Can you have your cake and eat it too? Barb Swanson on migrating to Australia, motherhood and moving sales targets.

By Madeleine Gasparinatos

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Interview by Kevin Griffiths
Written by Madeleine Gasparinatos

If you ask Barb and Keith Swanson why they moved from their hometown in Texas to Australia, they reply “we moved for work”. But if you were to assume they moved for Keith’s work, which everyone does, you’d be wrong. It was Barb’s employer that moved them to Australia where she assumed the role of Vice President, Sales Asia Pacific for InterCall (now West Unified Communications).

For a newlywed couple (they tied the knot 3 months prior), it was a big move. Barb’s husband Keith was a Director for Aegon Direct Marketing and left the role to support the couple’s move. He also made it possible for Barb to get a head start on her role in Australia by staying behind in the USA and managing selling houses and cars, coordinating movers, and the mountain of paperwork and administration that comes with moving overseas.

Barb was granted an Employer Sponsored 457 Visa which allowed both her and Keith to work full-time in Australia. Keith found the job market strong in Australia and chose a role with IBM where he stayed for three years before moving to an APAC regional role with SAS.

Fast-forward nine years and Barb has just begun her latest role as Vice President Sales, Asia Pacific at TeamViewer. In those years, Barb has navigated the subtle and the not-so-subtle differences between the North American culture and that Down Under, had three children and taken three years out of the workforce to be a stay-at-home mum.

We were lucky enough to grab some time with Barb before starting her new role at TeamViewer. Her enthusiasm for the company is barely containable, and she’s excited to sink her teeth into the job. But before she starts kicking goals at TeamViewer, we were interested to get an insight on the journey that got her where she is.

The Decision – Texas USA, 2006

Once Barb was offered the opportunity to move to Australia with her then-employer InterCall (now West Unified Communications), the decision wasn’t easy.

“It was so hard. Talk about putting stress on the marriage!” Barb’s husband was the analyst in this process while she was more willing to take a leap of faith. He wanted to make sure that a decision wasn’t entered into lightly, and that all questions were asked and answered, which was an arduous process as InterCall was very new to moving executives overseas. In the end, Keith’s analytics and Barb’s willingness to “go for it” led them to a fantastic decision to accept the role and move to the other side of the world….literally.

Making the Move, March-June 2007

From the comfort of their Texan-sized house, Barb & Keith jumped online, looking for houses to rent in Sydney. They were excited to see the results, thinking they’d be able to afford something nice once they arrived. And then the penny dropped. Rent was listed weekly, not monthly like it is in so many places around the world. “That’s a reality check. You definitely give up space and luxury for location when renting a home in Sydney. There is a shortage of rentals, they are expensive, and not to the standards you’re likely used to dwelling in the US,” Barb outlines. But she also adds, “this, however, is a first-world problem, and the trade-off is that you are literally steps from the most amazing water and beaches in the world. You can come home from work and head to the beach.”

Settling in, Australia, early 2007

After finding a house, buying a car, setting up bank accounts and figuring out the logistics of life in Australia, Barb & Keith quickly set out exploring every spare weekend. Within an hour in either direction are beautiful beaches and mountains. They discovered that while on the surface Australian culture looks similar to American culture, it is very unique and special, which they’ve learned to love and appreciate.

And while the flights are long, Barb realized that Australia was the perfect place to build roots while working throughout Asia. Barb’s advice is that from a business perspective, Australia is a great place to land to work with Asia Pacific. Australia allows you to get your feet wet in a business market that is manageably similar to the US and gives you some grounding for your trips to Asia Pacific, which are anything but similar.

Same Same but Different

At MitchelLake, we’ve helped countless companies launch from one market to another. From our experience with businesses such as SurveyMonkey, Dropbox, and Facebook, it’s clear that there are differences between how business is done in the US and Down Under. “It’s similar to the mistakes Americans make going into Canada”, Barb notes, “it looks the same but companies soon find the pace and drivers are quite different.”

She continues, “For example, it’s much easier to get a sales appointment in Australia than it is in America. But in America once you get the appointment and gain interest you’re going to get the deal done a lot quicker. Timelines in your sales cycle are going to be different.”

Work Hard/Play Hard

Barb’s years of experience in the US, in a work culture that values face time, and the expectation of staying late for the sake of staying late, meant that coming to Australia was a bit of a shock. With the utmost respect Barb says “Australians have a reputation of not working as hard”. But Barb is quick to point out that she’s never had a problem getting the most of her team during business hours. There is, however, a respected work hard/play hard mentality and a high value on that time out of the office, at home, with friends and family.

Many Australians working global roles tend to log in very early from home to catch the US office hours and then take their time getting into the office after dropping kids at school. Offices tend to clear out by 5:30pm when people head home for dinner and family time. But these global workers will log back on after the kids are in bed to touch base with their European counterparts.

The Bureau of Statistics found that 5 million of Australia’s 7.7 million full time workers put in more than 40 hours per week, with 1.4 million putting in more than 50 hours per week. More than a quarter of a million Australians are clocking up in excess of 70 hours per week. But when it comes time for Australians to turn off, they’re off. “You will use all of your vacation days, and can easily be gone for two weeks” which is something rarely heard of in the US. Barb recommends preparing for January as business comes to a halt because it is the peak of summer, schools are off, and families are on holiday.

Surprising Seasonality

On January 2nd, 2008, Barb showed up to the office with her game-on attitude. She was ready to get down to business. For any business that is built on recurring revenue, January is a huge month. Unfortunately, she was by herself. She recalls, “I’m back in the office, and nobody’s there. No coffee shops were open. Nothing. It was barren”. So here’s Barb, not even 12 months into her role and her Australian team are taking 3-4 weeks off in January. The hurdles continued, “Finally the Aussies are back to work then most of Asia shuts down for two weeks for Chinese New Year!”.

The trick is to be nimble, “I moved the commission plan to start in March, to get a proper start, because there’s nothing you can do about it”, Barb says. “And I had a million incentives and programs in place in Q4 to make sure that Q1 was done and dusted once we got there”.

Success Down Under

Barb met with success in her role at InterCall in Australia. Leading a headcount of 130, she managed 18 offices across nine countries including China and India. During her time there she increased annual revenue 563 percent. From $22mill (USD) in 2006 to $146 mill (USD) a mere five years later.

Barb describes it as “a really fantastic experience”. She focused on bringing value to the team by rolling-up her sleeves and helping them sell. “I think they could see that what I was doing was working and I was able to give them the tools to do it themselves.” But most important to her success was the leadership team she put in place. “Where I had strong leadership and management, I had great results. Simple but hard.”

Let’s talk about Sex

The stats on gender are clear. Since 2010, female directors in company boards have been on the rise, yet less than 1 in 10 directors at ASX 500 companies are women. Of these, only 12 have female CEOs. What’s even more alarming is that 63.1% of ASX 500 companies have no female executives.

We could discuss at length the reasons why, but it’s likely we’re all familiar with these. What we’re interested in is the decision-making process that Barb has gone through as a mother - in a relationship or not - about returning to work.

Motherhood Changes Everything

Barb took four months off after the birth of her first son, which, she notes, is longer than you get in the US. Her role was demanding, but despite traveling 1-2 weeks per month, it was fine, “looking back, it was easy. We had a rhythm down”. Three months back in the job and Barb found herself pregnant with number two.

Barb’s very philosophical about what happened next. She attributes her success to her ability and desire to overcome challenges put in front of her. She realised that having two kids under two, a big job, traveling globally, and a requirement for round-the-clock phone calls was a new challenge. And for the first time in her life, she didn’t want to overcome it.

Six months after the birth of her second child, Barb was back at InterCall. She soon told her boss she was on the hunt for a different role, and the wonderful era of Barb and InterCall came to a close.

She had planned to take a break and move into something similar. But plans were delayed when “We decided to have our third baby.” You’ll see this listed in her LinkedIn profile under the ‘Swanson Family Expansion Initiative’.

Working for Free

On motherhood, Barb says “It’s cliché to say it’s hard work, but it’s hard work! There are no weekly 1-on-1s with your boss to get praise or constructive criticism, no promotions, no bonuses. Instead there are poopy diapers, tantrums, laundry, and dishes. Your “bonuses” come in the form of hugs and kisses or good behaviour at a crucial moment. Your “promotions” come in the form of progressing from nappies-to-toilet-trained.”

Annabel Crabb, author of The Wife Drought writes “The obligation that evolves for working mothers, in particular, is a very precise one; the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s child as if one did not have a job. To do any less feels like failing at both”.

Barb took three years out in total, and she’s extremely and refreshingly honest about her situation, “I really tried being the stay-at-home mum. Really tried. And I appreciate that time with my babies. But I’m so glad to be heading back to paid work.” She knew she was going to be in a much better place and would be much happier back at work.

Better Than Imagined

When thinking about what a return to work looked like, Barb explains, “It looked like several steps back. I thought there was no way that I could move back into an executive role.”

Barb spoke to several recruiters in the space, and was surprised when she realised that she still qualified as an executive. “It was amazing and mind-blowing to me that I had all these opportunities coming. What an ego boost after spending three years at home with toddlers”. Barb credits Kevin Griffiths at MitchelLake for introducing her to the reality that her talents were still relative.

Barb’s decision to go full-time was influenced by many female friends and colleagues who work “part time.” She’s observed that typically a woman in a part-time position is still assumed to be the head of the household, managing house work, shopping and cooking, and child care/sick days in all of their assumed “free-time.” And it also seemed to her that most of these part-time roles were really full-time hours in less days, with part-time wages.

With the decision to go full time, Barb was on the hunt for “a role that excited me and kept me passionate.” A full time role also would afford Barb to outsource some of the housework and other things that would keep her from spending time with her kids when she was home.

Going through the interview process for TeamViewer, Barb was reading Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s autobiography on her experiences and women in the workplace. “I bought it in the airport on the way to an interview and found it so relevant and exciting to read. She [Sandberg] spoke so transparently about balancing motherhood and career. Her perspective gave me reassurance and inspiration.” Sandberg talks a lot about why so many female executives are leaving the workforce, and it’s because we haven’t sorted out how to give home and kids the right priority.

Lean In talks about Sandberg’s decision to communicate publicly that she leaves the office at 5 or 5.30pm. Barb observes, “People in Australia aren’t embarrassed about enjoying life outside of work”. You have to work smart, “Make the expectations of what you want people to deliver clear, and measure them consistently. That means it’s not about time.” This means that people can go to their kids’ events throughout the week, as long as the expectations are met.

TeamViewer

Barb was in Germany after two-days’ worth of interviews, in a restaurant reading Lean In, waiting to meet the boss and the head of HR, Martin Geier, TeamViewer’s Global Head of Sales, had done a wrap up with the seven people Barb had just met with. Martin said to Barb “Are you ready to get on the rocket?” (if you don’t know this reference, do yourself a favour and read here. “I feel serendipity about TeamViewer,” Barb gushes.

Before accepting the role, Barb researched TeamViewer from every angle. What she found incredibly encouraging about it is that it has bred a really fantastic, loyal customer base. Looking at blogs Barb would read more than a dozen people positively reviewing TeamViewer and three people “kinda talking about a competitor”. What TeamViewer has already is a passionate fan base. “There’s something really great and proud about what this product is. It’s really useful and the product works consistently”. The remote control and access is not only fast, but it meets a specific need. With 400 thousand paid users, they’re operating out of multiple locations worldwide, with native speakers from a whole range of countries.

The opportunity to build out APAC is something Barb has really enjoyed in the past, and the opportunity to do that again with such an exciting and proven company like TeamViewer seemed impossible to pass up.

Echoing Barb’s sentiment, Kevin Griffiths remarks that “TeamViewer is one of the most successful unknown businesses”. As a humble business with a really good culture, Barb is excited to get her hands dirty.

Barb and her husband both have full-on jobs. They’re in the fortunate position to be able to outsource services to be able to manage this. Barb has had to draw the line on what they can manage at home and what they can’t, “we have a lot to juggle”. The week prior to starting work was packed with setting things up at home, so the house can run without her.

Barbara’s story is about knowing what you want, and challenging stereotypes to get there. Andreas Koenig, TeamViewer’s CEO, is hugely impressed with Barb’s calibre. From his office in Germany he remarks on her experience, “Barb has done it before, but she’s so hungry and wants to make an impact.” Despite a change of country, and a huge change at home, Barbara is at the top of her game and we can’t wait to see her successes at TeamViewer.

Kevin Griffiths is part of MitchelLake Executive search. He is focused on supporting the success of start-ups, scale up and market entry for ventures in Fintech, IoT, cloud computing, big data and digital transformation. Kevin has successfully completed executive projects with News Corp, SurveyMonkey, Signal (formally BrightTag), BrightEdge, Criteo, Facebook, Guardian, Zeebox, Hybris, Yammer, Westfield Labs and Woolworths to name a few.

Madeleine Gasparinatos is the Marketing and Events Manager for the MitchelLake Group. With an extensive background in touring digital and creative thought-leaders, and an obsession with all things tech and innovation, Madeleine looks after MLG's content as well as local and international events.

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