From shop floor to CEO – Sportsgirl’s Colleen Callander shares her secrets to success

In this exclusive Q+A, Colleen shares insights from her incredible career journey.

Sportsgirl CEO Colleen Callander started her career working part-time on the shop floor in retail.

Little did she know she’d go on to head up two of Australia’s most iconic fashion brands. 

Colleen will be sharing insights from her remarkable journey at The Leadership Institute’s event, The Empowered Woman summit on March 26 in Sydney.

esprit caught up with Colleen for an exclusive interview below.

Tell us about your first job?

“My first job out of school was in fashion retail.  Initially I thought that it was only going to be a summer job, but little did I know it was the start of my retail career that has now spanned over 30 years.  I realised very quickly that I absolutely loved customers, I loved fashion and I loved business….so retail was the perfect fit for me. Growing up I was surrounded by business talk at the dinner table. My parents had many businesses in Geelong ranging from restaurants, to hotels to property development. I believe that being surrounded by this kind of environment throughout my childhood helped shape me to be the businesswomen that I am today. I was very fortunate to get my business acumen from my father and my nurturing and caring qualities from my mother. A combination that I think has set me in good stead right throughout my career.”

Have you always known what you wanted to do?

“Like many teenagers my career aspirations changed regularly. But one thing that always stuck in my mind was my parents saying to me to love what you do, be passionate and work hard. Fashion retailing was something I just fell into and I wasn’t planning on it being my career choice, but once I was in it, I didn’t want to leave.”

How did you get into retail and what was your journey from the shopfloor to CEO?

“I had just completed Year 11 and was lucky enough to get a casual job over the summer break at my local Just Jeans store in Geelong. I absolutely loved retail and at the end of summer I was offered a fast track management program. I came home and announced to my parents that I wasn’t returning to finish my final year of school and I was going to work fulltime in fashion. Clearly by the look on their faces this was not what they had in mind for my future but even though their disappointment in that moment they said, “Darling whatever your path be passionate, work hard and never give up”. So at the age of 17, I started my retail career and very quickly I moved through the management ranks from assistant manager to store manager and at the age of 20, I was the youngest person to be promoted to the role of area manager overseeing 16 stores.  By the age of 24 I was appointed to the role of Victorian state sales managers and this was where I spent my next four years in retail. Then in 1999 I was approached to join the iconic fashion brand Sportsgirl, and it was hard to say no. It had been a dream of mine growing up to work at Sportsgirl. I have had an incredible career working across both the Sportsgirl and Sussan brands and recently celebrated my 20 years anniversary with the group.”

What advice would you give people working on the shop floor looking for a long-term career path?

“Be passionate, work hard and never give up – the advice my parents gave me. Decide what area of retail you’re passionate about and talk to people in a similar role on how they got to their position. For areas such as buying and planning there are some great courses out there that you can do and sometimes you just must keep applying for roles in head office or stores and get your foot in the door. No matter what area of retail you want to get into keep learning and up-skilling yourself, whether that be reading, listening to podcasts or doing short courses.  I believe in working harder every day on yourself more than anything else, because if you do, you will become more intelligent, more valued, more skilled and you can then add more value to others.”

What skills did you learn working on the shop floor you still use today?

“That people are your biggest asset.  I learnt very early on in my career that great leaders create an environment that makes people feel safe and valued. A place where they feel they belong, have a voice and contribute to the bigger picture. As a leader you need to take care to the people to the left of you, and the people to the right of you, and if you do that they will take care of you and your business.  I believe if you create an environment where people feel empowered and inspired, people will do amazing things.  This is something I have taken with me through my entire retail career.”

What career advice do you have for other women?

“Love what you do!  That doesn’t just go for the fashion industry that goes for everything you do in life. If you are passionate about something, I believe you will be successful.  I have been in the fashion industry for over 30 years with 20 of those years being at the Sportsgirl/Sussan group and I still get up every day and absolutely love what I do. The other piece of advice would be stay true to yourself, write your own story according to you and nobody else and most importantly celebrate your strengths and love yourself from the inside and out.”

What’s the most important thing to you as CEO?

“To create a business that is profitable, sustainable and continues to grow – but that’s really a product of what my real purpose in life is as a CEO. The most important thing to me as a CEO is PEOPLE!  Creating an environment where people can be the best versions of themselves is the most important thing to me.  Where people strive to do their best, where people work together for the greater goal, and where people want to be a part of a winning team.  I create an environment that allows people to contribute, challenge, be challenged and be creative. I make sure that our vision is something I live and breathe every day and every single person in the organisation understands it and feels part of it. Everyone wants to be connected to the bigger picture; everyone wants to be part of something bigger that just their job function or department.”

Can you describe a little bit about what goes into your position? What’s your day-to-day work life like?

“The thing I love about my job is that it is so diverse. As CEO I have a touch point to every part of the business. One day I can be signing off product ranges with the buying teams, the next working on store designs and store growth strategies. I take my role as brand protector of one of Australia’s most iconic fashion brands as a privilege and so the execution of everything we do from stores, to campaign imagery to the culture created inside my business is very important to me.”

What’s been your approach and leadership style while running the Sportsgirl business?

“I like to start by defining what leadership is not. Leadership is not about a title, a salary or the size of your office. Leadership is about one life impacting other people lives in a positive way. My leadership style is about encouraging, empowering and inspiring people to do and be their best. It is about challenging them to take risk, step outside of their comfort zone. I am extremely focussed on my own leadership and developing the leadership of others.  I love watching people shine.  I always encourage us to laugh together, celebrate success and learn from our failures. People often mistake leadership and management as the same thing, but they are very different. Leaders have people who follow, and managers have people that simply work for them.  Leadership is about getting people to understand and believe in the vision you set for the organisation and getting people to work together to achieve your goals.  Leaders praise success and drive people. They paint a picture and share their vision of what they see as possible for the organisation and work to inspire and engage their people in turning that vision into reality. Leaders see individuals beyond the job they do and more as the part of the bigger picture. Leadership is something that I don’t think anyone ever masters but something that we can all continue to grow and learn.”

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