Each week, SHESAID features an inspiring woman who has been kind enough to share her story with our readers. She might be a leader in her chosen field, someone still on their own path striving to make a difference or simply someone with a remarkable story to tell. These women contribute their own knowledge, expertise and life lessons in order to truly inspire others.
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Carole Renouf, CEO of the National Breast Cancer Foundation
What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
My role as CEO of the National Breast Cancer Foundation is both busy and complex. We raise and grant funds for research, and our aspirational goal is to achieve zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030. We receive no Government funding, so this means we really need help from all corners of the community. No two days are the same for me, but my role is therefore largely about inspiring individuals and companies to help – through public speaking, media appearances, face to face pitching – and then providing very good stakeholder management so that all our supporters feel engaged and acknowledged – while at the same time I have to ensure we are all driving in the right and same direction.
How/when did you know this what you wanted to do as a career?
My career has never really looked like a ‘career’ till recently. Today, we are told people should expect to have four or five careers in their working lifetime and it’s all about transferable skills. That wasn’t the expectation when I started working, so I console myself by thinking I must have just been ahead of my time! I started out as an actress, went into teaching, then journalism, health promotion, consumer advocacy, and back to health and medical research. And that’s more or less where I’ve stayed.
I’ve now spent over 20 years in the not-for-profit sector, where perhaps I found a fit as I always felt I was such a ‘misfit’ for more traditional markets. And it’s become fashionable to work in what I prefer to call the for-purpose sector, and it now looks like a career. But there was no plan… other than it’s always been about making a difference through the use of what I was good at, namely my ‘soft’ skills (communication, influencing, persuasion, etc). It’s fascinating to me that those ‘soft’ skills, over the time I’ve been working, have now come to be highly regarded in leadership positions. I never thought that would happen!
Where do you find your inspiration?
I don’t have to try very hard for inspiration. I am a naturally energetic person anyway, but any contact with the beneficiaries of our work inspires me. Speaking to women and men with breast cancer; making documentaries or writing reports that highlight their needs and the issues they face; seeing that some research we have funded has achieved real change for them, delivering a new therapy, a new way to manage side-effects of treatment like lymphoedema, or a new understanding of the needs of partners of women with breast cancer – that’s inspiring.
Did you have a mentor? Who/what helped you to get your career off the ground?
I had one short-lived attempt at having a formal mentor. For me, it’s been more about being privileged enough to work for and around some really high quality business leaders. You learn by osmosis when you walk with giants. But in fact, you often learn even more from the managers and leaders who haven’t worked so well for you.
Every promotion I’ve had, I’ve driven. I’ve always looked for the opportunity to stretch and grow any role I’ve had, and proactively proposed ways to do this to my manager. I haven’t expected anyone to do it for me. I had no sense of entitlement, but a huge sense of possibility.
What were the stumbling blocks, initially getting started on your career path, and since then?
The stumbling blocks, for me, have been more internal than external. When I was younger I lacked confidence in myself and I allowed critical, energy-draining people to get too close to me and influence me. They would tell me I was a ‘misfit’ and a ‘dilettante’ because I wasn’t following their pathways – this included both my parents and my ex-husband! When I left the marriage was when my ‘career’ took off, because I then had no choice but to find my faith in myself. I had an eight year old daughter to provide for and no money, and self-doubt was an indulgence I could no longer afford.
The only external stumbling block I really struggled with was working full time and trying to reach the C suite as a single mum. That was tough. At 21, my daughter still remembers every occasion when I didn’t make it on time back to after school care to collect her… and every athletics carnival I missed…. and I still feel guilty.
How did you overcome these?
In terms of the internal stumbling block, I made a deliberate decision that I would go it alone and become very good at nurturing myself, and surround myself with positive, energy-creating people – and that’s worked.
In terms of the external, I could never overcome it but I just did the best I could, on a day by day basis, and taught myself the meaning of the phrase ‘good enough’ (I was a perfectionist), and somehow it turned out OK in the end. There are so many things I didn’t do right, but my daughter is beautiful inside and out – fiercely intelligent, driven, generous and compassionate – so I got lucky.
What are your goals for the future?
I would like to arrive at a point where I am able to create some work/life balance for myself. I’ve never been very good at that and circumstances have not assisted me. I don’t know when it will be possible…. but before I am decrepit I would love to have a little cottage somewhere in the south of Italy or France, grow my own vegetables, look after the village children, have lots of animals and welcome my grandchildren for holidays.
In the meantime, there’s no shortage of social problems to fix!
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow the same path as you?
I think a lot of people have a very rosy notion of the for-purpose sector. Doing a stint in the NFP sector is fine, but making a successful and enduring career out of it requires an unusual amount of drive and stamina as well as low ego. The drive has to be dialled up because with lots of passionate people around, it is very easy to get distracted from your purpose – and you are there to achieve that purpose.
The stamina has to be dialled up because your purpose is always going to require far more resources than you have. You will also often find yourself having to compromise in terms of the quality of resources you can afford. This gets downright tiring, over the years. And the ego has to be dialled down because it’s always got to be about the people you serve. You have to ask yourself every day, is there a more effective and/or efficient way to deliver for my beneficiaries? At the end of my time, will I have left things better than I found it? That’s what you have to keep in your sights.
Carole will be attending a major event on NBCF’s calendar called An Evening of Gratitude raising funds for breast cancer research, on Monday 17 November in Sydney. For more information visit www.aneveningofgratitude.com