Bobbi Mahlab AM believes networking is an essential leadership KPI, providing opportunities to grow – both yourself and your business. Mahlab is Chair of Mahlab Media and co-founder of Mentor Walks Australia. Here, she shares her lessons learned from establishing two successful organisations, including the importance of building self-confidence.
In 2016, Bobbi Mahlab AM was in Shanghai, China to speak at a conference. She was an alumni of the prestigious EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women Asia Pacific program, that selects 15 women each year who have the potential to grow their businesses globally.
As the founder of Mahlab Media, an award-winning content and communications agency launched nearly two decades prior, Mahlab was considering expanding into Asia. She was exploring new ideas and opportunities, so when she received an invitation from a co-speaker, expat Australian restauranteur Michelle Garnaut to join one of her Mentor Walks, she readily accepted.
Unsure what to expect but curious to learn more, Mahlab, together with fellow EY program participant Adina Jacobs, caught “a rickety old cab to a park in God-knows-where” in Shanghai. There they were introduced to a new mentoring concept: career women who needed guidance on a particular question were paired with senior female executives willing to help them. Together, they workshopped their issue while strolling around the park.
An hour later, Mahlab was buzzing with excitement. In sixty minutes, she’d made astonishingly good contacts and received invaluable advice on whether her business was ready to expand into China. It was such a simple, but effective concept: good women helping other good women to succeed.
“Adina and I looked at each other and said: ‘this is such a simple idea, let’s launch it in Australia’,” Mahlab said.
A mentoring juggernaut is born
Two months later, Mahlab and Jacobs launched the not-for-profit in Sydney.
Today, Mentor Walks is in eight Australian locations, nearly 3,600 women have participated and the organisation is briskly walking towards a goal of mentoring 25,000 Australian women in the next five years.
Mahlab is loving the impact that Mentor Walks is having. “Whether it’s helping women with job opportunities, funding for their ventures, starting that next hustle, or gaining new contacts, it is absolutely fantastic,” she said. In a time when COVID-led isolation is making it even harder for people to connect, Mentor Walks is giving career women the opportunity to network, build a community, and to learn.
Find your mentors among your network, someone who will fill a need at that point in time. “Mentors are not necessarily for life,” Mahlab says.
The question of how to develop self-confidence is one that Mahlab receives regularly on Mentor Walks.
Asked if confidence in women is innate or learned, Mahlab’s answer is immediate: ‘It’s learned; it comes with experience.” She also believes confidence levels change over time and depending on the circumstance.
For building confidence, Mahlab recommends a technique she learned from another business woman. “She keeps a list of all the things she’s good at on her mobile phone. Every time she has to go into a high level negotiation, she looks at the list, it boosts her up and she goes in facing forward.”
Keep a file of all your achievements and positive feedback you have received. If you’re experiencing self-doubt, remind yourself of your capabilities by looking at the list.
Though Mahlab is confident, she like most women, has had her moments of self-doubt. While she was recognised in 2020 for her contribution to women, publishing and philanthropy with an Order of Australia, there have been moments in her career when if she had let it, self-doubt could have derailed actions that ultimately led to incredibly successful ventures.
Given the impact Mentor Walks is having, it’s ironic to think that she nearly didn’t apply for the EY program because she was worried she wasn’t suitable for it, among other concerns. (In the end, she’d decided she had nothing to lose and submitted the application.)
Similarly, years before, she canvassed voices of support before launching her own business, Mahlab Media.
At a crossroad
Mahlab started her career as a journalist with the likes of The Melbourne Herald, then built a strong career with Text Media, including moving to Sydney to run their custom publishing. But after five years with Text, she found herself at a crossroad: moving on and considering starting a family, Mahlab believed starting her own business would give her the flexibility to juggle a career with kids. But was she ready to go it alone?
Mahlab sought the advice of a former client at a large corporate. “I’m thinking of starting my own business, what do you think?” she asked her. To this day, Mahlab remembers her exact response: “I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t.”
It was the shot of confidence she needed. Mahlab went on to help pioneer content marketing in Australia, at a time when the publishing industry was being heavily disrupted by the internet. Her ability to capitalise on digital ultimately brought her clients success and her company industry accolades.
Mahlab says the best advice she has ever been given was to not get caught up in other people’s definition of success. Which is why Mahlab doesn’t regard success as just financial.
To Mahlab, success is having a business that allows her to spend time with her family, create an environment to help other people succeed, and a platform to pursue other goals like starting Mentor Walks, or sitting on various boards or councils.
Define what success means to you. “It can be very different to other people, and different at different times of your life,” Mahlab says.
Asked about the key to work life balance, Mahlab rolls her eyes.
“It’s an absolute furphy! It’s classic BS!” she exclaims. “I don’t believe in work life balance and don’t think it’s achievable.
“The key for people in general is flexibility, so you can get what you need, when you need it.”
A feminist role model
That Mahlab takes pleasure in helping other women succeed should come as no surprise. She had a fantastic role model in her mother, who was a feminist and early member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia. When Mahlab was in school, her mother was one of the few who worked full time.
“Many of us have heard the term: You can’t be what you can’t see,” Mahlab says. “And it’s why role models are crucial. It’s so important to see up close, and afar, what you can become if you want to.”
Mahlab clearly loves sharing her knowledge and her passion for helping others is palpable. It’s what drives her every day. “My role on this planet is to facilitate other people’s success. That’s where I can really make a difference,” she says.
Her parting words of advice? “It’s really important to develop your network, to develop your community and importantly, to show up. Because if you show up, things happen.”
Bobbi Mahlab’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA