Vanessa Gavan

Executive Chairman at Stephenson Mansell Group

Vanessa Gavan

"I worked with business coaches early on in my career to focus and leverage myself in order to have time 'on the business'. I really believe enabling yourself to do this gives you better perspective as a leader and allows your business to be more agile."

Both a psychologist and an astute entrepreneur, Vanessa is the founder and managing director of Maximus International, one of Australia's top leadership firms. Vanessa loves nothing more than getting her head around tough business issues and working with enlightened, ambitious leaders on how to solve them.

For more than 15 years, Vanessa has consulted to a range of leading Australian and international organisations to enhance business strategies, improve executive leadership capability, redesign organisation structures, and deliver whole-of-business performance solutions.

1 What did you study and how has your career path evolved?

I've always had a strong interest in human behaviour, so after contemplating many paths, I settled on studying psychology. At the time, I wasn't exactly sure what path it would lead me down but it offered so many choices. Once I had some exposure to business and organisational psychology, it was clear. I loved the stimulation and challenge of working across industries and countries, and with different needs and problems every day. I headed into consulting after finishing my postgraduate degree and was lucky enough to be quickly fast-tracked to leadership roles within the first consulting firm I joined.

Like many entrepreneurs, after a few years, I started to feel that burning desire to create the organisation I really wanted to be part of. Most entrepreneurs have had their first idea and have taken action within their 30s. After several years of working for others I took the plunge to create something different. I was 27 when I started Maximus. We exist to move minds, transform businesses ,and leave a legacy of which we are immensely proud. I'm happy to say this purpose is still what gets me out of bed in the morning.

2 What advice would you offer students looking to get into a leadership position?

Be clear on what you want your contribution to be - Aspiring leaders need to develop self-awareness in order to understand what their passion, purpose and identity is driving towards. When they have a clear strategy for their future, encapsulating an integrated view of both personal and career elements, they will have more clarity and conviction around the choices they make.

Accelerate your own development - I worked with business coaches early on in my career to focus and leverage myself in order to have time 'on the business'. I really believe enabling yourself to do this gives you better perspective as a leader and allows your business to be more agile.

Be authentic - When you get that first opportunity, take the time and interest to get to know your people, their interests, background, values and ambitions. It sounds simple but so often is forgotten. Trust and engagement start at this fundamental level.

Deliver on your promises!

3 What are the latest trends in leadership development in Australia?

Leadership development continues to be a growing focus in the Australian marketplace. Leaders today need to be more focused and agile than ever before. They are dealing with multiple generations in the workplace, rapid digitisation, flexible working arrangements that reduce visibility of employees, and an ongoing need to be across more information, complexity, at the same time delivering enhanced results year on year.

As a result leadership experiences need to be more holistic, they need to provide both the hard and soft skills around great leadership. With constant disruption as a result of our addiction to smartphones and technology, life and work is more integrated than ever before. As a result we need to teach people coping strategies and help them bring focus to the big issues.

Gone are the traditional days of stand-alone classroom learning. Today's learning models are integrated and immersive . Multi-dimensional, multi-method, allowing for a host of different learning options and application.

I am personally really interested in design-led learning. I believe we need to build design thinking into the workplace to spark original, innovative thinking. These techniques will also help ensure learning is more connected to markets and customers. A really important element when you think about the trends in the Australian marketplace around customer centricity.

Lastly, people vicariously learn through others so the more we can enhance learning via open platforms and sharing of experiences, the better. Social collaboration tools are great platforms for building cohorts and communities to support this.

4 In your opinion, what three things make an outstanding leader/manager?

The three basic ingredients I look for are:
1. Innate ambition.
2. Strong judgement and the ability to derive both analytical and humanistic insight.
3. Disciplined execution and conscientiousness.

5 How do you keep up to date with new technologies in your day-to-day work?

I couldn't live without my iPhone! It's completely integrated into the way I work and enables productivity and the flexibility in everything I do. Social media tools such as LinkedIn, Yammer, and Twitter are great for collaborating and building business communities. Social media is integral for keeping connected with the breadth of Maximus clients. Our LinkedIn Community is a place where business leaders and HR professionals are able to discover, debate, and discuss the latest news, trends, and research in the business world. We like to connect our clients with other like-minded individuals, thought leaders, and academics around the world. My team are always wanting to try new tools. They are far more astute than what I am around technology for I give them license to lead the way.

6 What are the biggest challenges you face in your daily work and how do you overcome them?

So many ideas, so little time! In the early years of Maximus I found that I was trying to be too many things at once and was getting diffused. You need to have focus for yourself and your business around what you want to be great at. That means having a clearly articulated strategy and relentless execution. I still struggle on a daily basis with this discipline and often have to put new ideas into context, prioritise, and say no to more things than what I want to.

Balancing ambition and my goals around life/work integration is a constant personal negotiation.

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