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Jane Caro on leadership: Don’t ‘toxically fart your baggage all over people’

This piece was originally published by Women's Agenda.

Jane Caro is a name that immediately springs to mind when one thinks of women leaders in Australia. She has had an illustrious career spanning advertising, journalism, lecturing, broadcasting, writing numerous books, and running her own communications consultancy (as well as being a regular contributor to Women’s Agenda).

And yet, Caro would not feel comfortable taking on the label of ‘leader’. “I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of myself as a leader. I think of myself as a person who puts her 2 cents worth in,” she says. “I’ve never been a manager, I’ve never had staff. I’ve never run a department or a company or anything like that. So, I’ve been led. And mostly, I have to say, I’ve been led badly.”

Watching poor leadership in action has helped Caro define what it means to be a good leader, a topic that preoccupies many women who are at the cusp of leadership. Worrying about how they will be perceived in leadership positions is a gendered issue, and as Caro points out, leadership is far less about you than you might think.

“Basically, the fundamental thing about leadership is, it’s not about you being the best in the place. It’s about you creating an environment in which everybody else can be their best.”

Being aware of your weaknesses and strengths is crucial though. “If you don’t know yourself, you’re going to be toxically farting your undealt with baggage all over people. And you won’t know why you’re causing trouble everywhere you go,” Caro says.

As to whether having women in leadership positions actually makes a difference for gender equality, for Caro, there’s no doubt about it.

“We need to have women at decision making tables, because without them, decisions get made that leave women out. A good example of that is the way superannuation was designed. It just failed completely to understand the different way that women’s lives work, and that’s why we now have a generation of women who are very insecure financially in their old age. Because no one took their different working lives into account. And by ‘no one’, I mean, all the men around the table.”

Having started her career in the male-dominated sphere of advertising, Caro has had experience in facing adversity with integrity, and demonstrating resilience, two key traits of a good leader.

“Advertising is a highly competitive industry and it’s full of very insecure, large egoed men who hate being beaten by anybody, but whose secret night time horror is being beaten by a woman. So, unfortunately, if they can keep us out, they happily will. And so far, they have succeeded by and large,” she says.

She survived because she had a natural talent, but it was not an easy road.

“I was good at it, so I delivered, but I could never get promoted, I never got head hunted,” Caro says. “Some individuals helped. But in terms of the industry itself, I could see men around me being nurtured, groomed and promoted and encouraged – that really didn’t happen very much to me.”

“I had to fight for what I got. That’s very uncomfortable in some ways, it’s very unfair. But in other ways it’s quite good, because you develop a lot of strength, and courage and tenacity and resilience. Which you don’t if you’ve been picked as the golden boy, and the way has been smoothed for you.”

Over the years, Caro has seen her peers from the early days in advertising struggle to continue to progress their careers, while she has built an interesting, varied, and successful career of her own.

“It’s a long game. And instant rapid success at an early age is sometimes a really tough thing to navigate. Whereas a long, slow, hard climb, where you have to be stubborn and tenacious and keep going and not let anyone stop you, gives you skills and a kind of toughness that will stand you in good stead in the long run.”

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