Noel Waite chairs the executive search consultancy Waite Group. She has twice been president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Institute of Management, has been awarded the Malcolm Moore plaque for services to AIM and is a life member of the Institute. She has a room named after her at AIM’s Victorian headquarters. She has been made an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to management, particularly women in management. She is also the author of the book, The Gold Within.
AIM: How did you start your management career?
Waite: I took over Waite Group from my late husband in 1968. I had had my own career as an illustrator. I was on retainer with Myer and had my own arts and fashion studio at a time when women didn’t work. I didn’t intend getting into business, but because it had my name on it, I decided to give it a go. For a number of years I hid behind my somewhat androgynous name. And I joined institutes such as AIM because I didn’t know how to do marketing. Over the years the institutes kept offering me fellowships, particularly AIM, which helped me a lot in my personal development.
AIM: Why did the institutes react this way?
Waite: I was asked to join a group to answer the question why AIM was not attracting enough women. I must have opened my mouth too much. But I was the first woman in 50 years to be president of AIM (in 1991).
AIM: What have been your main challenges in management?
Waite: After taking over the business, I felt reluctant to see myself as a manager because I lacked qualifications. I didn’t realise that I had been running a business for several years: an arts studio, including doing dreadful things such as marketing my products and services. They were all elements of management, but I didn’t see it. The conditions of being a managing director of what was then a small consultancy fluctuated a lot. As a mother with four children I couldn’t be as single-minded as men.
AIM: Has that situation for women changed significantly?
Waite: I think women can be more free now because men are taking more of a part in parenting. A lot of men are taking the reverse roles. But that has only happened in the past decade. Women are coming to me for career advice and for an answer to the question: “Can I do it?”
AIM: Why the change?
Waite: Women in the 1980s were not acceptable at the top. In 1982 I formed Womensearch, an executive search facility for women. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but a lot of women got put on the short-list.
Then in 1984 we had Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. That helped. I have noticed in recent years that women are more accepted now. Women are being seriously considered. You see people such as Elizabeth Proust at ANZ and Margaret Jackson on various boards. It is all happening, but we have thousands who have gone through career development still on our books. But now I think the situation for women has improved enormously.
AIM: Is there still a long way to go?
Waite: You still don’t see enough women on boards. I have recently started a joint venture with the Victorian Government, VicWomen, to get more women on boards.
AIM: What advantages do women have?
Waite: I do not like to generalise, but I feel women are great lateral thinkers. They are used to doing a lot of things at once and to seeing the big picture. If you are going to be a manager in the future you have to be insightful, conceptual and creative. I used to hide my creative background because I was not qualified (in management), but now I think it is a tremendous asset.
Some managers are task oriented and we need them. We can’t all be leaders, but there have to be people who lead. Decisions by consensus are fine, but someone has to take the decision. And I believe a leader has to be able to unlock potential in others: know their people, develop and care about them.
AIM: Are there any obvious disadvantages of women?
Waite: We have babies and we are known to care about elderly people. You are seeing senior women who want to have it all. They have to decide if they want to put in nannies. Some do it well, and some are wondering if the prize is worth the race. A lot of women are opting for home-based business so they can combine career and family.
AIM: Is management changing?
Waite: If we are talking about the future, we are not talking about takers: “What’s in it for me?” That goes for organisations as well as people.
AIM: What is important to you?
Waite: I believe in making a substantial contribution. When we talk about success, what are we talking about? Many say it is money: he or she is successful because of making $250,000 a year. I like earning money, but as a result of a job well done.