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Think Women

Julia Palmer | 40 Outstanding Global Women 2023

Sharmla Chetty

Leadership is about positive attributes, not gender

Growing up as an expat teenager, Julia Palmer attended five different high schools across the globe – in the UK, US, Thailand and Australia -so she is well placed to understand the challenges that globally mobile families face when planning for overseas assignments.

“The only way we’re going to remove the gender barrier is to change the conversation to be about leadership style, traits and attributes. We need to remove some of that unconscious bias.”

Julia Palmer, Chief Operating Officer Santa Fe Relocation

It was the experience of having to find new friends and integrate into new schools which developed her skills of adaptability, resilience, flexibility and the ability to tolerate uncomfortable situations. All these attributes have served her well in a varied career, which has seen her work in senior positions in Arthur Anderson, EY and Santa Fe Relocation.

Julia is Chief Operating Officer of Relo at Santa Fe Relocation. Relo includes Immigration services, Destination Services, Assignment Management, Compensation and Payroll Services. In addition, Julia was appointed Chief Human Resources Officer in January 2023.

She has been with Santa Fe Relocation since 2019 and works with a diverse range of clients, from organisations with large global programmes to those starting with only a handful of assignees, where she advises on creating and implementing a suitable mobility framework.

Julia has over 25 years of expertise in the profession. She started out working for a leading DSP company in Sydney and spent 20 years at EY where she led the assignment management and mobility performance improvement practices in Sydney and London.

Adaptability and calmness – should they be celebrated in leaders?

“A lot of my adaptability came from being moved around as a teenager – I went to five high schools as a result of the move. I think that just is within me now – I’m generally a very calm person.”

She acknowledges that her demeanour – calm under pressure, “like a swan swimming serenely on the surface, but paddling frantically underneath” – has sometimes not tallied with the traditional view of a hard-driving, desk-thumping, demanding boss.

“Being calm has sometimes been to my detriment,” she says. “I am not a desk banger, I don’t shout. I’ve had feedback over the years, which I’ve tried to listen to, that I don’t seem affected by high-pressured situations. Actually, I am bothered by it, but I think with my style combined with  strong ethics and integrity, that doesn’t always show.

“In the past, I didn’t have a lot of female role models and I looked at the few female role models available and thought, ‘I am not like that’. I’m not necessarily always initially comfortable to speak out or interrupt in meetings or different situations.

“We need to open up the discussion around leadership and look at what qualities are valuable in a leader,” she says. “I have done multiple personality tests at work over the years and I’m never in that red quadrant, the driver. I’m a collaborator: that’s where my strengths are. That’s not necessarily typically been seen as a leadership trait.”

In many ways, however, her equanimity has also been an advantage when managing teams and clients at work.

“I have been able to manage difficult clients and call out negative behaviour that I’ve seen in the workplace. Having honesty and integrity has also helped to build people’s trust and confidence in me as well.”

She believes that having open discussions about what makes a great leader will help to shift the dial in organisations and open up greater opportunities for women in global mobility.

“The only way we’re going to remove the gender barrier is to change the conversation about leadership style, traits and attributes,” she says. “We need to remove some of that unconscious bias.

“It is also possible, of course, that many of the workplace personality tests could carry an unconscious bias that favours and promotes more “masculine” style leadership qualities such as drive, assertiveness and competitiveness, although that conversation is now changing.”

Women leaders in global mobility

Julia believes that the global mobility community is actually further ahead than many industry sectors in its integration of female talent, and diversity and inclusion.

“I think we’re a step ahead of many other industries in global mobility and to maximise that talent we need to look at recruitment strategies, promotion opportunities and international assignments and make sure we that approach them in an equitable way. That means asking women if they want an assignment and not discounting them before the interview stage because of their gender and potential family commitments.

“It was quite interesting to me when I told people at EY in Sydney that I was going to London on assignment with two children and a working husband,” she says. “Even though I was in a global mobility practice, people were saying to me: ‘Wow, that’s amazing. I never thought that would ever be possible’.”

Julia’s global career in mobility and assignments

Julia’s formative years were spent globetrotting. She was born in the UK and moved with her family and father, who was a global commodities trader, to the US when she was 12. Then the family moved to Thailand, Julia went to boarding school in the UK, and then relocated to Australia where she finished school and university.

“Having a global childhood really opens your eyes to all sorts of different people,” she explains. “You become more resilient. You become more flexible and able to adapt to different scenarios. You learn how to navigate people and situations and develop how you communicate.”

She first worked in Sydney for Arthur Andersen’s global mobility practice in what was then called “assignment management services”.

“It was very new and the whole global mobility practice was very small. It was a very exciting time and there were never two days the same.”-When Arthur Andersen was dissolved after the Enron scandal, Julia moved to EY, which she describes as “a very fast-paced, high pressured environment.”

“In a partnership, although you’re a team you’re also needing to go out and win business for yourself and possibly your own survival in the organisation,” she says. “I learned about the full spectrum of global mobility from compliance to advisory skills. I developed the ability to work under pressure and to work with highly driven people in a male dominated environment.”

She was sent to the UK on an assignment with EY, which was supposed to last three years, but which ended after 24 months when she was headhunted by Santa Fe.

“I’m your classic failed assignment,” she says, “It was a three-year assignment and I was very happy at EY, but I was approached by Santa Fe and the more I spoke with them, the more intriguing the role was. I ended up leaving EY early and joining Santa Fe two years into my assignment and became Global Head of Relocation and Assignment Management there.”

As well as a demanding job, Julia has two teenagers, a husband, dog and two cats. “There’s a lot going on in my house,” she says. “I’m quite strict about working hours and I rarely answer emails late at night. I’ve always been very strict about family and non-family time. When I’m at work, I’m 100% work and when I’m family, I’m 100% family and I try to enable my colleagues to do the same.

“Early on in my career again, when there were limited role models, workplace personality tests would give you feedback on your skills gaps or your unknown weaknesses. I think we should instead be talking about maximising your strengths. I’m glad the conversation is starting to move that way. It shouldn’t be about not speaking loud enough, but instead celebrating someone who develops good teams and motivates their staff. Surely, that’s what should be maximised.”

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