With a name like Sadhana Smiles, the CEO of Victorian real-estate company Harcourts was born to stand out from the crowd. At the Australian Women’s Network Business Summit on April 1, Sadhana said:
“We put constraints on what we should say, how we should say it…how about we just be ourselves?”
So, who is Sadhana? She describes her personal brand with the following key phrases: expert, leader, industry commentator, role model, audaciously ambitious, full of chutzpah, disrupter, agitator, fearless, influencer, strong and sassy.
Sadhana was the first child born to her Fijian Indian parents Kamla and Jerry on March 7, 1966.
“I admire my parents, particularly my dad because he was sick for a very long time and whereas perhaps a lot of people would have given up, he never did. Even in his worst days, he was determined to live his life, and I admire that about him, he just never ever gave up and neither did we, we never gave up on him either.”
Sadhana was 16 years old when she moved to Melbourne and attended Tintern College boarding college in Ringwood. At age 19, she married Jon, who was her husband for 23 years and together they had two children. With her first job as a receptionist for a small real-estate firm, she fell in love with the high energy, frantic, exhilarating world of real estate, helping people list, market, manage, buy or sell their home.
“I’m very value-driven”, Sadhana says. Indeed, she began working at Harcourts because the values of that company so much reflected her own: “It was almost as if they had taken something out of what I live my life by.” She lists Mahatma Gandi as a person she admires specifically because, “he was a man who truly lived his life through his values, same as Nelson Mandela”.
In 2008, Sadhana founded Links Fiji, a non-for-profit organisation centered on preventative health care. Sadhana tells of her inspiration behind the foundation:
“I met a beautiful young lady who was 39 years old, and she was dying of cervical cancer. When I met her, I became quite connected to her story because she was a young lady who had always gone and got a papsmear and always got her results, and then one year she didn’t go and do that because she didn’t have enough money to pay for her bus fare. The bus fare is about $2.50. So she didn’t do anything about it, and by the time, years later, that the system was able to locate her and tell her that she had an issue, she was riddled with cervical cancer. Even though her partner had insurance to bring her overseas and have an operation, it was all too late, and after she was diagnosed and told that it was going to end her life, her husband died of a heart attack, and then she subsequently died three months after I met her.”
Links Fiji was borne out of not wanting another woman like Lemba to die. Along with the Fijian medical department, Sadhana began travelling with her foundation into rural villages.
“We go into places that don’t have access to health care…and we take the testing to the women. But we also then test the men for high blood pressure and diabetes, and try to educate them on having healthy life choices.” After Lemba’s passing, Sadhana recognised “there was a huge cultural issue in Fiji around women being really scared about having papsmears, not really understanding why they need to have them, the importance of it, how often they should have it and what cervical cancer was about”.
With Lemba’s death, seven children were left orphaned. Honouring her promise to her friend, Sadhana now looks out for them, and takes great pleasure in cheekily saying she looks good for a mother of nine.
As a non-for-profit, Links Fiji is always looking for more support, and there are several ways people can assist, without being on the front-line:
“The best way people can help us is to come to our fundraisers, to speak to other people, to raise awareness, and when they go to Fiji, actually understand that there’s a whole other world out there then the resorts that we always end up in and have a fabulous time in.
“100% of the money that is donated goes towards what we do, so goes towards running the pap smears, doing the testing and the reporting and research and follow-up around it. We’re getting more funding, we’re able to do more trips to Fiji and see and look after more women and that in itself is a huge positive for us.”
It is clear within a few minutes of speaking with Sadhana that at the centre of her existence is her family, relationships, people and her desire to make a difference.
“[I hope that]my non-for profit which I work in continues to achieve long after I’ve gone providing healthcare and choices on health to women and children and men in a part of the world that they wouldn’t have had otherwise unless it were there [I want to make a difference] because I was the mum who allowed my children to have wings to fly, and make their mistakes and live their life, and encourage them to do everything that they want to do and achieve. To be that person in my family who laughs and cries and supports people. From a business perspective, that I made a difference to the organisation, not just from a success perspective, in terms of your bottom line or anything, but more from the fact that we create a cause, and we champion change.”
Sadhana walked the talk (literally) when she, as CEO, instigated the partnership between Harcourts and White Ribbon Australia for the Walk a Mile in their Shoes campaign, rallying against domestic violence: “Four years ago, when we as a business went down the path that we have done in terms of our support of White Ribbon and I wanted to increase awareness, it wasn’t as in the front as it is now.” The event which has every participant, whether male or female, don a pair of ladies shoes, began in 2013 with over 250 walkers. In its inaugural year, the march wound from Southbank Spillway to the City Square in Melbourne and the partnership with White Ribbon raised over $30,000. Now a national event, $100,000 has been raised for the Break the Silence campaign, with 220,000 students educated on issues stemming from domestic violence. The next march is scheduled for September 2016.
Harcourts is one of the world’s most successful real-estate agencies with 780 offices across ten countries, 74 of which are in Victoria. The Harcourts Victoria website proudly states the company has ‘tripled its market position over the past five years’. The agency seems to be going from strength to strength, yet often with increased success comes increased pressure.
“The most challenging thing about working in my job is my own self-dialogue in my head. The voice that questions ‘Are you good enough? Are you right? Are you making the right decision? Are people going to question you? Are you going to be judged? All those things that go through your head as a woman, I can’t speak to whether men have the same issue or not, but as a woman, when you are in a leadership role and you look at yourself and you question yourself, and question everything that you do because you think everybody else is going to question it as well. You have to find a way to shut those voices down.”
It seems counter-intuitive that a person to whom speaking her mind comes naturally, and who knows so clearly who she is, could have struggled with confidence. However, Sadhana is quick to reassure me:
“Confidence isn’t something you can get overnight, it’s not a pill that you can take, not a course that you can do.” As if to demonstrate this, Sadhana says that even after being named the 2013 Telstra Businesswoman of the Year, it took her a while to psychologically accept the award: “I made excuses around whether I was worthy of being the winner, and I didn’t own it. I won it in October and it wasn’t probably until December of that same year that I thought to myself ‘Y’know Sadhana, this is crazy, you’ve won this amazing award, you can’t spend the rest of your life denying that you won it’. In many ways, it helped her define herself as a businesswoman, and the space she occupies within the corporate world: “[I asked myself] What do you want to achieve, what platform do you want to have, what’s your voice going to be around this? In many, many ways it gave me the strength and courage to actually stand up and have the platform and the voice I do now. I don’t think I would have been able to do it without that award behind me.”
Now with more confidence as a result of that honour, Sadhana believes success comes from educated risk-taking:
“There’s a beautiful saying, ‘Leap and the net will appear’. It’s about saying to yourself, ‘I’m going to go down this path and I’m going to give it everything. I’m going to approach the right people, talk to everybody I can talk to. I commit to asking the question, I commit to going up to people and asking”. She believes having the confidence to take risks is one of the greatest challenges facing women today: “…the ability to step up and take the risk and say “I don’t know how this is going to end up, but I’m going to give it a go. If we go down that path and we put enough people around us who are going to help us with our confidence, and nurture us to the level we want to get to, then we’ll get there.”
Sadhana admires many young adults of today, including her children, “…so many things thrown at them, so many decisions they have to make at such a young age”.
So who helps Sadhana with her decision-making?
“I’ve always had a close select group of girlfriends, who I default to for advice and I will only ask one or two of them. They’re the one or two who know my life inside out, they’ve been there for me when times have been fantastic and they’ve been there for me when times have been really bad. It’s about getting the right people around you. Confidence is something we build over a period of time, that we nurture within us and it comes with having the right people around us, who help us nurture it as well.” Confidence comes easier when you trust your decision-making process: “…you researched it, you’ve got the modelling right, you’ve got the right advisers around you and so you can confidently go and say ‘No this is the direction to go in’, and know that if it’s not, you still have enough credibility to go, ‘You know what, this time it wasn’t the right decision, 9 times out of 10 we have made the right one. If you do the right thing by yourself, you’ll always do the right thing by others. If you ever second guess yourself or question something that you’re about to do or say, chances are you shouldn’t be doing it or saying it.’
As a book and music lover myself, I wanted to find out from where Sadhana draws her inspiration:
“There’s a beautiful book called The Alchemist by Paulo Coehello. It had different meanings to me based on what I was going through at the time. In terms of actually connecting with words on a piece of paper, it would be that book. There’s so many pieces of music I think that are so strong. Lots of songs by Adele and the song from Wicked ‘Defying Gravity’. I remember listening to it in 2011 when my life went to shit. I used to play that song over and over and over and over again. For some reason the words really connected with that time in my life.”
When it comes to being a powerful woman in the male-dominated sphere of real-estate, Sandhana admits there was a temptation to change who she was and how she presented:
“There was a time when I used to be very bloke-y. You don’t really need to do that anymore. I think there’s a lot to be said about being feminine in a male environment… I think men react to you in terms of how you react to them, so if I’m going to be aggressive and bullish, then I’m probably going to get the same response back from them. Whereas if I am collaborative and feminine and genuine and I talk to them about stuff they find interesting, and then we talk about things that I find interesting, I think there’s a middle ground.”
It perhaps follows that one of the people Sadhana admires is Hilary Clinton:
“…all the things that are being thrown at her around how she looks, how she speaks, the words she uses, whether she speaks too loudly, too softly, it takes such a high level of self-confidence and self-awareness not to let that stuff get to you”.
Sadhana has never claimed to be a superwoman though:
“These days, one person can’t do everything so gone are the days when you could, be a mum, go to work, make sure the house is all clean. I think the reality is, we’ve got to put help around us so again if you want to achieve a whole heap in your life, then you’ve got to work out, if I want to be this amazing business person, how am I going to balance it so I don’t miss out on my children, I have time with my husband, I still achieve all the things I want to achieve from a business perspective, what does that life look life? Does it mean I have to get a cleaner? Does it mean I have to get a nanny?”
She has recognised a cultural addiction to busyness. “There’s a perception that ‘Unless I’m really busy, I’m seen to be working every weekend and not attending stuff, I’m not making it in life, I’m not that important’ and I think that’s just a load of rubbish. If you change the dialogue and you say ‘look at how much I’ve achieved’, it’s a very very different space we put ourselves in.
Prioritising is the key:
“When we’re on our deathbed, we’re not going to regret the meetings we didn’t get to, we’re going to regret the time we didn’t have with our family. I always say to my kids “I don’t know what’s important to you unless you tell me what’s important to you. I will move hell and high-water to make sure I am there, I’ll put it in my diary and it’s just a non-negotiable. I choose the things that I want to do, I let go of the things that I don’t want to do, I love the fact that I’m involved in so many different things. Yeah, I start my day at 7:00 in the morning but by 5:30, 6pm, I’m at home. I have dinner with my family and my partner, we go to the movies, I exercise, and I know I fit a lot more in my life than what most other people do.”
When asked for the advice she would pass on to young women, Sadhana reminisces about advice she was given by one of her own mentors: “Master the system and find a way to make it work for you.” If you understand what you want to achieve in life, and what you want to be remembered for, Sadhana believes you have won half the battle of being successful, “…it drives who you are and the choices you make, it becomes part of your value set, and if you live by those value sets, I think you have achieved success.”
Laughter rings out when I ask her what is left to achieve, “There is so much!” Breaking goals into categories, family, Harcourts, and Links Fiji, Sadhana says:
“The next thing for me is to get my son through his VCE year and make sure that he does as well as he can do, and then pack his bag and send him overseas on his next adventure of his life. My daughter is finishing university and she’s off to India and Bolivia so packing her up and making sure that all of that works in the way it needs to work. In terms of work, clearly achieving all the goals that we have set for ourselves this year. Apart from the business world, I really want to be able to, over the next twelve months, continue to grow my voice in the two areas that I’m really passionate about and that is, the issue of gender diversity in the workplace and the issue of violence. Violence against women, unfortunately I think to some extent, has become a bit of a buzzword for people. At some point, over the next 2-3 years, my fear is it’s no longer going to be a buzzword, something else will come up. So my mission is to find out how do we keep this front of mind? How do we keep it on the agenda? How do we keep the change happening? How do we keep people having the discussions? How do we keep people saying it’s not going to be tolerated? How do we change the minds of the next generation around this? For my own Fiji non-for-profit, I’d love to be in a place where we’ve got the funding to do a trip a quarter, we spend 7 days in the field and if I could do that, I’d be a very happy person.”