For Adobe's Suzanne Steele, good leadership hinges on risk & integrity

Why Adobe’s Suzanne Steele believes good leadership hinges on risk & integrity

Adobe’s Australian MD, Suzanne Steele shares her thoughts on career success , risk and the criticality of conviction in leadership. The dynamic leader will speak at the Women in Leadership Summit this month alongside several of Australia’s most prominent women in business. Tickets are still available. (Partner Content)

It’s a sunny day in North Queensland and I am on holiday with my two children. This is the first trip I’ve taken solo with both of them, and I have to admit it is a lot more stressful than I was anticipating. This morning I managed to take a glorious hour away from the kids for a scheduled call with Suzanne Steele, the Australian MD of Adobe.

Since we’re video-conferencing I tactically angle the camera across my messy hotel room so none of the mess is visible. I’m a woman in business and I want this other very impressive woman in business to think I’m professional.

I needn’t have worried. Suzanne is warmth personified. She’s also not using her camera, so I’m off the hook.

Right now, Suzanne is travelling back to her native UK to spend time with her adult children. Her openness about this makes me feel more at ease with my current situation and inevitably leads us to reflect on the elusiveness of work/life balance.

“I have to say it’s easier these days because my children are all grown up and live on the other side of the world,” she explains.

“When they were much younger it was very difficult. And I think it is very difficult for anyone with young children to balance life and work. Particularly today, life and work are the same thing. We’re 24/7. I believe that if you love the work that you do, the team that you are a part of, then you can find that balance. I also ensure that I take the time to switch off my phone and be in the moment with my family and that’s really important to me.”

She emphasises the importance of having a supportive family and speaks of her husband being her strongest mentor and her harshest critic; a relationship that has grounded her for most of her career. “My husband is my biggest coach and biggest supporter and also my harshest critic. I think you have to have people around you that can help you.”

It’s this support has seen Suzanne quickly rise to the top, despite taking a pathway to corporate leadership that was far from conventional.

Leaving school at 16, Suzanne had no formal qualifications. She cut her teeth in a start-up whose founder and CEO became her chief sponsor.

“He saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. He really gave me a chance, taught me a lot about business, how to get things done, how to lead with passion and energy and how to fail. It was vital,” she says.

It enabled Suzanne to move fluidly from strength to strength. She was soon leading management teams across data, software and analytics businesses in North America, the UK and Singapore. These included senior roles at Visa Europe, CACI London and Morgan Stanley, before being headhunted to her current role at Adobe.

Suzanne says that being unafraid of healthy risks was also a key factor in her rising through the ranks and encourages other aspirational leaders to do the same.

“I am pretty quick to make decisions and I use a lot of intuition. I can honestly say I have never gone into a role where I have felt this will be easy. I’ve got this.”

Interestingly, while she acknowledges her own ongoing challenge with imposter syndrome she explains that such self-doubt has actually allowed her to maintain her success.

“I feel if you stop feeling imposter syndrome then I might stop feeling successful. If I didn’t have imposter syndrome, I would question it. And I overcome it by asking for feedback from people.”

In Suzanne’s eyes, there’s a fine balance here. While an element of job insecurity can be motivating, too much can be restrictive.

“You have to build your confidence by putting yourself in situations where you will have imposter syndrome and delivering on it, then ticking that box and moving on. But I think if it’s too severe and it’s forcing you to question everything you are doing in your day-to-day job, then it’s a problem.”

“I overcome [fear] by asking for feedback from people,” she shares. “Over the years I have learned to recruit people onto my leadership team who are different to me, who think differently to me and who will actually challenge my decisions. So, I balance my risk taking by having a balanced leadership team.”

For Suzanne the equation is simple: “I don’t need lots of people around who are like me, I need to fill the gap with people who have different skillsets, who have different backgrounds and ages,” she puts simply.

But such a fruitful leadership trajectory hasn’t come without its challenges, and for Suzanne the biggest of these came when she was sacked unfairly early in her career after questioning senior management about errors in the books.

The company in question underestimated Suzanne’s capacity to fight. She took the company to the High Court which she describes as a “matter of principal.”

“I would accept being fired if I thought I was bad at my job, or that I hadn’t done what was required of me, but I was fired for being honest and so that needed to be righted and challenged,” she explains.

It was a long and arduous process, but Suzanne’s conviction never wavered. “The thing that helped me pick myself back up after the 18 months it took to go to the High Court? It’s the letter of apology that I have framed in my study,” she says.

Integrity may have got her fired from that particular role, but it clearly didn’t stop her star from rising. She credits authenticity as the key to being a strong leader.

“You can’t be authentic if you’re not honest and you don’t have good values. Authentic leadership in business is really about doing the right thing for the business, doing the right thing for your customers and your people, and actually ensuring that the last thing you are thinking about is doing the right thing for you personally,” she says.

“I don’t think it’s difficult; particularly if you’re in a job that you love and you’re passionate about. Doing the right thing for the business, doing the right thing for the customer and doing the right thing for the talent – that should deliver on what you need to do personally to be successful.”

Get your tickets now to the upcoming Women in Leadership Summit 2019.

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