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Insight Series: Spotlight on women in leadership


Meet Gabrielle Thompson, the CEO of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO). She’s a vibrant, diverse thinker with a skill for multi-tasking—a woman who’s passionate and unafraid to get out there and have a go.

After many years in the banking sector followed by a decade in the film industry, she dove into the Australian arts industry with a concept and a vision for what would become the AWO.

Today, Gabrielle talks more about the beginnings of the AWO, leadership and the wisdom gained from business.

What inspired you to bring the Aust World Orchestra to life?

For me it was a who – my brother. I was working as a film producer then, and my brother, a passionate musician and conductor, came home to live in Australia. He shared the concept with me, and I thought it was amazing. And, at this point in my career, with a decade in the film industry and being exposed to hundreds of scripts—I knew a good thing when I heard it. So, I jumped at the chance.

We were creating something entirely new! It was a lot of hard work, but I think what made it successful was his vision, my belief, and our lack of fear.

Plus, there were no constraints; I didn’t have another organisation sitting on top of me dictating my actions. I guess that’s one of the advantages of working for yourself.  

Yes, running a small business can be harder as you’re alone, or maybe you have a couple of people around you, but it comes with immense freedom. There’s no ceiling. You are your own ceiling.

What does the Australian World Orchestra mean to you today?

It means as much to me as when we started. The whole thing is monumental and infectious, and I love creating each season. It’s a major achievement for me, those we’ve worked with, and our sponsors like Saltire Capital Partners. It signifies the opportunities that can be out there if you grab them. The impact over the past 10 years is worth fighting for, and I’d hate to see it go.

What does leadership mean for you?

It means taking concepts and ideas and putting them into the world. As CEO, I love being the decision maker and always have a vision for what I want to achieve. 

While I’m a hands-on leader and look over everything, I don’t micro-manage. I believe in allowing other people to get involved and have a voice. That’s to me what effective leadership is.

How do we harness self-leadership skills?

Listen to learn. Listening is essential—and a skill I’ve developed over my career. It’s vital to teach yourself to listen to what others say and then to listen some more before formulating a final impression/decision. 

By listening, you give people a chance to have their voices heard. They are seen and feel like they matter. That’s when people invest in their work and the company’s overall mission. And look, giving people a voice doesn’t mean their ideas always end up happening, but if people are not considered, you don’t have buy-in.

What wisdom would you give to women aspiring to lead their lives?

I’ve broken a few glass ceilings in my time (in banking and finance), and it’s not always been easy.  But, don’t be afraid to use your feminine attributes like charm and gut instinct we have them for a reason and we should not be afraid to use them.

What message would you like to leave women in business?

The adage, ‘if at first, you don’t succeed, try again’ is important. Don’t be afraid to try. And don’t be afraid if you don’t succeed at first.

In the modern-day world, we jump too quickly, and if it doesn’t work, we think it’s not going to work. But not everything succeeds straight away. Don’t squander your opportunities because they didn’t work out in a short amount of time. Nine times out of ten, it’s a learning experience.

You can’t change the world in one day or a year, but that doesn’t mean you don’t chip away at it.

What’s the greatest piece of wisdom you’ve been given?

From my father, “Peace not war. Use carrots, not sticks.”

In my early 30s, I remember getting quite irate at something and started pointing fingers at people. My father very quickly said, “Don’t point! You can be vibrant, but with that aggression, you lose the whole room”.

As a woman, this doesn’t mean you can’t be strong, vibrant and clear in what you want to say; it just means don’t be aggressive with people.

We’ve been given fantastic attributes as women. I’d say be very strong in your opinion, but don’t let that overrule your methodology in getting somewhere. The art is staying in our feminine essence and drawing on our masculine traits (we have both). Through that, there’s a way to communicate our vision calmly.

 At Saltire, we are committed to supporting current and future leaders. We’re proud to be an Education Partner of the AWO and provide financial support to its endeavours. This sponsorship will continue into 2023 together with our Australian Academy of Health & Medical Sciences Health Horizions program.

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