Anna Kavelj | 40 Outstanding Global Women 2023
Anna Kavelj is the MD of multi-award winning Elite Woodhams Relocation, a destination services provider covering Australia and beyond. A regular speaker and panellist at global mobility events, Anna’s collaborative approach is raising the bar for values-driven support for relocating families.
A decision at 18, a few career twists and turns and a move to Australia via China – three times – have paved the way for Anna Kavelj to her current role as Managing Director of leading-edge relocation company, Elite Woodhams Relocation.
” So much more can be achieved if you are collaborative. Get to know your competitors. A combative, negative, fear-driven mindset doesn’t help any of us at the end of the day. I think it’s wonderful we have so many connections around the world that we can all learn from, all the different cultures and ways of working.”
Anna Kavelj, Elite Woodhams Relocation
But it wasn’t just these geographical moves that got Anna here. A global mindset and genuine interest in people have been the foundation for Anna’s inspirational career path. Anna navigated the successful merger between Elite Executive Services and Woodhams Relocation Centre to create Elite Woodhams Relocation (EWR) just weeks before the Covid pandemic in early 2020 and during the sector’s toughest of times.
Yet under Anna’s authentic, people-focused leadership, EWR rode out the global crisis by taking care of its team and clients, innovating new services, and building the business from scratch to come out of the pandemic poised for further growth.
Reflecting her credentials as a global leader, Anna is based in Australia, British born and has extensive experience in China. Before studying for a degree in linguistics, Anna, aged just 18, left the UK to teach English in China’s second-tier city of Suzhou, west of Shanghai. Anna returned to China during her university placement year to study at Shanghai University, then again after she had graduated in 2004.
“When I graduated, I hotfooted it back to Shanghai and kind of fell into the destination service provider [DSP] world. This was the time when all the leading global companies thought ‘Quick, we’d better be in China; we don’t know what we’re going to do when we get there, but we need to be there.’
“Companies like IBM, Dell and Unilever were sending hundreds of expats in and so we were really trailblazers at that time. The relocation industry was very much in its infancy here. As foreigners, people clung on to the idea of ‘help, goodness me, where do I start?’”
Anna rose to the role of Country Manager for destination service provider, Orientations, started by Beverley Mayhew. “I was running her China operation,” says Anna. “I was sitting in business meetings, speaking in Mandarin, reading Chinese contracts and dealing with a lot of complex issues.”
But after 10 years, Anna was also ready to take on new challenges and moved to Australia; first to Sydney, then to Melbourne, where she is now based. Despite the invaluable experience life in China offered and the abundant transferable skills the decade had provided, “when I landed in Sydney, I could not find a job,” says Anna. “I had people saying to me ‘but you don’t have any Australian experience, you don’t understand our local markets’ and I didn’t know anyone in Sydney.”
Anna persevered to overcome the obstacles, thinking differently about how she was going to secure work. “At first, I was just going through the standard channels of websites trying to get a job. It was a real eye-opener and quite shocking really. I had just run a business in China, and I was pretty sure I could do all the jobs I was applying for, but employers were just not interested. That was a real wake-up call for me. I realised I had to do something different as clearly Australia was a different market and very network driven.”
Anna started to flex her global connections, contacting people she knew outside of Australia and sidestepping the standard job sites and adverts. “I ended up getting my job in Australia through a gentleman in Texas who made an introduction. I think it just goes to show that even when you think you don’t have a network, you really do. My experience proves you can do what can sometimes seems out of reach.
“It was a sobering experience for sure. Australia was not a dynamic market like the one I had been in in China. I did have to take a step backwards to take a step forward because I wasn’t going to get a job at a similar level in a country where I knew nothing and nobody.
“I think if you can swallow your ego and just get on with it and do a good job, you eventually come back to where you were, hence why I am now MD of EWR. It takes time, but you get there in the end.”
Leading authentically and with humility
Anna’s leadership style is key to her personal success and the exemplary work she and her team at EWR are doing, including tailoring an accessible destination service for inbound healthcare workers.
“My leadership style is authentic for sure. It’s human, empathetic and I’m very clear on my values and the values of our business. We hire, train and mentor accordingly. When you are clear on values, bringing people on is quite easy because you really believe it and everyone else naturally follows on along the way because they can see how genuine it is. It isn’t just some business speak put up on the wall.
“I think authenticity is so important,” continues Anna. “Authenticity and vulnerability are key in modern leadership. I think the rebalancing and greater presence of women has had a broader impact on the whole business community – and for good. You see men who are now showing their vulnerability and authenticity as well. I think that’s been very impactful.”
Anna’s people-centric approach is, she says, also partly because of the values her father practised in his work. “My Dad inspires me,” says Anna. “He was a City lawyer, but always managed to see and appreciate the human within the person and see the best in people. I think at EWR we do that too.
“The team knows when people are getting stressed about their relocation that we are dealing with individuals. We are not dealing with case-file numbers or jobs. We are dealing with people who have issues at home, troubles with family, partners, whoever. I think that human element is so important.”
This understanding is also the bedrock of Anna’s support and leadership of her own team, which is about “absolutely treating people as individuals.” This means living the values of EWR by empowering colleagues to be proactive, curious and ask questions, listen, be meaningful in your connections, dependable and show up for each other, clients and suppliers.
“In the world of relocation, no one relocation is the same,” says Anna. “This is not the space for people who can’t be flexible. It’s about getting to know who you work with and your clients as people and what makes them tick, because when challenges arise – which invariably happens – they are much more likely to help because you have invested in them. You are not just treating them as an email address. Another of our values is ‘be delightful’, because if you are a pleasure to work with and provide a positive experience, then that will reap rewards ten-fold.”
Anna lives this approach in her interactions with the wider global mobility community. “So much more can be achieved if you are collaborative,” says Anna. “Get to know your competitors. A combative, negative, fear-driven mindset doesn’t help any of us at the end of the day. I think it’s wonderful we have so many connections around the world that we can all learn from, all the different cultures and ways of working. It’s brilliant.”
This includes on issues like equity, diversity and inclusion and intersectionality. “In Australia, increasingly we have recognition of the traditional owners of the land front of mind,” says Anna. “It’s essential to have conversations like these and those around International Women’s Day. It’s not enough to have greater gender equity on boards. That’s obviously important, but there is still bias and inequality right through society. The more we can have these conversations, the better.”