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How I Got Here - Jo McKennariey

Updated: May 13, 2021

This month I caught up with Jo McKennariey, a woman whose career has seen her sit at the executive table and specialise in transformation across culture and corporate reputation.

When I first saw Jo’s LinkedIn profile I’ll admit, I was intimidated! When you meet Jo however, she is open, warm and engaging. This ‘How I Got Here’ chat is particularly special as Jo really opens up and shares the good times, the tough times, is self-reflecting and gives us hope. I’m so grateful that Jo was vulnerable in sharing her experiences so that others can learn from hers. Happy reading!

What is your job/career focus and how does it fulfil you?

Since I was a young girl, I always wanted to do a job that made a difference to people’s lives, that helped them, that had a positive impact on them. When I was still at school the career options that I was considering were varied, from psychologist, to human rights to lawyer, to first female prime minister! I ended up studying political science and industrial relations and then spent the first part of my career working for Members of Parliament helping constituents in the community and then Trade Unions fighting for fair pay and conditions for those workers who did not have a voice. My passion for helping employees feel connected and appreciated at work where they can bring their true selves to work and do their best work was ignited and in the second part of my career. I worked for businesses doing various human resources roles where I believed if I worked for the ‘bosses’, I could influence decision making, people-centric decisions. The third part of my career so far has been spent in executive/senior leadership roles where my focus has been on creating the best environment for my team so that they can connect and perform.

I am currently between roles – ‘unfortunately’ my role was made redundant end of last year due to restructure. I say unfortunately in inverted commas because that is how I felt at the time of being displaced. The company’s decision absolutely shook my confidence – I had worked so hard since the start of the pandemic, working longs hours and most weekends, juggling my BAU role whilst doing a project lead role on a company-wide transformation program, short-staffed and unable to hire due to budget pressures, and supporting my team as they grappled with lockdown issues such as home schooling, physical and mental health issues, relationship strain, and/or loneliness from living alone. I felt blind sighted, and it felt unjust, and I started to question what my skills were and the value I had to bring to any future role. I questioned my decision to work so hard at great personal sacrifice and toll, and I questioned my ability to be able to find the next role that would be right for me.

It has been during my sabbatical over of the last two months that I realised the redundancy was a blessing. I was able to see that I wasn’t doing a role in a company that was true to my north star of making a difference to people’s lives and I wasn’t able to bring my true self to work and do my best work. So, my focus now is finding my next role where I can be connected to the purpose of the company, where the work brings me personal meaning (my north star) and working in an organisation where the people value mutual respect, connection and appreciation.

Whilst I’m looking, I have plenty of other things to keep me busy! I’m a Non-Executive Director for RSPCA QLD (animal welfare is my other passion) where I am a Board member, a member of the Animal Welfare & Ethics Committee and I chair the Community Engagement Committee. I am also using the time to learn new things. I’m catching up on my reading from my stack of HBR and Company Director magazines that I’ve haven’t got to in the last year to books sitting on my shelf (my favourite book at the moment is ‘Mentally at Work’ by Genevieve Hawkins which is about optimising health and business performance through connection). I’ve started a short online course with INSEAD Executive Development on ‘Design Thinking and Creativity for Business’ which is about uncovering innovation opportunities by looking at problems and situations with a user-centric mindset. I’m also involved with a group of talented and inspiring women called ‘Leaders of Tomorrow’ affiliated with International Women’s Forum Australia where we are organising development and networking events for our group.

What career decisions and experience led you to where you are today?

There are three key things that have always guided my career decisions……sometimes these have led to great decisions, other times it hasn’t turned out as I would have liked it, but nevertheless, I always stay true to these things as they reflect my values and what is meaningful to me in what I do (my north star again!):

  1. Does this role/opportunity/organisation spark my curiosity? Will I learn something new either because it’s a role outside of my core discipline or it’s an industry/sector I haven’t worked in before? For me curiosity is everything and it’s not just about learning new skills or new information. Curiosity is food for the brain as it builds connection and empathy, it helps you embrace the uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and it changes your mindset to think what is possible or what can change. As an example, four years ago I was given the opportunity to take on an executive corporate affairs role – I initially thought to myself ‘I don’t have the skills or experience to do this role’ and ‘Corporate Affairs, isn’t that just about managing media and writing comms?’ But I was curious, curious to find out more about it, curious to identify the opportunity and curious that my leader saw something in me to back me for the opportunity. This role turned out to be the most rewarding of my career to date – not only did I learn new skills, but I was able to shape the portfolio to also focus on social investment where we did some amazing work to help victims of domestic violence become financially independent.

  2. The power of conversations and networks cannot be underestimated. Humans are innately social creatures and wired for connection – when you connect with someone, it’s the way you make them feel (the emotion) that determines how they respond to you and what they may or may not do with/for you. I am one of those people highly wired to connection! And it’s been my focus on building connected and mutually respectful relationships that have led to the majority of role opportunities in my career to date. In fact, the only roles I can remember applying for (i.e. where I wasn’t approached) were back 15 years ago in my public sector days. And the great thing is these connections have not just resulted in job referrals, but mentoring, advice, and beautiful friendships.

  3. The third thing that has guided my career decisions is impact and what I mean by this is, does this organisation or team have a BHAG or is there a big problem to solve? The other thing about me is I’m a bit of a fixer and I love a challenge and I get no greater satisfaction from having impact through helping the organisation or team achieve a goal or solve a problem. This has led me to take on transformational type roles or to take on project secondments and has given me exposure and experience to many other parts of the business outside of my functional discipline.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give someone wanting to end up where you have?

Roll the dice!!! Be curious and open to roles and opportunities that don’t necessarily follow the traditional career path – be prepared to take risks and jump in with both feet. We all have the self-doubt lizard on our shoulder that says you can’t do that, you don’t have the experience, or you’re not as good as someone else but you must try and keep it in check as it can be paralysing. I’ve taken a number of risks in my career where I’ve had to brush the lizard off and back myself. Sometimes it has paid off and other times it hasn’t, but even in the times where it hasn’t, I’ve learnt a tremendous amount along the way about myself, what work brings me meaning and what my tribe looks like. One of my favourite quotes is “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”

Recently I was at a health retreat taking some time to recharge, reflect and detox (I enjoy my food and wine!!). One morning on a hike, I got talking to one of the other guests. I wasn’t there to talk career/work but as these ‘getting to know you’ conversations always go, he asked me what I did, and I explained I was in between jobs. It turned out that he was looking for someone to help him out and my HR and corporate affairs skills were just what he needed. Fast forward and I’ve now started a contract role with him to assist on a new project which is ticking all the boxes in what I’d identified as my ideal role. Right now, the destination is not important, I’m curious about the journey so I’m rolling the dice and jumping in with both feet, who knows where it may go!

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