Kristiana Greenwood and Fiona Dunster / Founding Live Wires / Real Energy Co.  / 
The Powerhouse for Advancing Women

story / Interview / April 17, 2020

It’s not often we interview a duo, but today we bring you the women of Real Energy Co, and what a powerhouse these women are. Justine and Danielle met up with Real Energy Co‘s founding Directors late in 2019. And it’s a pleasure to bring you their thoughts on diversity in the built environment.

Bon appétit!

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Fiona:

Kris (aka Live Wire) and I had been circling each other in the industry for about 20 years. We never actually worked together but crossed paths through a range of settings including lunch groups and industry events.

When I co-founded TEN Women Group (TEN) with Belinda (Belinda Coates, Slattery), we wanted to pull together a group of 10 well regarded women within the industry who would bring different backgrounds, networks and experiences with the collective goal of empowering women through connections and philanthropy. Kris was one of the first eight women we approached to found TEN. TEN is five years old now over which time Kris and I have got to know each other well and have developed a deep understanding of each other, our respective values, strengths, approach to business and life in general.

Kris: 

Real Energy Co was born out of one of the many discussions Fi (aka Bright Spark) and I had about women in our industry and the work that we were doing already informally with individuals and companies to better position business to attract and retain women in our predominately male dominated industry.

Fiona: There is a story behind the company’s name which we love to share. The Real part is a reference to the business services being centered around real experiences delivered by people who have lived them, and also a play on the term ‘relational’ skills – patience, empathy, trustworthiness, reliability and positive influence. These are also our core values.

Kris: Energy is a direct reference to the attitude and approach to the life of the people behind the company.

Fiona: Co is for our community as we recognise the business is a channel through which clients can access an extensive network of individuals and businesses that offer complementary programs that can augment those directly provided by us.

Real Energy Co offers an opportunity for our clients to access like-minded organisations or individuals with confidence that these other parties – members of our Co – will have an approach to business and a value system that is consistent with Kris and mine and for which we are both well known.

Our mentor community has grown and now comprises of both female and male professionals offering diversity in experience and perspective. Life’s many challenges have implications for professional performance and aspirations and we wanted to build a resource for our clients that offered them a diverse range of professional people from which to draw on. One of the cornerstone values of our mentoring service is that it empowers the client to pick who, based on professional and life experiences, they consider is best placed to support them at a particular time in their life.

That’s our differentiator. It’s a rare opportunity to have the ability to control who will mentor you and the flexibility to change this arrangement at any time.

Kris: When we originally decided to set up Real Energy Co, we looked back at what we would have liked to have had available to us when we were making our way in the industry. We also considered where we are now and the sort of support we would value now and into the future as our own careers continue to grow.

When we looked back, there were very few people that we felt comfortable confiding in about challenges we faced at work or outside of work that were impacting our professional outlook. Many times we felt like we would be judged if we were open and honest, and that this would impact negatively on the way we were perceived in the work place by both superiors and peers. Real Energy Co provides a safe and non-judgmental environment where our clients can be frank. It’s what we would have loved to be able to access, particularly in the crucial formative years of our respective careers.

Fiona: Another area the business is working in is in helping our clients Understand what is truly important to their female staff at all levels within the organisation to help inform strategic thinking in relation to both retaining and attracting talent.

Our experience is that women under-value their contribution and find it challenging to vocalise what they want and /or need from their company to make it an attractive long term career proposition for them.

Danielle: Do you think that’s fear?

Fiona: I think that’s the fear of being judged… but, we can use our experiences to encourage these women to open up and be comfortable in talking about what they want from their careers and the ways in which their employer can support them.   While there may be a solid foundation of policies and procedures in place, many companies are still struggling to retain and /or attract new female talent. We work with small groups of female team members to identify and discuss what the business does well in their eyes, what they could do better and work-shopping ideas around what initiatives could be explored by the business to improve its perception as an employer of choice.  We also find that a combination of our experience and being external to the business enables us to talk frankly when initiatives are proposed that may not be practical or reasonable for their business to take on. We find in these cases, the message is received more positively then perhaps it may be if it came instead from the leadership team.

These workshops provide a safe and non-judgmental environment and provide valuable insight for both participants (who often hear perspectives from their peers they hadn’t appreciated) and senior management who we provide an overview of key feedback and suggestions around how they could consider addressing them. .  We see this particular area of work we do as not just helping the business understand their team and team understand their businesses, but to help them understand each other.

Kris: Because women tend to undervalue what we can achieve. Many don’t understand their own abilities. Mentoring builds confidence and can really help mentees to understand their capabilities, plus acknowledge and work productively on their limitations.

What women value is often different to what a lot of men value from their employers. Men are keener on titles, moving up that ladder, the hierarchy. Conversely, a lot of women really value recognition in different ways like flexible working hours, or more training, or simply being recognised for doing a great job.

Companies willing to invest in shining a light on the value women bring to business with coaching and mentoring, which is going to help build their own personal brand and confidence, is going to make their female employees feel valued. If the staff are empowered then they are going to be promoting their business to others which will help the company attract other women.

Danielle: And what do you see as a big retention problem?

Kris: Attracting them in the first place is part of the problem. There’s one company who contacted us and said they’re having a real problem attracting and retaining  female staff. Their website has information on their board of directors who are all middle-aged men and they also have a tab that says “Up and Coming Future Leaders” and they’re all men as well. So if I was applying for a job there, I’d look at that and think, well I’m never going to be a future leader in this company so I wouldn’t be tempted to apply for a position. Businesses that are genuinely interested in building the pipeline of female talent and future leaders need to start from the top. They have to set clear goals for their board’s composition and governance structure to support such.   They need to develop clear pathways for women to advance and become part of the leadership team.

Fiona: One of the companies we’ve been working with, told us a woman who applied for a job wanted to work from 10 to 4, four days a week due to the need to also manage childcare demands. While she met all the technical and cultural criteria, the client decided not to offer her the position as they didn’t believe she would be able to do her job properly in shorter hours. The client asked our opinion and we advised them that if she was the right fit for the job then they should allow here the opportunity to prove them wrong.  I was really impressed to learn that a week later they’d gone back to her and renegotiated the offer to make it work for her personal situation and she has proven to be an outstanding asset to the business.

We often hear, ‘Oh, accommodating women is difficult.’   We keep saying, it’s not a ‘female’ issue, it’s not a ‘having a baby’ issue. It is simply that in today’s society we are all juggling so many things and ultimately the changes you can make will benefit both male and female employees – making it a better working environment for all

Retention of women is hard because often there is a lack of flexibility in the workplace and this makes it difficult for women who may be juggling multiple demands on their time outside of work.  While this has traditionally been related primarily to raising families. In an ageing society, the pressures are increasingly coming from a need to support older generations too.

Our experience is that for many women in our industry, they elect to leave when they have a family.  For those who do try to remain, they find they are isolated while on leave and / or when they return, find it challenging to identify a role for them in which they feel valued. My husband was home full-time when we had our second child, I had only just launched the business and he talked about the fact that when he actually went back into the workforce four years later, he had a lot of men comment on how lucky he was to have been a ‘house-husband’.  The regret for us was that while he was ‘at home’ he felt ashamed that he wasn’t working and he didn’t enjoy it as much at the time as he should have. This is the sort of behaviour we need to change – it’s about understanding the needs of male and female employees and adapting the business processes to attract and retain valuable staff regardless of gender.

We advocate for parental leave as there are many men who would like to have an opportunity to spend more time at home with their children, and importantly, not be judged negatively for it.

Kris: It is getting better, 20 years ago the FM industry only had 18 percent female representation, now it’s almost 30 percent,and growing.  22 years ago when I went to my first FMA lunch, I remember going up in the lift to the function and I was absolutely terrified. I was standing in the doorway of the room confronted by a sea of men and thinking  ‘I don’t think I can do this’ when I felt a little tap on my shoulder. I turned around and this man said ‘Excuse me, love, do you think I could get a beer?’ I said, ‘Of course and while you’re there could you get me a wine?’ Luckily there are a lot more women in the room now and no mistaking them for bar staff!

Fiona: We have seen many female students in property and construction but the stats show that numbers are decreasing as they elect to transfer their skills to other less demanding industries. What Kris and I ultimately hope for Real Energy Co is to help companies within our industry be employers of choice for women, assisting the industry in retaining its existing valuable female talent and attracting future generations.  If we can make some impact on this then we will feel we have been able to make a positive difference in the industry .

Danielle: What is for the future?

Kris: Companies should have enough flexibility and understanding of the diverse needs of all employees to be able to attract and retain high quality staff without having to wonder how or if they can make it work.  When Real Energy Co is no longer in demand and gender diversity and inclusion is no longer a topic of debate, we will feel happy in knowing we have contributed in some way to implementing sustainable change in an area that is so important for both businesses across all industries and society as a whole.

 

What can we say about Kris and Fiona? Prior to Real Energy Co, they were already absolute leaders in the built environment. Female role models that we had had the pleasure of meeting through TEN and the Women of ABP Alumni network at the University of Melbourne. But by their powers combined…well, no words can express the energy, the strength, the realism and the knowledge that they must bring to the room when they consult on Diversity. When people come to make an impact like Kris and Fiona, it’s a paradigm shift in how companies begin to think about the issue of Diversity – not just as a business case, but as an imperative to a stronger business culture and brand and a stronger, more ethical industry. We thank Kris and Fiona so much for their valuable time. And hope that you all get a chance to cross paths with them soon! J & D x

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