Forever juggling

Nestled amidst a smattering of research papers, award submissions and project plans a smartphone shudders to life. Its insistence stems the flow of fingertips on a keyboard and a cursory glance at the caller ID shows the name of a family member. But the call of a spreadsheet and a looming deadline means this call, like so many others, can’t be answered this time. It’s a constant battle between work and family where there is no clear victor. A battle Meg Hurley, General Manager, Marketing and Insights, ANZIIF, has been engaged in most of her career.

Since the day she wandered into a career information night at the Caulfield Institute of Technology (now Monash Caulfield) after finishing high school, Meg knew what she wanted to do. Citing the diversity and challenge as key factors for choosing what was at that time, a little known profession. She has now worked in a combination of sales and marketing roles across a variety of industries for almost 25 years.

“At that information night I knew I had found the course for me,” admits Meg. “I loved every bit of my study and have loved working in sales and marketing. The diversity of the role: strategy combined with execution and working across all parts of a business make it both a challenging and rewarding role.”

From fashion to allied health to trucks and public transport, Meg has travelled a variety of fascinating and challenging career paths, hearing things, as she says, “most women generally aren’t told in business.”

“Early on it was a struggle. I had to survive on very little,” she recalls, referring to her time at Budget Rentals as much as she is the issue of gender pay imbalance. “I had to find a way to get ahead.”

Easier said than done, especially with a new mouth to feed and one less income to feed it with.

Most people would prefer to have things planned out when starting a family, reaching for stability like one does the remote control. But when life disrupts the balance, our strength of character is tested, as Meg discovered one eventful afternoon.

“I had a sudden return to work,” she muses, glancing at the silent but shuddering phone on her desk. “My ex-husband came home when my daughter was three months old and told me he had quit his job and so I had to go back to work.”

“I was told that the management team was dubious about the ability of a mother to also be a dedicated employee and was advised by another mum not to talk about my daughter or put any pictures up.”

Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Meg was faced with a difficult choice, one that so many women have. Work or family? There is no ideal world we live in, so Meg did, again like countless others, what she had to do.

“I dug in really deep, became efficient and effective at work which also served to distract me from being separated from my daughter,” she says solemnly.

“Every minute at home was precious and I just learned to survive without sleep. The marriage ended and I became a single mum – I didn’t tell anyone at work. Lauren went into day care and after childcare payments came out I would have had more money on a single parent pension.”

It has been said that we cannot truly appreciate life until we have reached our nadir; a discovery Meg soon made. Hospitalised with a near fatal condition, she had an epiphany and vowed to get the most out of a life that had been full of ups and downs.

“It was around this time that I grew very sick, was hospitalised and had a near death experience,” she confides.

“This highlighted how precious life was and I decided to live life to the fullest, making the most of every day. No matter what I do I give 110% — at work, at home, in my leisure activities. I don’t want to look back on my life with regrets — I want to have given my best shot.”

A vow she soon put into action, taking on the demands of studying following her recovery.

“I decided that I never wanted to be financially dependent on anyone again and invested in myself by studying an MBA part time.”

While painful at the time, she recalls this challenging period in her life with stoicism, and appreciates the impact it has had on her psychologically and consequently in her career.

“Through it all, I learnt that you can achieve anything you want to and that you need to be kind to yourself, especially as a woman, and stop negative self-talk — there are plenty of other people who will pull you down,” she says.

Recounting her studies, she understood the difficulty many women face when juggling work and family. An experiment by her lecturer illuminated the struggle that would dominate her life.

“Our lecturer put us in groups of three in a triangle formation representing the three key areas of our life — work, study and family — and as we fielded questions about work and assessment deadlines, we realised that the one thing that always gave way was family,” she says.

Despite her strengths, Meg confesses that work-life balance is something she has never been great at and that more often than not, work won the battle for her attention.

“When my daughter Lauren was little, I would do a full work day, go home and have good quality time with her, oversee any homework, cook a meal and read stories. I tried to ring fence this time, protect it, and then after she was asleep, I would pick up my laptop and continue to work, often late into the night,” she says.

Driven and determined to succeed, Meg soon found herself in the spotlight and then grasped the opportunity that it presented. During her stint at Chemart, she was sponsored by the Mayne Pharmacy Group CEO and tasked with overseeing a project that would help lay the foundation for her career.

“After finishing my MBA in 2004, the Group CEO seconded me onto a strategic working group to examine every part of our business unit and to develop the strategy plan which would be presented to the Board,” she says.

Representing the retail division, Meg’s collaboration with people across key elements of the business including warehousing, logistics and wholesale helped her define the future of the business and gave her a much broader understanding of the entire division and the importance of relationship building.

“I developed relationships across the business and was given an opportunity to leverage my knowledge,” she adds.

With the strategy accepted by the Board, she introduced it across the retail division of four brands and the independent business units, while developing and implementing a new retail model — both key achievements in helping secure her a more senior role.

And all under the watchful eye of the Group CEO.

“As I moved into a more senior role, the Group CEO took an interest in me, monitoring my progress. Whilst I didn’t know what sponsorship was at the time, I felt as though someone had found me, believed in me, gave me a go and opened the door to significant opportunities and I grabbed each one with gusto,” she chuckles.

Sponsorship, at any level, is a notion that Meg believes is truly important for career success, particularly for women.

“I sometimes wonder if I ticked the boxes of being under 35 and a woman to bring diversity to the group – I’m ok with that if it was the reason, it gave me opportunity and choice,” she muses.

Despite the struggle of juggling a hectic life, in 2006 Meg found an opportunity that has changed her life and career irrevocably. In the days where newspaper ads still had cut-through, Meg responded to a job ad looking for someone with her skills and qualifications and like many of her soon-to-be colleagues, fell into the insurance industry.

“I read a job ad looking for someone who had experience in brand, strategy and communications. I had no idea it was for an insurer, if I’d known I probably would not have applied,” she admits, somewhat sheepishly.

“It was the Marketing Manager role with Ansvar Insurance and the minute I met the team there I knew it was the right place for me.  I was fortunate enough to work with a really talented executive team and being a smaller insurer meant I was exposed to all parts of the business.”

This exposure led to greater opportunity as Meg took on added sales responsibility across the broker and direct markets, as well as product development during a phase of significant growth.

Her experience and knowledge of a diverse and misunderstood industry were critical factors in both her appointment as Marketing and Communications Manager at Austbrokers and her current role at ANZIIF.

Notwithstanding her earlier misgivings, Meg is a staunch advocate for the industry, and feels the prospects for women in insurance are limitless.

“There are so many wonderful opportunities available to women in this industry. In my time I’ve met so many brilliant, inspiring women in insurance, at all levels. A quick look at the diverse members of the Women’s Council is evidence of that,” she says.

But being told there are opportunities and making the most of them are two different things. How can women in the industry take the next step in their career? Meg believes the first step towards a successful career, particularly in a leadership role, is to understand and appreciate what it is to be a woman.

“Embrace all of the qualities that a woman brings to a management role. Don’t try to emulate men’s behaviour in business,” she hints.

“Take every opportunity to learn and develop both technical and soft skills, work hard, find someone trusted who can mentor you.”

Indeed mentors have played a giant role in Meg’s career and now she sees it as her responsibility to mentor others.

“I have had several mentors throughout my career and they still play a role in my life. As a younger woman I didn’t necessarily have the confidence in my own ability and couldn’t gauge accurately if I was doing a good job,” she admits.

“My mentors found me; I didn’t go looking for them. They are all men who are significantly older than me, with amazing life experience and are good at their job. In addition to giving me confidence and helping me develop self-belief, they provided guidance, constructive honest feedback and are still a safe place for me to talk and explore business issues.” 

As if mentoring all of us, she advises us to “judge by deeds, not by words, and really work at being great at developing strategy and be outstanding at implementing it.” But if there was one statement that we simply must take away, it’s to “believe in yourself and love what you are doing.”

“Ultimately, I try to live up to what my sponsor and mentors gave to me (positive actions and behaviours) by supporting others.”

Passionate about nurturing the women’s community in insurance, Meg, the keynote speaker at this year’s Women Succeeding in Business event series, is keen to not only share her insights from a varied and storied career, but to hear first-hand from the industry’s women.

“It has been my privilege to look into the careers of women in insurance. While we have a body of data and some interesting trends, it is enriched by the wonderful comments of a talented and committed group of members across so many countries,” she says excitedly.

“There is a great opportunity to come together to hear the information and explore ways in which we are able to support and promote women in the industry to achieve their full potential.”

As the phone buzzes eagerly once more and the spreadsheet on screen fades to black, she finally relents and answers, but offers one last piece of advice.

“You need to work out what drives you, what makes you want to succeed. It has never been about me or what’s in it for me. My focus has always been on relentless pursuit of the project goals or company strategy. When you achieve it, there is such a great sense of achievement – that’s what drives me.”

“Make sure you enjoy what you do. The most challenging thing in your working life is when the passion for your job goes, for whatever reason, and it feels like a chore to go to work. When an eight hour day feels like an eternity, that’s a clear sign to move on and move to a new challenge.”

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