When Libby White jumped on the back of a motorbike in the ‘80s to join Alcoa in Western Australia, it was supposed to be the first stop on an adventure around Australia. Instead, she was embarking on a 30-year adventure with the global aluminium industry leader.
Throughout her career at Alcoa, Libby has worked across finance, operations and human resources, in both Australia and overseas, and considers herself extremely fortunate to have enjoyed the opportunities she’s had. Having just retired from her role as Director of Compensation and Benefits Australia, Europe and Asia, she shares some of the most pivotal career lessons she’s learnt along the way.
How to adapt to change
One of Libby’s earliest learnings was the importance of embracing change. In her mid-20s, she was working as a taxation accountant in Melbourne and on track to becoming a partner at the firm – life was great.
“But I met my future husband and he encouraged me to have an adventure, travelling and working. That’s how I came to join Alcoa in the West as an accountant,” Libby said.
This was to be Libby’s first taste of change.
“To leave everything I had behind was a bold but smart move, as it taught me early how to deal with change, which made it easier from there on,” she said.
Quite often we feel there's just the one career path for us, which is the area we study, but that’s not the case.
"I only intended to stay at Alcoa for six months, but I was given these great opportunities I never dreamt of doing as an accountant – such as being a business advisor to help set up the Portland Smelter in Victoria – and that made me stay.”
5 tips to strategically navigate your career
- Know what it is you enjoy doing – ”Reflect on the type of work you find enjoyable because that makes career decisions much easier. And if it’s not going to light your fire, don’t say yes, even if it’s a promotion.”
- Embrace opportunity – ”Sometimes people see in you what you don't see in yourself, so it’s important to keep an open mind and be willing to try new experiences.”
- Don’t feel you need to know it all – ”You don't have to be an expert to go into a job. It’s ok to learn on the job and utilise the experts, people will help you along the way. You just need to have the right attitude and invest the time to learn.”
- Be prepared for crossroads – “Don't rush and regret those career crossroads. Think about whether you would be willing to relocate for a job or go into another field, and how you might adapt to that. This helps you respond when the crossroad appears because often you don’t know they're coming.”
- Focus on the future – ”Once you’ve made a career decision, move on. If you don’t feel it was the right path, don’t dwell on it, just consider it a learning.”
Working overseas with a young family
In 2002, Libby was given an opportunity to lead a project implementing a new system within Alcoa’s global head office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States.
It was very exciting to be offered an expat opportunity and it was a wonderful experience, where I made incredible memories and lifelong friends. I also learnt a lot about the culture of our head office and built strong relationships, which really benefited me in the years ahead with the company.
Although the experience didn’t come without challenges.
“Moving a young family [her kids were 4 and 7 at the time] was challenging and I travelled a lot for the role. But one smart thing we did was move into a family-friendly area and that made a big difference.”
Finding an employer that supports you in work and life
Another reason Libby has stayed with Alcoa for all this time is that they’ve supported her personally, as well as professionally.
“I’ve gone through a whole lifecycle with the company, from getting engaged and married to having children, getting divorced and becoming a single parent. I was able to do that and have a very successful career because of Alcoa’s policies. I’m very grateful for that,” she said.
When it comes to raising a family, Libby has three pieces of advice for young women:
- If you choose to have children, have them when it makes sense for you, not when you feel it's the right time for work, because it'll never be the right time.
- Work for good companies that support their employees in work and life, with the right policies, such as flexibility and parental leave.
- When you take on more senior positions, don't feel you need to sacrifice your life to do the job, keep making time for yourself and your family.
Alcoa is committed to supporting women on many fronts, explains Libby, who’s been actively involved in the organisation’s women’s network over the years.
“We have a real focus on appointing women into all our roles, going the extra mile to find and encourage women to apply for positions and offering them training experiences,” she said.
Giving back to the community
After a big career and lots of work-related travel [Russia, Iceland and Brazil are just some of the places she’s visited], Libby is excited to embark on her next adventure: retirement. She’s looking forward to spending more time on community-based work at United Way WA and her hobbies cooking, learning French and Sega dancing.
“My parents were active volunteers, so contributing to the community has always been part of my life, from my childhood and through my career, with Alcoa supporting me in a number of volunteering efforts over the years. I’m looking forward to doing more of that and giving back to the community after having had such a fortunate career.”
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