‘Go Where the Opportunities Take You’

The CFO of global biotech company CSL, Joy Linton, has reached great heights by embracing ambiguity and saying yes to challenges

Joy Linton, CFO of CSL Limited, offers refreshingly candid guidance for those aspiring to the c-suite. Among her best advice? There is more than one path to the top job.

“If there is one thing I would say it’s don’t try and map out your career too much because you may set yourself up for disappointment,” she says.

“But if you’re willing to go on the journey and go where the opportunities take you, then you never know where it’s going to end.”

Linton, who is a former CFO and executive director at health giant Bupa and ex-CFO of Lion National Foods, has been on many unexpected journeys throughout the course of her career. When Linton was the finance and commercial directorat Bupa, she was approached by the global CEO of Bupa in the UK and invited to move to London, as part of a promotion.

Linton assumed she would turn it down — after all, she had a family to think about — but after she discussed it with her husband, they decided to go for it.

“We just thought we would see where it takes us as there’s something about having a bit of courage to step out every now and again that is important,” Linton says.

“I often say to people that the best thing you can do for your next job is to be great at your current one as that will set you up for your next move and is often more productive than keeping an eye on where you want to be in two years’ time.”

Our modern-day careers, Linton notes, have a natural ebb and flow to them, which means executives don’t have to continually run at the same pace or always stay on the one trajectory.

“I worked part time when my children were little, I had some career breaks, and all of these things proved to be, with the benefit of hindsight, really valuable contributions to how I then went into my next phase at work,” Linton says.

“There’s something vital about being able to live with the ambiguity of not necessarily knowing where your next role is going to take you or what it’s going to look like.”

Don’t stay in your lane

It’s a formula that has certainly worked well for Linton, who returned to Melbourne earlier this year from her stint as global CFO at Bupa in London to head up the finance division for CSL, one of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical companies and manufacturers of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Linton has more than 30 years’ experience in branded consumer businesses across a wide area, including insurance, healthcare and fast-moving consumer goods. This diversity of experience is far from accidental, and Linton encourages those in finance to experience life outside their lane, build relationships and fully understand the whole of the business.

“I had some M&A experience early on and that was probably one of the reasons I got my first CFO role,” she says.

“M&A speaks to the overall strategy of the organisation and really emphasises understanding the value drivers of the business.”

Linton also believes it’s equally important to be curious about the company you work for because the more senior you become, the more you need to draw on leadership and communication skills.

“Curiosity is a huge factor,” Linton says.

“I had a marketing director say to me once, ‘I’m not used to having a finance person who’s interested in marketing’, so putting yourself in the other person’s shoes is really important.”

Even the most unlikely of roles can be educational. Linton still uses skills she accrued as a newly minted graduate at Ford, even though her responsibilities are markedly different these days.

“I was the cost accountant in the factory, and to this day, when I come into CSL, I still use those skills that I learned,” she says.

“But I probably haven’t done a journal ever since.”

In fact, her recent return home is familiar work territory for Linton who, upon graduation from The University of Melbourne, would drive from her home in Parkville to the Ford factory in Broadmeadows.

“Now, some 30 years later, I still get in the car at Parkville and I still drive out to Broadmeadows, but this time it’s to the CSL facilities,” she says.

“It’s a nice full circle.”

Remote leading

As many companies rushed to implement online video technology in the early days of the pandemic, CSL’s global nature meant the transition to Microsoft Teams — while not without complications — was more seamless than most.

“When you work for a global company with global staff, you are already used to getting up early and working late so that technology has actually made life easier,” Linton says.

“So within my first 100 days, I was able to connect with the most senior 100 people across the company in every function, via video. There is that advantage of speed and agility that the technology allows.”

But Linton points out that video technology is complementary to relationship building, and there will always be a place in her work calendar for face-to-face catchups and business trips.

“There is a role for getting back on the plane in the future, but I don’t think it will be at the same level, it will be much more hybrid, like the workplace,” she says.

When it comes to her leadership style, Linton says she has built an ethos around serving the organisation that employs her.

“The more senior I have become, the more I have realised it is not about me,” she says.

“It’s about how I can create an environment in the organisation to allow other people to be the best they can be, so it is more about the people than it is about the numbers at times.

“You don’t always have to be the biggest voice in the room. It’s about the environment you create for other voices to be heard.”

Work-life balance

Naturally, Linton has had to put a lot of effort into maintaining a work-life balance, and admits she hasn’t always been successful at getting it right.

“I married well and that certainly helps,” she says with a  laugh.

“I’d like to think I’ve always valued my family very highly and they’ve always kept me pretty grounded, and I make it very clear that my work is one part of my life only.”

Again, the higher she has risen up the ranks, the more intentional Linton has had to become in looking after herself.

“If I had one piece of advice for my younger self, it would be to look after myself better,” she says.

I see that in a lot of women where we’re really good at looking after the kids, our mothers, fathers, families, husbands and our job, but often at the expense of ourselves.”

These days, Linton tries  hard to get enough sleep, eat well and exercise regularly.

“I’ve realised I need to stop treating rest as something I collapse into at the end of the day or at the end of the week, but to start treating it as something that’s of equal value.”

Looking to the future

Linton has leapt over some considerable hurdles to take up her post during a pandemic — including a stint in hotel quarantine upon her return — but in typical Linton style she embraced the challenge and the opportunity of venturing into the unknown.

“In hindsight, I look back and I think ‘Oh my goodness, that was a pretty big effort’ and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend moving during a pandemic as there’s a lot of complexity associated with that,” she says.

“But I’m delighted to be here, and I guess it shows when you want to do something you find a way to make it happen, so here I am.”

One of the highlights of her career so far has been its global tenor: Linton has lived in the US when working for Ford Motor Company, sat on joint venture boards in India in Saudi Arabia, and worked extensively through various parts of Asia, and, of course, London.

“The varying cultural experiences I’ve had have been a privilege and I think it’s why I value relationships so much because in different parts of the world you can talk the same language, but those words can mean something completely different,” she says.

“So keeping my mind open to diversity and being curious about different cultures has been important to me, and it helps me to really hear what the other person has to say.”

Linton, like many business leaders, is keen to see an outward-facing Australia emerge again in the post-pandemic landscape.

“So much of Australia’s success has been driven off the back of participating on the global stage and I think it’s important for Australian businesses to stay outward-focused,” she says. “Traditionally Australians do that really well and I think the pandemic has put some challenges in place but how we re-engage now is really important.”