Like most of us, Suzi Russell has suffered her fair share of ‘imposter syndrome’ at times — that is, the questioning of her own abilities — but she’s never let it stand in the way of grabbing an opportunity.
She was appointed a PwC partner at the age of just 33, jumping across from Deloitte to take on the new role. While she experienced some self-doubt at the time, it never stopped her from stepping into the unknown.
“I’ve always been of that mentality that you don’t hesitate when opportunities come up,” she says. “I always felt in performance review discussions that I should say, ‘Yes, I’m ready to move up’, even though I may not have personally believed it!”
Since joining PwC four years ago, she’s had her first child, taken a six-month career break and learnt a few new lessons about juggling full time work with motherhood. All while undertaking some significant work within her practice, including the privatisation of NSW electricity assets. She’s also the executive sponsor of the firm’s network for ‘gays, lesbians and everyone else’, GLEE@PwC, which saw the firm take top honours at the Pride in Diversity awards last year.
Russell took six months off after having her first child (now almost two), returning to work while her partner then commenced a period of parental leave.
With the two now back at work, Russell says she’s on the way to mastering the art of juggling work with being a mum. She’s found new hours in the morning, with her daughter up at 5am.
“I have a whole part of my day I never knew existed. There’s no more easing in to my day once I arrive at work. I’m on the phone in the car, managing things before I get to the office. You just become more efficient with kids.” But managing childcare is a serious logistical exercise – one parent does the drop off, the other the pickup, and the car is left in an office car park in between.
Russell says she’s found strategies to help. Her PA never schedules a meeting before 9am. And while she might personally feel like she’s “sneaking off” to pick up her daughter from day care of an afternoon, she notices plenty of other male partners in the car park doing exactly the same thing.
“There’s a bit of getting over yourself involved,” she says. “But now that I have a baby, I’ve really started to notice how my clients too are managing work with children. You see them also logging on at night. People don’t always expect a response by 5pm, and they won’t assume you’re working late just because you send an email at 8pm.”
She believes more women should take some “strategic space” and reconsider the idea that everything has to be done at once. “It’s just taking a little more time, especially juggling work and a baby at home,” she says. “Sometimes you need to take a breather and leave some tasks for later. Often you find people from your team will step up and help you and you’re pleasantly surprised.”
Soon, the Sydney office of PwC will move to ‘activity-based working’ meaning separate and assigned offices will disappear, and employees will be required to pack up their space when they leave the office. Russell believes this will make it easier for people to work the hours that work for them. “If you don’t have an allocated desk, there’s no guilt about what time you leave,” she says. “It’s actually endorsing the desire for people to be working with clients, working from home, working from a cafe.” PwC’s Canberra and Perth offices are already operating this way.
Russell arrived in Australia through a secondment with the now defunct Arthur Andersen. She studied at the University of Exeter in the UK and says she applied for a graduate position with Andersen simply because her “housemates were going through the application process at the time”. Andersen later went down off the back of the Enron collapse: a lesson for Russell on preparing for the unexpected.
She believes there’s a tipping point for professional services firms when it comes to women in leadership, and it’s on the way. “The more women you have, the more you can change the personality of an organisation. It’s hard to see women’s issues if you’re made up of blokes.”
A supportive employer helps. “PwC has been brilliant. They have forward thinking policies in place and supported me being in a gay relationship. I’ve never felt any animosity and never felt anyone’s been chosen over me.”
She’s especially proud of what they’ve achieved with GLEE@PwC, given it’s allowed the firm to branch into new forms of external networking unlike anything they’ve done before. “That was a real achievement for the organisation. We’re taking PwC on a diversity journey and we’re achieving some great things,” she says. “These events can really connect the top end of town in a new way.”
Currently on the board of the National Stillbirth Foundation, Russell is considering the idea of a portfolio board career in the distant future. She says boards remind you of the diversity of life, and prove just how appreciated your skills and expertise can be.
But in the meantime, she’s at her most confident and happy while busy on a large project. “When you see everything just humming,” she says.
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