SheEO of sphinxx and Business Leader: Jen Dalitz

Jen Dalitz is obsessed with getting more women into leadership roles, in our workplaces and communities.  That’s why she started sphinxx and why she writes about, speaks about, mentors and consults on topics related to working women and gender balance.

An avid commentator and award winning Australian businesswoman, Jen regularly features across international media and in 2010 she was invited by the Minister for Women to deliver a keynote presentation at the Women’s Summit in Malaysia and represented Australia in a BBC global debate on the advancement of women and the Millennium Goals.

Jen’s successful career in finance and business consulting gave her first hand experience of the challenges women face as they climb the corporate ladder; and the impact on the bottom line when female talent is under-utilised.

Away from sphinxx, Jen is the mother of a small child and lives with one foot in Sydney and the other on her farm in the country.

Describe yourself in 3 words:  Practical, refreshing, real.

What is your life motto?
“We must be the change we wish to see in the world” (Mahatma Gandhi)

When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful? My career began in finance and consulting – my undergrad was in Accountancy and I worked in banking for 8 years before moving to the consulting industry with a global firm.  After a couple of years the firm was bought out and I then started freelance work – consulting the to banking industry.  It was after an executive appointment highlighted the complete dearth of women in leadership roles that I became interested in why this might be – and after a year of research I founded sphinxx with the goal of seeing women equally represented in leadership roles, in our workplaces and communities.  That was 4 years ago and the business has grown since then, responding to client demands and requests at every stage. 

How many hours did you dedicate to pursuing your dream? Initially I worked part time building up the business concept while still working part time.  I guess I put in about 1,000 hours before I left my “job” to start the business.  I must have put in about 8,000 hours since then so I’m not far off the magical “10,000” hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about… and hence mastery?!?

Describe how difficult the business really is? The tricky thing has been remaining focused on actual revenue streams and turning great ideas into business outcomes.  You can come up with countless wonderful ideas, but at the end of the day it’s the person who takes those ideas and turns them into an outcome who truly makes the difference.  Much of the growth has been fun, and hasn’t seemed like work at all… except of course fo having to be your own IT Help Desk when websites malfunction and technology conspires against you… fortunately this happens less as one traverses the major learning curves!   

What is the mistake that taught you an extremely valuable lesson? I entered in to a corporate “sponsorship” that nearly sent me broke because I failed to have the agreements documented and the other side failed to deliver on their promises.  As a result I had to carry a disproportionate share of the financial risk, and delivery risk, and it really taught me:

(1) never to commence major projects on a handshake (there is ALWAYS a place for written contracts and agreements in business);

(2) not everyone wants to support you for the right reasons, sometimes they’re just out for what they can get and you have to have your eyes open as an entrepreneur to this possibility and make sure it doesn’t catch you off guard; and

(3) when you find yourself in a situation where the trust is gone from a business relationship, get out of it as quick as you can.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? If you’re planning to employ staff, have 6 months of wages in the bank before you bring them on.

In your mind, is formal training essential? No – I’m a huge proponent of formal education and have multiple degrees and professional qualifications but I think that most people who really want something to work – and if they are prepared to work hard enough – they can make it happen.  For me, my formal training was a necessity for my finance and consulting career (I have a BA(Acc), MBA and I’m a CPA) and it was hugely helpful in a start-up in so far as I have advised other companies on how to build a business so there were possibly fewer surprises than there might have been for someone without my education and experience.  But I’ve also seen too many people succeed in their own business with no formal qualifications and very little experience to know that it’s not essential, and there is also no guarantee of success. 

Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry? Mentors have been incredibly important to me throughout my career.  I came from a family where no one had worked in commerce so I didn’t have any family to draw on for advice – in fact I was the first in my extended family to go to university so leaving home at 17 to move the city, go to uni and then begin my career was a huge learning curve.  From the moment I began my career I had informal mentors every step of the way.  They were often managers or my manager’s manager who acted more like sponsors – and though they were never through formal programs there was definitely a willingness for them to share advice and a hunger from me to soak it up.  I think that my commitment to acting on the advice I received really opened up these mentoring opportunities for me – there’s some how a greater willingness from others to help if they know you’ll actually act on their advice. 

What are some steps emerging talent can take to start/further their career? Take risks, back yourself, and try to be ahead of the curve.

Early in my career I was offered and accepted roles outside of my comfort zone, and every time I did this it opened up so more opportunities to me.  Backing yourself is about understanding when people give you an opportunity they’re taking a risk in just doing so – and they usually won’t ask unless you’ve got the goods, so just go for it and give it your best shot.  Women especially need the occasional push in this regards.

The final point is about identifying emerging trends and opportunities and positioning yourself to make the most of them.  This is very much what I’ve done with sphinxx.com.au – when I first started the business very few people were interested in gender balance and women in leadership and since then there’s been a real groundswell of activity.  Just by getting going earlier and building my skill base I’ve been able to benefit from that.

What kept you going when you felt like giving up? Good question!  To be honest I’m not sure.  Maybe a belief that I can make a difference – and the many thank you cards I get from the women I’ve supported in their careers and the leadership teams that I’ve educated as to the opportunity gender balanced business presents.  But there’s certainly been many times I’ve felt like throwing in the towel – it’s just a matter of pushing on.  And remembering, “tomorrow is another day!” 

Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time? There’s not much luck in business – it’s all about hard work, persistence, and understanding your customers.  Timing can be better or worse, but at the end of the day it mostly comes down to pushing on.

For more on Jen Dalitz, check out her speaking showreel or her website sphinxx.com.au

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