At just 28, Nicole Swaine had completed an MBA and was appointed CEO of SCOSA, overseeing 200 staff. We catch up with the 2013 South Australian Businesswoman of the Year to talk about how she has achieved corporate success.
Being so young and being a woman, what sort of challenges did that present as a CEO?
I was pretty fortunate. The fact that I got the gig and all through my career I’ve had people appoint me because of merit and what I had done. In saying that it also took some very strong mentors and champions for me. It wasn’t just my voice, I had other people saying what I was capable of. Without those mentors and champions I don’t know how that would have gone. I just stepped down from being the national president of the YWCA so I’ve definitely been an advocate for women in leadership roles and I think for me it was really important to lead by example, where perhaps other people might not have put their hand up out of fear. I also had great networks around me so when there were hurdles – and there were hurdles and it did challenge people’s perceptions of what a CEO should be – having those networks to go back to when things were put in my way was very important. It was a risk putting my hand up for that job but you’ve got to be in it. I have faced adversity in my career and I really want to help other women in that space. In 2015 I did a placement at the UN in New York with the Commissioner for the Status of Women and that changed my view again. Looking at the issues on a local scale and then taking it to an international level was one of the most amazing professional and personal experiences I’ve had. But it was confronting as well on the international level to see the amount of room we have to grow.
What are you doing now?
I started my consulting business Explore Potential after I left SCOSA in 2014. We consult primarily around strategy and facilitation. We also do work around governance with boards. I connect strategy to people and then bring that strategy to life.
I always had a real interest in starting my own business and I was looking for a change. I set a goal that I wanted to create a job rather than take a job and then my goal was to create jobs for others, which I am now able to do.
I also do a bit of teaching in marketing at the University of Adelaide and I am also doing a contract with the State Government to help develop a Volunteering Strategy.
What are your business goals?
To grow the business, to employ more people and work with a broader range of clients. We’ve just started to do some work interstate and I’d love to expand it into a South Australian business that goes national. That would be a wonderful thing to achieve. One of the things I really set out to do in business was not just about the kind of work I wanted to do but who I wanted to work with. That’s really important to me. I really want to work with smart innovative people who are doing great things in their business.
What were the big differences you found between working for a multinational and not-for-profit?
For me it was the connection to purpose. Working for a not-for-profit, the reason why we do what we do was with us every day. Working with people with disabilities and their families is an amazing privilege. To know that you are having a positive impact on someone’s life or helping them experience things that they otherwise might not is incredibly rewarding. The other thing is the people who are attracted to work there. It brings people with like-minded values to work in the organisation, which is a really special thing. In fact, I met my husband at SCOSA and we now have a 16-month-old daughter. You don’t have big budgets, which is a challenge but the positive side is that it makes people creative in what they do, which is how a lot of businesses operate now out of necessity.
How did completing an MBA help progress your career?
It’s two-fold. The technical toolkit you walk away with and the skills that you can apply and the models and the rigour you can bring to the workplace is one part. The other side was the contacts that I made. Some of my best friends are from the MBA and some of my best clients in business are from my MBA. I graduated from the MBA program in 2009 and I think the MBA and my board experience had a lot to do with my success in getting the CEO role.
With a background in Human Resources, what sort of skill sets did you really need to brush up on to make the transition to CEO.
Marketing was a huge part of it and also the financial acumen. They would be the two biggest things and probably the third would be strategy and that really helped a lot.
What are some of the boards you have been on?
I have been on seven boards all together. At the moment I’m on the Special Olympics Australia board, back into the disability sector. It is an amazing organisation and Adelaide has just won the right to host the national games in 2018, which is great. I was also on the YWCA board for seven years and have just stepped down as president two weeks ago.
My first board position was while I was doing the MBA and it was at Camden Community Centre and I really learnt a lot.
In 2013 you were named Telstra Businesswoman of the Year, what was that experience like?
It was amazing recognition. When I was nominated and went through the process what was important for me was to shine a light on the fact that there is business acumen and skills required in the not-for-profit sector. It is a business, the sole purpose might not be to make a profit but it’s also not-for-loss. Not-for-profit really is one of the most competitive sectors in Australia and I wanted to show that is isn’t a soft place to land, you do need business skills. Winning a business award helped me to do that and it was great to be able to share it with the team.
Six years has passed since you were appointed CEO at SCOSA, do you think some of the barriers to women being successful at the very highest levels of business are reducing?
My story isn’t the most common story and I think that’s a shame. I think the barriers are still there. The stats show there is a shift but is it enough? No. Is it happening fast enough? No. People being active in appointing females to various positions is part of it but also the females need to have the confidence to say ‘I am capable of doing this’ and investing in their own education.
How did your career begin?
I studied a Bachelor of Employee Relations University of South Australia.
I then went into the graduate program at Mitsubishi Motors and was there for about 18 months. I was there when they did the first round of voluntary redundancies for the shutdown of the Lonsdale plant.
After that my position was wound up as well.
When I left university my goal was to get some experience with a multinational, which I got and it opened my eyes to a lot of things. At the end of that position and with the challenges that were there I was looking for something different. I had an interest in the not-for-profit sector and thought it was something that I’d like to try so I joined SCOSA on a three-month contract in HR and I stayed there for 10 years. In that 10 years I became General Manager of Workplace Planning. My CEO at the time was a great mentor to me and said ‘what if you were to transition into the CEO role and what would that take’.
There were a few things at that point and one of them was operational experience. So in 2007 I applied and was appointed to General Manager Client Services at SCOSA overseeing all of the operations. At the same time I went back to uni and started my MBA at the University of Adelaide – I was wanting to round out my experience into general management from HR. It was about making me successful in the general management role but also trying to one day be a suitable candidate for the CEO role. I was in that role from 2007 to 2010 and at the same time I also joined some boards to get some experience. In 2010 the CEO sent in her resignation and after a national recruitment search I was very fortunate to be appointed in March 2010.
When I was appointed to the CEO role I was 28, so that was unusual for any organisation at that point in time. I was in the role for four years and loved it. We did a lot of work on raising awareness of people living with disabilities and did a lot of really fun things to do that. At the end of the four years I was looking for my next challenge so I decided to set up my own consulting business.