to everything, no matter how full my plate. I wanted to be the perfect wife, mother, friend, sister and daughter. Until I said to myself: ‘I can’t do it anymore. I’m exhausted. I am burnt out – I’m done.
This was very typical of my personality; I’m an ‘all or nothing’ kind of person, which is probably why I had reached burnout in the first place!
It’s not that I had lost my passion – far from it. I absolutely loved my job and was so proud of what I’d been able to achieve in my career. I just didn’t have anything left in the tank. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was totally neglecting myself and my own health in my quest to make everyone proud of me.
I am sure there are many of you reading along who have experienced burnout previously, are in the midst of it right now or are on the slippery slope towards it. I wish I knew then what I know now; I wish I’d known the signs that very quickly creep up on you when you’re on that narrow, windy and bumpy road to burnout. I also wish I’d understood the importance of self-care and self- preservation.
It was time to put the Formula 1 race car in for a well-overdue service of self-care and kindness - I took three and a half months off I used that time to refuel my tank. Not only did I work on my emotional and physical wellbeing during this break, but I also knew I needed to make some significant changes in my life so that I would never end up back in that same place, ever again. This was the best lesson ever in self-care.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
One of the critical roles of a leader is the ability to maintain focus on things that in your control. When your attention is on the things that are out of your control, you can quickly become overwhelmed and stressed which can make you think more reactively and erratically, instead of staying clear and calm.
“Control the Controllable” has always been something I have tried to live by not only as a leader by also in my everyday life, particularly during challenging times.
As leaders it is important to focus our energy and our team’s energy on the things that we can do something about, the things we can affect and have an impact on. When we do this our teams feel much more empowered and have a ‘can do’ attitude as the expectations is realistic and achievable.
During challenging times make a list of the things you can control and the things that are out of your control and share it with your team. This will help focus everyone on what’s really important and work towards the same goals.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I have always aimed to create environments where people get up every day and come to work feeling safe, valued, inspired, empowered and fulfilled, and where they feel part of something bigger than just themselves. Having theses strong foundations is the key to getting you through uncertain times. When the foundations of a leader or organization are weak, that’s when the cracks start to appear. Inspiring, motivating and engaging your team must be an always on proposition not just when the going gets tough. We inspire and engage those us around us by sharing our vision, staying true to our values, being courageous and taking action, by staying positive and allowing those around us to have a voice, be experts in their field and feel valued for their contribution.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There is a very short answer to this question: I have always lived by the saying that ‘honesty is my best policy’. Difficult news should always be communicated with honesty, integrity and humility if you want to build trust amongst your team.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
An unpredictable future is just that…unpredictable, however, great leaders and great organizations always stay true to their values and vision no matter how unpredictable the future looks.
Values guide and provide us with an inner compass and code of conduct to how we as leaders and organizations should behave, and when we stay true to these values, we make decisions with a strong sense of integrity, clarity and confidence.
Values have always been a big part of my experience and approach as a leader. An awareness of values has not only set the tone for how I have behaved as a leader and what’s important to me, but also how my leadership transcends through an organization.
As a leader, it is also crucial to the success of the organization to not only have strong values but to also have a clear vision that is shared with the entire organization. Having a clear vision provides a sense of purpose, clarity and direction and helps people stay focussed on what is truly important to the growth and success of the organization. People need to know where the organization is headed not just for today, but also tomorrow and the future if you want people to be engaged and perform at their best.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Set clear expectations.
It is our job as leaders to create environments that allow people to grow and shine and that starts with providing clear expectations.
People will never deliver on your expectations if those expectations are not clear in the first place.
Clarity of goals and objectives is essential for success of both the individual and the organization. It gives the team a path forward, helps them focus on what’s important, increases their effectiveness and helps them monitor their progress and continuously grow and improve, which also supports the success and growth of the organization.
Clear expectations are essential through both the ups and downs of any successful organization.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Focus on your own backyard.
I have seen many leaders become obsessed with other organizations which ultimately leaves them losing focus on their own. It is important to be aware of your competition, however it’s more important to run your own race and stay focussed on your people and organisation. This can only be done when you know your values, purpose and stay to your brand DNA.
2. Invest in your people.
I have seen many businesses during my leadership journey divest in people when times get tough. I have always had the complete opposite thought process. When times get tough, this is when you need to inspire, engage and invest in your people. People are the heartbeat of any organization and investing in your people is what will enable your business to come out stronger on the other side.
3. Empower those around you.
Leaders often think when things go wrong or when times get tough, they have to have all the answers, do all of the heavy lifting and problem solving themselves. Great leadership is about empowering and believing in your people’s talents and expertise to problem solve in a collaborative way. Bringing great minds together and allowing people to share their knowledge in my experience is a much more productive way to get a positive outcome.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Differentiation is key. I believe it is not good enough to just sell stuff today. People want to connect with a brand on a much deeper level than just selling them something.
Brands that truly know their purpose, the ones that know ‘why they do it’ rather that ‘what they do’ will be the ones that not only survive but thrive.
Positivity is key. Leaders that handle crises and challenges with confidence and calmness, inspire those around them to do the same. A positive leader looks at each situation as an opportunity to learn and improve and to find new ways of doing things. They have the ability to immediately transform negativity with their optimistic enthusiasm and inspire those around them forge ahead in difficult times.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Empower those around them
- Lead with courage
- Communicate clearly
- Lead by example
- Stand up for what is right
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘Be passionate, love what you do work hard and never give up’ were the words my dad said to me from a very young age and these words have stuck with me throughout my life in everything I have done in both business and in life.