Tuesday, July 19, 2011


A little while ago I mentioned I would be interviewing Andrea Culligan, CEO of Unimail, one of the speakers at this year’s Women, Management and Work Conference, to take place on the 28th and 29th of July through Macquarie University.

Andrea has won a swath of awards, (including Telstra Young Businesswoman of the Year 2009) chased robbers, breathed fire, worked as a deckhand, lived in Coober Pedy and has a passion for singing.

I like her already.

I’ve been variously employed as a choreographer, a director, a whore, a nun, a cow, a wolf and a dancing plate. I’m also a mum, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a colleague, a writer and a friend.

Professionally we don’t have much in common, but Andrea’s insight into leadership, women’s roles and navigating a road through today’s cultural climate still resonated with me, as I’m sure it will with you somewhere along your way.


N            Your company Unimail, works in graduation attraction and engagement.
You connect students with employers.
When did you first see the need for such a niche market and how did you begin your company?

A         Funnily enough – it really didn’t start out that way.  Unimail started out as a web based email service for students.  This was before Hotmail, Gmail etc.
We initially started with one publication – backed by a jobs site and 11 years later, we’ve had over 25 products and services in the business.

N            That would require a huge amount of self-belief and stamina. How did/do you keep going when the road gets rough?

A            I’ve had my fair share of life experiences that have provided me with the tools to just pick myself up and get on with it. 
That’s not to say I’m always awesome at these times, I struggle with keeping a neutral tone when it’s all going a little pear shaped.
It’s not easy, it never is, but you just have to keep on trucking if it means something to you.

N            True that. I am the tortoise. I’ll get there one day. Slow and steady…

N            You are a leader, a team player, an initiator, a developer, a karaoke singer and a whale watcher. What else would you like to try?

A            Anything.  I believe the world is most definitely your classroom and there is so much to learn from just about anything.  I’ve been really enjoying tapping into a more creative side of my life. I would also like to get more involved with property development.

N          Ah, property development. The way to go in Sydney town. Not that I know this from personal experience of course, just from observance.

N      You’ll be speaking at this year’s Women, Management and Work Conference about the fast track to leadership.
Miss Q seems to be on it already, what are your hints for a quick ascent?

A      In my opinion there aren’t any quick tricks/tips or fixes to leadership.  I do believe in about 8 key things that I’ve learnt over the years that I wish I knew from the outset:
1)    Understand that status means nothing.
2)    Self awareness is key in understanding your strengths and weaknesses. Being true to what you’re great at and praising others for being assets to your weaknesses can show you understand how you lead a team and help others to accept themselves as well.
3)    Set high expectations for yourself by setting goals for yourself. Do not expect what you are not willing to do yourself.
4)    Remember that education does not finish in a classroom.
5)    Challenge and test everything.
6)    Make a lot of mistakes – and learn from every single one of them.
7)    Your path may not come in the package you initially set out.  Be open to new ideas and opportunities as it may lead you to something greater than you initially imagined.
8)    Sometimes being a leader isn’t always the top job – collaboration is key so understand when you need to lead and when you need to follow.

N            People always bang on about ‘work-life balance’.
I’ve read of your love for physical activity and singing. A lady after my own heart. Are these the yins to your professional yang?

A            The old work life balance thing hey?  I have struggled with this sentiment for years.  When I did biathlons, and rowed surf boats, I was training 2-4 hours a day – that was my priority then and my business was second in line.  Most recently my business has taken precedence and therefore the other has suffered.
Work life balance is about LIFE which means sometimes it’s work and sometimes it’s life. 
Choose to have both in your life at different times.

N            There’s a word for people like you, you know…over-achievers. Biathlons indeed.

N            When I was first married, my husband took a job that moved us from one side of America to the other.
For our first month there, I wasn’t working and found the role of stay-at-home wife so uncomfortable I cried one day while I was in Target purchasing an iron.

Do you think the current generation is better at breaking down stereotypes than their predecessors? Do they have different expectations?

A            Interesting, I’m writing an article on this at the moment as in my peer group and particularly my age group of 30-40 years of age, I find that there is absolute equality in the “partnership”. During the week when I’m working 14 hours days, my husband cooks, cleans, walks the animals, and takes care of all domestic duties.
However, when he’s travelling with his business, working long hours, we switch and I cover the day to day. My peer group experiences similar occurrences.

N            You talk in your post on Mia Freedman’s blog Mamamia, your decision not to have a child at the moment, if at all. How has this prejudice presented itself in your professional life?

A            I don’t find it offensive but more of a surprise that it’s an expectation for me to have children and that I “haven’t lived”, “truly don’t know what life is” or “have no idea about being busy” until I have children. 

Perhaps they are all completely correct, but perhaps not, and I find it surprising that people assume my emotions or capabilities before I’ve had the opportunity to prove either way.

N            You can borrow Miss Q for a while if you like. I won’t charge you too much.

N            I spent many years in the States where mentors are a big thing in the professional world.
They love that word, mentor. Everyone has one.
Is this the case in Australia and what has been your experience? 

A            I actually haven’t had a dedicated mentor.  I find inspiration and advice from a variety of people in my peer group.  They all bring varied opinions, ideas and suggestions.  They also pick me up when I’ve fallen and that has been very special over the past few years.

N            I’ve never had one either.
They’re a bit thin on the ground in the world of musical theatre…anyone offering?

N            Fourteen hour work days, triathlons, vocal coaching, fire breathing…is there no end?
Please tell me you enjoy a good glass of red. In fact, what is your favourite wind-down beverage at the end of a long, hard day? 

A            If I had my way, a hot bath and either a beautiful glass of scotch or a divine SA red would be amazing. 
However, what I find the most rewarding is a walk in the park with my other half and the dog – and realistically that’s what happens more.

N             I’ve never had a real job. I’ve certainly never had a job where I have to wear a business outfit everyday. How many pinstriped skirts do you own Andrea?
No seriously, what is your fail-proof, knock-‘em-dead outfit that you pull out to take on the big guns?

A            I have a favourite Lisa Ho military inspired jacket and pencil skirt that I love to wear and makes me feel invincible.  However, a sharp pant suit in my opinion just knocks it out of the park every time. 

N            A pant suit. I’m getting one.
And I’m wearing it to my next audition even if it’s completely inappropriate.

N            I have a tenuous relationship with the word compromise.
Like many of my generation, I’d like it all – live overseas, but be close to my family. Raise a family but get back on the stage. Eat chocolate but stay in the size 8 jeans.
How do you tackle this dilemma?  

A            I don’t to be honest.  I struggle with guilt of just about everything.  Not giving enough to my spiritual side, then not giving enough to my professional side, then not calling my parents enough, not training enough, it goes on and on. 
I’m starting to just realize that I don’t have to be perfect and that there is a time for everything – perhaps just not all at once.

N            See, it’s not just new mums and Catholics that suffer from irrational guilt after all. What can you offer from your journey to those currently on the road?

A            I wish firstly that I was more accepting of all the crazy bits I have. I tried to be someone I’m not for a while and it got me nowhere.

          Be clear on your vision.
The values you start with will help you define what your business looks and acts like.

N            It’s so refreshing to get to that point in your life where you go;
‘Bugger it. I know who I am, what I stand for and what makes me tick. 
I’m accepting of the good parts and the bad and gee it feels good to be able to finally say that!’

N           Is there something in particular you wish you’d known before you began your climb?

A          Ask lots of questions! I felt I had to know everything and everyone and made a complete arse out of myself on a regular occurrence.
I would have loved to have understood that humility is quite attractive and that it made other people feel like they contributed to my growth.

N      Here's a question - do you like to travel? What is your ultimate holiday destination and why? 

A         I travel a truckload for work, I’m currently in Canada now!  I love travelling and in 5 years we plan to sail throughout the Mediterranean for 4 months – I’m definitely looking forward to that.  However, something I’d like to do next year is a 3-week food tour throughout East Asia – just cycling through little shanty towns trying all the local foods. 

N          My husband and I considered a moved to Vietnam before we left the States. Gregory would have worked for an American hotel and I was going to earn the big bucks volunteering for my favourite charity International Red Cross.
In the end, we decided to try to make a human instead.

N            A lot of us ladies are seriously burning the candle at both ends.
Most days I feel the flames licking my heels while simultaneously singeing my eyebrows. Do you take a herbal saviour, a daily potion to keep up your frantic pace? 

A            Yes it’s called red wine. 
No seriously, I’ve struggled with anxiety and panic disorder for years.  It’s not something I wish for anyone to go through, one of my saving graces throughout it all has been yoga.

N            Ah yoga. That old thing. 
            Yes, yes I will concede it is great for you and I do partake, (upon occasion) but the lycra, the smelly rooms and the spontaneous-stranger-flatulence do dampen my enthusiasm somewhat.

N            If you could meet one person in all the world, who would it be and why?

A            I LOVE Tina Turner.  I find her incredible.  She has this amazing stage presence, incredible physique, rough sexy exterior, incredible power and yet is one of the most eloquently spoken women I’ve ever seen.  I love the dichotomy of it all.

N            I LOVE that you love Tina Turner. Great biceps. And great hair. 
            Of course, you can’t forget the hair.

N            Are you scared of heights? Slightly left-field question, but my husband wants us both to go skydiving, but I’m vehemently refusing. I’m terrified. I would pee my pants and pass out. At the same time.  

A            I’m not scared of heights, but I am scared of the dark which is even more embarrassing! 
I was robbed in the middle of the night whilst sleeping in a hostel in Hervey Bay – he fell over before charging out of my room and my gut instinct was to chase.  I chased him alright and caught him and let him have it.  He went to prison, I got everything back including a watch a dear friend of mine had had stolen when she was staying there – it was her grandmother’s heirloom watch. 
Long story short – I think that memory has stuck in my brain as when it all became a little clearer in the morning I was petrified.

N            Wow. Can’t think what else to say, except don’t stay in the hostel in Hervey Bay.

N            As a new mum, I’m on an awesome ride of fatigue, joy, madness, steep, steep learning and utter bewilderment. Does this sound like how you felt when you started your business? Any survival tips for those embarking on a similar journey?

A            I still feel that way – I call it the roller coaster. For me, I’m very lucky that I have a team of people that can see outside the roller coaster.  Sometimes, I’m stuck in it at warp speed and can’t see the outside and feel so many highs and lows.
I also believe in reflection – although this is one of my greatest weaknesses.  Reflect on your recent achievements – and see how far you’ve come along the path to where you’re going allows you to ease into the future.

N            There you have it folks. A few teaser tips about leadership from one of Australia's best, Andrea Culligan.

For more tales of how Miss Q leads her mother in a merry dance, stick to this blog, but if you'd like to know and understand how it's really done, head on over to the Women, Management and Work Conference
These ladies really know what they're on about.

Thanks for chatting Andrea, and good luck with that biathlon. 

Not that I'm suggesting Andrea looks like this or points her finger. Q would if she knew how.

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