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Adaptability, resilience and the importance of taking risks – an interview with Julia Palmer

by | Mar 28, 2023

A Think Women interview with Julia Palmer, Chief Operating Officer of Relo and CHRO at Santa Fe Relocation, where Julia considers how best to support women in global assignments, and how adaptability, resilience and taking risks is necessary to make these assignments work for all involved. Julia spoke to journalist, Marianne Curphey, at the Inspiring Global Women For Growth event at the Institue of Directors in March 2023.

The challenges and rewards of being a globally mobile child

Julia shared her experience of a globally mobile childhood. At times challenging moving frequently also honed Julia’s skills in adapting to cultures and communities and being able to make connections with a wide variety of different people. She also emphasised how taking risks had paid off and had accelerated her career, something which was reflected in the experiences of other global women who contributed to the Think Women event to celebrate International Women’s Day.

Julia described how, when she was 12 years old, her family, who had been based in the UK, moved to Connecticut in the United States. It was the early 1980s and global mobility was in its infancy.

“There was not much of a global mobility market back then,” she said. “I used to get stopped in the corridor and people asked me to say something because I was the English girl and they wanted to hear my English accent. As a result, I built up a layer of protection.”

Julia left the US with an American accent and her family then spent four years in Bangkok. In her class at the English school, she shared Year 9 with eight other children from eight different nationalities. That taught her a lot about working and sharing experiences with different cultures.

Resilience and adaptablity required again and again

After four years in Thailand, Julia went to boarding school in the UK, where she learnt to be adaptable and flexible and make new friends with the other boarders in the school in Suffolk.

“My sister was younger than me and so she didn’t come with me and again, I had to build up that resilience and adaptability. So I was in a boarding school in Suffolk for a number of years, and then our family moved to Sydney. I was given the choice whether I wanted to go there or stay in the UK, and I packed up and headed off.”

Although Julia had visions of surf culture and sunshine, she says that in retrospect, this one was the hardest of the moves. She was 17 years old and joined school in Australia at a time when friendship groups were well established, and the students were preparing to leave school and go on to further education or the workforce.

“Everyone had their friends and were getting ready to leave, and again, I had to develop that resilience and adaptability,” she explains.

Her own experiences of moving around the globe with a family informs the advice and support she gives to clients when they are helping talent move to a new location.

” I believe you can get a lot out of people by bringing them along on the journey rather than banging on desks. Collaboration is a very effective way to build a team and bring people along with you.”

— Julia Palmer, COO Santa Fe Relocation

Julia Palmer Santa Fe Relocation Speaker Think Women

Easing the pressure faced by female leaders who are also wives and mothers

In all, Julia attended five different high schools across the globe – in the UK, US, Thailand and Australia. Her adaptability, resilience, flexibility and the ability to tolerate uncomfortable situations have since served her well in a varied career which has seen her work in senior positions in Arthur Anderson, EY and Santa Fe, where she has been since 2019. She now works with a diverse range of clients and helps them implement mobility frameworks for their staff across the globe.

“I draw on my own experience of moving back to the UK in 2016 with my children and my husband, who had to give up his job,” she says. “The stereotype is that the wife does a lot of the paperwork, but that is not always practical. We had a recent move with a senior female who was so grateful that we project managed the move for her because, although she manages her whole household, her husband was working full time and she couldn’t have sorted the logistics of the move all by herself while starting a new job.”

Encouraging women to take risks pays off

Julia identified three key career turning points where she took a risk, responded to an opportunity and made a difficult decision which ended up paying off.

The first one was at the start of her my career in Sydney when she worked for a company whose client was BHP, and she was brave enough to go to Andersen and ask one of the partners for a job.

“I was terrified but the risk paid off and he hired me the next day. It gave me so much in terms of experience,” she say.

“The second turning point was I was asked to move to London from Australia. I had to take a risk because I would have to move my husband and kids too and we were leaving parents who were getting older in Australia.

“The third key decision was when I moved to Santa Fe. It meant that we had to give up our repatriation package because we were on a three year contract, and we became locals again.” That move gave her career a huge boost.

Julia’s leadership style leverages her collaborative experiences

Julia describes herself as a collaborator, and suggests that a more inclusive approach to leadership is a viable alternative to the “driver” personality that some leadership tests identify as C-suite potential.

“I have done a number of personality tests and I’m not a typical driver,” she says, “but here I am in the C-suite. I’m a collaborator and I believe you can get a lot out of people by bringing them along on the journey rather than banging on desks. Collaboration is a very effective way to build a team and bring people along with you. That way, people have buy in and they trust you.”

The future of global mobility

Julia believes that in terms of business travel, there is still a need for companies to move people around on assignments, but that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations will influence business travel much more than cost considerations or productivity advantages in the future.

She says there is still pent-up demand and requests for remote working and flexible working, and companies are thinking about how to move people and retain and develop the best talent. Companies are asking questions around whether people need to move physically to different locations, and what are the leadership skill sets that are needed in this fast-moving world.