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Interview with Christina Tulloch: A Female Leaders Journey to becoming a “Girl Boss”

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Tune in to hear The 100% Project host, Hilary Lamb, discuss Christina Tulloch’s journey to the top from the very bottom of Tulloch Wines.  Christina tells all on how she has dealt with the barriers of being a female leader in a male-dominated industry, her ongoing challenge of proving herself as CEO while being a mum to 2, how the wine industry survived COVID-19 and Christina’s ongoing pursuit for gender equality.

Christina Tulloch is the CEO of Tulloch Wines and the fourth generation of the 120-year-old family company.  She loves to eat, drink and cook and takes her role as Chief of Quality Control very seriously.

Transcript

Interview with Christina Tulloch: A Female Leader’s Journey to becoming a “Girl Boss”

 

Hilary Lamb: My name is Hilary Lamb and I chair The 100% Project. We’re a not for profit organization and our vision is to see 100% of Australia’s leadership potential, female and male, equally contributing to our social and economic future. Today, I am speaking with Christina Tulloch, Chief Executive Officer at Tulloch Wines in the Hunter Valley.

Welcome Christina, and thank you for speaking with me.

 

Christina Tulloch: Thanks so much for having me Hilary.

 

Hilary Lamb: You’re welcome. So, can you begin by telling us a bit about your story, how you became the CEO of Tulloch Wines and perhaps a little bit about your journey as a female in the wine industry?

 

Christina Tulloch: Absolutely, well I think interestingly enough, I fell into my role at Tulloch Wines. Although my surname might make people think that I was always destined to be involved in the company, that wasn’t the case at all. I only joined in 2003 after leaving a career in public relations in Sydney, and deciding I wanted to find a more meaningful career path.

But thought I’d do a bit of travel first.  So, I moved home to the Hunter Valley to get my finances in order, before I set off traveling.  The new Tulloch Cellar Door had just opened at the time, and my dad said to me, “would you just run the Cellar Door until we can find somebody;” which was convenient for me needing to get my finances in order and get some money.

So, I took on the role and I fell in love with the wine industry, and I fell in love with the Hunter Valley all over again. So, I never left, but I have really worked my way up from the very bottom, so I started just cellar door and then cellar door manager, operations manager, marketing manager, general manager, and then eventually CEO, which was such a fantastic way to contribute to my family’s business and be the custodian of the brand during my generation.

 

Hilary Lamb: That’s quite a story. It’s quite a journey as well. And you’ve obviously started at the bottom, or maybe not right at the bottom, but you’ve worked your way all through the organization. So, you have a strong understanding of what’s going on at, at most levels. Did you encounter any barriers, or any negativity because you were a woman?

 

Christina Tulloch: Uh, absolutely! I have a very male dominated board, so I hit barriers all the way along. And I just kept relying on the fact that my work would speak for my ability, because I knew it was always going to be really tough to earn the respect of the men in charge as such. Then you throw in having a couple of kids, and they generally can be quite fearful of, “Oh my God, the person in charge here is pregnant, she’s going to go off, the business is going to fall apart. What’s going to happen? Is she ever going to come back? Then she’s going to go and do it again.”

 

I had a lot of those challenges along the way, and they weren’t easy, and I still in many ways continue to have them, but you’ve just got to keep leading by example and letting your work speak for itself, I think.

 

Hilary Lamb: That’s a couple of really interesting things you’ve mentioned in there about letting your work speak for itself, and also obviously having children.  First of all, I’d like to touch on your work would speak for itself.  Anecdotally, we hear that women have to work harder, or their results have to be better than the men’s, they have to demonstrate that they are working longer hours, et cetera.

Did you feel as though it was enough to do the same as all of the men alongside you? Or did you feel this compulsion that I’ve got to prove myself and put in more effort, work longer and harder, and show much better results than my male colleagues?

 

Christina Tulloch: That’s actually a really interesting question, Hilary, and I look at that in two different ways.  Some people would say I can be quite a determined or forceful personality. I made it very clear to my board early on that Tulloch Wines is a family company that is luckily celebrating 125 years this year.

And so, in order for a family company to continue, people have to keep having families. I made it very clear to them, right from the start, that whilst I would work very, very hard, I would do it on my terms. I never let that idea that because I was a woman, I wouldn’t be giving the attention, or the focus, or the hard work, or the hours ever be a question.

I’d like to think in a lot of respects, I’ve contributed to the older gentlemen who are in my business really learning how a workplace can evolve from that more traditional, you know, I should be at my desk first before everybody else and I should be last to leave.

 

Hilary Lamb: You had open conversations did you with your board, or with other senior members of the leadership members of Tulloch Wines when you took over, and were quite explicit about the way that you wanted to work and how your family was going to be part of your work life balance?

 

Christina Tulloch: Yes, I did.  I was living in a different place physically to where the business was, so I got the opportunity to show really early on that didn’t have to be a barrier. So, I don’t know whether I discussed it with the board, but I just sort of told them that that was the way it was going to be.

 

Hilary Lamb: Well, I think that’s quite brave. We do hear a lot of women struggling with those open conversations. They just try and hide the fact that they’ve got families, and it causes a lot of stress.  So, we do encourage people to have those open conversations.  It gets the conversation out there, so you can address it.  Also, it does enlighten some of the August males in the leadership chain that, you know, women do have different responsibilities still in 2020.

Christina, you’ve talked about that and you had open conversations, but what was the reality of it? Was the reality that there were still different expectations though? Was the reality that there were some times that you were unable to perhaps give your role as a CEO in your eyes or in other people’s eyes? What kind of barriers specifically did you come across during that time?

 

Christina Tulloch: One that really sticks to mind was that when I was about to be made CEO I announced I was pregnant.  And they said to me, “Well, why don’t we revisit that when you come back from maternity leave?”

 

Hilary Lamb: Timing. Timing.

 

Christina Tulloch:  If we’re not doing this now, I won’t be coming back from maternity leave, because I’ve already had one child and this company was absolutely fine.  You had access to me and I negotiated very specific causes around my maternity leave, and the contact and what they could expect from me.  I was just like, no, that’s not the way this is going to happen.  I remember that being a bit of a sticking point, and I was like, that’s crazy that they would think this. The fact that I’m about to have a baby is in some way a negative, because I’d already proven that I’d done it once and everything had been seamless.

I was sort of dumbfounded that it’s like, why have you not learned that this isn’t going to be an issue, that this isn’t a barrier to me?  Running a really successful business, and more to the point, what kind of a leader am I if I can’t step away from the business for a couple of months.  If everything falls apart, then forget about whether I’m a male or a female, I’m just not very good at my job.

 

Hilary Lamb: Did you find that it was a challenge for the board to understand your position? Was it something that they kept pushing back on? Or once you’ve opened their eyes to the fact, some of the conversations you’ve just been quite explicit about, did you find that they then accepted that, or did that take a while for them to convince them that your way was the right way?

 

Christina Tulloch: I don’t know if I’ve ever fully convinced them.  The financial results for the company speak for themselves, but as for a woman’s place in running a company, I don’t know if I’ve completely convinced them of that.

It was almost a bit tricky too, because my father was my boss for some of that time as well. It inevitably put him in a slightly awkward position, because he’s kind of like “she’s my daughter, so I want her to go off and have time with her children, but I also want someone to be here leading the company”.

I think my father always generally thought that a woman’s place was in the house. That’s how I was raised. My mum stayed at home and my father was at work. Then he had three daughters, so he had to change his attitude pretty quickly and he made sure we all got an excellent education and we all did secondary education after that.

I don’t think that generation of men will really ever get it. They tolerate it. They understand it, that it’s happening, and with increasing regularity that women can do all of those things.

I think in some respects, to be honest with you, Hilary, I think they’re dumbfounded by it, because I genuinely don’t think they believed they could do it. They don’t believe they could raise a family, and take on all of the caring roles, as well as running a company.

 

Hilary Lamb: It’s interesting, isn’t it? They said that COVID is going to have some silver linings.  I think one of those silver linings is when men are working from home, and they do see all the different responsibilities that women have to handle, and whether that is looking after children, looking after aged care, parents, running around, household chores and duties. I think their eyes have been opened a lot in that regard during this process from working from home.

So, you have been working from home, I assume during COVID as well, because I guess all of us have had that pressure put on us.  But did you find that within your own community, not necessarily just within your family, did you find that COVID has altered perspectives about men’s and women’s place at work and at home?

 

Christina Tulloch: Unfortunately, I think it did the opposite. It put us back. Sometimes where it was like, well if something’s going to give here it’s got to be that the mother has to be at home taking care of these responsibilities. So unfortunately, COVID I think has set the whole gender equality movement back by putting us … pigeonholing women back into those traditional roles.

From a personal point of view, my husband works from home all the time and I’m the one who is not here a lot of the time. So, he has learnt to do a lot of that stuff, and be a really positive role model for gender equality to our children. But certainly, I’ve seen other members of my team and staff at Tulloch who weren’t in the same position as me had to make those sacrifices about who was going to work and who was going to stay at home.

But even while I was at home, in lockdown working from home, but it’s funny how all of a sudden, the role reversal just happens. I was the one who was doing the home-schooling, and trying to keep all of that stuff happening while still running a business.

It was very frustrating.

 

Hilary Lamb: Totally. We’ve heard a lot of those stories, and I think women just pick up the slack and just get on with it. That’s quite a good segue into the women in your industry. So, do you have many women working at Tulloch wines?

 

Christina Tulloch: We do, and this didn’t happen purposely in any way, but we’ve got a female CEO, being myself.  We have a number of key positions that are held by females.  When I think about it, the organization we do our winemaking with the chief winemaker is a female, the contractor we use to manage our viticulture and vineyards is a female.

So, we’ve got a lot of really strong female representation, but also in our team at Cellar Door it is a pretty even 50/50 split at the moment.  Sometimes that can go up and down, but since COVID in particular, we were looking to recruit more females, because we lost a lot of our females, particularly our casual staff due to household responsibilities.

During COVID they were like, I work part time, I need to stay at home, so my husband can go to work and I’ve got to look after the children.

Hilary Lamb: That’s one of the things I think that we’re unearthing, we have anecdotally heard that there are quite a few women, whether it’s in one industry, hospitality, retail. They’re the ones, if they are certainly, if they’re working on a casual or part time basis, they’re the ones who are giving up their jobs, giving up their hours to look after the children, look after the home and trying to do the balancing act.

I guess on the converse side, it’s great to hear that you’ve got so many strong female leaders within your industry, or at least within your organization. To start with you, do you think you’re representative with the wine industry? Do you think there is greater female representation now than maybe there has been in the past?

 

Christina Tulloch: I think there is in specific areas of the wine industry, Hilary. When we look at customer facing roles, definitely there’s a lot more females. If you’re still looking at traditional in the winery and in the vineyard, certainly very much still male dominated.

 

Hilary Lamb: Interesting.

New South Wales hasn’t been in lockdown for quite a while now, and your industry does it look as though it is coming back to normal?  Is your Cellar Door open again now, are you finding that your orders are coming back online?  Is your industry, or is it your organization, is that getting back to pre-COVID normal?

 

Christina Tulloch: Yes. In fact, it’s at the moment doing better than pre-COVID normal.

In lockdown, we had to close the doors to our Cellar Door, but we still had staff onsite doing online and direct sales. We were able to continue to keep two teams working, and we have those teams on different days, so that if somebody got COVID it wouldn’t sort of affect the other team.

So, we were able to continue to sell online and to our wine club all the way through the lockdown period. But when the lockdown period ended, people wanted to start traveling. Of course, they were confined to their state borders or intrastate travel, so the Hunter Valley has actually done exceptionally well out of that.

I think a lot of Sydney-siders all of a sudden rediscovered the wine industry on their back doorstep.  I think they’ve been genuinely surprised and impressed by how sophisticated the offering is probably since they last came.

So, COVID has been very kind to us in that sense.

 

Hilary Lamb: I guess there are some unusual outcomes of COVID. Some industries that you would expect to suffer have not, and vice versa. So well done and congratulations for having the systems and processes in place as well that enable you to flourish during that particular time, which is a great result.

 

Christina Tulloch: I just wanted to tell you about a conversation I had with one of my members of staff, during the COVID period. She’s girl who’s been with us now for probably close to five years, and she looks after our accounts and helps with production. She’s been off and had a baby and come back again. When COVID hit and we had to lock down the Cellar Door, and before they’d announced the job keeper scheme, trying to work out well who can we afford to keep paying, how are we going to manage this, what are the hours, and who’s going to be on what team, et cetera.

I sat down and had consultations individually with each member of staff.  This particular girl said to me, “Well, I’m happy, I’ll go.”  And I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, I know you’re not going to be able to afford to pay everyone, and my husband, he’s got a full-time job, so he’s going to have to do that and I can take the kids out of day care and go home and look after them.” And I said to her, “Is that what you want to do?” She said, “No, but I feel bad if I am the one who’s taking somebody else’s pay or hours that probably needs it more than me, or doesn’t have kids at home so has the ability to stay at work.

And I just thought that’s so representative of women. In a time of crisis, she took it upon herself to be “I’ll sacrifice myself; I will give up my job so somebody else can have those hours, and I won’t be a burden on the company. I’ll just pop back in my box, go home and be a good wife like I should be”.

I just thought that was so bizarre, because it’s the complete opposite to the way I’ve always looked at things. And maybe, I’ve been really lucky to have an upbringing and role models and capacity to be strong, determined, and decide how I want things to be.

I don’t think it ever occurred to this girl that she had choices, or that I needed her to stay, and I needed her to be doing her job. So, I just thought that was a really interesting conversation at the time.

 

Hilary Lamb: It’s a really good story. Thanks for sharing that, Christina. I have to ask what happened to her. Did she stay, or did she go?

 

Christina Tulloch: She stayed. She actually took an extra day off a week. She is so incredible!  I don’t know how she does it.  She has three boys under seven, so she’s got a lot going on.  She always works flexible hours with us, because she’s got to manage all of that.  So, she took an extra day off a week during COVID, and then as soon as things got back to normal and the Cellar Door could open again, she came back to her full hours.

 

Hilary Lamb: Great. That’s fantastic. Well done. You’re obviously a very strong leader, also a strong female. And I think that combination has made you really aware of other people’s behaviours and how, if they are stereotypical, particularly on the side of women, that you ask them the right questions. As in, when you asked this lady, is that what you want to do?

And you found solutions for her. So, one of my questions is going to be, and maybe it’s timely now is that, do you look at trying to provide some female friendly policies or structures within your business that will enable you to support women when they have children, or in the flexibility that they may need in their particular circumstances?

 

Christina Tulloch: Yeah, absolutely. I try and make sure that our workplace is a very family friendly workplace so that as the gender politics evolve, men might want to be more involved in the raising of their children, we can also support them to do that because we want that to become the new normal.

I’ve got a lot of women who work for me who have children. Not only do I give them the flexibility where possible, but I actively model it.  I’m the first one to say, “I’m leaving early today, because my son is doing a performance at school and I want to be there to watch it”.  If they come to me and say, look, I want to spend some more time with my family, and if they are an employee that I value, then I will find a way to make that work.

 

Hilary Lamb: It sounds as though you’ve got an amazing workplace, and hopefully all of your employees appreciate how different your workplace may be from others. But one of the things you mentioned there really hit home with me, and that it’s not just the women that you have to support, it’s also the men.

If I can just share for a moment, that The 100% Project is delivering some research called “Breaking Dad” very shortly that’s based on the psychological safety for men in the workplace.  So, where they want to spend time more in the community, with their family, with their parents, run a marathon, whatever it is that they want to have flexible workplace, they feel as though they’re being judged.  So as men, it should be that you work full time, you are the breadwinner, you shouldn’t be looking for flexibility in the workplace. I think that’s something that we’ve got to break down as well, because if men don’t accept that is the way of the future then they’re always going to be judging women on having to, or wanting to work flexibly.

I applaud you in the way that you are making sure that these flexible policies work for both men and women.  I guess on that side do you ever get men coming to you and say, “I’d like to work flexibly, or I’d like to have some time off to do something outside of work”?

 

Christina Tulloch: Yeah, I guess to me, I’m doing a good job if they don’t have to come and ask me for that.  My father’s idea of a work culture is incredibly different to mine, which often can cause a bit of friction between the two of us.  My philosophy is… we all get to come to work every day in this building and in this company, so we get to decide what the culture is and we all have to contribute to it.

My right-hand man, Brad, who’s the General Manager of Tulloch Wines, he is an amazing hands-on dad. It was always implicit in our discussions that yes, you have a family, you have a young family and if you want to be involved in their lives, then absolutely, we’ll just find a way to make it happen.  I think reading Annabel Crabb’s book, “Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives” was such a huge “aha” moment for me.

 

It’s like, oh, it’s not just us that have the problem, actually. There are two sides to this coin and until as a community we accept and respect the need for men to be involved in family lives, then nothing will ever change. So, we’ve got to normalize that, we’ve got to normalize men being important parts of a family’s life is the way it should be.

 

Hilary Lamb: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s educating men currently, but also educating girls and boys as they come through that you can be what you want to be.  That doesn’t mean that women are going to be staying at home looking after the family, and men are going to be going to work. It is becoming more normal that men stay at home and take some of their parenting responsibilities, but it’s not yet accepted.

Are there things you still want to achieve with regards to gender equality and diversity within Tulloch Wines? Is there anything that you’re still finding is a struggle?

You are again, a strong advocate for women, but a strong leader too.  So, you are pushing through innovative strategies that a lot of organizations haven’t yet even thought of.

 

Christina Tulloch: Within Tulloch, being a small company, we have the ability to make changes very quickly compared to the corporate world where things take a lot longer. Also, gender equality is still really bad in some specific industries. While the wine industry as a wider industry isn’t great at it, at Tulloch we’ve been able to make changes quite quickly. I think the gender equality issues that I’ve faced at Tulloch won’t really ever evolve until there’s succession … of older gentlemen leaving the business.

I genuinely believe my daughter will have a different experience than I did with gender politics in the workplace. As I said earlier, you can’t be what you can’t see, so you’ve got to keep making this representation.  Really visual, it’s there and you can’t look away and the more we do, the more we normalize it, the more women and young women coming through into different careers, we’ll look at that and say, yes, that is normal. A woman being in charge is normal.

 

Hilary Lamb: So, Christina we’ve talked about the fact that you are treated differently as a female CEO. Is there any particular language that is used because you’re a female that you feel wouldn’t be used if you were a man in the same position?

 

Christina Tulloch: There’s all these words that are really gendered, and used about women in the workforce that really make me mad.  Particularly, one of the words that I get really upset is when people say you’re ambitious. To me, that is code for you’re not good at being a mother, because you’re busy trying to compete in a man’s world, or you’re really bossy.

So, there’s this whole range of behaviours that we find acceptable in men, but not acceptable in women in the workforce, because they’re not seen as feminine traits.

 

Hilary Lamb: You’re right, that if a man is called ambitious, I’d say that’s a positive trait. If a woman is called ambitious, then there is a negativity to it, which can be quite damaging. You say that to a young woman and she says, “Yes, I’m ambitious.” It’s probably met with something like,” Oh, okay” and you get the feeling that this is not a good thing for a woman to be. So, yes, I agree with that.

Great gendered words.

 

Christina Tulloch:  I remember I was invited to give a presentation to the teachers from my kids’ schools. They call it Pub PD, which is personal development at the pub where they get together, they have a few drinks, and its teachers from all over the Hunter region, and they have interesting people come and talk to them.

The principal of the school said, “Oh, I thought you might be a good one. You’re a CEO, come and tell us about business, but really you can choose to talk about whatever you want, but the overarching theme is wellbeing.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to talk about feminism in the workplace.” He was like, “What’s that got to do with wellbeing.” And I’m like, “Everything!”

Just looking at one of the slides that I put up on the screen, during the presentation, and some of the questions that I get asked, and it was like, “Well how many children do you plan on having?” And I was like, “That is really none of your business.”

I remember the board asking me that one at some point, or “who’s looking after the kids?”  I can assure you they’re being looked after. I’m really good at planning, which is what makes me really good at my job.

 

Hilary Lamb: It truly surprising the questions that are still asked of females, which you wouldn’t even dream of asking a man, you wouldn’t ask a man say how many children are you planning to have.

 

Christina Tulloch:  Exactly.

 

Hilary Lamb: I think some of those policies that we’re talking about is giving men equal opportunity to take parental leave as women.  I think a lot more men are trying to do that now.  That they want to spend three months with their newborn, as well as the mother spending three months with a newborn. Because after the birth, with the advances in technology, it doesn’t mean that the mother is the sole parent who can look after the child.

And I think coming to that understanding, and trying to create that normality that men and women can be equally good parents is a really strong message to get out there.

Some of the research says that it’s going to be more than a hundred years before we get genuine equality.  It’s based on the number of women coming through to senior positions, gender pay gap, et cetera. But it’s quite a dire thought, isn’t it? That it could be another a hundred years or so before we actually get genuine equality.

But I think we’ve managed to fast track it over the past couple of decades.  I think if we continue to fight for it, have leaders like yourself, and you’re going to obviously be teaching your son and your daughter that they have equal opportunity, which is obviously the way to go for the future.

If you are coaching or mentoring, a young woman who aspired to leadership, whether that was in your industry or any other industry, would there be certain things that you say, “This is what you have to focus on, these are some of their behaviours, activities, things that you have to do to enable you to get to where you want to go”?

 

Christina Tulloch:  It’s quite timely, because a friend of mine came to Cellar Door yesterday with his daughter and her two cousins. They’d been earlier in the week and I wasn’t there, but he told them about me and that I was the boss. They said, “Oh, well, can we come back and meet her and ask her some questions later in the week when she’ll be there?”

I’d love to talk to them. So, I came in yesterday and they were like, “so what’s it like to be a girl boss? How do you find time?”  You know, they were all really, really valid questions, and questions I get asked all the time.

Some of the advice I gave them, that I’ve had to learn the hard way, is ‘done is better than perfect’ sometimes. You have to have a laser like focus on what your priorities are, both within the workplace and within your home, and make sure that you don’t ever lose sight of those, that everything you’re building towards is aligned with those priorities.

The third thing I said to them was you have to be incredibly organized. So, I think they’re the three main points that I think you need to show people. The other thing that I have always thought was very true, was the saying,” you can have everything, but you can’t have it all at once.”

 

Hilary Lamb: Wow!  Great advice, Christina. I love it!  I’ve written them all down.

 

Christina Tulloch:  Just two other things that I forgot, that are also philosophies I live by, and that is “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” I think that’s really important about making sure that in your business, you don’t walk past that kind of behaviour when there is inequality between the genders.

And the second one is that “women need to use their influence.” They need to take that platform and they need to use it to preach and practice equality, so that the more people can say it as normal and that people are doing it the quicker the change will come.

 

Hilary Lamb: I agree. I think women supporting women is a really good cause. It doesn’t happen everywhere, because unfortunately there aren’t sufficient women in leadership positions to be able to make that much difference, but we need women supporting women.

 

Christina Tulloch:  My little boy came home from school one day and he looked at me and he said, “You know, mum there aren’t boy’s colours and girl’s colours.  Colours are just colours.”

And I was like, yeah, that’s right! “And you know, girls can play whatever sport they want”. I’m like, absolutely they can!  I have an incredible amount of faith in the public education system here in Australia for teaching our children that there is a different way and that there is a new way and what equality is.

I think until we see meaningful gender equality represented in politics, we can’t see change happening as quickly as we need to.  Until that change happens, I can see why it could be another hundred years until we have 50/50 female representation in government and making policy changes around childcare and those sorts of things.

We won’t be able to achieve gender equality in the workplace.

 

Hilary Lamb: I totally agree, Christina, and I think one of the key things that we’ve got to try and advocate for is free childcare.  That gives flexibility to women completely. They can go out, get a job, pay taxes, the same as everybody else does, and contribute to the development of society. But the question of women in politics, that’s a whole other podcast.  We’ll have to invite you back to talk about that.

Thanks so much for talking with me today, Christina, it’s been really enlightening. I love the way that you’re approaching your role and overcoming all of the struggles, and coaching and mentoring young females of the future.

Thanks for your time.

 

Christina Tulloch:  Thanks Hilary.