with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this Best of Series episode of The Inner Chief podcast, we feature the Chief Growth Officer of ACS (Australian Computer Society), Siobhan O’Sullivan, on customer experience, looking at yourself in the mirror and accelerating your career.

I interviewed Siobhan for this podcast in 2018, when she was the COO of HashChing, Australia’s first mortgage hub. She has since moved on to become the Chief Growth Officer for ACS (Australian Computer Society).

Siobhan started her career in Human Resources at Armaguard and then progressed through the ranks of Woolworths and into executive roles as COO of Finware Australia and then CEO of The Mortgage & Finance Association of Australia (MFAA), the peak industry body providing service and representation to more than 12,500 Professional Finance Brokers.

She has also been a Director of Running for Premature Babies and is currently on the Board of Wych Money and BrainSTEM Limited.

Siobhan has trained in martial arts since she was 8 years old and also holds an MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management.

In this episode we talk about:

✅  How she rose from bluecollar roots to lead one of the most exciting fin-tech businesses

✅  What she learnt from becoming a black belt in multiple martial arts forms, including spending time with a Sixth Dan in the USA

✅  How to stop being a victim and accelerate your career

✅  How to look at the person in the mirror and like what you see.

Connecting with Siobhan O’Sullivan

You can reach Siobhan on LinkedIn.

Books and resources

“I'm an advocate of not getting splinters in my bum or sitting on a fence. Make hard choices, make them now, rip the BandAid off.”


On doing martial arts from an early age

  • Martial arts definitely informed me about equality, everyone being the same, and the only way to advance is through the demonstration of ability, capability or merit.
  • Everyone wears the same, everyone wears a Gi, there's no designation of male or female, rich or poor, black or white. We're all even and we've all got something to contribute and all have got something to learn. The pants are being held up by your belt. People that are fast tracking people to a black belt is sad. It's not about the speed, it's about the journey more than anything and it's about the humility that you can learn about yourself and the levels at which you can push yourself and stretch yourself because there's always more and you're encouraged in a good environment under, I suppose constructive team support to continually find and stretch yourself. That's the experience I had.
  • My parents were both blue collar workers and no one had explicitly said to me that there was a cap on my capability but I inherently grew up in a suburb feeling that that was the case. And if you were in a bar in the city, people would say, “Oh where, what school did you go to? Where did you grow up?” “Oh, Campbelltown.” And people would go, “Campbelltown? Oh goodness, oh gosh you've survived.” Like you had a physical or mental handicap. In my time in Los Angeles, it became acutely clear to me that there is no cap on your mental capability and I'm very pleased that I had that trip to meet with the Sixth Dan and that mental dialogue every night over a course of three months and basically coined with, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”
  • We front up, particularly as senior practitioners in business, forgetting that we've still got to be open to learning. We become complacent that we know most of what we do to execute our job every day, but in actual fact we've probably still got lots more to learn and few people come to the table open minded like that. We do as a junior level and we seem to slowly close that mindset off.

On taking initiative in her early career

  • Make good decisions but always ask good questions of others, to make those good decisions.
  • I'm a bit advocate of not getting splinters in my bum, and I mean that by not sitting on a fence. So hard choices, make them now, do it, rip the band aid off-
  • HR as it's practised normally is not as per its discipline. It's normally an arbiter between the employer and the employee, to get a win win outcome within the business. Rarely is it practitioner that way. It's normally an advocate of the employer, normally to the detriment of the employee and I was not that way.
  • It's like a big challenge in business today or in your life today or personal relationships, you've got two options in broad terms. You either get up and front the day or you stay in the foetal position. Really. That's really what you've got.
  • I'm not smarter than anyone, I'm probably not smarter than most people to be honest, but my attitude is the amplifier. It's like a flat tyre on a car, unless you change your attitude, it's not going to get you anywhere.
  • So in sport, they talk about attitude, attitude, attitude, get the right headspace, and I think I've generally got the right headspace, and I am good at pulling together the tools, my toolkit, of experience inside ideas, and if I don't have enough, I'll ask the people I know maybe that do have answers, but my attitude is one which is very unrelenting.

On victim mentality

  • When you have to examine your own behaviour, you need to take stock and generally that means you need to change. And change is difficult and particularly behavioural change because behaviour is innate. It's extraordinarily difficult.
  • And I would suggest I'm very unique in my DNA, where my care factor is ridiculously high and I think about every dollar that the business spends as being my dollar. And my team. And my care factor. Now I'm the unique one in here, I'm not the normal, so my going above and beyond and my diligence with things is not the norm compared to maybe others.

On customer experience

  • I don't think people genuinely have enough empathy or investment into “what would my customer do here“, “lets bring customers in and ask them what went wrong. What did they like? What did they not like?” And this has been going on for years.
  • Talk about Southwest Airlines, it's kind of lost its heyday but in its heyday, they were prolific in bringing in customers and asking them about their experience on the aircraft. And things such as garnishes on their food was one of the things that went from customer feedback. “Why do you do that, I never eat it. It's crap. I think you put on there to look good, I think it's probably been handled on two or three dishes. I don't want it”. So, oh, why are we doing that? That's a saving of money.
  • There's a term called metacognition, and it's the ability to analyse and review ones own behaviour. So I'm very much around “what can I do differently there to get a different outcome next time?” And I think we should do more of that as a collective.

On living a balanced life and the man in the mirror

  • So I think work as really three different channels. It's either a job, it's a career or it's a passion point. And a job by nature is hard work, it's something maybe you've landed into for circumstances you're not thrilled about. And a career of course, you've nurtured some educational qualifications. For me what I do is a passion point. I'm literally intrigued by the puzzle of business, I love solving it. I love trying to get more out of a business, solve – not only where we are today, where we need to be in 12 months and five years.
  • Well, it's like you can't have a proper relationship until you love yourself. It sort of emanates from the same thinking. You are the centre of any transaction, whether it be personal or work. And if you don't know yourself, if you don't feel you're at the best capability development levels, it starts with you. You've gotta look in the mirror. There's actually a great poem about the man in the mirror. Being able to say positive things about yourself and knowing who you are and being responsible for the person look in the mirror at and being able to lie down at night, calmly and happy. 
  • So that for me is where it emanates from. It all starts and ends with you. And your success starts and ends with you as well. If you're aspirational to get certain levels in your career or certain levels financial goals or certain lifestyle attributes, then there's a pathway to get there, you need to start executing. That starts with you.
  • Or you watch too much Instagram and you don't come in the genetically predisposed body shape that everyone thinks is currently attractive. You don't have the right chest measurements, or the six-pack if you're a bloke. These are not things that genuinely make people happy, they're superficial things. And yet we put so much importance on them.

On improving your self-image

  • We talk about counselling or psychologists. We seem to look at it in a fixing process, something's wrong, go see a psychologist. When in actual fact it could be a positive conversation and kind of in note in that space is Miranda Kerr, who positively seeks psychological discussions annually to ensure she's recalibrating and refocused for what she believes is the year ahead.
  • I'm a big advocate that big people make other people feel big, small people make other people feel small. And I say this to my daughters, and I say “be very clear with the person's character. And how you'll be treated based on how you look, but that'll stop very quickly if you don't have character”.
  • You can't ride on someone else's back to make you feel bigger.

On accelerating your career

  • Don't keep ploughing away at a job or a business that isn't helping and reflecting and acknowledging the contribution that you're making, because it's like hitting your head against a brick wall. Equally if you are in a current role and you aspire to go to the next role, look at all the possible pathways. Is it through the operational … you know if you're in HR and you want to get to GM roles, what are my opportunities. Do I go and do a project management lead? Do I go into an operational role that gives me more than just HR as a discipline to get more broad? Do I need an MBA on top of my base degree to give me the door opening conversation, to show management I'm actually committed to my career? Yes.
  • You need to look where do I need to be, and if you're unsure, ask the right questions. Seek networking conversations with people who have done that pathway, been successful, reached that goal. What did you do, how'd you do it differently? And then ask if you're junior, and you've got a clear pathway and you're implementation some of those aspirational points – ask for people to be your sponsor. And a sponsor in my view, is someone to raise your name in a conversation when the opportunity comes up. To say “have you thought of Johnny? I know he's passionate about becoming a project lead”, “Hey Sally mentioned to me the other day that she's interested in an operational opportunity, is there a quick project you could put her on to give her more exposure to the operational side of the business?”

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • I think just be inspiring. Be authentic. And be yourself.
  • I'm tired of people that present – particularly out of big corporates coming into a small startup space that come with a view “this is how I need to behave”. It's no, show me who you are, show me your passion point, show me what makes you get up in the morning. You know that sense of resilience – and we talk about the survival of the fittest, it's actually not so much the survival of the fittest, it's survival of the most resilient. And you think about stoicism. 
  • Think of that cow, when I'm having a bad day. So tough times never outlast tough people. And I kind of think I'm pretty tough, emotionally resilient, capable person. So I kind of view myself sometimes – when I'm going through a bit of a storm at work or whatever it may be – I'm that cow that's not covering under a tree. I'm out without a tree, the storm's lashing down, I'm going “yeah, no drama. Let's go.”

Deal hope,