While serious health issues may cause many people to give up, business owner and CEO Kate Middleton uses adversity to drive her to be the best she can be.
As a child, Kate suffered from a benign haemangioma (a tumour affectionately known as her 'birth mark') on her face. The golf ball-sized lump covered her entire right eye, and was only removed when she was 16.
The result was years of relentless bullying at school and awkward stares from strangers, the likes of which would have a lasting effect on the happiness and confidence of even the strongest of people.
Kate’s health came to the fore again in 2015 when she unexpectedly had a major seizure in her office. Displaying stroke-like symptoms, she spent five weeks in a neurological ward before being diagnosed with a rare neurological movement disorder called dystonia.
Despite all this, Kate is now the CEO of structural engineering consulting firm Censeo, and also runs her own business Career Oracle.
The word ‘inspirational’ gets thrown around a lot these days, but Kate’s story of overcoming adversity, her determination to live her dreams and her dedication to serving her customers and her fellow human beings are truly fitting of such a description.
Here, she speaks with My Business about her career, establishing and running her business and how she feels about sharing a name with a member of the British royal family.
What personal attributes did you learn from your childhood experience with haemangioma, and how have you used those lessons to help you in business?
I reflect on this often. Because I have been 'different' from a young age and suffered relentless bullying and exclusion all throughout school, I learnt to push through fear and do the things I love – even when I was scared as hell.
This has given me a real edge in business, because I have become well-tuned at substantiating the difference between a fear that stems from an emotional bias and, on the flip side, what your body and mind identifies to be a real business risk (which I can then plan for). I would say I am very fear- and risk-resilient, which means I can take action even in difficult situations.
Between this experience and then with dystonia, what has really kept you going? Have you ever thought of simply giving up and getting away from everyone and everything?
Being an adult can be hard, particularly when you put yourself out there in business and your career – there is so much more to lose. I have never felt that I would ever give up, though. I’m like that Chumbawamba song about getting knocked down and getting straight back up again.
Even when I was in hospital with dystonia, I created a hashtag on social media called #katietwopointzero, because before I received my diagnosis, I reconciled that even if I couldn’t walk or talk properly again, or even if I had to scale back my business or my duties, I was still going to be the best version of me I could be, and that Katie 2.0 would be awesome!
To be honest, no matter what has happened in my life, I have always had a sense of hope – and felt that I am capable of greatness. I absolutely want to leave a positive impact on the world.
That’s not to say I haven’t had dark days. There was a period late last year when I made the tough decision to shut down my Career Oracle head office and lay off my general manager. At the time it was the only way to preserve myself emotionally (after months off work) and the company. That was awful, but I knew that I could still keep going and succeed if I was brave enough to make hard decisions. You get knocked down twice, you get back up a third time.
You started your career in the loss adjusting and insurance industry. How did you get into it?
I started my insurance career at AAMI in Sydney, working in claims and recoveries, then over the course of 12 years worked my way up across various businesses.
During that time [I] managed large teams and projects within insurance, ranging from quality assurance, claims and assessing , IT projects, marketing, strategic partnerships, HR, supplier relationship management and managing a national loss adjusting team.
Essentially, because I have worked on both sides (insurance and supply) and reported through to CEOs prior to becoming an executive myself, I’ve gained a rare education into customer and market drivers within financial services.
Given that this is traditionally a very male-dominated industry, what have been your strategies to get ahead in the industry?
The same strategy I would use in any industry: building relationships and taking action!
It is so important to understand what drives your clients, suppliers, staff and competitors. I’ve spent the past 11 months having the tough conversations, learning about market opportunities, understanding how Censeo is perceived (good, bad and in between), exploring the gaps, frustrations and drivers of our clients and future target segments, then taking action and finding innovative solutions.
Everyone loves an employee or a supplier who can solve big business problems, and that has always been my approach. For me gender is not even a qualifier – I focus on building rapport, being consistent and kind, and making stuff happen.
You also went on to establish Career Oracle. Can you give us a background of the business?
I founded Career Oracle in 2014 as my passion project. I was still employed at Auto & General and was helping to define their diversity and inclusion strategy at the time. I realised that my ability to frequently gain promotions and opportunities was pretty unique and I had an excellent insight into what businesses are actually looking for, so I decided I wanted to do something grassroots and actually help other people land promotions by writing resumes, LinkedIn profiles and cover letters with a strong focus on achievements, and specifically tailored towards the jobs my friends, family and colleagues were applying for.
In the first year of helping people through word of mouth, I honed the process and then essentially monetised my passion when I launched the website.
Nearly three years later, we have helped thousands of candidates across Australia and Asia land new jobs. Today, Career Oracle is a small, lean operation including myself and three consultants who work remotely. It’s not as big as Censeo, but helping people, and earning a great ROI in the process, makes me very proud.
You recently undertook some studies at Harvard in the US – what made you decide to go there?
I mean, who wouldn’t want to go to Harvard [laughs]?
In sincerity, I just have an unwavering commitment towards personal growth. Particularly after my long stay in hospital last year, I promised that in this very short life that we are gifted, I was never, ever going to play small.
I didn’t complete an undergraduate degree after high school, which I was embarrassed about for a long time, but despite that [I] had always dreamed of going to Harvard, so I made it happen!
Also, being a young executive in a high-risk business requires mental toughness and emotional fortitude, so I have made a real habit of feeding my mind with good, positive and challenging content that helps me see life from different angles.
Every day, no matter how busy I am, I watch a Ted Talk or a Tony Robbins video or read: anything that reminds me that there is more to this world, and more to myself individually, than what I see and experience each day.
What were your key learnings during your time at Harvard?
The learning that really impacted me was our session containing the results of over 40 years of Harvard academic reviews assessing the capability and behaviours of the CEOs and executive teams who lead or founded the most financially successful businesses in America.
Harvard attributed the following competencies at an executive level as having the greatest impact on business success: 8.9 per cent intellectual capacity (IQ), 8.9 per cent technical skills (TS) and the remaining 80 per cent – far more than IQ and TS combined – is emotional intelligence (EI).
The discretionary effort we place as leaders into our own self-mastery, the understanding of our emotions, the impact our responses have on our business and how that trickles down to employee engagement, financial success, client retention and market share is phenomenal. I have always known that emotional intelligence and the ability to navigate relationships is key, and I also seek that out in my team members (it’s not enough to just be technically competent), but to see it qualified in that way is life-changing.
Having faced and overcome so much adversity in life, what advice would you give to other business owners facing tough times?
Even if you make mistakes, it only takes one great move to achieve a breakthrough. You have to stick with it.
And if your business is currently facing financial difficulty, worry less about what other people think and focus more on what your gut is telling you. If you know you can carry your business through the tougher times by making your business leaner and potentially scaling back up later, do it!
There is no room for ego in leadership: do what’s commercially right and don’t lose sight of your 'why'.
Also, in an age of 'instafame', remember that most really solid and impressive business success stories were not built overnight – they were 10 years in the making.
Lastly, we have to ask, how do you feel about sharing a name with the Duchess of Cambridge? Has this helped you build your profile, or has it worked against you?
[Laughs] I love it! In all honesty, it provides me with a real advantage in both business and social settings because it is such a great ice-breaker. Recently my husband and I were visiting the UK; I am clearly not the Kate Middleton, but just the X-factor of my/her name alone earned us a few room upgrades, which was funny (and appreciated)!