By Angela Priestley

Katrina Troughton was asked to lead IBM’s business in New Zealand within months of having her second child. 

And later while pregnant with her third child, she was offered another major leadership position, and the opportunity to take her family to Shanghai, China. She had to learn how to master flexibility.

Now the managing director of IBM Australia and New Zealand, with her three children almost all in high school, Katrina has plenty of examples of how she navigated promotions while having a young family.

I spoke to Katrina for the Family Friendly Workplaces podcast, an initiative by Parents at Work and UNICEF Australia sharing conversations with leaders on how their businesses are enabling staff to cohesively manage their home and work lives.

Katrina says that it’s flexibility and communication that have enabled her to take up new opportunities locally and abroad during her long career at IBM, and which now underpin her leadership at the helm of the business across Australia and New Zealand.

Describing herself on her Twitter bio as a “Working Mum, wife, daughter, sister, occasional runner, skiier and MD @ibm A/NZ”, Katrina details how managers have enabled her to make this combination happen, supporting her through major life transitions.

But she also highlights how she sought to personally communicate what she needed, and offer ideas on how it could happen.

When she was offered the opportunity to lead IBM’s New Zealand business, she was worried about making a relocation to Wellington work given she had no family support in the city. So she asked to work remotely from Auckland instead, where she did have family support. Her boss at the time gave her a simple answer — if it’s going to work for our clients, and for you, then go and make it happen. Her boss’ flexibility would not have been something discovered if she did not effectively communicate her needs.

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When she later arrived to take a new role in Shanghai, now with her third child, a newborn, she found there were no breastfeeding facilities readily available. So she asked for what she needed, and shared some ideas on how it could work.

“I think one of the biggest learnings I have had, is that it’s really difficult to know what someone else might need,” she says. “We have this view that we have managers and leaders who can read our minds, when in reality I know I don’t have enough time to always think about myself, let alone to get in the heads of others.

“If you can be clear on what you need to do and what you think can give you the outcome you need and enable you to be and work at your best, then share it. That way you’ll have a chance of getting it. Thinking about it in your head doesn’t move it forward.”

But having the confidence to ask for what she needed during her career, Katrina concedes, wouldn’t have happened in a workplace or under a manager that didn’t understand the opportunities available in flexibility, as well as the need to support family life.

Katrina stresses the importance of managers never making assumptions about what people can or can’t do when. She also urges managers to remember that people change their mind regarding what they can take on.

“Don’t make assumptions for other people,” she says. “Don’t just assume someone won’t travel because they said they didn’t want to in the past. Don’t assume things about someone because they are on parental leave. If we think we have great people, then we should ask them.”

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Katrina was appointed IBM’s MD across Australia and New Zealand in late 2019, just prior to the major shifts in work and family life that occurred as a result of COVID-19.

While the shift to working from home was relatedly straightforward for the part of IBM’s workforce that could work from home, Katrina outlined some of the new things they introduced to support remote work.

They have created initiatives such as “not ready to work on camera” times, meaning staff could stick to audio only, rather than having to present on video at certain points of the day. They issued a pledge to be kind – and other things they said out loud to be intentional about how they would support their wellbeing, as well as their families, colleagues and those around them. Managers received workshops on how to support the mental health of their team members, while multiple communication channels were opened aiming to share resources and different ideas, including for families and those managing remote working.

Asked what makes a great family-friendly workplace in 2021, Kartrina says it’s everything from parental leave, to flexibility to creating a strong hybrid working model across your workforce.

But it’s the full collection of policies that matter. As well as ensuring that you have multiple forms of communication available and channels open to staff to share what they need. And all managers and leaders need to be on board: it only takes one comment or assumption from a manager to bring some of the best workplace policies undone.

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“The biggest thing for me is how you get a balance of all those policies, versus this idea that we have one thing that we’re excellent at, but we are not so excellent on everything else.”


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