"Challenges as opportunities": Q&A with Women in Super's Lata McNulty November 2018

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From an early age, Lata McNulty displayed an aptitude for numbers and a knack for business that her mum recognised as the way she could make a difference in the world. Now, 15 years into her career as a wealth management executive, and as chair of Women in Super NSW, she tells Industry Moves about finding her "tribe" of high profile women bent on supporting one another to succeed. She also shares the joys of growing up in a loud and loving family that loves a bit of “smack talk” and frequent games of rugby.

What was the impetus for your career in Finance?

I was very lucky early in my life to have had a very strong woman, my mum, to look up to as a role model. It was her influence and advice that inspired me to pursue a financial education. Through the work I did for my parents in business administration for a couple of small business ventures, she could see I had an aptitude for numbers. In those businesses I was involved in everything from counting money, counting stock, planning and logistics around deliveries, mapping out the most efficient way to deliver wines on a Saturday afternoon (a lot was trial and error). As the third child of a big tribe of 6 kids, I recall my parents allocating each of us different tasks and I guess, because I had a demonstrated skill there, I often ended up with the business admin.

I think my Mum also recognized that the Financial Services sector was influential and if I wanted to make a difference in the world then this sector would be a great sector to affect / drive change. I also think financial security was high on her list and back then a career in Financial Services was associated with job stability and a higher income base relative to other industries. Clearly much has changed since then, but there was logic in her advice.

I’ve held various roles in Financial Services and I find it interesting that I seem to have come full circle in my new role at RBC Investor & Treasury Services (Director, Business Management). It seems my mum was onto something.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a woman building a career in the finance industry?

Interesting question. I’ve always looked at challenges as opportunities to learn and gain experience. To that extent, while I was consciously aware when certain challenges I faced could be attributed to being a woman, it was never entirely clear cut.

However, an area where I felt this was prevalent for me was in the project investment space. As an Executive it is expected that you justify the rationale for requesting investment dollars to implement a project that delivers your business strategy and achieves revenue or operational efficiencies. I’ve felt that some male peers were not subjected to the same level of scrutiny that I was. When I reviewed the business cases and process steps some of my male peers had to follow, I was baffled at the quality of their documentation and ease of securing their requested funding. They did not seem to have to justify the numbers in their business case or face as many roadblocks that I was subjected to. It was very frustrating.

What led you to join Women In Super?

I joined Women In Super as a member in 2008 upon the recommendation of my boss at the time, Adrian Johnstone – a very supportive manager and one of the first leaders I encountered who was willing to “sponsor” me and my personal development. I was constantly the only female in many of our consulting engagements and he recommended I join WIS as an opportunity to connect with females in the industry and to broaden my network.

...and what have you gained from your experience in Women in Super?

I have gained an invaluable network of women who provide support, sage career advice and collaboratively share their personal and professional networks. I call them “my tribe” – the likes of Susan Roberts, Marian Poirier and Keri Pratt who have been great mentors for me over the years. I’m also learning from recent committee members such as Camilla Love, Sandi Orleow, Winsome Hall and Victoria Shelton who are an amazing group of “Can Do” women. It has also been a great way to develop and sharpen my leadership skills through leading a volunteer committee and being a Director on the National Board - all skills that will help in future Board roles if that is an option I want to pursue down the track.

Also, I’m absolutely passionate about advocating for a retirement system without gender bias. This is driven by seeing my mother’s generation enter retirement with inadequate savings. There are numerous research papers that support this view and I really believe that it’s time for action. Women in Super and the Sydney Women’s Fund Research Project have both validated the case for change.

You became Chair of the NSW State Committee of WIS at the beginning of this year. Can you share any highlights?

As Chair of NSW, I also serve on our National WIS Board. Our Make Super Fair Campaign has been an 18 month labour of love, particularly for our National Policy Committee, and the tireless efforts of our National Chair, Cate Wood, Executive Officer, Sandra Buckley and fellow Board Director, Robbie Campo. Our policy and advocacy work means that Women In Super is seen by many industry and academic commentators as the leading voice on women’s superannuation issues.

The Opposition Leader’s announcement last month to support 3 of our 5 point Make Super Fair campaign is encouraging and affirms that change is possible, although the glacial pace of change can be disheartening at times.

Another highlight was meeting and hearing Audette Excel speak about her career journey and how she established her “business for purpose” Adara Group.

This year the Committee was able to secure an amazing line up of C-Suite industry speed mentors such as Deanne Stewart, First State Super's new CEO; Andrew Spence, CIO of Qantas Super; and Pauline Vamos, former CEO of Regnan for our annual speed mentoring event. It’s rewarding to see industry leaders volunteering their time to share their career insights and learnings with our WIS members.

As the year comes to a close, I am excited and very much looking forward to our upcoming Xmas event with Olympic and World Cycling Champion Anna Meares OAM. Anna’s story of courage, resilience and self-belief is compelling and inspirational. This is the largest event we have held in NSW - 560 tickets were sold out 2 weeks ahead of the event with a growing waitlist. This is confirmation that WIS has a strong value proposition to both women and men in the industry.

Who do you most admire and how have they influenced your work/life?

I’ve always admired my parents’ courage to migrate to Australia in search for a better quality of life and to support their families back home in Tonga. My parents met in Sydney in the early 1970’s and had very limited support once they landed here. My mother in particular is from a very remote group of islands in Tonga called Ha’apai (according to Wikipedia it has a population of 7,000) – a place that is absolutely stunning and untouched; amazing if you love snorkelling and scuba diving. My last visit to Ha’apai was 4 years ago and I remember having a surreal moment on my Mum’s beach-front farm, considering her circumstances at the time of leaving everything she knew and travelling to a foreign country. I’m pretty sure at the time there was not a single TV on her island. I admire the courage she had to brave the unknown, back herself to search for and establish a better life.

You are an advisor for the West Harbour Pirates Rugby Club. Can you share a little about why rugby is special in your life?

Rugby is the most common sport played in the Islands and, it goes without saying, I’ve grown up in a Rugby mad family all my life. I spent many afternoons as a kid with the broader family watching my Dad and his brothers play for Gordon, or my brothers or cousins play for Randwick or Sydney University. I have a couple of cousins who also play Rugby League, however Rugby Union is the main love for my family. Having said that, we’ve had very little to cheer about with the recent Wallabies performance.

So it’s not surprising that I associate Rugby with family times and that tradition has continued with my siblings and my cousins. Last month, there was a whole tribe of us, including young kids and babies, who went to the Shute Shield Grand Final at North Sydney to cheer on my first cousin, who plays for Sydney University, Tolu Latu. Suffice to say, that the kids were more interested in kicking the ball on the side of field than watching the game itself. It brought back many childhood memories spent at Chatswood Oval doing the same thing.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I was born in Sydney, however as my parents had very little support in Australia, when my mum returned to work after her maternity leave, I was sent to Tonga and grew up with my Grandmother and Aunties (my dad’s 3 sisters) until I was about six or seven. I returned to Australia with Grandma in tow and started school shortly after. I recall not being able to speak a lick of English at school and being in a constant state of wonder as there were so many new sights, smells and people in this new home. I’m one of six kids, so four of us had a similar experience. My youngest brother and sister, who had the benefit of Grandma living with us in Sydney at the time they were born, were an exception. It’s fair to say that I grew up in a very loud and loving family – family dinners and lunches at my parents are highly entertaining, there’s no shortage of “smack talk” between us siblings.

What is your most precious possession?

My husband - a great listener and he keeps the home front organised and our social calendar up-to-date. Budgeting, bills and financial decisions are my domain.

If not in finance, where would you be?

An English teacher sharing my love for story-telling and reading to kids - seeking to understand the human spirit. My favourite subject in Year 11 & 12 was 3 Unit English, and I was fortunate to have a highly engaging and motivational teacher called Ms Best – I’ll never forget her, she really was such a positive influence in my life back then. So naturally, my initial view was to study Arts / Literature at University. However, I’m glad I took my mother’s guidance and have no regrets choosing a career in Financial Services.

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