At work, Jo Dawson manages billions of dollars for Westpac Bank as its first female Group Treasurer. At home, she is the mother of four young children and stepmother to one. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned, including how becoming a Sloan Fellow changed her life.
Westpac is Australia’s third-largest bank and one of the top 50 banks globally. As Westpac Group Treasurer, Jo Dawson is essentially in charge of the bank’s bank. The mother of four oversees the bank’s global treasury operations, including funding, liquidity, capital, and the management of financial risk, primarily interest rate and foreign exchange risk. A typical day will find her speaking with regulators and market participants, sharing her insights on the economy and how interest rate changes might influence business outcomes.
With so much riding on her shoulders, Dawson values the expertise her team brings to the table. She has over 130 people reporting to her across Sydney, Auckland, London, Singapore and New York.
“When you’re working in these types of roles, you can’t know everything; you need to have people working for you who know more than you do, who are experts in their field. I really value those relationships,” she said.
Surround yourself with people who know more than you do. Leverage your team to make informed decisions that help the business to grow. If your team shines, so will you.
Growing up, Dawson was born in Cowra and spent her early years with her two brothers on a farm on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia. While her brothers loved being outdoors and around animals, Dawson was the family bookworm; when her head wasn’t buried in a book she was thriving on math and English.
Her mother encouraged her individualism. “My mother was my biggest influence,” Dawson says. “Her mantra was that we were capable of doing anything.” That freedom to choose her own pathway was something Dawson believes was invaluable for her self-confidence. “It’s something I’m trying to do for my children, too.”
At 18, Dawson landed a junior role in the settlements division of Bankers Trust (BT). She clearly recalls her first time in the hustle and bustle of the dealing room. “The bond market was pretty volatile and I remember just being in this really exciting environment and wanting to be part of it,” she said.
Nurturing a bright spark
Throughout her career, Dawson has been fortunate to have managers who recognised her enthusiasm and took an interest in her development. This mentoring started at BT, where she was encouraged to continue working with the organisation while she undertook an economics degree at Macquarie University.
Three years later, Dawson moved to insurance powerhouse, IAG, where she soon was promoted into her first management role. “I was surrounded by very knowledgeable people,” she said. “They were generous in passing on their knowledge and educating me in the markets.”
Dawson was part of a close-knit team, many of whom she regarded as mentors and remains in contact with today. “They were people who helped me to make decisions along the way and challenged my thinking,” she said.
In 2003, Dawson joined Westpac as Senior Portfolio Manager – Group Treasury, reporting to former Group Treasurer Curt Zuber, her manager for a remarkable 17 years until his retirement in 2020. “That trust between us was really important.”
Under Zuber’s championship, and with the support of many senior leaders across Westpac, Dawson built a wealth of experience and expertise across four roles, including during the Global Financial Crisis and other turbulent periods, ultimately facilitating her promotion to Group Treasurer in 2020.
Mentors can be very beneficial in helping you make career decisions. Find someone independent who is interested in your career progress and can help you see the bigger picture. In Dawson’s experience, the best mentoring relationships are when you both bring something to the table. “Where they can benefit from your knowledge, too,” she said.
Investing in her knowledge
As Dawson’s responsibility increased, so did her desire to advance her education. In 2018, she undertook a short business management course at the prestigious London Business School. There, she was encouraged to apply for their world-renowned Sloan Fellowship Masters in Strategy and Leadership, a year-long program based in the UK.
In a moment of self-doubt, Dawson thought: “I’ll never get into that! They only accept 60 people a year.” She was also hesitant to ask her criminal barrister husband and their four young children to move overseas for a year, let alone to ask Westpac for a year off.
But Dawson’s husband was very supportive, willing to step back from court and consult remotely for 12 months so Dawson could pursue this unique opportunity. Equally, Westpac’s senior management, including the CEO, encouraged her to go.
So, with four kids aged between 5 and 10 in tow, they set off to London on New Year’s Day, 2019.
Staying the course
At Sloan, Dawson was exposed to people she wouldn’t ordinarily meet in the world of banking. From a NASA engineer who’d given TEDx talks to entrepreneurs seeking the fastest way to achieve an outcome – very different from the highly regulated banking industry.
Asked if she experienced imposter syndrome, Dawson reflected that while she was initially a little daunted, she soon realised that she could leverage her 20+ years of corporate experience to bring her own perspectives to the table. “It gave me the confidence to go, you can just be you, and that’s okay,” she said.
As expected, the year brought with it deepened strategic knowledge and leadership skills. Less expected was the self-introspection that resulted from discussions on what had influenced and impacted her life and career. “The biggest lesson I got out of the program was self-awareness,” Dawson said. “Who I am as a person, the type of leader I am and how I respond to different environments.”
The self-illumination she gained from her year away was not just on the professional front, but on a personal front, too. For the first time as a family, they were without the familial support network that they relied on at home.
Have kids, will travel
In Sydney, Dawson is fortunate to have both sets of grandparents and a part-time nanny to help with their young brood, which was particularly important when her twin girls were babies and, in the age-old reality of working parents, she was struggling with sleepless nights and her job.
In London, however, they practised self-sufficiency. Rather than employ a part-time nanny, Dawson’s husband willingly stepped into the role of primary carer, or ‘Daddy Daycare’, as they jokingly referred to it. “It was a great opportunity for him to spend some time with the kids,” she said, and Dawson could immerse herself in her studies, knowing they were in safe hands.
Whether you have children or other caring responsibilities, try to build a strong foundation of support around yourself to provide assistance and encouragement. If you haven’t already done so, talk to your life partner about sharing the duties.
Since it was pre-COVID, they could also enjoy exploring Europe together. By the time they returned to Sydney on Christmas Eve, 2019, they had not only grown as a family but were also well-prepared for the rigours of remote working when the pandemic lockdowns ensued three months later.
Today, Dawson is grateful for the encouragement she has received throughout her career and wants to pay it forward. “One of the big things I’ve had over my career is opportunities,” she said. “I want to provide those opportunities to others, too.”
On a daily basis, Dawson juggles billions of dollars at work with being a mother to four children and acknowledges that she doesn’t always get the balance right. “Still, you’ve got to be happy with the choices you make along the way,” she said. “You have to be true to yourself and feel comfortable in yourself.”
Her children also motivate her, especially during challenging times. As her mother was to her, Dawson wants to be a role model to her children, giving them the freedom to be who they are. “And understanding that, while they may need to make compromises and sacrifices, being a woman and having a family is not a barrier to a successful career,” she said.
Jo Dawson’s Leadership Lessons Learned
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA