Announcing a pregnancy to your boss can be nerve-racking. Going for a senior management position while heavily pregnant is a whole new level of unknowns. But not for Alison Coutts who works as a Director at Ernst & Young, Australia (EY Australia). She was promoted to Director just weeks after giving birth. In our conversation, she counts a supportive family, team, and organisation as the key to her thriving career at EY. She also shares with us the importance of setting boundaries and the power of saying ‘no.’
A pregnancy and a promotion
I was promoted while on parental leave. I had my baby, Harvey, in July 2019 and was promoted in October.
With confidence and conviction, Alison presented an impressive business case which clearly showed she was the best fit for the role.
“I applied for the Director position and was thrilled to even be considered. I always saw highly experienced people in leadership, but never imagined myself stepping into the role. I worked hard and knew my contribution at EY was valued. This gave me the confidence to present my business case to the Partners and HR, while I was heavily pregnant with my second child.”
Alison’s career success is a result of her tenacity, seeking advice and mentorship from many people; and this helped shape belief in herself. We asked Alison what helped her the most, and she shared:
- Having a career counsellor. “I sought advice from my career counsellor within the EY organization on a fortnightly basis.”
- Having sponsors. “One of the Partners at the EY member firm worked with me to develop my business case for promotion to Director.”
- Leadership programs. “I was lucky enough to go on EY’s senior manager program, Accelerate. As a part of the program, I was matched with a Sponsoring Partner outside of my immediate team to work on my brand, emotional intelligence and networking skills.”
- The mindset to just go for it. “Self-belief and confidence are not easy. There are some moments where I experienced self-doubt and imposter syndrome, but my network believed in me and what I was capable of, so I decided to just give it a go.”
A whole new perspective
It’s true that having children changes many things and for Alison, it was her overall perspective on her career and prioritising the more important stuff.
My outlook has changed since having kids. As I don’t have infinite capacity and I’m short of time, I try to take a macro view of my workload, so I can work ‘smarter’.
While it’s easy to get caught up in our long to-do lists, Alison sets clear boundaries and believes in the power of saying ‘no’.
“I was clear on the non-negotiables and what’s important to me is that I am fully present with my children. I want to be there while they are growing up. I used to have difficulty saying no, but over time I was able to develop a filter system where I ask myself ‘does it need to be done now? Is this part of my job? Does this help my team? Is it aligned to my purpose?’ At times, it’s hard to say no, but there’s only so much you can do in a day.”
It takes a village
Alison is grateful for her husband and the support of their families.
“I’m fortunate enough to have family support. My eldest, Max, will start pre-school soon. The grandparents look after Harvey. They love spending time with them both, and my boys are so close to their grandparents.”
We asked Alison about workplace flexibility at EY.
EY does a lot around flexible working. Most people are working remotely now and people are even more conscious of individuals and family circumstances. I’ve also had supportive Partners who are interested in me as a person and exploring ways to make flexible working actually work.
Be clear about your career goals
EY has always been supportive of Alison’s career goals and ambitions. She loves the culture, as well.
“The EY organisation has been supportive in helping me pursue my focus areas and have always believed in my capabilities. I now work in Business Consulting, in the Business Transformation team. We work with clients to help them achieve their business priorities, particularly in customer strategy and service design.”
There is no hierarchy, it’s truly a cross-disciplinary team. We are all colleagues and I have genuine friends at work. The nature of the work we do means we can work with anyone depending on the project.
A fascination with the brain
Alison has a love of learning and is currently studying a Graduate Diploma in Psychology, which she picked up while on parental leave.
“I started studying when I had Harvey and have two subjects to go. I’m passionate about customer-centric projects. I’m intrigued by the human brain and people’s decision making. I have a real sense of what’s right and wrong and I’m interested in how organisations will ethically use their data to provide better outcomes for customers.”
We ended our conversation with Alison sharing her top three tips for career success. They were:
- Be authentic with yourself and others and know that you are enough. “It took me a long time to be comfortable [with being myself]. Being authentic is important to me. I’m introverted and I use that to my advantage. I will process things and make well-considered decisions.”
- Know your non-negotiables. “Understand what is important to you at home and work. Make it an exercise to set boundaries and get better at it. Don’t feel forced into anything because you will resent it.”
- Have flexible work. “Role model flexibility for others. I was the second person in my team to work part-time. Now there are a lot more. I set an example by not sending emails late at night and not responding on my days off.
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The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not Ernst & Young. This article provides general information, does not constitute advice and should not be relied on as such. Professional advice should be sought prior to any action being taken in reliance on any of the information. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.
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