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Episode 009

Episode 9: Careers are tough…but so are you!

by Gillian Fox

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You can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter. So that for me looked like when I went in for chemo, doing my makeup and putting lippy on and wearing sparkly shoes. And my mum would make a big container of bliss balls up and we would give them to all the staff when we went in because that just sprinkled a bit of magic wherever we went.

You are listening to Your Brilliant Career. I’m your host, Gillian Fox executive coach, women’s career expert, and entrepreneur. The podcast that teaches you how to get the most out of your career.

We talk tactics, tools, and stories that all help incredible women like you achieve the success you deserve. If you want to learn more about how to create the brilliant career you’ve always wanted, I encourage you to check out the RISE Program.

It’s my four-month career development program. Through a combination of individual executive coaching sessions and group workshops, you’ll discover how to overcome obstacles, create opportunities and reach new heights in your career.

Well hello and welcome to the Your Brilliant Career podcast. I hope you’ve had a great week. If it’s been a challenging one, you will enjoy today’s podcast because it is about dealing the difficult moments.

So, when you think about your career or life, there will always be moments where you’re challenged. Sometimes in small ways. It could someone giving you a sideways glance in a meeting that you just don’t like, or it could be being made redundant, or being part of a restructure that leaves you feeling very vulnerable.

Think about the most successful people that you know in business – it’s likely they’ve had their ups and downs in their careers – but what sets them apart is their ability to own their career challenges and get things back on track when things unexpectedly change.

And things are always going to change. Take our guest speaker today – Briony Benjamin. At 31 Briony had it all, the stellar career in media, the success, the energy, and sense of fun of someone loving their life.

And then her life took a sudden turn. She was diagnosed with cancer, and it was the shock of her life. As she says – this wasn’t on my vision board!!

Briony has a brilliant personality – she always makes me laugh – humour is one of her gifts and she has written a terrific book called Life is Tough but so are you – and yes we pinched part of her title for today’s podcast …with authorisation of course.

I’m so excited to introduce you to Briony today. She has had a fascinating career; she has endured undoubtedly one of life’s toughest challenges and she’s come out the other end with some incredible reflections and a desire to help others navigate those tricky moments in life.

I love this because all good careers will have challenging moments. Moments where YOU are going to have pick yourself up, recalibrate and then rise to next challenge. And Briony shows us that it can be done. That we are tougher and more capable that we think… and that these tough moments can actually help us create the next exciting chapter in our career or life. So let’s dive in.

Briony welcome to the show – thanks for joining us today.

Briony Benjamin: Thanks for having me Gill. It’s so lovely to be here.

Gillian Fox: I’d love to talk about your career to kick off with because it’s a fascinating career. Someone who started off in finance and then moves to this space of producing videos with 55 million hits to becoming this global storyteller and author. Tell us a little bit about that experience.

Briony Benjamin: Yes. Well, I started a commerce degree to begin with and I chopped changed around a little bit at uni. I did a bit of law, so I could do the law review, which was a hoot. I did a bit of a business degree and then I thought, no, I’ll just do a commerce degree so I come out with something that I feel like is solid that I can do and finish. I had jobs lined up at Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers, graduate roles. And then I went traveling for a few months in Africa.

And when I came back to Australia, I turned down the job offers and instead began again and went back to uni and started a film degree. And as you do, just started a business on the side of that as well that was teaching speech and drama to little students. So I had about 250 speech and drama students which I just loved and it was a lot of fun. So look, it did feel very daunting at that time I think to have finished a degree and be on one track and then totally change track. And I think I felt very behind. All my friends were getting real jobs in the real world and I was there going back to square one or so it felt, but in hindsight, you finish, you’re 25 years old, you’re still a baby, you’re there thinking I’m so old now, but I’m so glad I made that decision to do that. And I do just think it’s never too late to change tact even when it feels like it is.

Gillian Fox: I think so too. And I think people forget for how many years we’re actually going to work. So 25 might be like, I’ve got to be in this place, but you’re going to be working for the next four decades potentially.

Briony Benjamin: 100% and I think the thing for me Gillian was that I loved storytelling. I loved the idea of there were so many topics I was so passionate about and I thought, I think the best use of my skills is to actually help tell these stories, tell these big, impactful, important stories, but put it into a way that is engaging and entertaining and connects with people. So that’s what I’ve always been really passionate about. And so, yeah, out of uni I suppose it led to my first role that was working for a production company in Sydney that worked with a lot of the big environmental campaigning groups. So the likes of the Climate Council and Get Up and World Wildlife Fund. And so I sort of got to be in this kind of purpose led video bootcamp for a time there, learning what is it that connects with people and what goes viral?

And how can you use humor to tell interesting stories? So did that for a couple of years, loved it. And then, long story short, got a documentary up with the ABC that was all about young women and domestic violence. And we had a comedian host it and it was a really challenging project to do but one that I felt really passionate about. Being one of three girls, when I learned of the statistic that one in three Australian women will suffer physical or sexual abuse from a partner or former partner.

Gillian Fox: Crazy.

Briony Benjamin: I was pretty shocked by that. Wanted to investigate that. And off the back of that, yeah, ended up landing a job as the executive producer of video at Mamma Mia, which meant it was just an amazing role. They basically said to me, make us famous for video and off you go. So, it was a bit of a daunting brief to be given because I didn’t know how I was going to do that. And I think my first day I came home and just bawled my eyes out after my first day in the job. I mean, everyone was delightful. They couldn’t have been warmer kinder but I just thought, oh gosh, I am just in way over my head and what have I signed up for here?

Gillian Fox: But despite trying to figure things out – you stayed on the case and found something you loved and was very good at. But I do get it briony – the uncertainty in those early moments in a new role is off-putting and distracting.

Briony Benjamin: Yeah. Well I think it’s like anything, isn’t it? You realize that so many of us, we’re figuring it out as we go. We don’t have all the answers. And I think particularly in a creative pursuit, there’s that expression that I love that to be creative you’ve got to have the courage to leave certainty. And so I think actually approaching it with that mindset and a friend of mine who’s a mentor he said to me, “Just go in there and say it’s pilot season.” That takes the pressure off you. You’re not coming in saying I’ve got all the answers. I know exactly what videos and content we’re going to make. It’s like, we’re going to play and we’re going to test and we’re going to iterate. And so that put, I think the whole team, into a really playful and fun state of mind and also into a really collaborative space. And then also, yeah, just that thing with the creativity and particularly in a digital media environment, no one knows what’s going to happen and no one knows what the next thing that’s going to work tomorrow is. So you’ve got to be iterating and changing all the time. And anyone that thinks that they’ve got all the answers and knows is probably bluffing or lying.

Gillian Fox: Absolutely.

Briony Benjamin: And six weeks into the job we basically had a super viral video that did 20 million views traveled all around the world. And then from that we were like, what worked about that? Let’s dig down into that and then let’s play with these ideas now.

Gillian Fox: You’re off and running. And you’ve written this beautiful book. I’ve absolutely loved reading. Life is tough, but so are you. And the title says it all does it. But tell us a little bit about that because I know one of the most difficult moments in your career in life was finding out that you had cancer and maybe let’s just start from this point, Briony. What was it like to have to find the mental toughness to deal with that news? Because at 31 you just meant to be still being silly and having fun.

Briony Benjamin: Totally, right? And I was working at Mamma Mia. It really did feel like all the pieces were finally coming together. I had this great job, I had a great social life, had finally felt like I found a bit of a network in Sydney, but I was just exhausted all the time. And I kept getting told by the doctor that I was just stressed and I needed to meditate more and rest and no matter how much I did all those things, I could just never get on top of this pervasive tiredness and just this icky, achy, feeling all through my body. And so I say that to women all the time now because there is a big bias in the medical industry actually and women’s pain is so often attributed to mental health conditions or women take a lot, lot longer than men to get cancer diagnosis.

Gillian Fox: That’s actually an incredible fact Briony. For you, your wonderful mum stepped in.

Briony Benjamin: She was on my case. This is not normal. The fact that you’re having night sweats at night and you’ve got no energy and I’m really worried about you. So mum and dad together called up my GP, insisted I go and see a specialist hematologist who’s a specialist in blood. And yeah, she ordered a bunch of tests said, “Come back in a week.” So, I was literally heading into Mamma Mia to go and do a film shoot that morning with Sophie Monk, the bachelorette who’d just finished her big finale. Very important content we were making that morning. And yeah, I just went into the doctor on the way to that thinking, “Oh, how long’s it going to take me to get into the office?” My head was just not for a minute did I think I was going to get bad news that morning?

My mum insisted on flying down to Queensland to come to the appointment with me. And I said, “Oh mum, no. I’ve got to get straight to work. I’m too busy. I don’t have time to hang out.” And of course I went into that appointment, sat down, and the doctor just said, “Oh Briony, so the results are back. And I’m so sorry, but it is Hodgkin’s lymphoma that your parents were worried about”. And even then I didn’t really know what that meant or how serious that was. And she said, “What we just need to do is clear your next six months immediately, and we’re going to get you started on a course of treatment.” And then she mentioned the chemotherapy word and that’s when I thought, “Oh dear. This is quite serious then”. And the first thing, the only thing that came to mind I just said to her, “Am I going to lose my hair?” And she said, “Yeah, you are”.

Briony Benjamin: That to me was the marker, I suppose, of how serious this was going to be and also how radically this was going to change my life, I suppose. And that was the big sucker punch moment when you realise like, oh yes, well this was not how I was planning my week would end this week. Yeah. This is quite serious. And yeah. So, to your question about the mental toughness to face it, I mean, I think very early on a friend gave me some fantastic advice and she just said, “It’s not easy, but the acceptance piece is something that has helped me massively because you can waste so much energy railing against it, feeling angry.” I could have been feeling angry at my doctors for missing it and I just never did. I actually just… I don’t know how or why but very early on I just went, “Okay, this is happening. I’m going to accept that this is happening. Yes, it’s awful and it’s horrible. And I wish it wasn’t, but it is. So now how do I face the task ahead?”

So I think that acceptance piece and it doesn’t matter what you’re going through. It might be a cancer diagnosis, it might be a job loss, it might be just something awful that’s happened at work I think. And a global pandemic, it’s going, what’s within my control? What’s outside of my control? And the things that are outside of it, all I can do is accept them. And I’m going to instead to my energy on the things that I can change and do. And for me that meant I could control the energy I was surrounding myself with. I could control how I would look and think about each day. So mum and I made the pact very early on that if we have to do this anyway, how can we make this a bit lighter or a bit more fun?

And I write in the book Gill about you can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter. So that for me looked like when I went in for chemo, doing my makeup and putting lippy on and wearing sparkly shoes. And my mum would make a big container of bliss balls up and we would give them to all the staff when we went in because that just sprinkled a bit of magic wherever we went. And we could have… I just thought if anyone listening is like, oh yeah, all right, Pollyanna. But what’s the choice when you’re in that situation? You can make it dreary and hard or you can try to alleviate some of that. And yeah, so for me it was that it sounds trite and it can sound so tokenistic that what are you grateful for?

But for me it was absolutely instrumental in getting through it because if you are wiring your brain to constantly be looking for the good and the positive and trying to just block out the things that are maybe disappointing you or letting you down or overwhelming or upsetting you, it really did make a huge difference to me because even with what I was going through, there were so many things to be incredibly grateful for. The fact that I lived in Australia. The fact that I had a great family that were around me, not everyone has that. The fact that we have a healthcare system that takes care of you when you are unwell. All these things that, yeah. No, I think no matter where you’re at, there’s always something to be grateful for. There really is.

Gillian Fox: And when genuinely grateful about something, you can’t be stressed. The two emotions just can’t sit together. So, gratitude is a beautiful thing.

Briony, one of the chapters in your book is called Welcome to the shitshow – you’ve got front row seats. And while it made me laugh it also made me realize that it can feel just like that when a mini career crisis lands – I work with women who are high performers and yet they might get some bad feedback that they didn’t expect, and rocks their world or they might inherit a terrible boss or they loose their value in the company because a number of things change – not their performance – but it feels awful. It feels like a shit show.

Briony Benjamin: Absolutely. And I really did try to write this with that in mind that this is about… We are all going to face challenges. All of us. 100% of human beings are going to face really difficult, challenging times in our life. And that’s sort of the constant between all of us really. It connects us all. And so how do we navigate those times with more ease.

Gillian Fox: So what do you think is the greatest limitation women impose on themselves when navigating their careers?

Briony Benjamin: Well, I think we take ourself out of the game before we even start a lot. It was a great piece of advice that I came along recently. It was actually on TikTok. Someone said, “What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given that has just changed your life?” And this woman said, “Let other people tell you no”. And that has just been resonating with me so much lately. It’s that whole thing like if you don’t ask it’s an automatic no. But it’s like, how often do women take themselves out of the game before they’ve even… They’ve decided they’re not good enough for the role. They’ve decided they don’t deserve the promotion. It’s like, let someone else make that decision for you. That’s not your choice. I kind of love that idea. And I think the other thing is not actually strategically telling their story well enough.

I think there’s ways you can do it but don’t sound like you’re being all about yourself and look at all these amazing things I’ve done, but just reminding people gently and bringing it up. Yeah, and we did that thing and… When I’m at home, mum always says, if you do the dishwasher of the morning, just let me know because I then don’t know it’s just done and out. So we have a thing in our house or we’ll just really gently go, “Oh, by the way, I’ve just done that and that.” Because otherwise it’s just done and no one realises that you did it. I mean, there’s a flip side to that, right. We don’t want to be like, oh, I’m the house angel. I put a plate away.

But, I think there’s something in that in a workplace environment. Really keeping track of your wins and when it’s appropriate or you’re able to do it just gently putting that in and doing it for the people around you as well. I always found as a manager, the more you up the people around you and you promote in front of other people how fabulous they are and the things they’re doing, not only do they become so loyal to you and so appreciate it and I do think it’s the number one thing we crave as humans is to be acknowledged. But it also makes you look great as well. It’s a lovely side benefit of it. That you are there promoting other people and highlighting their wins. I think it’s a wonderful thing.

So, yeah. And I mean, I know something that I did that was really helpful when I was at Mamma Mia is that I just kept a ta-da list. Like instead of a to-do list, a ta-da list, everything I had done like ta-da. And I’d do it on a Friday afternoon. I just quickly jot down what I’d gotten through that week. And then collate those sort of key milestones. And when I went in for my first six month review, I think I blew myself and my manager away because I think we sort of were sitting down to go, “Yeah, so what have you actually been up to?” And instead, I could pull out this list of everything that I’ve been doing over the last six months and you could just see the shift in her energies from sort of going, “Yeah, what have you been up to?” To like, “Oh my goodness, how have you done all this?” That if you don’t tell your story and you don’t advocate, then no one’s going to do it for you.

Gillian Fox: Yeah. I love that tip. I think that’s amazing. I mean, when we tell women to do that, but the ta-da makes it so much more exciting.

Briony Benjamin: Yeah. There’s actually a great app that I use as well. I don’t know if you’ve come across the PepTalkHer app. It was invented by a friend of mine, Meggie Palmer, and it was literally to help women close the gender pay gap. And it’s just an app to track and keep track of your wins and it will actually send you push notifications to remind you to do it based on how often you want to set it up. And so I use that to even just now, I’m sort of contracting and consulting so I don’t have a manager per se, but it’s nice for myself to keep track of the things that I’m doing and the wins that I’m having.

Gillian Fox: Most definitely. Most definitely. Got to celebrate ourselves along the way too. So thinking about storytelling. So that is… I mean, you’re partly storytelling by collecting all the fabulous things on your ta-da list, but where else do women need storytelling to help their career?

Briony Benjamin: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s probably, that would be my first protocol is telling your story and just highlighting those wonderful things that you are doing. But I think also, and I know it’s something you talk about a lot Gill, it’s like finding those advocates for you in an organization or a workplace and sharing your story with them. And I think it’s that thing, isn’t it? If it’s a really complex convoluted story with lots of details and this and that, the other, that’s not going to work. You’ve got to be able to give something to someone that they could relay in a sentence or two to someone else. Did you hear about that time Briony made that video that was on women’s issues? So I think keeping it simple, I think the biggest mistake people make in relaying stories is just too much information. Like, don’t bore me.

And I always think be the person you’d want to sit beside at a dinner party when you’re telling a story. You all know the person that sits there and puts in way too much information and qualifying dates. And was it Thursday? No, maybe it was the Friday. No, no, no, no. It was the Thursday. It’s like, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. Give me the headline. But telling a story with confidence as well which is about speaking… Like I was speaking with someone a few weeks ago and I was really interested in their story, but I just couldn’t understand them we were in a noisy environment and their voice was so soft. I won’t do it now, but the voice was so soft I missed 50% of what they were saying.

So I think maybe I’m coming back to my speech and drama days, but not being afraid to project your voice, speak clearly, speak loudly because you can’t just assume people are going to take it on board otherwise. If you are not passionate and energetic about what you’re saying, then it’s not going to transfer. So, I think don’t be afraid to back yourself. And I always find it’s like that shoulders up, shoulders back, head up. These things, they do make a big difference when you’re talking and relaying. So don’t be afraid to be energetic and passionate about your story. Don’t feel that we’ve got to be these humble, shy, retiring, little wallflowers. Channel you’re inner American or your very mediocre old white man I say.

Gillian Fox: Got to own it. These are super tips. Make it repeatable, don’t be the dinner party bore, speak up and so much more from today’s chat. Thank you Briony – it’s been such a pleasure.

Congratulations on your book. I know so many women will enjoy and benefit from reading Life is tough, but so are you and they can grab a copy via your website brionybenjamin.com.au – plus it’s in all the bookshops right now.

Briony thank you for inspiring us today and sharing your experiences and tips to deal with things when do they do pear-shaped. You are wonderful. And it has been so much fun.

Briony Benjamin: Oh, thank you so much. Well, what a pleasure to be here and so lovely to get this time with you because I know we’ve chatted lots over the years but very special just to sit down and have a conversation for this special moment of time. So, thank you.

Thanks so much for listening to today’s podcast. If you’re enjoying what you’re learning on the podcast, sign up for our free training session on how to land your next promotion. This course is going to give you a close look at the three reasons why people don’t land their next promotion and what you can do differently to ensure you succeed. I think you’ll love it.

Head over to yourbrilliantcareer.com.au/land-your-promotion. If you want some inspiration and tips during the week, join us on Instagram, Gillian Fox Group. I look forward to seeing you there.

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