Insights from the Champions of Change

Thursday, 01 February 2024

Susan Muldowney photo
Susan Muldowney

    Champions of Change Coalition chair Janet Menzies (pictured above, left) and CEO Annika Freyer (pictured above, right) have a partnership that is enhanced by frank conversations and the desire to make an impact. 

    The Champions of Change Coalition is a global movement for achieving gender equality. Based on an innovative strategy where men of power and influence step up to support the increase in women’s representation in leadership, it was established in 2010 by former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick AO. The coalition has grown from a founding group of eight Australian business leaders to 16 groups with more than 250 leaders covering every major sector of the economy. Last year, it refreshed its strategy around a vision for inclusive gender equality by 2030.

    Chair Janet Menzies and CEO Annika Freyer agree their relationship is made easier by candid conversations and dedication to making an impact.

    Janet Menzies

    The chair’s POV

    I learned about the concept of Champions of Change when I was working at McKinsey more than a decade ago. Liz Broderick had just developed an interesting idea that men could be stepping up beside women to support the increase in women’s representation in leadership and I was asked to lead a project on this theme. That’s how I met Annika. She was also at McKinsey at the time and we worked on the project together.

    My time at McKinsey taught me how to think through a strategy and how to make an impact on the structures within a market. When I came into contact with Liz’s brilliant idea, I wondered why the standard approaches to gender equality were not delivering the required results. I began to think about the idea of disruption — women leading this work had made huge progress in some areas, but as soon as you came closer to financial equality or representation on boards, the forces of inequality were much stronger and therefore you needed to work with power.

    That idea of disruption really appealed to me. Perhaps that’s been a theme throughout my career, because companies I’ve worked for, such as Cochlear and Amazon, have also been disruptive in order to solve problems in much more effective ways.

    Joining the board

    When Annika came in as CEO of Champions of Change in 2016, I joined the board and then became chair in 2017. Being in the day-to-day operations of an enterprise, versus providing the governance, is a big shift. One of the things that made it possible was having such a well-informed CEO, and we were able to complete the transition over time. Another thing that helped was that the board I joined was full of strong role models. The organisation was also starting to scale and we were confident in where we were going. That made me feel very comfortable to move to that governance role.

    It’s essential for leaders to set clear objectives, because when you have this, and a good person in the CEO seat, then the most important thing a chair can do is to get out of their way, empower them to get the job done and provide the governance function. But what underpins all of that is you need to know that the person who works with you or for you has a strong backbone. My biggest fear is losing connection with what is going to drive an outcome — and that can happen quite easily if you don’t listen to the voices in the room.

    The transparency in the Impact Report [which details coalition members’ impact on gender equality, advancing more and diverse women into leadership and building inclusive working environments] is about the board being accountable to our members, and sector stakeholders and being able to demonstrate that their investment in time and resources, and active participation with the Champions of Change strategy is driving change.

    Working with Annika

    Since the early days of developing Liz’s disruptive idea, we knew that our guiding principle of “Stand behind our numbers” was fundamental to driving a deep understanding of strategies that would make a difference and to inspiring progress.

    Annika is easy to collaborate with. We’re both analytical, which helps our relationship, but we can be quite objective, because we’re both data- driven. We have frank conversations and, when we disagree, we know why and can really pry into each other’s assumptions. Annika is extremely effective at changing my mind, and I may have changed her mind a couple of times, as well.

    Annika sets a very high bar. She wants us to be the most effective organisation in this sector and a multiplier of impact. She’s incredibly generous and competent. When Annika leaves a meeting after delivering a board report, I can’t tell you how many times the board has said how lucky we are to have her.

    2023 Impact: Member organisation metrics


    of boards or executive leadership teams have established regular reporting on sexual harassment (both cultural indicators and incidents) into their regular reporting cycle


    of board or executive leadership teams have articulated to their organisation the commitment to eradicating sexual harassment with a zero-tolerance position


    of organisations have undertaken risk assessments, including cultural reviews and sexual harassment-specific surveys, to identify high-risk cohorts or behaviours


    of member organisations have initiatives in place to support employees experiencing, or to support family/friends experiencing, domestic and family violence


    of organisations pay superannuation to employees during periods of both paid and unpaid parental leave

    Annika Freyer

    The CEO’s POV

    Janet and I first met when we were working at McKinsey and one of the reasons we’ve worked so well together is that we both have direct and frank communication styles. That’s built a bedrock of trust for us. I’m never left guessing about Janet’s perspective or views. Conversely, I feel empowered to share mine, even when we disagree or, indeed, especially if we disagree. Perhaps the underlying reason is that we are both fiercely dedicated to delivering impact. It’s the reason we do what we do and I believe we both feel a deep privilege and responsibility that comes with leading our organisation to deliver on the mission.

    The Champions of Change Coalition is a global movement and, in that context, we need to be able to make decisions quickly, go where the energy is, seize opportunities when important issues arise and drive or capitalise on momentum. Janet and I have established frameworks to test ideas quickly and to share information efficiently. That means that when we communicate with each other, we can be future-focused. We’re anchored in our shared values, we know the mission, we know the vision in and out, and we get straight to the point. That’s really invigorating for me.

    Prior to joining McKinsey, I’d always worked in social impact, and I’m driven by a passion and joy for working in that space. However, early in my career, I was struck by the barriers to progress and frustrated by the pace of change. That was a key motivating factor for me to go to the private sector to learn about the efficiencies and strategies I could apply to issue-based work. McKinsey was an ideal bootcamp — or immersion experience — for learning the discipline and the strategic curiosity that I now apply in my day-to-day role.

    Secret sauce

    The special sauce of the Champions of Change Coalition is using public-private partnerships to accelerate change on gender equality. This requires from our team and the board a unique combination of urgency and patience. Urgency, in that you have to move quickly and smartly when an opportunity arises, but also patience, in that system change takes a very long time to bear fruit.

    When we started working together on the report, it was important to develop a reporting framework, determining the metrics that would be valid lead indicators — because change was needed across all levels and while individual organisations were tracking their people, there just wasn’t a framework to drive or monitor progress towards gender equality.

    When she was Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Liz Broderick’s vision was to tackle the systemic barriers to gender equality by going to the heart of power to disrupt the system. That vision was the first key element in getting us to where we are today, but we also needed to operationalise that vision, which included having CEOs invest their time and energy to drive change and report transparently on progress. We also needed to focus on action. Our strategy calls for innovation and disruptive actions that challenge the status quo and drive change.

    The annual Impact Report provides our members with a view of the collective impact of the coalition across industries and sectors. We understand that it’s the largest voluntary report of gender equality initiatives globally. Seeing the progress and collective impact again this year is a clear sign that we are on the right trajectory and a great motivator for us all to keep going.

    Working with Janet

    Janet has been with Champions of Change almost from day one, and she was in the role of CEO before I started, so she truly understands what I do. As the leader of a huge organisation like Amazon, she’s also in the seat of our members. In that sense, I get the best of both worlds from my chair.

    Janet is whip-smart, funny, humble and entirely approachable, despite her power. She would never add bureaucracy or steps to the work, but I always feel she’s accessible. She listens and asks careful questions. She focuses on consensus and making decisions, which is important for the board and for our coalition more broadly given that we have 260 CEO-level leaders.

    She’s also a truly authentic leader, who lives and breathes gender equality and challenges herself personally every day, which I find inspiring. She’s been one of the most important people in my career as a sponsor, mentor and colleague. She’s an invaluable part of my working life.

    This article first appeared under the headline 'We Are The Champions’ in the February 2024 issue of Company Director magazine.

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