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Sue Karzis
Sue Karzis

Sue Karzis is a stand out CEO in the non-for-profit sector, propelling the Victorian State Schools' Relief charity to record numbers of impact, helping 67,200 children and young people in need. She is passionate about breaking down gender barriers that still exist in corporate and not-for-profit leadership. According to a recent study, women make up a minority of CEOs in the not-for-profit sector, despite representing the majority of the workforce. Here, tells she tells Lifestyle News her inspiring story of overcoming adversity and smashing the glass ceiling to achieve success.

My journey was certainly not one that I ever believed would lead me to being a CEO for a not for profit.

I had no such ambitions in my youth. In fact, I trained to be a secondary teacher, having completed an Arts Degree with no clear direction of what to do next.

Having graduated from university, I was unable to find a job as a teacher – my graduation occurred during a period in which the government was closing and amalgamating government schools, so there were more teachers that than there were roles.

So, I had a choice – sit at home and wait until I could secure a role, or pivot and find a job doing something else. That something else turned out to be sales – cosmetics to be precise.

Now this may seem a long way away from teaching English and History and it was, but it taught me soft skills that I use in the present day.

I learned how to sell – for anyone who has been in sales, they would know that it is not only about selling product, but about psychology. Learning about my customers and building relationships was key and it was something that I really enjoyed.

The sales followed, and it was a surprise as I didn’t think I had any sales skills.

I then transitioned into buying for a group of pharmacies which I loved. I learnt about the importance of marketing, promoting new lines and constantly changing our ranges to keep customers interested.

Again, a new set of skills was gained as well as confidence in myself to take on new challenges. When I finally decided to go back into teaching, it seemed that that was not to be as I was offered a role promoting blood donation to secondary school students for The Red Cross.

They were looking for a candidate who not only had teaching qualifications but sales skills. The role was made for me! This role incorporated all the skills that I had learned as well as many new ones and it led to the career that I have today.

Each time I was offered a new role, I grabbed it with both hands. Each role that I took was an incremental developmental opportunity.

Whilst I didn’t envision myself as a future executive, with each role I gained confidence and skills that allowed me to attain promotions until naturally, the next step was executive level.


Every leader has had a journey to leadership, and it is not always a linear one. With my own journey, there was no plan, no ideas of leadership from a young age, which is often what we are led to believe.

Why am I explaining this? Because somewhere is a young woman, just like me, who is perhaps looking for direction, wondering how you get to that next step in her career and looking at leaders as people who are entirely different to her.

I am here to tell you that that is not the case. If you believe that have what it takes to be a leader, that is the most important first step.

In fact, while my leadership journey started quite late in my career, it started when I was afforded the opportunity to work closely with senior leaders.

To my surprise, I realised that they were not superhuman, and not that different to me, and that gave me the confidence to put myself forward for roles that I may not have had the confidence to apply for in the past.

To my surprise, I was successful and developed and honed my skills with each promotion. I learned that what I had been missing was other women to help me get to the next level.

One manager did that for me, and it made all the difference. I needed a mentor, someone to help me develop my skills and give me honest feedback, as well as praise, so that I could articulate both my strengths and weaknesses.

So, what advice would I give to my 20-year-old self (the one who had just graduated from university?).

  • Back yourself all the way – you don’t know what you are capable of until you throw your hat in the ring.

  • Grab opportunities, keep pushing yourself to learn new skills and develop your leadership abilities as early as possible.

  • Speak to women in leadership roles – ask them questions and chances are you will discover that they are not that different to you.

  • Don’t try to please everyone – you will never succeed, and it takes a lot of energy. Do what you feel is right and accept early on that not everyone is going to like it.

  • Find your voice early on and don’t be afraid to use it – speak up, share your ideas, ensure that you are allowing people to see who you really are.

  • Picture the career that you would love to be doing and start taking small steps toward that.

  • Do whatever it takes to build your confidence so that you are not relying on others’ summations of your skills.

  • Be brave and bold for that is what is required for leadership.

  • Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong at the leadership table.

  • Finally, remember to mentor young women around you when you attain the leadership role that you were dreaming of.



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