She was one of the first employees at Sydney-based co-working firm Fishburners at age 20, and now Pandora Shelley has risen up the ranks to become the newly appointed CEO.

Established in 2011, Fishburners is a not-for-profit co-working space that caters to tech start-ups. It has offices in Sydney, Brisbane and Shanghai with its headquarters based in Wynyard’s Sydney Startup Hub.

In 2017, Fishburners took home the award for Best Co-working Space at the annual Australasian Startup Awards, StartCon.

Pandora gives The CEO Magazine her thoughts on leadership, success and who she is most inspired by.

What makes a good leader?

The best leaders are those who empower their employees, invest in them, and regularly place them in positions that are slightly above what they might feel ready for. If you give them your trust, you will be amazed by what they can achieve when they feel the problem is theirs to solve or it's their asset to grow.

A good leader should always be transparent and actively challenging the team to think bigger or differently.

Like any company in today’s fast-moving world, if you don’t adapt to change, you won’t survive. It is essential that change is ingrained in your team culture and employees are empowered to suggest and test new ideas proactively. If you give employees the freedom to do so, ideas can be implemented quickly and frequently, increasing your chance of always staying ahead of the curve.

What has been the biggest challenge of your career?

Working at Fishburners was extremely encouraging, no one cared how old you were, and you were never held back because of your age or years of experience. You were treated with respect no matter your age, race or gender.

After working at Fishburners for so long, there was a period where I didn’t know any different. However, as I grew to more senior roles and had to work with external companies on projects such as sponsorship deals or construction projects for a new site, I started to feel judged as less worthy purely because of my age.

Despite having led and managed numerous office fit-outs and construction projects, there were countless times where people would see me walk in the room and assume I was the CEO’s assistant.

There were countless times where people would see me walk in the room and assume I was the CEO’s assistant.

Even after explaining my experience, people would still assume I didn’t know what I was doing and would ignore me when I gave direction. There were times when I honestly wanted to give up and times I considered asking the CEO to attend the project meetings. It was demotivating.

Despite all this, knowing a project was going to have a strong positive impact (making room for hundreds more start-ups) kept me going. The sense of purpose and motivation pushed me to speak my mind, call out inappropriate behaviour whenever I saw it, and ultimately saw me drive the project to success. By the end of the project, the same people who ignored me in the beginning had changed their tone and were begging for my input and advice.

From that experience and many others, I’ve learned that no matter someone’s age, I will always give them the same respect and chance to prove themselves.

How do you measure success?

It comes down to the culture of our community and our team. If you have customers and a team who are passionate about what the company is trying to achieve, monetary benefits will always follow.

The number one source of new Fishburners members is referrals, and we wouldn't want it any other way. The reason we get so many referrals is that we have invested heavily in building Australia’s strongest start-up community.

In doing that, we’ve built a solid base of passionate members (and alumni) who love what Fishburners stands for and shout our praises from the rooftop. It’s also a big part of what makes working at Fishburners great.

Fast facts:
“Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough, so they don’t want to,” by Richard Branson.

Who inspires you and why?

Many people inspire me, but [!camping!] Marcus Lemonis has been someone who inspires me in many parts of business and leadership. I admire Marcus’ dedication to putting employees first and ensuring people are always treated well and with respect.

His passion for positive change in reaction to the market is something to be admired; his businesses rarely stay still for long and regularly update products and processes to stay at the leading edge (with the results to show for it).

Another trait of his I admire is he never hesitates to challenge assumptions and always listens to the data. “What does the data say?” is a core value of the Fishburners team culture.

What is the best decision you have ever made?

A significant change I made at Fishburners was to become a truly data-driven company. While we were small, we were able to make quick decisions based on observations of what was working. As we grew (and the co-working market exploded), there was an urgency to make more efficient decisions.

While encouraging employees to take ownership of their work, we implemented a data-driven culture. We have been able to limit time and money wastage, and ensure we continue to deliver products our members actually want and need.

What is your go-to motivator?

I’ve always been passionate about what Fishburners stands for and is trying to achieve. It’s easy to stay motivated when you truly believe in what you’re working on.

It’s easy to stay motivated when you truly believe in what you're working on.

In the seven years we've been in operation, we’ve seen many success stories come from Fishburners, and many have had life-changing experiences from working at Fishburners.

Knowing that the next big Australian success story could be around the corner with Fishburners’ support is more than enough to keep me going.

What is your best habit?

Coming from an operational background, I’ve always been super focused on being efficient. I pride myself on my ability to get things done. Little habits such as trying to never read an email twice before replying, mapping out my week based on what will be the highest value tasks and/or meetings and always working from the numbers have helped me stay productive.

I also always try to get eight hours sleep, anything less and I know I won’t be performing my best.

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