Governance Institute of Australia CEO Megan Motto has benefited from female leaders championing her. Now she is helping the next generation of women reach their full potential. Here, Motto shares her leadership journey and lessons learned as an accomplished CEO and Board Director, so others may benefit from her experience.
When Governance Institute of Australia (GIA) CEO, Megan Motto, applied for her first position as Chief Executive of an influential industry association, no one expected her to get the job. She was 32, green, and up against extremely experienced external candidates and a rigorous recruitment process.
Her then boss and mentor, Therese Charles, had recognised Motto’s potential and groomed her for leadership of Consult Australia (then the Association of Consulting Engineers Australia). With Charles’ encouragement, Motto applied for the highly-contested CEO position.
The scepticism she subsequently faced was demoralising. Her referees said she probably wouldn’t get the role, but it would be a great experience to try. She received job offers from Consult Australia’s members for when she inevitably missed out on the CEO job, and the Chair of the Board rang all their key members to ensure they wouldn’t leave if she were appointed.
Nonetheless, Motto believed she had one key competitive advantage against the other external candidates: her in-depth knowledge of the business. With this in mind, and with Charles’ backing, she created a 10-year strategic plan and pitched it in her interview. The Chair said he’d never seen anyone take this approach before or since. She got the job.
While Motto is naturally inclined toward leadership, it never occurred to her to aspire for such roles when she grew up with her working-class family in Sydney, Australia. Her father worked for the government, and her mother was a housewife and part-time receptionist. “I didn’t have anyone in my immediate family circle, particularly any women, with big career roles,” Motto explains. “And so, as they say, ‘you be what you see’.”
Nonetheless, in much the same way that young men gain leadership skills on the football field, Motto similarly gained experience as a dancer. By her early teens, she was already teaching dance. Later, as a professional dancer and dance captain, she was in charge of everything from logistics and transport visas to health, safety, and payroll. Yet Motto was told not to mention dancing on her CV because no one understood its leadership benefits.
“As a dancer, you must be disciplined, rehearsed, flexible,” she says. “You must perform, fight nerves, and work closely as a team. All those skill sets are overlooked.”
Instead, armed with a degree in Education, Motto worked in teaching briefly before travelling overseas to dance professionally. On her return, she became interested in public relations, which led to her first job with Consult Australia as their Communications Coordinator, before being promoted to Operations Manager by Therese Charles and later becoming CEO.
As the newly-minted CEO of Consult Australia, Motto’s priority was to begin rolling out her 10-year strategic plan. Knowing she had a steep learning curve, she built a team of experts around her to counter her inexperience. She also quickly learned to focus on the big picture, not the minutia, by setting expectations for her team and letting them get on with their jobs.
“As CEO, you’re not supposed to know all the answers. Sometimes the most powerful answer you can give is ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer, but I’m going to go away and find out for you’.”
Leaders cannot be experts in everything. Surround yourself with people with knowledge in your areas of vulnerability and let them step up to the plate.
“It’s really important to understand and leverage your strengths, and to understand that no one ever became a great leader by dwelling on their areas of weakness,” Motto says.
Around the same time as becoming CEO of Consult Australia, Motto became Director on several boards, including Business NSW, the state’s peak business body. The experience gave her insights into the complexities of running a large organisation and working at scale. Motto says her most significant learning, however, was the different approach she needed to take when wearing her CEO hat, as opposed to being a director.
“The director classically has their nose in but fingers out, and a CEO should have fingers in,” she explains, referring to the fact that a director’s job is to ask questions, while the CEO’s is to give directions.
“I will be very different when I’m the CEO as opposed to when I’m in a boardroom. I will moderate my behaviour and natural inclinations depending on what hat I’m wearing at the time,” she says.
Motto said it was a blessing to have worked with some high-performing boards and witness experienced directors from whom she has learned by intentionally observing them. Similarly, as CEO, she has had capable mentors in former Chair of Consult Australia, Anthony Barry, and the late Jane Montgomery-Hribar, who, in addition to being a strong supporter, was willing to give her tough truths.
Motto says she has also learned not to dwell on perceived mistakes. “As women, I think we can often focus a lot on our failures, or on that thing we said that might have offended someone – especially at 2 in the morning,” Motto says. “Everything seems worse at 2 in the morning!” Instead, she compartmentalises, closes the book on the issue and moves forward.
Managing men on boards
As a director, it has not been unusual for Motto to be the only woman on a board, or even the only woman in the room. She recalls the Chair opening one industry meeting with ‘Welcome Gentlemen, and Megan’, only to realise she was the sole woman in a room with 42 men.
Motto says that as a woman, she brings a different viewpoint to the boardroom and has had to counter male groupthink. “It can be hard not to fall in line at times and say, well, I’ve got a different perspective on tackling this problem,” she explains. Motto’s solution is to build coalitions with individual directors outside the boardroom so that she can count on their support when a decision arises.
Equally, she has built a network of trusted advisors to turn to when she feels out of her depth, which Motto says is how she manifests imposter syndrome. “During those times, I open up to my network and talk to people about it because a problem shared is a problem solved.”
Integrating life and work
On the home-front, Motto can count on the encouragement of her husband, her chief cheerleader and primary carer of their two children. “He’s been incredibly supportive, both in theory and practice,” Motto says.
Her other half has experienced reverse discrimination, with his colleagues asking him how he feels about his wife having a big job and travelling. “He’ll often defuse it using humour… he’ll say, ‘oh, it’s fantastic! I’m waiting to retire’,” she laughs.
In addition to having a solid partnership at home, Motto manages work-life balance by integrating her work and personal life. “There are two types of people: integrators and separators. I’m an integrator,” she says. In practice, this means that if she or her team want to take time out of work to attend a yoga class or go to the dentist, she trusts that they’ll still get the job done and to the appropriate standard.
However, she understands that some people prefer to separate their work and personal life and recognises that COVID and the subsequent working from home boom must be challenging for these personality types.
In diverse teams, manage people according to their personality. Recognise and build on their differences while encouraging teamwork.
“Your job (as a leader) is to teach them to appreciate that you don’t have to be the same to get on well,” says Motto.
Helping the next generation
Today, Motto has been CEO of the prestigious 43,000-member GIA for nearly four years. An experienced and charismatic leader, she takes pleasure in seeing people flourish and pays forward the mentoring she received by guiding the next generation of leaders. “Two of my senior executives at Consult Australia have gone on to be the current CEO and incoming CEO, and two of my (female) senior executives at GIA have also gone on to take up CEO roles,” she says proudly.
It reflects Motto’s belief that women should support other women. She agrees with Dr Kirstin Ferguson, Director and co-author of Women Kind: Unlocking The Power of Women Supporting Women, who says that women should not pull the ladder up behind them but rather cast a net to lift everyone.
Motto also believes that leaders should be kind to themselves and that they don’t need to be heroes. “In Australia, we are far too concerned with being seen to be right all the time and not demonstrating a level of authenticity and vulnerability,” Motto says. “It’s a heroic leadership style. You don’t have to be a hero.”
Megan Motto’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
© Laini Bennett, MBA