Females are dramatically under-represented in the so called C-Suite of Australia’s leading organisations with just 10.7 percent in senior executive positions and only 2 percent of CEO roles held by women.

In March this year, the Business Council of Australia (BCA) launched its C-Suite Project, an initiative aimed at boosting the number of female CEOs and CFOs in the best Australian businesses.

“It sounds like a fantastic idea and I’m interested in hearing more about it,” says Fran Raymond, Chief Financial Officer of the National Health and Medical Research Council. “We need to keep funnelling females through; they need to be training now for those positions in the future.” Raymond oversees an annual $750 million medical grants budget for Australia’s peak health and medical research body.

“I think it’s important to do this mentoring, not only on the basis of who’s ready now but for our potential future female leaders,” she says. “I look at people like Gail Kelly (Westpac CEO) as the trail blazers. Nothing seems beyond their reach or capabilities.”

Raymond has served as CFO in several Commonwealth agencies including the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and IP Australia. The mentoring process is not new to her. She is an active member of Women On Boards - a tireless advocate for improving gender diversity in Australian boardrooms.

“I think mentoring is critical for everybody in their development, be it male or female, it’s important formally and informally, technically and on the leadership front. It’s having the ability to talk to people about different issues and processes that you come across in that role.”

Raymond says the C-Suite Project, and a similar year-long initiative launched by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) in April, are vital.  “I don’t think women are particularly good at self promotion and networking in the right context. By context I mean the right group of people who can help you identify opportunities to go forward,” she says. “It can also be that some women don’t want to ‘play that game’. I guess women tend to act differently in that they decide they don’t want to be so aggressive in the board meetings and many consciously choose not to go there.”

C-Suite is a 12-month pilot scheme the BCA is running in partnership with the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI), targeting Australia’s high-potential corporate women with the aim of pipelining more of them to the top.

“Basically we are trying to formalise things that have acted informally to the benefit of men but haven’t been available to women, and that was what my research showed from speaking with 50 HR directors across our top companies” says AHRI National President, Peter Wilson. “Mentoring has happened for men informally through discussions at the golf club or over a beer at the pub and so many CEO and CFO roles, particularly in engineering and finance, tend to be male dominated, but that is slowly changing. The program is targeting the biggest difficulty - the final step.”

“I think this is a fantastic idea,” says Village Roadshow CFO, Julie Raffe. “Companies need to spend more time in identifying who are the future stars in their organisation and work with them in developing their potential.”

Today the role of the CFO is all encompassing. It is not only responsible for the financial governance of corporations but also demands accountability for the strategic and operational performance. Nobody understands this more than Raffe, whose 10-year career as Village Roadshow Limited’s CFO has evolved to include Group Operations, IT and HR responsibilities.

“The ability to add value to the business is a great attraction for me,” she says. “I prefer to be across all aspects of the business rather than focused on one particular area. The role of CFO has great breadth and continues to evolve, there's never time to get bored. There are only a handful of female CFOs in Australia and some women may find the role intrudes too much into their family arrangements or simply aren't in circumstances where they can dedicate themselves to the role. It’s a full time career and usually requires long hours and travel. In partnership with the CEO, the CFO has to be accessible at all times.”

Raffe is clearly a fan of mentoring; she is also Vice President of Finance Executives International, a networking group consisting of CFOs from all over Australia.
“Mentoring is very important both in and outside of the employer company,” she says. “It’s important to get a perspective of how you are perceived within the company and to be able to bounce ideas around openly. This is particularly true when you are still learning about the business and the culture. Within Village Roadshow I had a very strong mentor in the Chief Operations Officer, Peter Foo. I worked closely with Peter for nearly 20 years and learnt a lot from him.”

AMA Queensland Chief Executive Officer, Jane Schmitt, says she has had mentors all her life, some of them less senior colleagues and others taking on the role without even knowing it.

“I think that goes right back to my mother. I remember when I was a kid that she would put up little motivating comments in my room. She’d stick them up on a corkboard and change them every month or two. I have always really appreciated those and they have stuck with me all my life,” says Schmitt.

“The messages that stuck most were mainly about drive. That you have to accept some of the mistakes in your life and realize that it is all part of the deal. To be driven is a great thing. It is very exciting not knowing what is going to come next. No matter how much you plan there are things that make you go, ‘wow,’ I didn’t expect things to happen that way.”

Schmitt says there is no set CEO rule book but acknowledges mentoring has been extremely beneficial during the changing stages of her career.
“One of the things I have learnt from mentors over the years is that you have to accept that you don’t know everything and you never will know everything,” she says.
“I have learnt not to look too far forward or too far back. At some stage during your day, try to be as much as you can in the present. You may not see a staff member every day but when you get to spend 10 or 15 minutes with that staff member, just let them know that you are listening and you are present with them rather than being on the computer typing or looking at your iPhone. When you utilise your time a bit better you find you are not doubling up.”

Schmitt is about to take on a mentoring role herself. “I think it is selfish not to, because there is a lot of experience and tips that I can pass on. There are also things I can learn from that next generation that assist me and my workplace and my decisions in life.”