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Megan Dalla-Camina: on confidence, passion and dreaming big

by Phoebe Vertigan on October 20, 2015

Are you passionate about what you do? Do you jump out of bed every morning feeling like you are 100% on purpose? Or perhaps you are feeling burnt out, and not satisfied by your career?

Describing herself as part sass, part sizzle and a whole lotta soul, after a high flying career in the corpoate world, Megan Dalla-Camina has worked out how to balance her passion and purpose. These days, Megan is an entrepreneurial powerhouse. We chatted to Megan about life, work, building confidence and how you can dream big and find your passion.

It’s time to make yourself comfortable and prepare to be inspired!

Megan, what was your first job?

My first job was working in a café. Actually it was more of a donut shop/burger/sandwich place. I was almost 15. I couldn’t get in there fast enough, I was so keen to earn my own money. I worked Thursday nights and Saturday mornings. I had a strong work ethic from a very young age, I think from watching my parents work hard.

These days, you are a business, creative and leadership strategist, an author, coach and speaker on women, leadership and wellbeing. Wow! Tell us more about your career journey.

I grew up as a creative; a dancer, actress, writer, poet, singer, music producer. I was always creating and performing, right through until I was in my early twenties. A car accident then changed my course, and I ended up in the corporate world, which saw me working for big global companies like GE, PwC and IBM for the best part of the next 20 years. I worked in marketing, business development, business strategy, gender diversity, organizational change and leadership development. Really senior roles, in Australia, Asia and the US. My last role was Head of Strategy for IBM, a 5 Billion dollar business. During that time I also completed two Masters degrees, one in Business Management and the other in Wellness with a major in Positive Psychology. And just before I made my first big Director role, I got pregnant with my son who is now nearly 15.

Whilst I loved and thrived for most of my corporate year, it was also pretty brutal. I was a workaholic for a lot of it, at my worst working up to 18 hours a day and living on a plane across multiple countries to do my job. And this led my to one of my pivotal moments, having a complete burnout at age 35 and realizing that this really wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. It was the first time in more than a decade that I actually stopped to consider what I wanted my life to look like, as the thought of doing that would never have crossed my mind – an issue I see in so many women.

At that point I took a few months off, and then went back into my company (IBM) in a newly created executive role, but in a flexible part time capacity four days a week. I stayed there for another 7 years, and I made it work for me. I went and did my yoga teaching training to deepen my spiritual practice, and I did the second Masters degree in Wellness with a major in Positive Psychology, to get into the science of thriving. It was then after much urging from women in my life, that I landed the book deal to write Getting Real About Having It All. And I started to build my exit strategy from corporate life, to step into my own business.

Now, I’m a thriving entrepreneur and love it. I’m a business, creative and leadership strategist, and a coach, speaker and author on women, leadership and wellbeing. I’ve also recently created The Career Toolkit, an incredible online program to help women with their own career journey, with all of the lessons, tools and strategies that they need to get clear, confident and lit up with the work they do in the world.

I’m also a single parent to the most amazing teenage boy who is the coolest person I know – he keeps things interesting in between running the business, writing my next book, setting up my second business which is a women’s leadership development company, traveling to Byron and New York whenever I can, coaching, speaking and doing my PhD researching women and feminine power.

Looking back, is there a defining point in your career?

There were many defining moments, as I think anyone who really reflects on their career will find. There are four major ones that had a profound impact on my career and life. The moment at 24, whilst recovering from a car accident, that I decided I wasn’t going to keep pursuing my passion in performing arts, and would instead take a job at GE, my first corporate role. Before the accident I had been trying to work out how I put my career together and was trying different roles in advertising and music publishing and mixing that with performing. But I knew there was a decision looming and that’s when I had the car accident. Making that decision to change direction was a huge moment for me that changed the trajectory of my life.

The second point was becoming the youngest Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers the day after I found out I was pregnant, and two days after starting my first Masters degree, definitely a defining moment (and an oh sh*t moment too!). Another significant one was when, two years after taking on the biggest role of my life as Director of Marketing at IBM, I completely burnt myself out and gave up that job, to take a few months off, get well and work out what I really wanted my life to look like. I write a lot about that in Getting Real About Having It All. And then of course, when I left my corporate career two and half years ago to start my own business. Huge, massive, defining moment that I am grateful for everyday.

What advice would you give to young women starting their careers?

Get clear on what you want. Know what you are passionate about. Think about what meaningful work would look like for you. Don’t be afraid to move around and try different things until you work out what really lights you up. Understand your strengths, those things that you like doing and are good at (take the free survey at viame.org). And get crystal clear on your life vision. For so many of us when we are starting out we go hard on the career stuff, trying to make our mark, move up the ladder or create thriving businesses. But our life often suffers, sometimes drastically, as a result.

I encourage all of my clients and women I speak to, to do the work to create a vision for their life that excites and energises them, and then build their career into that, not the other way around.

We love that you are passionate about leadership having a heart and not being afraid to show it. How do you work with leaders ready to embrace this attitude?

Leadership is really changing, and bringing heart into, humanizing it, and giving people the tools they need to lead effectively and enable thriving, is incredibly important. The work I am doing in large organizations, and have done for the past decade, about individual and organizational thriving, is truly creating revolutions in how people show up, how businesses get the best out of people, and the bottom line impacts. I do a lot of work around Positive Leadership, taking the science from positive psychology, neuroscience, behavioural economics, and wellness and have now taught and developed thousands of people in these tools and techniques. When people really understand how to use their strengths, flex their mindsets, work with their energy and manage their wellbeing, the change in them and their work is incredible. And when we train leaders in organizations on the same principles, and that behavior change ripples through the business, not only is the culture changed, and the business results improved, but lives are changed for the better at work and at home. It’s incredibly powerful.

How can women leaders embrace their “feminine” traits at work, particularly in corporate environments? What advice would you give someone who is in a workplace where they feel like this attitude isn’t accepted?

This is one of the biggest challenges and opportunities for women when we think about stepping into our feminine power. We are so socialised as women to be nice, to please and importantly, to conform to the power norms of the organisation or structure we are. Considering that most of our organisations are still patriarchal systems, designed by men for men and the ideal worker and leader model, women need to conform through adopting more masculine traits so that we fit in and can succeed at work.

As I have personally experienced, and witnessed through my work in gender diversity, women’s leadership and private coaching, this is an unsustainable and deeply unfulfilling strategy.

What is sustainable and meaningful is for women to give themselves permission to show up authentically and bring their whole selves to work. Traits like vulnerability, empathy, creativity, collaboration, intuition and kindness, are deemed by research to be feminine traits – whether they show up in men or women. For women to feel authentic at work, we have a deep need to show up with a balance of feminine and masculine traits. Unfortunately, when we get real about it, many of us are deeply attached to our masculine, and our feminine is left withering on the vine. This goes for men too, who have little to no permission to embrace their feminine traits, and also have a deep longing to. Women can look for ways to bring these traits into their everyday life, embracing them for what they are, and not being afraid to be real, authentic and balanced, no matter what their environment.

If women are in an environment where they cannot be themselves, where they can’t use their strengths, where they feel like they are an imposter because they are not showing up authentically, then I would suggest looking for a new manager, a new team or a new organisation where they can truly thrive. And for female entrepreneurs, it’s important to check in on this as well, as we often employ our masculine traits to drive our business forward, and it’s one of the key reasons we see so much burn out amongst business owners. You have to keep yourself balanced and in check for sustainable long term success, both personal and professional.

How can women be more confident at work?

Confidence is such an ambiguous term. What we know from research is that confidence is really the ability to turn your thoughts into action. There are three components to that; being able to show up authentically; thinking less; and taking action. For many women, the issues that impact confidence the most are the stories we tell ourselves, our beliefs and the incessant rumination that keeps us stuck. Learning to challenge the stories we tell, and reframe them positively so that we can do what we want to do, is the key. This simple three step process has proven to be life changing. Firstly, learn to catch your stories. What are the consistent stories you tell yourself that undermine your confidence? Catch them and write them down. Second, start to ask the question ‘Is that true?’ for every story you tell yourself. This ability to challenge will help you break down the stories into truths and untruths, instead of just taking every one of the 60-80,000 thoughts you have in any given day as gospel. And lastly, once you know what the truth is, you have the opportunity to reframe the story into one that will enable you to take action toward your goal. This is the key to building confidence, step by step, story by story.

There is an in-depth article on my blog on confidence for women that I recommend for more on this critical topic.

How can we dream big in our careers? What steps can we put in place when we are ready to take the next step?

Dream is the operative word. We have to bold enough to dream. So often we limit ourselves because we are scared of declaring what we truly want. Get creative and start a vision board. Journal about what is really in your heart. Focus on your strengths, your purpose, what meaningful work would truly look like. People always ask what would you do if you couldn’t fail. But I prefer to ask what would you do even if you failed? That is what you truly want. That is probably what your biggest dream is. That is your calling. Go dream, visualise, and create a plan around that. And watch what happens.

My free career planning pack has a great worksheet that helps guide women through this process. And The Career Toolkit goes deeply into life vision, purpose, career planning, feminine power and all the things that you need to support dreaming big and then building an all important action plan.

You have shared stories about dealing with “Sunday night dread” in previous jobs, which is common amongst a lot of women. How do you suggest we deal with these feelings and stress?

There are so many reasons why women get the dread and it can show up in different ways. It can be the stress that starts to seep in on Sunday around lunchtime, when you switch back into work mode and start playing out the week in your mind (or actually start working to get ahead of the curve). Or it can be the sense of misery and even depression that you can feel at the thought of another meaningless work week, where you can’t show up as you truly want to.

You can put a Band-Aid on those feelings, or you can get to the bottom of why you are feeling them. Really look at why you are so stressed or miserable. Is it that you aren’t using your strengths? That you are creatively stifled? That your work is just meaningless? That you are so over stretched and over committed that you are bordering on burn out? Many women don’t face the answers to these questions because if they do, they are scared they will have to face some unpleasant truths and create some changes. That’s true. But staying in this pattern of unhappiness is much worse, and can have dire long term consequences.

It may be hard to face in the short term, but the only way through it is to show up, get real about where you are at, and do the work required to create positive change.

Finally, we know you are very busy. How do you balance your own wellbeing amongst your busy schedule?

It can be challenging as I always have a lot going on, as most of us do. I manage myself by making my wellbeing and balance in my life a priority. It’s the only way. And I anchor my day through wellbeing practices that keep me grounded. I learnt the hard way what happens when you lose your health, and it’s just not something that I am prepared to compromise on ever again. It’s not always the easy road, for sure, but it’s the sustainable one.

The mornings are sacred for me and I try to keep them clear to ground my day. Once I have taken my son to the bus or to school for early morning basketball training (6am, oh joy!) I then head to the beach with my dog Billie for a long walk and a swim when it’s warm enough (about 9 months of the year). I then head home, picking up a green juice on the way or making a green smoothie at home after my yoga and meditation practice.

It helps that I work from my home and have created a space that I love being in. My office space is surrounded by vision boards, books and creative projects I am working on, and my desk is covered with things that inspire me and embed a sense of wellbeing (aromatherapy oils, a candle, inspiring quotes, the odd crystal or two). All of this keeps me feeling grounded and in touch with what is important while I am running my business; being on the phone with an executive coaching client in Melbourne, working on a business strategy with an entrepreneur in London, writing my book, doing PhD research, preparing a talk for a speaking gig, or driving my own business development and creative projects.

And then I have an evening ritual that helps me calm down and switch off at the end of the day. About 9.30pm I start to wind down, once my son is in bed and I have done what I need to around the house or with work. I will do some gentle yoga, have some relaxing tea (chamomile and lavender is my current favourite), read something about creativity, wellbeing or spirituality, put on some aromatherapy oils, meditate and sleep, generally no later than 10.30pm. This whole routine could be an hour, or it could be 15 minutes, especially if I’m traveling. But it always happens.

I get asked all of time about balance and how we can really create it. So I wrote 12 Rules For Balanced Women as I wanted women to have a real guide on what is essential to create balance in your life. Balance is not a myth, it’s what the sages from the ages taught us. But we have lost our way. I walk through the 12 things that are essential for you to focus on if you truly want a balanced life. It is possible. I learnt the hard way, but now even with everything that I do, I still have balance because I have followed these steps to create it for myself. It is my wish for everyone to find their version of what a balanced life looks like. The bundle includes a video, the beautifully designed ebook which has become somewhat of a bible as you say, and a workbook. And it’s totally free on my website.

Megan Dalla-Camina is a keynote speaker at Macquarie University’s 2015 Women, Management and Work Conference, 6th November in Sydney. She will discuss, “Shift to new leadership”. The conference will feature some of the most innovative ideas of leadership and progressive management concepts, presented by thought leaders in organisational management and diversity. Get your tickets here.

Welcome to Leaders in Heels

Phoebe Vertigan
Phoebe is Melbourne-based writer who is passionate about young women excelling in their careers from day one. Phoebe’s insights come her own career change journey, from a busy life in the corporate world as an Intellectual Property lawyer, to a digital marketer and content creator. A social butterfly, Phoebe loves learning from thought leaders and connecting with young professionals alike. Phoebe also shares her thoughts on her personal blog, careerchronicles.com.au. In her spare time, Phoebe loves trying new restaurants, having dinner parties, trying to stay healthy, travelling, reading and indulging in her social media obsession.
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