Sussan’s Naomi Milgrom: Creating a culture of flexibility from the top | Women's Agenda

Sussan’s Naomi Milgrom: Creating a culture of flexibility from the top

When Robyn Batson’s eldest child started his VCE year, she had no idea what she was in for. As Sussan Group’s people and development manager, Batson has been a key part of developing the company’s flexible working arrangements for the past eight-and-a-half years.

Still, it took her boss, Sussan’s executive chair and owner, Naomi Milgrom, to remind Batson that she would need to plan her work that year to accommodate her son’s big school year. “It was Naomi who sat down with me at the beginning of the year to help me plan my calendar. When I needed to take leave at different times to support my son; having his exams in my diary so I was able to drop him off and pick him up during this period.”

Milgrom is an ardent advocate of flexibility in the workplace, but what marks her stance out from most other leaders is her commitment to flexibility at the executive level. “We see flexibility as a vital tool,” Milgrom told a lunchtime forum at Melbourne Business School’s Centre for Ethics yesterday.

“Flexibility is an alternative to male-oriented, traditional business practices. We recognise that long hours and inflexible work practices are major obstacles to the careers of many, many talented women, so we are doing it differently. I would even be prepared to say that addressing culture and flexible work practices are critical to addressing the paucity of women in senior roles in Australian businesses, but unfortunately, it is not happening.”

Milgrom’s presentation comes in National Telework Week (November 12-16), a federal government initiative designed to encourage employers to let their staff work offsite, and coincides with the release by the Australian Institute of Management (NWS and ACT) of a white paper on the subject, called Managing in a Flexible Work Environment.

AIM’s manager of public policy, Robyn Clough, says perceptions about flexible work need to change. “Flexible work arrangements are currently associated with a lack of commitment to an organisation and colleagues may resent them as a privilege extended only to the lucky few.”

Milgrom, however, presents a strong case for return on investment within her group of companies from flexible work policies and a commitment to diversity.

Milgrom promoted the CEO of Sportsgirl, Elle Roseby, to her current role a week before Roseby left on maternity leave with her first child six years ago.

“I did this because in the five years I mentored and worked with Elle, she demonstrated that she was a natural leader. I was confident in our relationship, her people skills and her passion and dedication to the business. Why would I throw that away?”

The CEOs of both Sussan and Suzanne Grae are women. In fact, 70% of Sussan’s leadership team is women and 98% of the 4,500-strong workforce in 50 stores in Australia and New Zealand is female (full-time, part-time and casual). “We have a stable executive team, with the average length of service being 12.7 years,” Milgrom says. “Our longest-serving executive will be celebrating 40 years of service this month. Over half of our executives (men and women) have formal flexible working arrangements in place, and all of the executives have informal flexible arrangements where they are balanced with business requirements.”

Milgrom says the imperative for companies to become more flexible is growing. “We all know what a tough business environment we are in right now. We have to adapt to survive.”

She identified the following as key drivers of that need for change:

  1. Scarcity of talented people, both men and women. “On top of that, we are wasting those who do have massive potential. In professions such as law and science, we are witnessing a drop-off rate now of more than 50% amongst women at senior levels,” she says.
  2. A change in values. “More and more men as well as women are looking for a work/life balance that enables them to prosper in their work and at the same time, participate fully in their family lives. One in four Australian are now carers of children or parents and that situation is on the increase. The reality is that of necessity we have to accommodate different needs and balance competing commitments.”
  3. Technology that means you no longer have to be in a particular physical workplace to get the work done. “The federal government yesterday acknowledged that by 2020, 12% of public servants would be teleworking from home. In the commercial environment, it will be a lot higher than that,” she says.


Milgrom measures performance on results, not attendance. Elle Roseby, who backed up Milgrom’s presentation at the MBS, explained that she arrived at 9.15 in the morning to allow her time to drop the children at school (although she switches on the mobile at 8am) and left about 5.30pm.

“We work together as a team to achieve the best possible outcomes,” says Milgrom. “That is our characteristic way of functioning across our teams in the business.

“Flexibility makes profound business sense to us; it is directly linked to the bottom line because it enables people to get their jobs done.”

Milgrom says happiness is a business asset. “Flexibility also contributes to the intangible assets of our business, the factors which are hard to measure but can make or break a business. One of the most important assets is happiness.

There is no question that happiness is a business asset. If executives are able to flourish as a result of flexibility, then this happiness translates into good leadership, creativity and innovation.”

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