This is an edited version of a 30 minute speech delivered by Alison as the keynote speaker at the annual Chief Executive Women dinner on September 10 in Sydney.  

I grew up in Tasmania and have climbed many of its rugged peaks over the years. When I was reflecting on my story I looked for an analogy and decided the best one is mountain climbing.

My story is not about reaching the summit of one very tall mountain.  Rather it’s the opportunity to climb several different mountains, all challenging, not always getting to the top but learning from the experience each time and knowing to be better equipped to climb the next. 

I can identify four main elements, which have helped me ascend each mountain.

1. People

You'll see that I am not an expert mountain climber myself and have relied a lot on help and encouragement from others, which triggers for me a strong (and possibly unhealthy!) motivation not to let them down.

2. Partnership

Every mountain has definitely been a team effort with Rod – my husband - who knows he is a much better navigator than me and has been helping me find the way ever since university.

3. Parents

The third P represents the formative experiences I had in my early life - the importance of the home environment as well as the education of girls and boys, for which we parents are responsible.

4. Personal

This is how I also think I helped myself along the way. 

In the beginning

I grew up on a farm in Tasmania. It was an upbringing I loved. I was unashamedly a tomboy with a father who encouraged my interest in farming and made me feel useful from a young age, by teaching me to ride motorbikes, drive the tractor and the ute. 

My sisters and I were fortunate to be sent to St Michaels Collegiate, a girls’ boarding school.  After I got through the homesick stage I thrived there. I didn't realise it but it was my first exposure to the difference people really make.  My drama, phys ed, biology and English teachers inspired me to do well academically. 

One thing I don't think my school did at all well in 1980, my last year, was encourage us girls to think big about our careers, in fact to think much at all.  I knew I wanted to live on a farm, preferably married to a tall dark handsome farmer with moleskins and a ute with a bull bar. My mother suggested I consider Commerce at Uni, saying ‘why don't you keep your options open dear’.

I met Rod who had no moleskins and drove a battered yellow Mazda station wagon, and we headed to Sydney. 

The First Mountain

In Sydney, the scene was now set for my first real mountain. In one of what I still regard as McKinsey's most staggering hiring mistakes, I got an offer to start as a Junior Associate. 

Things did not get off to a great start. I remember my first engagement manager, undoubtedly very intelligent but lowish on EQ sitting me down and saying to me “the problem with you Alison is you lack insight.” At McKinsey that is a mortal blow.

After those initial difficult times, McKinsey was an incredible source of development and opened my eyes to what my future could be. People helped me enormously on my Mount McKinsey ascent.  It's an incredibly positive dynamic and I worked with talented and generous leaders who gave me opportunities and supported my election to partner. 

Ascending Mt McKinsey required personal commitment. I can remember several pivotal moments where it just felt too hard, where I felt I could never belong and got very close to leaving.

There’s no doubt the experience I gained climbing Mount McKinsey underpins what I do today - and I'm very glad I survived.

The Kids Climb

This mountain isn’t for everyone – but one that Rod and I wanted. However you might say that having four children at the same time I was steadily climbing the career mountain certainly added another few thousand metres to the summit.

My partnership with Rod was crucial for this climb. While I was travelling, including commuting for a year between Sydney and Wellington in NZ, Rod was invariably doing more than his fair share.  It was a juggle, stressful at times and we were fortunate to have good care and helpful parents.

When Meg, our youngest, was born in 2001, Rod was quite happy to step back from work altogether and that's what we did. The only one who had a bit of difficulty was his mother Judy in Tasmania. ‘What will I say when the bridge ladies ask what Rod is doing?’, she asked me.  I think she's very proud of him now. 

The Third Mountain

This was a tricky manoeuvre - it's called Line Leap.  The big challenge was how to go from being a consultant to running a business. Once again, people were central to this ascent. 

I left McKinsey after 10 years and joined ANZ as GGM Strategy & M&A in 1999. It was a fantastic role and I made it clear upfront to John MacFarlane, then CEO, to whom I reported, that I wanted to move on into a line role. After 18 months John McFarlane followed through and gave me the chance to run Regional banking.

I have to be honest - it was different and difficult.  I closely watched my ANZ peers to learn how to be effective. 

A mutual friend introduced me to Doug Shears, the chairman and majority shareholder of Berri Limited, Australia's leading juice business.  He knew I was keen to get out of very large organisations.

Doug asked me to lead the company.  It was great experience. Both John and Doug took risks on me and stuck around to help me succeed.

When people give you what you know is a big break it evokes a strong response.  I was determined not to let them down.

NED’s Lookout

I'd had plenty of exposure to ASX boards in my time at McKinsey and most recently at ANZ. I was still in the mode of developing more options and thought a non-executive director career might be something to contemplate.

While I was CEO of  Berri I was asked to consider joining the board of fashion retailer Just Group which was about to list. It was a wonderful experience and led to the NED opportunities I've since had with Woolworths and ANZ. 

The life of an NED I do find very enjoyable. I called this particular mountain NED’s Lookout because that's how it feels - you are mostly on the balcony, not on the dance floor.  And that distance and objectivity is important to succeed as an NED.

The ASX Ascent

So onto the final mountain, the ASX Ascent. 

While the life of an NED was tempting to pursue full-time, I felt I had plenty of energy and another exciting mountain to attempt - the experience of running a listed company.

Jane Allen understood my aspiration and approached me about the GrainCorp CEO role which had recently been vacated.  I wasn't too optimistic.  This was agriculture, which I loved - but I was realistic - a female CEO might be a bit of a stretch for a company that hadn't even had a female non-exec.

But I underestimated the GNC board led by Don Taylor, and I think I also underestimated Jane's role in challenging the board's beliefs about what mattered most for the role.

GNC was a wonderful experience for almost 4 years and of course became the subject of a very public and controversial takeover attempt from Archer Daniels Midland Company last year.  However we found ourselves in the surprising situation of having the takeover proposal rejected by the Treasurer.

The decision, which none of us thought would happen, left me with a difficult dilemma. I concluded it was a logical point for GNC to have a change of leadership. So here I am today, with the great privilege of leading CCA. 

Alison Watkins

View from the Lookout

 So that's my story.

I can imagine after hearing all this there are two camps out there.  One group that's probably thinking it’s an unusual story of an outlier who wiggled through the system helped by people who wanted to do the right thing on diversity, who's so much of a tomboy she might have well been one so didn't threaten men by being too different, who fluked a husband willing to put his career on the back-burner and look after the kids, and who's made extraordinary personal compromises that no normal woman and decent mother would or should do.

I am hoping there is another larger group of you thinking it's actually a really encouraging sign of what's to come.  Even more importantly I hope this group is thinking about what they are doing to make a difference for themselves, their family, and their workplaces.

Firstly for the young men and women, like my daughter and son Grace and Elliott.  You are at university with more women than men, you will get married and have kids after you've established your careers.  Grace won't carry that bias of wanting to marry up, while Elliott will positively hope he does end up with a woman who earns more than he does.  Grace and Elliott have seen women hold many leadership roles.  Grace and Elliott will choose their employers according to diversity and workplace flexibility.

For those men and women who are well into your careers, you know you are making a difference to others.  It's the way you are raising your children to understand they can do anything.  The way you are conscious of ensuring your girls stick at their maths and team sports and point to female role models from all walks of life.  It's the role you play as partner and parents, your decision to share the second shift at home. 

It's the way you make a difference to women in your workplace, the risks you take to create opportunities for them and help them succeed, including importantly, in line roles.  It’s the time you take to meet with aspiring women leaders, to introduce them to people who can help them redefine what’s possible and be practical in charting a course.

It’s my strong view that it is critical to Australia’s economic and social growth that both men and women do more to develop future female leaders.

I feel a strong responsibility to be successful for all the women who will become CEOs in the years to come. It's how I will contribute to changing the perceptions of what a female leader is and to accelerating the day that will come when the term ‘female CEO’ doesn’t evoke any particular perceptions at all.