Chairman and Board Director Pauline Vamos believes that good leaders use their influencing skills to drive positive change rather than wielding their authority. Her knowledge and experience as a leader are hard-won, having faced numerous challenges in her life and career. Here, Vamos shares her leadership journey and lessons learned, including why leaders shouldn’t make assumptions.
As a female Chairman and Board Director, Pauline Vamos is an influential and highly respected businesswoman. She sits on six boards, three of which she chairs. These include high-profile organisations such as the Governance Institute of Australia, where she is both Chairman and President, and Mercer Superannuation Trust, for which she is a long-standing board member.
Vamos’ achievements are impressive, especially as a recent Australian government report shows that women only hold 18% of chair positions and that 22% of boards and governing bodies have no female directors.
What makes Vamos’ accomplishments even more admirable is understanding the context in which she has achieved them. Vamos faced numerous challenges early in life, and it was only through hard work and sheer determination to be a financially independent, self-reliant woman that she overcame them.
Vamos’ family moved to Australia from the UK in 1969, settling in Newcastle. Her English-born father was an electrician by trade and an authoritarian man by nature, who believed his four children should leave school by age 15 to earn a living.
Vamos’ Maltese-born mother worked night shifts as a nurse and didn’t have the wherewithal to stand up to her husband, unlike her daughter, whose independent streak resulted in frequent altercations between the two. For many years, the family bordered on poverty, sometimes only able to afford toast for dinner. Vamos and her sister grew up wearing second-hand clothes from Vinnies charity.
It wasn’t until her father found a role in sales that he finally began to earn a decent living. “That was a big imprint for me,” Vamos says. “That if you could sell, you could earn money.”
Vamos recommends that every woman do a sales course and learn how to sell.
“You’re always selling something,” she insists. “Selling done well is what makes the world go around. From politics to CEOs to people just starting out.”
Given her family’s struggles, Vamos aspired to a more stable future, which she believed she could achieve with an education and a career. “I wanted to be independent, and I didn’t want to rely on anybody – including a man,” she says.
But studying did not come easy for Vamos, who has dyslexia. As a child, she also had a stutter, and she still has a speech impediment that makes it difficult to pronounce the letter ‘r’ (“I can’t listen to myself speak. I find it very irritating.”)
Vamos recalls a life-changing moment when she was 15, stammering the answer to a question in class. Her teacher said: “I think I can help you with your stutter”. He did so by placing her on the debating team and teaching her about public speaking – a skill she has drawn on throughout her career.
“He instilled confidence in me and was one of the most influential people in my life,” Vamos says. “By teaching me public speaking, he enabled me to create the career that I have.”
A good coach will help you overcome the challenges you face at work and in life.
Vamos turns to coaches when she needs help navigating specific situations. With their guidance, she has learned to influence people across multiple groups, manage challenging board members and staff as a CEO, and cope emotionally at work during difficult times personally.
“I’ve had people that helped me during my career, like my teacher,” Vamos says.“There are different coaches for different needs.”
Going it alone
While Vamos had a supportive male figure at school, at home, her father was adamant that she leave school at 15. “No child of mine is going to be an educated idiot,” he declared. Equally, Vamos refused to back down. She wanted to be a lawyer, as it was a profession she knew garnered respect and would afford her the independence she craved.
At an impasse with her parents, Vamos moved into the home of her boyfriend’s aunt and uncle for her two remaining years of high school. “I worked, and I worked,” she says. The childless couple welcomed her, allowing her to earn her board by serving in their two shoe stores on Thursday nights and weekends. “I honed my sales and business skills, understanding the value of money and what business is about,” she says.
After high school, Vamos moved to Sydney to study Arts Law at Macquarie University, paying her way by waitressing and working in aged care. When a recession hit, and she struggled to find work, she landed a graduate role at superannuation behemoth AMP. While working there, she studied part-time until she finished her double degree, then launched her career as an insurance litigation lawyer.
Challenging times ahead
The next few years saw significant changes in Vamos’ life. Married with two daughters, she left the law to launch a business as a general insurance broker, providing her with the flexibility to work while raising her young girls. After four years, she sold the business and returned to the law, but her personal life imploded when she discovered her husband was having an affair with her secretary. The bitter break-up saw her lose her job, money, house and car.
Desperate, Vamos rang a contact at Friends Provident (Tower Life Insurance), who was advertising a legal role. When she explained her circumstances as a single mother with no options, he offered her the position on the spot. “He was tremendous in helping me get back on my feet after I lost everything,” Vamos said.
While leveraging your existing skills and experience is essential, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
“Everyone experiences imposter syndrome,” Vamos says. “Women need to recognise what they’re good at and focus on those areas.”
Life as a single mother was challenging, but Vamos made it work. As she had no familial support, her daughters were in before and after school care from 7.30 am until 6 pm every weekday. During the week, other parents helped by driving her daughters to extracurricular activities, while Vamos returned the favour on weekends, which were dedicated to spending quality time with her girls. She remains very close with her daughters and now has three grandchildren. “They’re so cute!” she exclaims.
Becoming a woman of influence
In subsequent years, Vamos built a profile as an expert in compliance, which was becoming a hot-button issue for the insurance sector. While Head of Legal and Compliance for Friends Provident, she launched The Life Office Compliance Managers Association (today, the GRC Institute) with a friend. “We had no authority to do that,” Vamos says. “But leadership is about leading by influence, not by authority.”
Her work led to Vamos becoming the first national compliance manager for ASIC, a highly influential and respected government regulator. This role, in turn, opened the door to her first board roles and being put forward as CEO for ASFA, Australia’s peak superannuation industry body.
As a first-time CEO, Vamos says she faced two challenges. The first was learning to manage multiple stakeholders – from colleagues, to industry, to parliamentarians. The second was handling the numerous agendas put forward by those stakeholders to determine what was driving them. “Was it a value set? A monetary issue? Someone protecting their power? The biggest danger of any leader is to assume,” Vamos says. “Unless you’ve asked the right questions, you can really get yourself into trouble.”
For women interested in leadership roles, Vamos recommends developing confidence in the following areas:
● sales skills;
● the ability to change your language to suit your audience;
● being purposeful about what you want and going after it; and
● believing you can do a role and pushing for it; not expecting to be asked.
Vamos loved her role at ASFA and held it for nine years before stepping down. “You always go out on top,” she says. “Everybody has a use-by date, and I just felt the timing was right.”
After taking several weeks off to drive and cycle around Scotland, contemplating her next steps, Vamos decided to return to consulting. She mapped a pathway from there that included another short stint as a CEO before working on boards full-time, goals that she has since fulfilled.
Leading by influence
Asked what has been the biggest challenge of her career, Vamos’ answer was unexpected. She says it was knowing how to handle the unethical behaviour of leaders surrounding her. “I’ve seen unethical behaviour throughout my career, and how to respond to it has been some of my biggest challenges,” Vamos says. In two instances, when she couldn’t change the situation, she left the company.
Conversely, what Vamos has found most rewarding as a leader is inspiring people and helping them to succeed. She currently works with three CEOs, who undoubtedly appreciate the opportunity to learn from her.
“I love that as chair, you have the privilege of having the closest relationship with the CEO,” says Vamos. “As a leader, a board chair and a board member, you are part of a team. Seeing that team succeed is very important.”
Pauline Vamos’ Leadership Lessons Learned:
© Laini Bennett, MBA