Embracing change through adversity
We speak to Kylee Dare, non-executive director of Australian firm PKF Sydney & Newcastle
The story of Kylee Dare isn’t a simple tale of ‘triumph over adversity’. Though to tell that, in isolation, would itself be compelling.
Instead, the non-executive director of Australian firm PKF Sydney & Newcastle’s story encompasses many other things such as identity and mindfulness, through to broader themes affecting the workplace and its people: leadership, diversity, inclusion, and meritocracy.
Those themes should also include ‘authenticity’, a word that Kylee uses a lot in her role as a non- executive.
“When I was the firm’s only female partner, having come up through the ranks, I tried to fit a mould,” she explains. “My only reference point was fitting the mould of the other male partners – in other words, ‘toughen up’. I was an effective leader, but it was perception rather than reality.”
It took time for Kylee to understand and appreciate that she wasn’t being true to herself or utilising fully her other strengths: empathy, compassion and courage. But time was something that Kylee found she had much of, after her accident.
It was a seemingly innocuous incident, but still one that required multiple corrective surgeries and included spinal complications. Sadly, a mistake made during one operation left her with constant nerve pain in her lower back and neurological damage to her right leg.
To battle the constant pain, Kylee was put on medication that had severe side effects, including impairment of her cognitive functions.
“I would drive, reach a stop sign and then not know what to do next. I couldn’t finish sentences, or process things I was reading,” she explains. Kylee attempted to return to her role three times, but it didn’t work out. “I went from being a highly productive and busy partner, to nothing.”
Declared permanently disabled and having to retire from her role as a Partner, Kylee realised that her career role had become her identity, which had now gone. She became isolated and lonely, in fact barely leaving the house for eight years due to her functional impairment.
She sought professional help to manage her mental strength, and then clinical help to embed spinal cord stimulators that would turn down the volume of the physical pain. Summarised in a sentence it sounds quick, straightforward. Kylee’s physiotherapy and rehabilitation over that eight-year period was nothing of the sort. Part of what Kylee describes as the “grieving process” she went through at the time involved acceptance that her career was over. Kylee says she learned that moving from grief to acceptance is a “powerful path”.
“This is who I am and I’m okay with that,” she explains. “Am I a better person? Definitely. I’m more balanced and have a better perspective. It was a period where I spent time with people with disabilities – who are some of the strongest and most inspirational people I’ve met.”
A visit from PKF Sydney & Newcastle Managing Director Steve Meyn offered an opportunity to come back in a limited way, a way that Kylee felt she was able to manage. “The offer opened the door a bit, one I thought was closed.”
“Nothing was going to stop me after that, although it was about working the hours I’m capable of and doing the best on mentorship and leadership that I can.” Kylee came back to the firm a different person, with different goals and objectives. “It was important I felt comfortable with my leadership style, courageous but not fearless, empathetic and passionate.”
The board created a leadership programme, alongside businesswoman Helen Wiseman, called Thrive and Lead. It was designed to explore and motivate the firm’s future leaders, in particular to help increase the number of senior women at the table.
The first group of eight were all women, and Kylee was charged as a non-exec and mentor with building a link between these women and the board. “Designing the Thrive and Lead programme created something different. The immediate success is three women as partners, with others following closely behind.”
A key part of the mentoring involved helping the women find their own leadership style, rather than try to replicate others. “We talked about finding out your strengths and using them.”
Another aspect of Kylee’s efforts has involved looking beyond just the path to partnership, and whether any other perceived barriers can be broken down. For example, making it more attractive and sustainable for women to come back to the workplace after having children.
Kylee says: “We are a professional services firm with 50% of our team who are women. Its leaders need to represent them and develop opportunities for them.”
But it’s not just about women. The firm has a diversity and inclusion committee, chaired by their youngest female partner, which is looking to make it easier for people with different backgrounds into the profession. And bringing in different people will mean different approaches to working and culture – fresh ways of thinking. This approach effectively mirrors Kylee’s own appointment.
“When I came onto the board as a non-executive I knew I was different, and wanted to offer an unbiased and new perspectives of thinking. The aim on a board is to move away from ‘group thought’,” she explains.
Kylee takes great heart in the women partner appointments, and how they will support momentum for change. “I know that the original eight women on our programme are providing informal mentoring between themselves and for others. They will be really important as the alumni for the next Thrive and Lead.”
Of course, all this effort must ultimately have a positive impact on client service. Kylee sees different voices, different views, as integral to helping build deeper relationships for what is a broad client base. Australia’s Newcastle, for example, is a burgeoning city that requires community support to help it grow.
“We’ve seen our people spending time with clients, building that emotional connection – and that has worked well for our Thrive women,” says Kylee.
“As we return to the new normal, the investment in time and support the firm has provided will give us a client uptick and open up opportunities for new business.”