Receptionist to CEO - Not an Urban Myth!
“Life is about problems.” Kay Neill sips her wine, sitting on one of those pleather square ottomans. We’re at the Hilton hotel - not the one in town, where you may expect to meet a CEO, but nope. It’s the local one on South Rd. “This is what we do at CHG – we solve very complex problems. And we work together as a team to do this.”
‘We’ is something Kay refers to many times throughout our conversation. Let’s face it, many companies claim that their work culture ‘feels like family’ – but with Kay, she has the decades to back it up. When Kay makes references to her work colleagues as close relatives, I actually believe her.
It makes sense though, because over the next hour I hear about Kay’s incredible story, where she starts as a receptionist and is now the Chief Executive Officer, overseeing 200 employees across more than 20 locations around Australia. Kay explains that Corporate Health Group (CHG) has seen her through marriage, university, IVF and maternity leave, a marriage breakdown and the other roller-coaster swirls that come with life.
Don’t worry – I didn’t get so carried away that I forgot to ask the really important stuff.
Like, “How the hell did you do this?” (Okay, I might not have said ‘hell’. After all, I was trying to impress her. It’s a freezing Wednesday night and we’re surrounded by families and what looks to be a football fan club. This woman has no ego and I’m too nervous to sip my soda water.)
“Two words, Say Yes.”
Kay explains this is not only a company motto, but a value held so highly at CHG it’s a part of their ‘Living Brand’. These are a series of behaviours that demonstrate the company values. Things like ‘Own up if you do something wrong’ and ‘Collaborate with other’.
Ahhh so many questions! My brain is in overdrive, I really want to ask the right questions, so decide to ask more about the early stuff first.
How was she consistently promoted? Did this impact relationships with her team members? What about taking time out for family? How did she squeeze a uni degree in there?
Kay explains that she applied for various roles despite not feeling qualified or ready. She just went for it! The moxie! Her intention was never set out to become CEO (sounds a lot like our HFM bff, Indra Nooyi*). She explains that as opportunities opened, she dove in, despite the discomfort of failure. It wasn’t all rainbows and gravy- but tough and gritty. Like the time Kay, along with all her peers, applied to be the new Finance Manager. Kay got the role over her teammates. (Awkies!) It was contentious and uncomfortable.
Remember, Dear Readers, that this was in the 90s! When women in the workforce was way harder than it is today. Especially when you think about the judgement of having a baby in childcare, making business deals on maternity leave and going back to work only 3 months after the birth of her son. Imagine the other mothers bitching at children’s birthday parties!
And uni too?! What the? Where does that fit in?!
Kay studied her business degree by correspondence. Those born post-Y2K, do you know what this means?! OMG. HEADACHE. There were no Zoom meetings, no Watsapp or email communication – this was old-school style (lol, get it?). Kay would get all her uni work sent to her in a big stack of books and readings, and then proceeded to handwrite her assessments to be sent off snail-mail to the teacher. She did this whilst working fulltime in management, juggling a husband and a child. (Let’s hope there weren’t any dreaded Group Assignments! Imagine!)
Kay encourages women to apply for everything and figure out the logistics afterwards; “There’s no place to be passive if you want to achieve.”
One thing that’s evident – Kay sure is a go-getter! “Don’t worry if you don’t know how you’ll do it. People will always help you, your network, your support system.” Great advice. (Sounds like that Richard Branson quote?)
Let’s circle back to the company culture. How does Kay support this feeling of family and connectedness within the organisation? No easy feat in 2018.
“I have an open-door policy. Anyone can visit me in my office and share ideas. Even the new staff, which is great, as new people in an organisation often see things you don’t see.”
Not every company likes a fresh perspective; this is refreshing to hear from a CEO! I think we’ve all been in places where we want to share an idea but are way too scared. Simply knowing we have to go through fifty-shades-of-red-tape is enough to make us not bother and go eat a cupcake instead. But at CHG they like to hear ideas, especially if they bring out opposing points of view.
Kay talks about healthy conflict when working through issues. She explains that you can’t be scared to disagree or share your opinion, or nobody wins!
What else? Well, the chairman, John Wyett, often gets other people’s coffees. At Christmas-time the CHG employees submitted their favourite recipes for a company cookbook that was made and then distributed throughout the country. Sounds cosy, really. I imagine a stone cottage with a wood fire and a boiling kettle in the corner.
But how is this workplace culture impacted with staff spread all around Australia? (The digital age is here, girlfriends!)
“Geographical location doesn’t dictate engagement.” It seems that CHG have found a way to beat one of the major concerns within organisations in the Future of Work. “We find some of our greatest buy-in comes from the team members further away.” Hmm.. so it really is about attitude, not distance. Good to know.
Kay ensures that the team at CHG are treated as individuals, people who develop and grow with the organisation. She mentions the importance of language and how this is used to set the tone. “Behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept.”, a well-known quote, slightly tweaked. “No role is independent- everyone is important and contribute to the end game so we all rely on each other and are inter-related.”
I’m in awe of this woman, who appears to be sharp as a knife but humble as a granny-smith pie. She’s elegant, down to earth and extremely present and looks firmly into my eyes as we speak.
I ask her for advice for HFM women. How can we put our best foot forward with our careers?
1) “Continue your professional development. It doesn’t need to be expensive. Read books, listen to podcasts, network. Things like HFM are so important.”
(Yes, she mentioned HFM! How exciting!) And, thank goodness she didn’t say some big expensive 5-day seminar in country Victoria… amiright? Kay is currently reading Mark Manson’s ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ – you can borrow this for free at the library! Weeee!
2) “Be brave.”
Hmm. Sounds like a that pop-song. But in reality – this is effing hard to do in the moment. Let’s discuss what being 'brave' actually looks like another time. Because I’m pretty sure that in the moment, being brave feels shit. It’s only later we get accolades and say, ‘Yay I did it’.
3) “Pick the brains of the people you are surrounded by.”
As a ‘Questioner’ (according to Gretchen Rubin) – I’m in love with this tip. I am of the belief there are multiple moving parts here. We need to ask the right questions, to the right people, at the right time and also be in the right headspace to actually hear the answer. More on this bamboozle another day because I could go on and on about the beauty of questions.
Alrighty Kay, – what is the NUMBER ONE SKILL needed for our professional futures? Hit us with the BIG SUPER DOOPER NUGGET OF AWESOME…
4) “Listen to comprehend, not listen to respond.”
Kay insists we quieten our internal chatter, be present in the moment and really think if our response is providing any value.
Such wisdom in the influx of information we have flying by – emails, texts and of course tweets and other social media. It’s sometimes forgotten that when conversing in face-to-face interactions, possibly our best response is indeed silence.
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*I’ve decided that since I wrote about Indra Nooyi, she is now our HFM bestie. If you ever are lucky enough to meet Indz, give her a high-5 and a wink. She’ll know what it means.