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How The Leadership Institute’s CEO is reinventing the rules surrounding leadership

Since having made the bold decision in her 30s to launch her own business and raise two kids as a single parent, Dana Lightbody now gives people, especially women, the tools and techniques to take their careers to new heights.

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If you ask Dana Lightbody why she quit her corporate career as a managing director in the conference and events sector, she’ll readily admit she’d been waiting for the right moment to forge her own path. It was an idea that she’d been setting aside for years, afraid to dive into the unfamiliar territory of entrepreneurship.

“I didn’t want someone else to be my boss anymore and to tell me the right or wrong way to run things, but the other reason was that I knew, and I have always known, that I wanted to have children and as it turns out, I had kids on my own,” she says.

“So I’m a single mother by choice, but way back when I was 33, I knew that my boss would straight up fire me if I got pregnant. And if he didn’t fire me, he would maybe – at best – have allowed me to take four weeks’ leave.”

Fast forward almost 10 years and Lightbody is at the helm of The Leadership Institute, which has built a solid reputation around helping professionals develop their leadership skills through training and resources.

“I believe that a lot of women are not getting the right opportunities and we are very blind to the reasons why.”

For many, the highlight of running a business that puts you in contact with some of the most influential leaders of our era seems like an incredibly rewarding experience. The beauty of hosting leadership events is keeping in touch with current trends and insights from people most of us normally wouldn’t encounter in our daily lives.

“This morning, while I was walking my giant dog, I finished reading Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl. And I’ll definitely look to get Clementine Ford on board next year, just because it was pretty powerful,” Lightbody reflects.

Indeed, the CEO was recently invited to venture as far as the US to hear Barack Obama speak. “He’s such a natural leader, I could listen to him talk for hours,” she admits. “But in reality, he has probably been in training, learning, reading, taking advice, getting media training for the better part of his working life, to be a natural leader.

“He might have natural charisma, but someone taught him how to speak with poise and a pause for dramatic effect.”

Raising the bar for women

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Lightbody’s firm belief in debunking the myth that people like Obama are born leaders hints at an important aspect of her job: shining a light on the cracks within the system that prohibit women and those who belong to minority groups from taking their place at the leadership table.

“It shocks me every single time we do a Women in Leadership conference or an Indigenous Leadership conference and the main topic of conversation is, ‘I don’t think I can do it’,” she affirms.

That same feeling was part of Lightbody’s experience while observing male colleagues leaving the workplace to establish their own ventures.

“I saw some of the men who had been my equal or are slightly more senior to me go out and set up their own companies and I sat there going, ‘You know he’s not better than you, you actually know that. You’ve worked together before.’”

With only eight women in the ASX Top 200 today, Lightbody tells The CEO Magazine that there are systemic issues preventing women from getting to the top, which is reflected in the way we raise our kids and the opportunities presented to us.

“I worry more that I’ve got leaders who are going to be an inspiration for young people of minorities, that we’ve at least got some people that they can look up to because you can’t be what you can’t see.”

“I believe that a lot of women are not getting the right opportunities and we are very blind to the reasons why,” she says. “It’s very easy to say it’s because they don’t want them or they don’t want to progress or they’re just sitting around waiting to have babies. That’s an easy male-dominated way of looking at things so that they don’t actually have to act or change.”

With some of the most highly sought-after jobs hailing from the IT and data sector, Lightbody suggests that the demand for skills in these areas could be met in the long-term with a less gendered lens.

“I think the skills shortage is going to be huge,” she predicts. “And the way that we could fix the skills shortage is to, at kindergarten level, start getting women involved in science and tech, and making it less about boys and making sure that women have opportunities and openness to those careers that are male-dominated, that are also, ironically, the skills shortage areas: tech, engineering, medicine, science.”

And while the company’s core audience are managers from large government departments and private companies, the rare occurrence of high school students who are invited by their school to attend is “one of the most heartwarming things I see, these 17- and 18-year-old girls having a look around at what their lives could be and being super inspired by it. So, they’re not our audience, but they come anyway and they love it.”

It’s a snapshot of the type of change Lightbody would like to see happen more often. “I think if we put more emphasis on developing leadership skills in our younger generation and not leaving it until you’re 30 and take you on your first management position, then more leaders would be coming up with confidence.”

Accelerating your leadership journey

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However, for women who missed out on receiving early support, Lightbody has some tips to accelerate the path to success.

The first is to muster up the courage to seek out an internal sponsor who holds you in high regard and can introduce you to other people within your organisation. “Women are not taught to develop those networks and it does not come naturally,” she points out.

It’s one of the reasons why Lightbody believes senior men should support less senior women to move up the ranks. “That is the way that you make connections with people who are going to bolster your career, but also they’re going to have the experience and the skills to guide you, to give you tips and to show you how to navigate things.”

For more introverted types, attending an external workshop, conference or event can be a less daunting means to boost confidence and receive the support you need.

“I think one of the great things about our conferences is that they let women talk about the things that they’re afraid of in a room where there is no judgement, and they can go back to their work feeling more confident in themselves. And that’s overwhelmingly the feedback I get,” Lightbody reveals.

However, there is also some truth to the widely held notion of steering your own boat when it comes to managing your career. “What got you here won’t get you there, so know what is going to take you to the next level and start working towards it now, whether that be more experience, more training or more self-confidence and belief,” she advises.

Representation matters

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In a world where images speak louder than words, broad representation in the realm of leadership is an area where Lightbody is also working diligently behind the scenes to improve.

Whether it’s an Indigenous CEO or an executive wearing a hijab on one of her brochures, such images serve as a source of hope for interns or fresh graduates who look for role models from their own background to guide them and elevate their career aspirations.

“I worry more that I’ve got leaders who are going to be an inspiration for young people of minorities, that we’ve at least got some people that they can look up to because you can’t be what you can’t see,” she suggests. “I’ve got a shining light to show them that they can.”

And all this starts at home. Lightbody is here to remind us that when we raise girls to base their value on how cute or attractive they are, we are restricting all they have to offer to the world.

“I correct my mother almost every day when she says my daughter is bossy. I’m like, ‘No, she’s got leadership skills. She has an opinion and it’s excellent,’” she says.

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