When Jenni Smith left school at 16 to become a secretary, she never envisioned a future where she was seated at the board meetings of a global company, let alone advising boards and CEOs on strategy. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
She was then the Group Executive Officer of People and Communications for one of the top 20 insurance groups globally. Smith had earned her seat at the table, and the board respected her management of major change and transformation projects, such as setting up offshoring centres and rolling out a new platform in 32 countries.
As Smith sat in the board meeting, she reflected on how far she’d come from the 16-year-old who had left high school to become a secretary. She’d often sat outside the offices of executives whose jobs she thought she could do, but it wasn’t until her partner, John, encouraged her to make more of herself that she invested in an MBA, changing her life’s trajectory.
Investing in her future
Smith grew up outside Brighton, on the south coast of the UK, in a family where money was tight, and job security was paramount. As a teenager, she excelled at competitive sports but didn’t enjoy studying, instead dreaming of financial independence and travel. As her parents raised her to believe she could achieve anything she set her mind to, Smith moved to London at age 18, determined to pursue these goals.
There, she quickly landed a job as a secretary with advertising agency McCann-Erickson. The position gave Smith her first real taste of travel and introduced her to her future homeland, Australia. By the time she was 26, Smith was back in London working as the secretary of the European President of the communications agency J. Walter Thompson. Life was looking pretty good. She was earning a lucrative package that included a company car and had met her life partner and champion, John.
When Smith’s boss was later fired, and her role subsequently made redundant, it was John who encouraged Smith to make more of herself. “Given you left school with nothing, you’re clearly good at what you do,” he told her. “Do you always want to be a secretary? Now’s the time to reinvest in yourself.”
As much as she hadn’t enjoyed school, Smith knew she had to study again to gain business qualifications. “Otherwise, I’d never be taken seriously if I really wanted to move out of an admin role,” Smith says. So, she commenced a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), funded out of her severance package.
The politics of progressing
For the first time in her life, Smith enjoyed learning. It helped that she could see the practical application of her education and was surrounded by like-minded students with similar interests. By now, she was working with Carlton Television as Program Manager, and her studies helped her understand board governance and how the business operated financially.
In 1998, her MBA led to a significant promotion to Human Resources (HR) and Facilities Director of ONDigital, a joint venture between broadcasters Carlton and Granada, aimed at competing with Sky Television. Even though it was her first management role, the CEO tasked Smith with building the team and the $150 million state-of-the-art broadcasting facilities.
While undertaking a qualification can help you get ahead, Smith believes lived experience is invaluable.
“I’ve met some of the brightest, most qualified people, but they can’t communicate or relate,” Smith says, pointing out that a degree doesn’t necessarily make you good at your job.
To ensure she succeeded, Smith surrounded herself with good people. “I’m never the brightest in the room, and I’m very comfortable with that,” she says. The biggest challenge, however, was the politics between the two key shareholders.
“The politics were excruciating,” Smith says. “My big learning there was stay out of it.”
Smith could see the writing on the wall. Certain an implosion was coming, she began to plan her next move: immigrating to Australia.
Moving Down Under
Smith undertook a scouting trip to speak with recruiters in Sydney and soon had three job offers, including one as Head of HR – Corporate Functions for Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company. The opportunity to work for a stable, ASX-listed organisation with 25,000 employees was a challenge too good to pass up. Smith accepted the role, immigrating to Sydney in October 1999 with John.
Soon, she was promoted to General Manager of HR International, responsible for developing Telstra’s hub for its international and Asian acquisition strategy. It meant Smith was based in Hong Kong, alternating between living for six weeks in Asia and three weeks in Australia, but she loved it. “It was a fabulous opportunity, and I had a fabulous boss. He just said, ‘Go for it’. It was very empowering,” Smith says.
Women should have the courage to pursue opportunities when they present themselves at work. Smith says that if roles arise, apply for them rather than wait to be asked.
“Somebody once told me, ‘If you’re standing on the edge, you’re taking up too much space’. So jump in,” she says.
Her experience at Telstra later opened the door to the pinnacle of her corporate career, the Group Executive role at QBE. Smith says that most HR executives have a related university degree and experience with what she calls the ‘soft and fluffy stuff’. But her non-traditional career path and MBA meant she could demonstrate financial literacy and business acumen, bringing a commercial lens to the role.
It was an incredible role, and Smith thrived, helping the company through significant organisational change and transformation. QBE was an early adopter of diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives; she established a diversity council to increase female representation across all tiers of the business and launched the QBE Foundation, which donates over $4 million a year.
When Smith eventually left QBE 14 years later, she did so reluctantly. The then leadership and internal politics were taking the company in a direction she wasn’t comfortable with. Unable to affect the change she believed was required, she resigned.
For a woman who had worked continuously since she was 16, Smith was in the unusual position of not knowing which direction to head next. A career coach suggested she draw a picture, envisioning what life would look like at 60.
The drawing, framed in her office and a constant reminder, depicts her having the time and money to travel between Europe and Australia. Wanting independence and control over who she worked with, Smith pursued a portfolio career to achieve her vision.
To build her portfolio, Smith needed a network of contacts. She says her partner, John, was surprised to find her in tears of despair in the kitchen one Sunday, having realised she only had 13 names on her list. “That 13 needs to become 23,” he said, as always encouraging her to aim higher.
Smith got the list up to 25, ringing and meeting with each person to help open doors to her new career. It was during one such meeting that her contact suggested she start consulting. “I know somebody who could do with some help from you,” he said, resulting in her first client for her executive coaching and consulting business, JMS Advisory.
Helping others succeed
It was a direction she had yet to consider pursuing but suited her perfectly, with Smith leveraging her experience to advise boards and CEOs on strategy, people and culture. She also helps her clients navigate the often choppy waters of company politics and career-impacting decisions.
“The clients know I have empathy with them. I’ve walked in their shoes,” she says.
Smith coaches a mix of male and female C-level executives and some female entrepreneurs. All her clients have gone on to something better. “I’ve given them the confidence to apply for a promotion or a job if they’ve been made redundant. I help them through that journey,” she explains. She builds a strong relationship with her clients, and as a result, most remain in contact. “They ring me and stay in touch, which is quite nice.”
Leadership roles can be challenging and, in many cases, fraught with politics. Having an objective sounding board can make a big difference to your success.
Achieving her vision
During the career transition, Smith found it helpful to turn to two mentors – both senior executives – as sounding boards but says her biggest champion has always been John. On her 60th birthday, six years after leaving QBE, they were in Europe enjoying a celebratory dinner, and it was John who pointed out that she’d achieved the goals in the picture hanging on the wall. “You got there, haven’t you!” he told her proudly.
Smith acknowledges that he was probably right. After all, she now serves on several boards, has 267 names on her contact list (“Yay, I made it!”), and a clientele built entirely on referrals.
For someone whose primary career goal was financial security and travel, Smith’s career has taken her farther than she ever anticipated. Asked if she ever experienced imposter syndrome on her journey from secretary to board advisor, Smith responds: “People say ‘fake it until you make it. That’s bulls**t. You can’t fake it,” she says.
“You either do the job and do a good job, or you fail and learn and move on. But I still remember being at QBE in a board meeting, pinching myself and saying, ‘Can you believe you’re really sitting here?'”
Jenni Smith’s Leadership Lessons Learned
© Laini Bennett, MBA