leadership

How leading chief executive Sadhana Smiles is using her personal brand to drive change at work, home and in the community

Dinushi Dias /

The chief executive of one of Australia’s fastest growing real estate franchises says she has had to learn a great deal of self-belief to make a difference in her business and community.

“I’m a migrant playing in a very white male dominated environment and I use that to my advantage,” Harcourts Victoria chief executive Sadhana Smiles told SmartCompany.

Smiles is one of the first female chief executives in her sector and divides her time between business, social activism and family.

Within her executive role at a national real estate group that has more than 360 franchises across Australia and sold close to $3 billion worth of property in 2015, Smiles launched an anti-violence campaign aimed at getting men to walk a mile in high heels to raise funds for White Ribbon.

Walk a Mile in their Shoes is now a national campaign, which has helped educate more than 220,000 students on violence against women.

She also founded Links Fiji, a health education not-for-profit organisation, and is a former Telstra businesswoman of the year.

Speaking at the Australian Women’s Network event in Melbourne last week, Smiles said she believes more male executives need to make deliberate decisions on equality if there is to be real diversity in boardrooms

She said “male champions of change” would be fundamental in this.

“A lot of us do a lot of talking but I’m yet to see leaders genuinely say, ‘in our business we have a strategy and you can take that strategy and apply it across the world’,” she says.

“Have a strategy around how are we going to get more women around the table and how we are going to have more coloured women around the table.”

This diversity is critical for business success on a global level, she says.

Smiles encourages other women in business to lead change by identifying what they really want to achieve and developing a strong personal brand around this.

“It’s about how you make people feel when you’re in the room and when you’re out of the room,” she says.

Be compelling

To tell a compelling story and do it well, Smiles believes it takes courage, determination and ownership.

“Don’t forget to be authentic and vulnerable, be comfortable with who you are,” she says.

At the AWN event, Smiles spoke candidly about disobeying her parents by marrying someone not of their choosing and relocating to Australia to launch a career here.

She also revealed how she hit rock bottom and nearly lost everything she ever cared for.

“I found myself at the edge of life and when you get there you have two choices: you’re going to step over or you’re going to step back,” she says.

Smiles willed herself back, finding purpose and learning to always remember the big picture.

“Nobody else was going to get me out of that funk that I got myself into,” she says.

Today, Smiles says she is genuinely happy. She doesn’t shy away from aiming high and won’t apologise for being audaciously ambitious.

“I don’t see myself as a high achiever, the glass ceiling I haven’t even touched it as yet,” she says.

Start leading today

Working her way up the world of real estate, Smiles says she has figured out that regardless of what she does, as a woman she will always get labeled -whether it’s being called too bossy or too timid.

“You’re damned if you don’t, you’re damned if you do,” she says.

Smiles believes women must keep moving forward regardless. Every time she’s labeled, Smiles sees it as an opportunity to iterate self-confidence and move on.

And when climbing up the corporate ladder, Smiles says women need to make an active effort to figure out if they’re getting paid the same as their male counterparts.

“If you want to sit on a board, if you want to be a leader, start acting like it today,” she says.

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Dinushi Dias

Dinushi Dias is a journalist at StartupSmart and multimedia content producer. When she’s out of the office, she works on social projects with her We Love It Productions family and buddying filmmakers.

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