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From Colonel to Corporate: Leadership lessons from the military

Gabrielle Costigan’s success story as a senior corporate executive could be linked to her military service.

A qualified aeronautical engineer, Costigan joined the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers corps and was posted to different locations in Australia and Asia including Afghanistan and she served for over 20 years.

“As a young person, I liked the structure in the military. It helped shape my leadership and professional skills.”

When she decided to join the private sector over five years ago, she had reached the rank of Colonel.

“The time I spent in Afghanistan and working on operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan was both challenging and exciting, a point of fulfillment in my career. Specifically, the last three years of my military career involved planning for and executing operations across a large and complex supply chain in the Middle East,” said Costigan who is stepping down as Chief Executive of Linfox International in June this year, a major transport and logistics company.

It was this stint working with the US Department of Defense that was one of the most difficult but satisfying roles in her career.

“I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to lead the Multi-National Logistics Division for United States Central Command providing logistics and engineering support to Coalition partners on combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Costigan who was based in the US at that time.

“It was a complex and challenging role that required coordination with multiple agencies and host nation governments. It was a rewarding and enormously challenging role and one of the highlights of my professional career.”

Then came a crucial decision: to separate from the Army or to return to Australia and continue her military service. Meanwhile, the private sector also knocked on her door.

She took the leap and joined VAS, an aviation logistics company, where she successfully led a global sales, marketing, logistics and services team and oversaw substantial global growth.

She left about three years ago to become the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of logistics giant Linfox. Costigan leads the international business and is based in Thailand with her family. At Linfox, she has focused on transforming the Linfox International logistics business with an emphasis on strong customer service and the highest standards in safety and integrity.

Moving to the private sector, she brought with her the two key values the military had imbued in her, that of courage and loyalty. These values were equally relevant in the commercial world.

“I always remembered this advice from my grandmother, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’. I have been fortunate in my career to be offered significant opportunities for development and success. However, they would be just opportunities if I had not seized them and displayed courage in stepping forward. It takes courage to put up your hand to ask for a new opportunity and it takes courage to believe in yourself and to take risks.”

For her achievements, Costigan was short-listed for the 2016 Telstra Business Woman in Asia Award. Deeply appreciative to have been considered for the Award, she stressed that it is imperative to have corporate gender diversity programmes especially in executive teams.

Women approach things differently, she said, adding that they bring different perspectives and approaches to business. She believes this results in a more inclusive workplace and often better performance for the company.

While attitudes to having women in senior corporate roles are changing, businesses, especially large organisations, must be more proactive in their search for senior women executives.

“Having female leaders in positions of influence to serve as role models is not only critical to the career advancement of women, but stands to generate broader societal impacts on changing workplace policies in ways that benefit everyone and create a more diverse workforce.”

Costigan admitted that throughout her career she has faced challenges working in male dominated industries and it can be difficult to change perceptions, traditions and workplace cultures.

“I accept that I’m not going to change thousands of years of culture. However, I do believe there is an appetite and a readiness for change. Continuing to raise awareness of the barriers facing women in business is critical as is providing the support and role models women need to continue to advance their careers.”

On the Telstra Business Woman in Asia Award (TBWA), Costigan said it highlighted the success of women in the corporate world. It is important to have such an award in Asia as women’s lack of representation in leadership positions needs further acknowledgement from the business world. She was shortlisted as a finalist for this award in 2016 and is now an alumnus of TBWA.

Telstra is calling for nominations for the second annual Telstra Business Woman in Asia Award. Entries for the 2017 Telstra Business Women’s Awards are open now until June 15.

For details of eligibility and to nominate, go to https://www.telstrabusinesswomensawards.com/nominate/

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