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Kate Middleton: Finding Strength In Vulnerability

Kate Middleton

Kate Middleton is an old hand at shooting for the stars.

Her employment history is dotted with annual promotions; she has a hugely successful online career coaching business, and a few months ago, she became the youngest and only female CEO in Australia’s engineering sector.

But last year, the stars were not high enough and she had to learn to shoot for the moon.

It was a June day when Kate, 35, suffered a massive seizure while at work at Career Oracle. Unable to speak and as the right side of her body went limp, she desperately tapped out the word “stroke” on her keyboard as a clue for the colleague who would later find her. At the hospital, doctors ruled out a stroke and diagnosed her with dystonia.

Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder that triggers involuntary muscle spasms that affect one or more body areas. In Kate’s case, it left her mute and immobile but with full cognitive abilities.

“Being trapped in my body was horrifying,” she remembers. “It was quite lonely to not be able to communicate what I was thinking. I had no idea that I would have to spend the next few weeks learning to walk and talk all over again.”

It was a crushing blow. But Kate is no stranger to adversity. Having spent most of her childhood with a benign hemangioma on the right side of her face, which was only removed at the age of 16; she had vowed then to not ever let a physical condition block her success and she was determined to keep her word.

Fueled by ferocious determination, Kate took back control of her voice, her body and her life. By the time Australia heralded in the New Year, she had not only bounced back but was ready to reach further than she had in her pre-dystonia life.

Kate’s opportunity to do just that came a few months later when she was asked to consultant for a struggling ASX-listed company. That role eventually saw her negotiating a buyout, securing investor backing and being appointed as CEO of Censeo Engineering. She is now the youngest and only female CEO in Australia’s engineering sector.

She talks to woman with drive about living with an unpredictable illness, embracing adversity and the expectations that hold back careers.

 

How did dystonia change your view on life, the world and yourself?

In the beginning I worried about the future of my career, my mobility and my marriage. But as the weeks progressed, I realised I was one of the blessed few who had gone through a major trauma but was successfully diagnosed, treated and given the opportunity to resume a relatively normal life. Feeling grateful for that has given me the determination and drive to be the best version of myself. Dystonia is a really bizarre and unpredictable disease, at least once a week I have an episode where I temporarily experience stroke-like symptoms, but the experience doesn’t phase me anymore- I just get on with it.

 

Was there ever a point when your career came into question while you were in recovery?

Oh, absolutely. My neurologist had in fact told me that I could no longer be CEO of Career Oracle and that I had to scale back and find a new way of living. In the eight weeks after being discharged from hospital, I fell into the deepest depression of my life.

It was at that point that I thought, I am going to prove them wrong. I was not going to check myself out of the workforce even if it meant changing the way I participated in it. And so instead of just going back to Career Oracle – which greatly upset my neurologist – I figured I might as well get an amazing corporate job too. I have since doubled my hours, increased workload, and I have never felt healthier or happier.

 

What have you learnt about adversity and grit?

I have come to appreciate that adversity in any form is just something that happens to you. It does not define you. The next part is the tough bit though- building grit. The only way to walk through long bouts of trauma, hurt or difficulty is to be vulnerable and powerful enough to face it head on. Walk your way through the pain and keep your eye on the end game. If you make resilience and grit a daily practice, it will become a habit and at the end you will be so impressively tough.

 

How do you stay open to the hurt yet still retain a sense of power?

There is so much power in vulnerability, particularly in great leaders. People are drawn to the person who genuinely understands their own strengths and limitations, and is open about their personal journey. It is dangerous to power through situations because it can catch up with you later on. I would like to see more leaders embrace their vulnerability.

 

Why is it that no other female has held this position in this sector and how are you personally championing a change?

I have observed that both male and female executives often wait for conditions or the corporate culture to be right before taking action. This is why I suspect there are so few women in executive roles within construction, engineering and insurance. A senior finance manager within my industry once told me that she would have succeeded if A, B and C were right. I told her that if she believed her capability was contingent on perfect working conditions, she would only go so far.

If you want to accelerate your career and change the status quo then you have to get comfortable with placing yourself in imperfect situations. It will be hard, and it will take perseverance and the occasional cry, but that is the point. If we all wait for mindsets and behaviours to change, it will be another 100 years before we have other young female executive heading up an engineering firms – and that is too long in my book.

 

What have you observed through Career Oracle to be the biggest roadblock in reaching one’s potential?

The expectation that you will get noticed if you work hard enough. In order to be seen as a great leader, you absolutely have to be comfortable with talking about your achievements.

The other expectation is that a certain level of experience or education will entitle you to a raise or promotion. That is complete bollocks. You have to focus more on what you can do for a company rather than what a company can do for you. The moment you start solving big business problems and putting your hand up to manage tricky projects is the moment you gain leverage and a profile.

 

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