February 10, 2021
Normally, press coverage of Dr Kirstin Ferguson’s work life focuses on her headline-grabbing successes.
It’s like a roll call of everything you think you’d achieve if only you were, say, a much better version of yourself: the former Royal Australian Air Force officer was last month named one of the world’s 30 “thinkers to watch” by London-based management consultancy Thinkers50 (the only Australian on the list) and she also just finished a stint as the deputy chair of the ABC during a turbulent time for the national broadcaster. Oh, and she’s a director on four corporate boards and an adjunct professor at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Business.
Lesser known, though – and a calling card in their own way for her next project – are her own work struggles, challenges and stumbles.
“It’s so exhausting, for years,” says Ferguson about her past attempts to pretend in the workplace that she wasn’t also a mother with all its associated stresses – a strategy she employed to be “really successful in male-dominated environments”. (Her daughters, both attending university in Melbourne, are now 21 and 18.) “I was just hoping no one noticed I was female at all.”
It led to numerous awkward encounters, when people in professional situations asked her, “Who’s looking after your children?” “Initially I would be somewhat apologetic with my answer, trying to justify it,” says Ferguson, who lives with her husband on the Sunshine Coast. “[Then] I would sort of ask them where their children were. They were just totally shocked.”
That’s just scratching the surface. At 47, and the creator of the 2017 social media campaign #CelebratingWomen, Ferguson has also lived through letting offensive comments by co-workers “slide, because it’s easier… [and] I didn’t always have the courage to speak up”.
They’re the sort of experiences that will underpin Ferguson’s next endeavour as the writer of a new weekly career column, for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, called “Got a minute?” to be launched next Wednesday.
In it, Ferguson will address whatever curly – and confidential – workplace-related questions readers throw at her, whether it’s what to do if you’re having an affair with your boss, to how to handle colleagues who belittle you, or inundate you with their best ideas during a crisis.
The latter is something she got a crash course in when she took over as acting deputy chair of the ABC in 2018 shortly after the broadcaster lost its managing director and chairman in the same week.
“I don’t know that anybody’s ever prepared to find themselves having to lead through such a public crisis like that, but you definitely learn a lot about yourself,” says Ferguson, who co-wrote the book Women Kind: Unlocking the Power of Women Supporting Women, and is a top leadership coach to some of Australia’s leading corporate bosses. “You learn to block out the noise. There were many, many, many people all wanting to offer advice and suggestions, and come to speak to you. Reducing that number to just a trusted few is really important.”
Her military training, she says, really helped in that situation – “You are very much trained to stay calm in a crisis” – but this background has also thrown her for a loop in other situations. Ferguson laughs – now – about the time she kept calling her boss “Sir” in front of a group of colleagues during a meeting at her first civilian job after leaving the military.
“I still get hassled about that,” she says, before chuckling. Of her work colleagues at the time, she says: “I think they were just looking at me like ‘Who is this weird person that calls our boss ‘Sir’?”
Luckily, times have changed.
“Look, it happens less often,” she says, of blurting things out that she wishes she hadn’t. “Now, thank god for the mute button on Zoom. You can mumble it under your breath.”