Alumni - After Allens

Heather McIlwain

CEO
Chief Executive Women, Sydney

This interview was conducted in 2018.

Heather McIlwain began her legal career at Allens in Sydney before heading to Linklaters in London. While there, she moved from client-facing practice into conflict resolution and 'got hooked on' the concept of risk and compliance. On her return to Allens, she worked with Jim Dwyer to set up the Office of General Counsel. Heather is now the CEO of Chief Executive Women (CEW), the pre-eminent organisation representing Australia's most senior women leaders from the corporate, public service, academic and not-for-profit sectors.

Heather McilwainCareer story…

At Allens, I transitioned from a commercial law role to the office of general counsel and then to a senior HR role. I then joined KPMG to learn about the different business practice of the big four accounting firms. While there, I was exposed to CEW through a combined executive and board project we undertook on the gender-balance challenge. When the chance came to join CEW, I grabbed it with both hands! I'd always wanted to progress to a general management and executive career, and this was an opportunity I was thrilled to accept.

A typical day at work for me is…

I don't have typical days! The mission of CEW is women leaders enabling other women leaders, and we work to remove barriers. So, I might be working with members to create thought leadership to take to market to change organisations’ points of view, or I could be spending time with an ASX50 team working on their approach to gender; I could be collaborating with stakeholders such as the AICD or Male Champions of Change, going to Canberra to work with the Office of Women, or I might be working with members to support them to fulfil their career ambitions.

The thing that makes me get out of bed and go to work each morning is…

it's really important for Australia's economic future that we achieve greater gender balance at the executive level. I work with the senior leaders of Australia to do just that.

I'm also passionate about…

playing trombone in a band. I used to play music when I was at school, and I went back to it a few years ago. I now play in a band, and it's such a wonderful feeling coming together with people you would not otherwise have met and making music together.

The best bit of advice given to me was…

I have two. The first is that my early days at Allens taught me to respect ‘doing your time’. There is no substitute for doing the work. Quality is not just a direct reflection of enthusiasm – you have to learn from others and put in the work. The second was some advice from Michael Rose (former Chief Executive Partner), who encouraged me to own my leadership style.

The best part of my role is…

working directly with senior executives and leaders and seeing the moment they learn something and make a commitment to change their approach. Not everyone gets the chance to feel they are making a difference, but I love it when I hear senior leaders – male and female – exploring the challenges and potential solutions in a really informed and articulate way and we've helped them get there. I feel really good when that happens.

At Allens, the people I remember most are…

Richard Alcock, Jim Dwyer, Michael Rose, Maryjane Crabtree, Robert Cornish, Ewen Crouch and Susan Ferrier. They have all been sponsors and supporters and important to me. Some of my life-long and dearest friends are people I met on ‘Level 19 Chifley – Commercial’ in Sydney. There are four women I met and we have worked together, had children and career changes together, and we still catch up several times a year. They are Kelly McDonald, Sarah Walters, Melissa Yard-Smith and Pam Longstaff (nee Noble).