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More than money: The award-winning female CFO pioneering diversity at Coles

Crowned CFO of the Year at the 2019 Executive of the Year Awards, it’s clear that Leah Weckert’s expertise extends far beyond finances.

Leah Weckert

When Leah Weckert begins discussing her plans for Coles Group in the coming year, it’s a far cry from the typical numbers-focused response you’d expect from a highly successful CFO.

In fact, the word ‘finance’ doesn’t come up once.

What excites her more are the leaps and bounds Coles is making in pioneering diversity, inclusion and innovation across its 2,500+ retail outlets.

Leah became CFO during a tumultuous time. Coles had just embarked on its A$20 billion demerger from Wesfarmers, the largest dissolution of its kind in Australian history, and was transitioning to a new CEO.

Armed with more than a decade of finance, commercial and strategy experience, she was a driving force behind the company’s 2018 listing on the ASX, which culminated in a whopping A$1.5 billion profit that year.

“Be bold and be willing to take risks – that’s what unlocks opportunities and leads to personal growth.”

As CFO, Leah is a new breed of leader who understands that diversity is the key to unlocking stronger financial performance, better decision-making and a more inclusive culture.

Did we mention she’s also a mother of two young children, a chemical engineer, a Harvard Business School graduate, and The CEO Magazine’s 2019 CFO of the Year?

Leah represents part of just 16% of women who hold CFO roles in ASX200 companies. Of these 200 companies, 17 operate without a single female in their executive leadership team.

Leah Weckert

“I’m proud to say that the Coles board is very diverse. Of our seven non-Executive directors, three are women and we also have a growing number of women in our executive team,” says Leah. “There are a lot of inspirational women walking the halls at Coles.”

As one of those women, Leah aims to be a role model for balancing family with a high-powered job.

“The idea of balance can be really intimidating for some women, so I like to share the day-to-day things I do to make it work – from doing school and kindergarten drop-offs a few times a week to getting home at a reasonable hour so I can spend time with the kids.

“By sharing these things, it creates a culture that fosters diversity and embraces flexibility,” Leah explains.

“It helps women realise that it is achievable to take on an executive role without giving up everything that’s important to them.”

Instead of mentorship, Leah is a firm believer in sponsorship.

“If every senior executive in Australia, male or female, was to say, ‘In the next two years, I’m going to find a really talented woman and I’m going to help her get the promotion she wants’, it would make a massive difference to the number of women in leadership in this country,” she explains.

“While a mentor listens and gives advice, a sponsor is someone who can actually change your future for you.”

In the true spirit of equality, Leah is just as focused on getting men into female-dominated roles, such as HR, and she is getting more women into male-dominated roles such as finance and supply chain.

“Achieving that overall gender balance means we’ll reap the full benefits of diversity,” she says.

With a workforce of 110,000 employees across Australia, Coles is the supermarket of choice for 20 million customers every week. Leah explains the business’ three-pronged approach to growth in 2020.

“First, we want to create solutions for our customers – inspiring them with what to cook for dinner tonight to what they’ll make for the kids’ lunches tomorrow. Second is smarter selling, which means incorporating automation, machine learning and AI to increase efficiency in our stores,” says Leah.

“There are a lot of inspirational women walking the halls at Coles.”

“And third is what we call ‘winning together’, which focuses on our commitment to becoming Australia’s most sustainable supermarket. We want to use greener energy and we want to produce less waste in our stores as well as in our customers’ homes.

“It also means looking at how we source food, like choosing RSPCA-approved chicken, cage-free eggs and sustainable seafood.”

Leah brings the same sustainability principles into her home.

“My kids know that every time they open a packet of chips, the plastic wrapper has to be put into the bag in the pantry to be returned to Coles every Saturday. I’m so excited by what REDcycle is doing with soft plastics, from laying new roads to creating play equipment from it.

“The waste problem in Australia is going to become chronic in the not-too-distant future and we all have to do our bit as individuals and as corporates to prevent that from happening.”

Looking back on her career with Coles – in which she has now held seven different roles – Leah likes to take a glass-half-full approach.

“I’m a big believer in being grateful for what you have. I’ve been very lucky in my career and I’m so happy with where I’ve ended up,” she admits. My biggest piece of advice to anyone is to be bold and be willing to take risks – that’s what unlocks opportunities and leads to personal growth.”

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