Known for her courage and character, Master Builders Australia CEO Denita Wawn is the face of Australia’s second largest industry. She believes female leaders should not lose sight of who they are, including their femininity. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
When Master Builders Australia CEO Denita Wawn was in her mid-20s, she was National Industrial Relations Director for the Australian Hotel Association (AHA). A key part of her role was representing the AHA at the Industrial Relations Commission, so it was disconcerting when several peer advocates at the Commission weren’t keen to work with her, both because she was a woman, and due to a perceived lack of experience.
Wanting to be accepted, Wawn toned down her bubbly personality and brightly coloured clothes, investing in conservative black and navy 90s power suits. But she increasingly felt out of sorts. “I didn’t feel comfortable because it just wasn’t me,” she says. “I realised I wasn’t expressing who I was.”
So, one weekend she went out and bought “every pastel suit known to mankind” and the next time she was at the Commission, strode in wearing her self-described “girly girly” clothes. Finally feeling like her true self, her confidence bloomed, and it showed in the way she walked, talked, and in her passionate advocacy.
Others noticed, too, Wawn says. “A few months later one of the Commissioners said to me, ‘Denita, I’m so glad you’ve come out of your shell, because you’re actually really showing who you are. And you are so different from everyone else, that you shine out’.”
Be your authentic self. If you are a feminine woman, embrace it.
Launching her career
Wawn is the face of the Master Builders Australia (MBA), representing a federation of nine bodies including all states and territories, and Newcastle. Worth over $200 million and employing over 1.1 million people, the building and construction industry is critical to the Australian economy, and therefore powerful in its influence.
Wawn, the MBA’s first female CEO in its 130-year history, ensures its 32,000 members are spoken for at the highest level. She is also a director on the Board of industry super fund, CBUS, chair of her sons’ school foundation and sits on the school’s Board.
While Wawn has made a career out of leading industry bodies, it was not the career she envisaged when she was growing up in Tasmania. There, she had dreamed of becoming a lawyer. However, when she finished her degree in the 90s, Australia was recovering from a recession and graduate legal roles were hard to come by. Instead, Wawn pursued her dual love of industrial relations, ultimately landing a role as a junior Workplace Relations Advisor for the AHA in Canberra in 1996.
Not long into the role, the AHA’s Senior Industrial Relations National Director resigned unexpectedly, and Wawn was called into her boss’ office. To her astonishment, he told her that if she proved herself within the next six weeks, she could have the role. A flustered Wawn started listing the reasons why she shouldn’t have the job, including her lack of experience. But he said “you’ll be right, you’re a hard worker; prove to me you can do it and I’ll give you the job”.
Suitably motivated, Wawn delivered – and landed the role.
Managing resistance to her appointment
When she subsequently experienced resistance to her appointment, Wawn’s boss provided ongoing support, which empowered her, helping her build self-confidence and resilience, and providing the skills to handle similar situations when they arose in the future. For most of her appointments, it has not been unusual for Wawn to be asked whether she could manage juggling her job and her family, or to even have her core capabilities questioned.
Wawn says that even though she has always worked in male-dominated industries, she has received strong support from men and that the naysayers have never been senior leaders such as board members. Nonetheless, she’ll defend herself from criticism if she feels it’s unwarranted.
She recalls “rocking up to a pub” to confront a man who was questioning whether she had the mental fortitude for her then new role, as CEO of the AHA’s Tasmanian division, at age 27. She bought him a beer and said: “I hear you’ve got a problem with my appointment. Let me prove you wrong”. Her direct approach worked; he ultimately became one of her strongest supporters.
Appointments to roles should be based on merit. If people are questioning your ability to perform a role, be prepared to defend yourself.
Always a straight shooter
Wawn’s strategy of taking a direct approach, especially working in male-dominated industries where directness is appreciated, has held her in good stead and has become her signature style. Nonetheless, she is mindful that assertiveness can be perceived as abrasiveness.
As the CEO of AHA Tasmania, Wawn delivered an impassioned speech at a political party event, and was mortified the next day when the local media called her ‘Denita the Detonator’, describing her manner as abrasive and aggressive.
“I don’t want to be seen as abrasive or aggressive!” she exclaims. “I want to be seen as assertive and respectful.” The experience gave her a jolt, and she learned to adapt her communication style, accordingly.
“Although,” she jokes, “my close friends still call me ‘detonator’.”
Working with big personalities
Asked whether she is ever intimidated by some of the big personalities that she encounters in her role, Wawn says she is not, and acknowledges that she, too, is a strong personality. “My fundamental view is that, regardless of who someone is, you have to respect them as a person and to respect their role,” she says.
Showing respect includes learning to walk away when a situation becomes heated, such as during negotiations over key policy, rather than risking saying something she’ll later regret.
It was widely reported in 2020 when Wawn did just that; shaking with anger, she walked out of an IR reform working group meeting after being blindsided by a deal the then Attorney General had struck with the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to process preference union agreements.
“I knew if I stayed in that room, I’d have lost it, and I was gonna lose the respect of other people — quite rightly,” she says. “So I took my own advice to my children: walk away, calm down.
“When I came back in, I was very strong and strident in my delivery of my message, but it was done in a way that was respectful to them.”
Finding common ground
Wawn says the most challenging aspect of her role as MBA CEO is also the most gratifying. That is, ensuring all the MBA member organisations have been appropriately consulted and have reached agreement on key policy and tactics, before she can act publicly. “Bringing together strong personalities for a common goal and a common purpose is much harder, actually, than the execution of that strategy from an external perspective,” she says.
By means of example, she cites the delivery of a series of contentious MBA political advertisements in the lead up to the 2019 Federal election, campaigning against an Australian Labor Party housing tax proposal. The proposed ads were hard hitting, and it was critical that all MBA member bodies understood and agreed upon the approach first. Wawn says achieving this agreement was one of the most gratifying points in her career at the MBA to date, probably even more so than implementing the successful campaign.
“My greatest joy was being able to ensure that the membership felt comfortable with what we were recommending. For me as a leader, that was a pinnacle, in many respects,” she says.
Good leaders are good listeners. “Over time I’ve learned that listening is just as important, if not more so, than speaking,” Wawn says, stating that all too often, people listen without hearing.
Consensus on the home front
While achieving consensus at work can be challenging, on the home front, Wawn and her husband are on the same page: their family is their priority.
On the weekends, Wawn loves being the ‘M-Uber’ (Mum Uber), carting her sons, aged 12 and 14, around Canberra to their various sporting activities, and enjoys nothing more than sitting on the couch on a Saturday night with the boys, her husband and the dog, watching the footy and enjoying each other’s company.
She’s had to learn to switch off at home, which hasn’t always been easy.
“I had this habit of walking in the door, mid-conversation, on a work issue. Between my children and my husband, they would be absolutely ropable with me. They’d argue ‘Mum, you’re here, but you’re not here’,” she says.
Wanting to be both mentally and physically present, Wawn ensures she’s off the phone before entering the house, “even if that means sitting in the garage for 10 minutes, or pacing up and down the deck outside the front door – which doesn’t go down too well, either!” she laughs.
A true partnership
Wawn credits the support of her parents and husband, Mike, for making her career possible. “My husband is extraordinary. He’s my rock, he keeps me grounded,” she says. They share household duties, with her husband often stepping up to take on additional responsibility when her work hours demand it. “I think he really appreciates that we don’t have a traditional relationship, because he has developed such a strong relationship with the children.”
While it’s common for women to have careers today, Wawn believes there is still a cultural expectation that women should be the primary carer in a family. “Children have two parents – it doesn’t automatically have to be the woman,” she says.
She recommends that women have a robust conversation with their life partner about what the future will look like with children in it, to ensure they’re on the same page about caring responsibilities.
“Women also need to be kind to themselves,” Wawn says. “It’s taken me some time to learn that I can be a leader, and I can be a mum, but I can’t be a good leader or a good mum unless I am looking after myself. And that’s both mentally and physically,” she says.
While Wawn says she is a work in progress, she clearly understands what works for her, in the office and at home. She leads by example, showing it is possible to be both a formidable and feminine leader, who has mastered her domain.
Denita Wawn’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
Top image caption: The media interviews MBA CEO Denita Wawn with (L-R): MBA West Australia Executive Director John Gelavis; MBA National Board member Robert Shaw; and former MBA President Hedley Davis, during Master Builders Australia’s advocacy campaign at the 2019 Federal Election. Image credit: Master Builders Australia
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA