Habits Of Female Leaders

Early wake up calls and to-do lists are how some of Australia's most influential women get the job done. Time to take notes.

By Emily J. Brooks


Early wake up calls and to-do lists are how some of Australia's most influential women get the job done. Time to take notes.

By Emily J. Brooks

It was a trip to South-East Asia in her twenties, and a sabbatical to Harvard Business School in her forties, which prompted Julie Bishop’s idea for an initiative now supporting more than 30,000 Australians studying abroad. It was teaching herself to kitesurf, which got Melanie Perkins the investment for her company Canva, now worth a casual US$1 billion. It was burning out during her first startup, one she sold at 23, which sparked Yunha Kim’s second hugely successful app, Simple Habit. The one constant throughout these three successful women’s stories is the innovation created from an unexpected situation. It is the way in which one responds to a situation which defines their success, but it is their habits which create their response.

Habits play such a powerful role in our lives because they make up such a large sum of it. A 2006 Duke University paper revealed 40 percent of the actions people performed daily were not decisions, but in fact, habits. So it is no surprise habits can build up or break down careers. The influence of habits in our lives extends in both directions and while the brain creates habits as an energy-saving mechanism, it cannot tell the difference between good habits and bad habits. While habits often appear unconsciously they cannot be removed with force. They can, however, be reshaped and new habits can be created, so people have the ability to consciously design their habits in line with their ideal lives. As author and entrepreneur Seth Godin writes, “The difference between who you are now and who you were five years ago is largely due to how you’ve spent your time along the way. The habits we groove become who we are, one minute at a time. A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.” Here, former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, former Elle Australia editor-in-chief Justine Cullen, PR maven Lynette Phillips, and entrepreneurs Cyan Ta’eed, Melanie Perkins and Yunha Kim reveal the habits they’ve instilled in their successful careers, to not only create efficiencies in their day-to-day tasks but help them operate effectively as leaders.

Image credits: Instagram @juliebishopmp and @yunhajkim


In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg explains how consciously creating small daily habits can create efficiencies in people’s day-to-day lives. Once a habit unfolds the grey matter in the brain is free to quieten or focus on other thoughts, which is how individuals can think about other things while engaging in menial tasks. “Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often,” Duhigg wrote. “This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage.” The more habits you create, the more time you have to think about the important stuff. Through designing small habits in the office, people can create efficiencies in their jobs and this tactic has been adopted by every one of these leaders. “I think it’s key to look at the trigger points of your day – what moments consistently send you off course or leave you stressed – and take the time to come up with simple solutions or avoidance tactics,” Cullen said. “So often we just live with things that we can pretty easily overcome with a bit of strategy.” The self-described morning person loves to be in the office early but getting ready at home was consistently delaying her head start. “I moved all my makeup and vitamins to the office and roll out of bed, into the shower and straight to work where I do everything much more efficiently at my desk once I’m properly awake,” the editor said. “Sometimes I even steam my outfit there.”


“The habits we groove become who we are, one minute at a time. A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.”


Being first in the office also allows Cullen to work through her own to-do list instead of being “responsive to other people’s claims on my time”, and this tactic is adopted by most leaders we spoke to. Bishop, Cullen, Perkins and Phillips all get a head start on the day with an early wakeup call and use the morning to plan ahead. The former Foreign Minister reads her emails and the news before her morning run around sunrise. Setting a prioritised to-do list creates order and efficiencies in her day – and a hint of satisfaction when her days are never the same. Perkins takes time each morning to plan ahead with her to-do list, and “jots down ideas” at any moment, allowing them to culminate before relaying them to her team. MaxMediaLab founder, Phillips uses her 40 minute drive to the office to take calls and has set such a habit her staff now know this is the best time to reach her. The CEO has also introduced online task tracking platform, Asana, across her two organisations, MaxMediaLab and MaxConnectors, allowing both businesses’ to-do lists to move forward efficiently and collaboratively.

Structuring their weeks to allocate time for topline thinking has become a necessary habit for both Phillips and Cullen, as the constant urgencies of operating day-to-day businesses often push big thinking down the list. The PR boss structures half a day per week into her schedule for brainstorming, and has recently introduced “thinking time” for her employees each Friday. To improve presence, and consequently ideas, in meetings Phillips has recently banned all phones in the boardroom, including her own. While the former Elle Australia boss has found her answer in a simple metric; delegating. “To free up your mind and allow creativity and vision to come through the only thing you can do is learn to be good at delegating,” Cullen said. “I don’t let myself get swamped down by anything that doesn’t need to be done specifically by me – even if I would do it quicker, or if it’s annoying to have to explain it – because if I’m not free to think bigger, no-one will.”

Image credits: Instagram @justine_cullen and @lynette_phillips

As the nine-to-five job has trickled into a 24/7 opportunity, setting boundaries is now a necessary practice to instill efficiencies. While ‘checking out’ varies in duration and style for these leaders, working smarter not harder is a priority for all. Meditation has become a valuable tool adopted by top executives and companies including Google, Apple and LinkedIn, and the practice is now crucial for Yunha Kim and Phillips. Kim, who burnt out during her first startup, not only found a way to tackle stress but conceptualised an app from the practice. Simple Habit is now one of the leading meditation and mindfulness apps, which raised $2.5 million in funding last year. The young Silicon Valley CEO uses Simple Habit’s short meditations when she wakes, as she goes to sleep, and when she reaches stressful points during her day. Kim has also implemented short group meditations at the beginning of each in-house meeting, finding meditation teaches her “to intentionally respond versus react”. “When I make mindful decisions, I feel more confident and conscious of my decisions and also more capable of communicating visions and decision-making-processes to my team,” the entrepreneur said. Understanding the power of disconnecting has only recently clicked for Phillips, and after having her chakra read in 2017 the PR boss has been attempting guided meditations through the Headspace app. “I’ve come to understand that it is possible to slow down and be successful,” Phillips said. “It’s so important to take a step back sometimes and analyse why we’re doing things and be clever about how we spend our time, rather than trying to smash through everything on what can seem like a never-ending to-do list.”

Finding solace in switching off can take shape in very basic daily practices. Bishop, Cullen’s and Ta’eed’s non-negotiables respectively lie at the beginning and end of their work days. The former Foreign Minister’s famous morning run allows her to run her day effectively, providing a source of daily realignment and reflection. “The schedule can often be punishing and my morning run is the one constant that brings stability and routine to my day, wherever I am in the world,” Bishop said. “My runs are also a time for me to think, reflect and contemplate any personal or professional challenges for the day.” Over the years, making it home in time for dinner with her three children is the “only real rule” Cullen has adopted. If she misses more than one dinner a week she’s “overwhelmed by guilt and resentment and useless to everyone.” “Family dinner is my Achilles heel in terms of burnout,” Cullen said, “so I’m very selective about what I agree to in the evenings. Who made work events in the evening a thing, anyway?” For Ta’eed, co-founder of design start-up Envato, switching off allows her to think more creatively. “I’ve found that ideas and inspiration only come when there’s time with no input. So I ensure there’s some time every day when I’m walking to or from work when I’ve put the phone away and I’m just giving myself space to think.”


“To free up your mind and allow creativity and vision to come through the only thing you can do is learn to be good at delegating. If I’m not free to think bigger, no-one will.”


Much like to-do lists and overarching structures instill routine in these leaders’ lives, cognitive habits also foster healthy leadership, with self-awareness and a little self-kindness proving crucial for most. Operating with self-awareness has allowed Perkins and Phillips to create positive work environments while the former Foreign Minister credits a flat management structure to building strong teams. However, self-awareness can often creep into self-doubt and Bishop and Perkins have created mental strategies to deal with it. “I think the way to tell the difference between the two is the former propels you to want to take action and improve, and the latter has a disabling effect,” Perkins said. “I’ve experienced both, but I try to channel all of my mental energy into things that I can improve and fix.” For Bishop shutting out her internal critic is simple: “Recognising that others will often set standards or benchmarks for me that they would not set for themselves is something I bear in mind to eliminate self-doubt.”

Akin to Perkins’ reliance on writing down ideas to communicate them effectively, Cullen has learned the power of taking time to meditate over big decisions. While overthinking is still a challenge for the editor, she credits her best decisions to gut instincts. For Ta’eed, who has lived with imposter syndrome most of her professional life, self-care is at the crux of operating effectively. It doesn’t come down to green smoothies or face-masks, but simply treating herself with kindness. “There’s a quote on my Instagram that is one of my favourites. It’s about treating yourself like you would treat a small child – feed yourself healthy food, make sure you spend time playing in the sunshine, put yourself to bed early and don’t say mean things to yourself,” she said. “Sometimes I really need the reminder that usually it’s as simple as that.”

The effectiveness of habits in these leaders’ lives not only lies in their constant repetition, but in their constant evolution. Each one of these women has developed new habits over their careers to further propel their professional success. The key to adopting good habits is in the constant evaluation of one’s effectiveness. This may not directly correlate to a pay rise or promotion, rather the influence is indirect; good habits allow professionals to keep operating at their highest potential. Habits, as Cullen claims, “have probably enabled me to maintain working at this level for this length of time without burning out and quitting to launch an artisanal cordial brand from the Byron hinterland.”


Main image credit: Patti Andrews