Colleen Callander, CEO, Founder of Callander & Co and Mentor Me Women, and Author of 'Leader By Design'

Ms. Colleen Callander is an award-winning CEO, Founder of Callander & Co and ‘Mentor Me Women, Author ‘Leader By Design’, Business & Leadership Coach and Keynote Speaker. Colleen encourages women globally to have the confidence to believe in themselves, their ability, share their voice and break through glass ceilings. She also encourages organizations and leaders, both men and women to strive for a ‘new era’ of leadership: one where they lead with kindness, trust, self-awareness, authenticity, and one that puts people at the heart of everything they do, and one that embraces more women at the helm. 

Colleen is a highly respected influential leader with a wealth of knowledge and a proven track-record in building brands and is now sharing not only the past 13 years’ experience as a CEO but also the past 30 years of her fashion retail career and leadership knowledge. In May 2021, Colleen launched her book ‘LEADER BY DESIGN’ which has been met with rave reviews and immense success, including being nominated as a finalist in the 2021 Australian Business Book Awards. 

In conversation with CXO Outlook, Ms. Collen Callander shares her professional journey, her experiences about mentoring women, the entire creative process that went into writing her book, ‘LEADER BY DESIGN’, and a lot more. Here are the interview excerpts.

Please share the story behind incepting Mentor Me Women, its vision and mission.

Callander & Co has had success beyond what I thought possible and has grown significantly over the past 2 years. My purpose has always been to impact, influence and inspire the people around me, particularly women, so they can grow and thrive in all areas of their lives including their careers and show up as the best version of themselves each day.

Now in this next chapter of my life my purpose is the same. The most exciting thing is that I am doing it broader, deeper and on a much larger scale than ever before. Whether that’s through my Mentor Me Women Program, through my book, masterclasses, podcasts, coaching, or keynote speaking, my purpose is to inspire and empower others to lead with confidence in business and in life.

Mentor Me Women is the platform through which I mentor groups of women of all generations and from different walks of life. Executives, mums, start-up executives, students, young women starting out in their careers, senior leaders, CEOs’ and teachers… I have worked with all these women and more!

Mentor Me Women is a 4-week program (4 X 1-hour sessions each week) which inspires and empowers women to lead with confidence in their own lives – whether that be in boardrooms, organizations, communities or even at home. As a mentor, I guide, support, and challenge women to step outside their comfort zones, build on their leadership abilities, set boundaries and goals, and create simple tools and actionable plans that allow them to navigate through life and leadership challenges.

What has been the most fulfilling experience of mentoring women of our generation?

There is not one moment that stands out above the rest. Every day, I get to inspire and empower women to believe in themselves and become the leader in the own lives.

Now more than ever, it’s crucial for women to lead with purpose and support each other. Together, we can create change, bring about equality and help women flourish in all aspects of their lives—not just in their careers. As human beings, we’re inspired by other people’s stories of adversity, accomplishment, fear, and failure. It is through these stories that we connect, learn, and grow, which is why I am now sharing my story in the hope that I inspire others. Lifting women up, giving them a voice, building confidence, and encouraging each other to live with purpose, and reach our full potential is the way we will drive meaningful and lasting change. I am always inspired by women supporting women, and it is what I have always tried to do—not only as a CEO, but also in my everyday life. We cannot change the past, but we can impact the future through the next generation of women.

What kind of changes have you observed in your mentees?

One of the biggest changes I see in my mentees is the power of building real confidence and self- belief.

Believing in yourself means having faith in your own abilities, trusting that you can do anything you put your mind to. It means that when you face challenges, hit road bumps, fall over and have self-doubt, you will have the confidence to get back up and try again. It is not opportunities, intelligence or resources that allow you to chase your goals and dreams, it’s the belief in yourself that will give you the power to take that first step.

We all suffer from self-doubt and confidence issues, a lack of self-belief and ‘imposter syndrome’ at different points in our lives either in our personal lives, career, appearance, or the way we see ourselves compared to others. Some of us suffer a lot and some suffer a little, but lack of confidence shows up in even the most seemingly confident people. The great news is that confidence is a skill not a trait. It is like a muscle and the more you use it the stronger it gets.

There are so many things we can do to build our confidence and one of the biggest ones is to change the stories we tell ourselves. We all have an inner critic that is highly judgmental and can leave us feeling miserable and stuck. It can even sabotage our success. Our inner critic can say things like: You’re going to fail, you’re under prepared, you don’t fit in, you need more skills or you’re not good enough. I share in my Mentor Me Women program how to interrupt that story from taking control by creating a much more empowering story that allows you to feel confident to take actions.

When we change our story – we change our life!

You have dedicated your professional life towards empowering and inspiring women to lead in the corporate space. Who is your personal role model and how did she inspire you?

I am always inspired by women supporting women and throughout my entire career, I have tried to be a positive role model and career mentor for those around me – particularly women. The next generation of young women must have strong role models to look up to: women who are supportive, nurturing, changemakers, and women who show us that it is possible to break through glass ceilings in our careers and everyday lives. Having positive, fierce, intelligent, kind women making change in the world sends a message of empowerment, paving the way for the next generation to believe their opportunities are limitless in both their careers and life.

A role model and career mentor can come from anywhere: it may be someone you work with, perhaps someone who is retired and has a wealth of knowledge or someone who has forged forward in her own career. She might be a teacher, a community leader, a coach, or maybe even your mum.  She could be world-famous, or someone who lives in your neighborhood. She is a woman who you admire, someone you want to emulate and someone you believe makes a difference – whether that’s in the little things she does in her everyday life or on a larger public scale.

Growing up as a young girl in the ‘80s, my role models included Princess Diana, for her strength and kindness; Brooke Shields, for her grace and beauty; and Madonna, because she was bold and fearless. At that time, I didn’t describe them as role models; in fact, I probably didn’t even know what role models were. I just knew I admired these women and was inspired by their actions, what they stood for and how they behaved.

Later in life, I realized that my role models were close to home: my parents. All my life, they have both been a constant source of inspiration, advice, and guidance. They showed me that hard work is the key to success, that it is important to live according to your values and that anything is possible if you believe in yourself.

What has been one of the biggest challenges you have faced and how did you overcome it?

As women and especially mothers, we often put others before ourselves. It can be subconscious – a natural inclination. For me, this took its toll and came at a great cost.

That moment came for me in 2007. I was the acting General Manager at Sportsgirl; my usual role was Head of Retail Operations, but I was covering for a maternity leave and to say I was ‘busy’ was an understatement. With three children – Macey was just two, Trent was nine and Jake was 10 – an average day was barely contained chaos.

As my role evolved, so too did my busy lifestyle. It involved everything from raising small children, managing the day to day running of a house, interstate travel, to having days packed with meetings appointments and leadership decisions.

I describe myself during this period as a Formula 1 race car – one that had not refueled, been in for a service, changed its tyres, or pulled in for a pitstop in a very long time. I knew no boundaries and said ‘yes’ to everything, no matter how full my plate. I wanted to be the perfect wife, mother, friend, sister, and daughter. I put everyone else’s needs before my own – and before my health. Until I couldn’t do it any longer. I was only 36 years old, but I was utterly burnt out. I hadn’t lost my passion – far from it. I absolutely loved my job and was so proud of what I’d been able to achieve in my career. I just didn’t have anything left in the tank. That train to burnout town stops at no stations, and I had arrived!

Looking back on this time in my life, I now know that burnout was a gift. It forced me to take time out and live my life differently. For the first time in a long time, I pulled in for a pitstop and a well overdue service. I refueled, changed the tyres, and had the best lesson in self-care ever.

What I’ve come to learn in the years since, is that my problem is a very common one among women. The thing about burnout is it doesn’t just affect us; it affects everyone around us. We are tired, cranky, emotional, and sometimes even irrational. Our family, friends, and teams around us don’t get the best version of us when we are in this state.

I am sure there are many of you reading along who have experienced burnout or are on that burnout train right now. I wish I knew then what I know now; I wish I’d known the signs that very quickly creep up on you when you’re on that bullet train to burnout town.

Signs of burnout show up in many different ways and we need to recognize these warning bells before we get to a point where burnout takes over. Chronic exhaustion, concentration and memory problems, brain fog, constant fatigue, irritability and lack of patience, lack of energy, sleep disorders or insomnia. Today, I share my burnout experience with women because I’m passionate about helping others recognize the signs of burnout before they reach the same dire point I did. I want to empower women to be comfortable with putting themselves first, and to live a life of self-care and self-love, because when we do this, we have so much more to give others.

Burnout happens because you’re overwhelmed and exhausted – which is a by-product of an over-packed schedule and always putting others before self. Burnout taught me that I can only be good to others when I am first good to myself, whether that’s in my role as a mum, leader, friend, or partner.

It’s time for all women to embrace self-care and live a life of fulfilment, passion, and purpose without burnout!

According to you, how can gender equality be improved in the world of business?

Despite efforts to improve gender equality in the workplace, women still earn considerably less than their male colleagues and remain under-represented at senior level. There are so many things we can be doing to improve gender equality and removing the gender pay gap is one of them. The gender pay gap measures the difference in average earnings between male and female employees. Currently, the gender pay gap according to WGEA in Australia is 13.8% and while this has improved over the years more work is needed, particularly as women are still less likely to negotiate their salary.

Before change can happen, there needs to be an increase in awareness. One simple way companies can do this is to conduct pay equity audits. This would highlight discrepancies between pay rates and ensure all employees of equal experience and in similar roles are paid the same—no matter their gender or race. We can also improve gender equality in the workplace by creating mentoring networks. Mentoring in the workplace can prove invaluable in helping women progress in their careers.

Companies understand that they need to hire a diverse workforce but understanding simply isn’t enough. For change to happen, you need to diversify the people doing the interviews. Ensuring interviewers are diverse reduces the tendency to hire the same kinds of people repeatedly. Always remember, cultural fit is about shared values, not about being visually similar to each other.

Gender equality in the workplace also widens considerably after women have children – an issue which can be tackled by shared parental leave policies and enabling working parents to share childcare more equally.

There are so many things we can be doing to improve gender equality and it all start with opening the conversation.

Coming to your book, were there any instances or simply passion that made you write ‘Leader By Design’? Can you please share the entire process that went behind writing this book in short?

After 30 years in fashion retail, and 13 years at the helm of two iconic fashion brands, it was time for me to write the next chapter of my life – which included the introduction of my business Callander & Co.

My purpose is to inspire and empower, particularly women, to lead with confidence in business and in life. Through all my different platforms including my book – LEADER BY DESIGN, I want to support women build real confidence, to speak up in meetings, start that side hustle, put their hand up for that promotion, ask for that pay rise, take control of their own lives, leave toxic relationships, and demand a seat at the table and even create their own table.

I don’t believe we are born leaders: we all have the ability to become Leaders By Design in all areas of our lives. You can become the leader you want to be, the leader you wanted to have, and a leader people choose to follow.

In my book Leader By Design, I share my story of finishing school at 16 to building my career from the ground up to becoming one of Australia’s inspiring female CEO’s. My story underpins my message that anything is possible if you are passionate, work hard and believe in yourself.

Leader By Design is part autobiography where I share my life journey including how my upbringing shaped the women and leader I am today. No matter where you are on your life or leadership journey, I encourage women to find their voice, live with purpose, lead in their own lives, change the rules, live with real confidence, and find their superpower.

Leader By Design also inspires leaders, both men and women to embrace a new era of leadership. One where we lead with kindness, compassion, collaboration, trust, and authenticity, and one that puts people at the heart of everything we do.

It is packed with tips, advice, insights, and guidance relevant to all generation and all ages – whether you’re climbing the corporate ladder, an entrepreneur, a volunteer, a teacher, a coach, a student, or working part-time. Regardless of where you are on your leadership or life journey, Leader By Design will inspire and empower you to believe in the power within, reach your full potential and create the life you deserve.

‘LEADER BY DESIGN’ was an absolute joy to write and it is an even greater joy to share.  It has been met with rave reviews and immense success, including being nominated as a finalist in the 2021 Australian Business Book Awards.

What was the best review/comment you received from the readers?

I had a wonderful mother reach out to me to share her daughter’s journey with my book. Lee shared with me that her daughter Angela had really struggled at school and didn’t enjoy reading at all. Angela was now in the third year of her first job and was doing well but was struggling with leading people as this was all new to her. Lee purchased my book ‘Leader By Design’ for her daughter in the hope that it would help build her confidence and build on her leadership skills.

Weeks later, Lee sent me an email to say thank you. Lee shared that Angela had not picked up a book since leaving school and now she hadn’t put mine down. Lee shared that Angela would finish dinner and excuse herself immediately from the table so she could go to her room and continue reading. Angela also shared with her mother that she had used some of the simple tips and techniques I share in my book at one of her team meetings and was thrilled with the response from the team. Lee said my book was not only helping her build her confidence and become a better leader, but every time Angela spoke about my book her face lit up. Lee went on to write that seeing your children happy and thriving is one of the greatest achievements in the life of a parent, and thanked me for having such a positive impact on Angela.

Getting the email from Lee confirms exactly why I wrote my book. For Lee, seeing her daughter happy and thriving was such a gift, and for me being able to influence, inspire and impact one beautiful human at a time is the gift I receive in return.

What does literary success mean to you?

Success means different things to different people. For some people success is money, for some it’s freedom, for some it’s winning a gold medal or climbing Mt Everest, and for others it’s power.

For me, success is about leaving this planet better than I found it. For me, success is about changing the rules, closing the gender pay gap, increasing the number of women in leadership and CEO positions and embracing inclusivity and diversity in all areas of our lives. Success is creating a platform for women to share their voice; it’s about being a circuit breaker for change and paving the way for the next generation of female leaders.

Success for me also starts at home. Bringing 3 beautiful humans into this world means I get to help them shape their values, find their purpose, and grow and evolve into wonderful caring and compassionate human beings so that they too can make a positive impact on those around them through their passions.

You are donning multiple hats— CEO, published author, keynote speaker, and business and leadership coach and excelling in all of them. How do you juggle these roles and yet strike a balance between work-life?

I am not a huge fan of the term ‘work-life balance’; I much prefer to think about it as having a ‘life in balance’. Why do we have to put life into two boxes – one being work and the other being life? That’s not how it works as life doesn’t fit into neat little boxes; they need to co-exist in balance. After facing burnout in 2007, I needed to make some significant changes in my life to create a ‘life in balance’. Today, I live by an 80/20 rule for many things in my life. This means that 80 per cent of my life needs to be in balance and 20 per cent can be out of balance or even a bit chaotic. I love the 80 per cent balance because it brings calmness, control, routine, and happiness to my life; however, on the flip side, I also like the chaotic 20 per cent – it makes me more resilient, strong, bring new thinking, and gratitude.

When my life isn’t in 80/20, I know that means I’m not working very smartly. As the level of chaos creeps up, I start to feel out of balance, out of control, overwhelmed and stressed. This is when I know I need to take actions. I need to change, add or delete something in my life to get back to my happy 80/20 place.

What piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers of today?

Go for it! Everyone has a story and yours is worth sharing.

Please share your future plans with us. Can we expect another book soon?

I am so excited about 2022!!! As Callander & Co continues to go from strength to strength, that means I get more and more opportunities to share my message and impact the people around me.

As a former CEO of two of Australia’s iconic fashion brands, I am proud to be a female leader who has led with purpose, stayed true to my values, inspired and empowered people to believe in themselves and created a culture that allowed people to truly shine…and this next chapter of my life my purpose hasn’t changed. I want to continue to empower women to step up, share their voice, live with purpose, find their superpower, be fearless and become the leaders they have always wanted to be in business and in life. I want them to have the confidence to put their hand up for that promotion, walk into the boardroom and leave self- doubt at the door, build boundaries that support a ‘life in balance’ and take control of their lives. I also want to inspire organisations to embrace a new era of leadership – one based on kindness, compassion, collaboration, trust, and authenticity, and one that encourages more women to take the helm.

Whether that be through my ‘Mentor Me Women’ program, Leadership and Business Coaching, Keynote Speaking or my book ‘Leader By Design’- Be empowered to lead with confidence in business and in life, I am determined to change the rules. I ask myself every day, “Am I being a person who inspires, influences, and impacts other people’s lives in a positive way?”

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