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From Sportsgirl to Superwoman

Colleen Callander might be best known as the former CEO of Sportsgirl and Sussan, but she’s now starting an exciting new chapter in her career, with a book, Leader by Design and a mentorship program. She talks to Susan Armstrong about empathy, optimism and a new era of leadership.

Colleen Callander

Speaking to Colleen Callander feels strikingly like hanging out with a close friend, as well as interviewing a compelling voice from corporate Australia. As we connect over the medium of Zoom, her optimistic and sparkling energy permeates the airwaves as the conversation spans from reminiscing about earliest childhood memories to lamenting the lack of authenticity and kindness at a leadership level. It’s hard not to feel energised and inspired by her.

This could be, in part, because of her impressive array of credentials and the new chapter (and book) in her career that we are here to discuss. As the former CEO of Sportsgirl and Sussan, a position she proudly and successfully held for 13 years, as well as three decades of experience in retail, Colleen is a fashion industry icon.

She’s also a kind and compassionate leader, someone that people, she proudly admits, “have chosen to follow”. It makes complete sense then, that now, in this new chapter of her career – Colleen left Sportsgirl last year – she’s launched a mentorship program, Mentor Me, and has just released her first book Leader by Design.

The book is something of an autobiography, charting Colleen’s life journey – from leaving school at 16 to becoming CEO of two of Australia’s most iconic fashion brands and “everything in between” – and how her upbringing shaped her into the leader she is today.

“I was always intrigued, from a very young age, about behaviour, both good and bad: why some people treated those around them with respect and kindness, while others would step on people for their own gain, and what made some people kind and made others cruel,” she muses.

“I had this real fascination with how people behaved. When I look back on that and my whole career, I was shaping the leader that I wanted to be and the leader I wanted to follow. I listened and I learned. I asked questions. I was becoming a leader by design.”

She was also, even if she didn’t know it at the time, becoming an author by design, and during Christmas 2019, she put fingertips to keyboard and began her book, a bucket-list-entry-turned-passion-project-turned-new-chapter in her career.

“For me, it was about how I can inspire, empower and impact as many women as I can,” she shares. “It’s what I did in my role as CEO and now, in this next chapter, my purpose is no different – it’s exactly the same – I’m just finding new ways to do it through the book and through mentoring.”

In just under a month Leader by Design was born; a cathartic, emotional, joyous experience. “I just locked myself away and went hard writing the book. I’m all or nothing. I don’t have any grey at all,” Colleen admits. “You know, it’s a red light or it’s a green light for me, and when it’s green, it’s all go.

“I talk about the fact that during my role as a CEO, I used to be the red Ferrari that just never stopped, until I hit burnout in 2007. It’s only then that you realise it doesn’t matter what car you are, you’ve got to put petrol in it, pull into the pits, change a tyre; you’ve got to look after yourself.”

“I think the best leaders of today are the ones that put people before profit.”

These days, Colleen isn’t just looking after herself, she’s on a mission to help others, particularly women, use their voice and find their superpower.

“I want them to embrace this superpower that I believe every single woman has,” she tells. “I also want organisations to be inspired and to move into this new era of leadership; one that is based on kindness, compassion, authenticity, trust and collaboration. It’s a big part of the reason why I believe we need to encourage more women to take the helm: so they can start to think about a new way forward for leaders.”

Colleen refers to this new era of leadership as the “kindness economy” because she believes kindness will be the new superpower for leaders. “There’s this old era of leadership versus this new era, and when I talk about the old it is based on predominately masculine traits, so you think of Trump or Putin, for example,” she says.

“Then we think of Michelle Obama and Jacinda Ardern, and this is the new era leadership. It’s not about men versus women, because both bring different qualities to the party that are important, but it is this masculine way of leading that has to change.”

You need only read the news (Every. Single. Day.) to see that there needs to be serious change at a leadership level, from the lack of diversity in boards to the abundance of misogyny in government. How do we change this? By first changing our definition of what makes a great leader.

“When I was growing up and in the early days of my career, I looked up and admired people with titles, levels of authority, rank, position and power. I labelled all of them ‘leaders’,” Colleen says. “But what I learned over time, in both life and business, is that these things were not what qualified people for leadership.

“Leadership starts with the person; it starts with self. We all have the ability, every single day, in our own lives, through every action, our interactions, our reactions and the decisions we make. We have the ability every day to become the leaders that we want to be and the leaders that we want to follow.” The kind of leaders that put their people first. “I think the best leaders of today are the ones that put people before profit,” Colleen says.

Not that profit isn’t important – of course it is – but if leaders make their people the priority, putting them at the heart of everything they do, the profits will follow. “We need leaders who make their people feel safe at work, that if something goes wrong, you’re there to support them, pick them up, dust them off and get them on their way again,” she says. “When you have a leader that doesn’t create that kind of culture, then it’s every single person for themselves.”

Colleen’s doing her part to change the way we look at leadership, one client at a time, through her Mentor Me mentorship program, where she nurtures and supports women, helping them to “unpack their story and find a plan B if we need to, to turn a corner”.

“The thing that I love is that it’s been women from all walks of life,” she shares. “I’ve got entrepreneurs, mums that are working casually, teachers, I’ve just got a whole lot of beautiful, amazing women that I’m been working with.”

Colleen also works very closely with women to identify their values and build on them. “When we know our values, we make much better decisions because we’re making them in line with our values,” she says. “And when we know our purpose, we get up every day with purpose.”

It’s very clear that Colleen is living her purpose every day, which is to build confidence in women and to inspire those around her; a trait she believes is one of her “superpowers”. “Everyone has a superpower. You might even have two. It’s this authentic ID that we have about ourselves,” she says.

“I think one of mine is to be authentic and the other is to inspire. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career: inspiring people to do what they didn’t think they could do, or to believe in themselves. That’s my superpower. Yours might be kindness, someone else’s might be compassion, someone else’s might be creativity. I do believe there is this superpower that we all have and I want to help women, in particular, identify theirs and then embrace it.”

In the meantime, Colleen is content to embrace those she holds dearest. “I have a very close family,” she says. “For me, success starts in the home; it’s being a great person, a great mum, a great wife. I love nothing more than spending time with my family, cooking, hanging out, sitting on the deck and listening to some music or playing Uno.

“I know how fortunate I am. I’ll say, ‘Look how lucky we are to be given this gift of life. Embrace every minute, love those around you and enjoy every day.’ That doesn’t mean we don’t have some crappy days, because we do, but I always try to find that silver lining. I don’t take anything I have for granted.”

Read next: From Bumble to YouTube: How the world’s most powerful female CEOs built their empires

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