September 12, 2021

Empathy & Ambition: Can women in leadership have both?

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“You need to be less ambitious.” Emma Pilbeam remembers being told this when she was just a graduate. She never forgot the way the word ‘ambitious’ was said, spat really, like it was a dirty word. But now, many years later, Emma finds herself as the General Manager for Professional Services at Downer, leading a workforce of 450+ people in Downer’s Defence business. 

How did Emma make it this far in her career? By being ruthless and domineering? No. 

Emma is a strong believer in empathetic leadership. We spoke to her about her career at Downer and how she thinks it’s important for more workplaces to see that empathy and ambition don’t have to be mutually exclusive terms. 

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

Jacinda Ardern

A calling to leadership

Moving to Canberra in 2007 from country Victoria, Emma demonstrated her ambition early, studying two degrees at Australian National University. It was her dream to work in defence. She was driven by the nobility it offered, contributing to the protection, and building of our country. While she only worked in the public service for a short while before moving into private industry, she says she has been honored to have spent her whole career in and around the defence sector.

“I was really proud to get my first job in public service. But in industry I realized I could do even more. What we do is still geared towards that support for our country, and everyone in my team are all equally passionate about it as I am. We all know we’re doing something important for Australia.”

Since leaving her public service role, Emma has had several roles, all progressively working her way closer and closer to leadership. In fact, she admits the role she had prior to her current one as General Manager was what she had always thought was her dream job. 

“It was the job I’d always wanted, exactly my sweet spot. But when I got there, I panicked – ‘what am I going to do next? I can’t be here the rest of my life?’ Even though, when I got asked to take the General Manager role, I still wondered if I wanted to leave the role I had always dreamed about. Did I still need more? Since coming into this job, I realized this was where I am my best.” 

Always the most empathetic in the room

There are a lot of expectations to manage when you’re a leader in a position like Emma. She and her team help the Defence Force with many different projects, including when they need to buy a new tank or ship. At last count she had 450 people working under her remit, from all different backgrounds, all with different skill sets, all working to shepherd these projects through technical and political hurdles. 

Some people might think a role like hers requires directive control of every task or conversation. Not so, says Emma. 

“Being aggressive like that makes it hard to hear other people’s voices. What I think is most effective is for leaders to let people be authentic. And this authenticity stretches to myself too. I pride myself on having a high degree of empathy, on often being the most empathetic person in the room. I don’t try and mask it either.” 

Emma goes on to say that listening to people and understanding their point of view has been one of the most important things for her, and how this kind of collaborative leadership has helped her get to where she is. She admits, consensus is never the goal, but instead ensuring everyone knows what goals they are trying to achieve, why, and how they contribute to the bigger picture of the company. 

“It’s about bringing people on the journey along with you. You’re dealing with other human beings, and you never know what’s going on for them. If my team are having difficulties, it’s my job to stop and understand why. It’s really about creating environments where all kinds of people can thrive.”

A successful habit of the ambitious and empathetic

Warnings against ambition for women are thankfully being seen for the folly they are nowadays. And Emma is grateful that the memory of the word being sneered at her as a graduate continues to fade into distant memory. 

“Ambition is hugely important. But often it’s the behaviors around ambition where people go wrong. People aren’t always aware [or care] about how their actions affect the people around them. Empathetic leaders enable opinions to be heard, even if they don’t agree with them. They respectfully challenge what’s being said and done.”

Many people are quick to judge empathy as a touchy-feely skill. But in truth, leadership is ultimately about others. It means inspiring them to take actions beyond their capabilities, leading them in a direction that is compelling and inspiring. And to do this, you need to listen and understand what those capabilities are, and what that person will find compelling and inspiring. This is what has driven Emma’s success at Downer.

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About the Author
Jacynta Clayton’s career started in recruitment advertising and employer branding, working with global clients to create and deploy strategic and creative content. Now she combines her industry experience with the knowledge from her psychology and professional writing degrees to write unique and resounding stories. As a WORK180 storyteller she relishes the opportunity to elevate the voices and experiences of so many amazing people, while also empowering and educating audiences on how to choose a workplace where they can thrive.

Looking for a new opportunity?

Our transparent job board only has vacancies from employers we endorse and lets you see what benefits, policies and perks come with the job. Check out the latest job vacancies with Downer