Talking courage with a FMCG Category Manager

(6 minute read.)


Nicole Rees is a category manager in FMCG at Lion Dairy and Drinks. She has been at Lion for almost nine years where she has progressed through various sales roles and has recently stepped into a category role within the business.

Join us as Nicole shares her view on courage, both in the workplace and as a mum returning to work.

How would you describe workplace courage?

Workplace courage is about stepping into uncomfortable situations and allowing yourself to learn from the experience.  For example:  starting a new job or taking on a piece of work and being put in a position where you don’t know the intricacies of the role or task.  It is about being able to work through that and getting to a place where you feel comfortable.

Workplace courage is feeling empowered to ask a question or give an opinion, and as a leader, it is about creating an environment that facilitates the above at every level of the organisation.

What does courage look like in your workplace?

We are a fast-paced industry so it’s often about making decisions that drive a positive outcome, in a very timely manner.  It’s about being comfortable that you know where your customer is coming from, you know where your business is coming from and you can get to a mutually beneficial position for both parties.

Courage in my organisation is about being able to clearly articulate your position to influence an outcome. It is about being able to have challenging, open conversations and pressure testing different outcomes. I represent my customer to our head office; I relay my customer’s objectives and expected outcomes.  We then explore how these play into our strategies and objectives.   We do this to ensure alignment and that we’re working towards the same goals.  These discussions may be controversial or contrary because we are two different businesses trying to achieve similar goals but potentially in different ways.  There may be internal discussions that uncover different opinions from different stakeholders and that’s okay; knowledge-based opinions are offered, and together, we come to an agreed outcome.

Do these discussions require you to be courageous or is it just what you do? 

I think it’s just what I do.  We service a customer and whilst we always strive to get to a positive outcome, sometimes the strategic direction of the businesses don’t align; this means we have to have challenging internal and external conversations. The key to this is making decisions in a timely manner and ensuring all key stakeholders are on-board and aligned.

To what extent does your workplace enable the pressure testing, the challenge, and the open communication?

They are 100% supportive of it.  There are always different scenarios being thrown around and you have to pressure test and scenario plan because if you don’t, how do you know what the best outcome is?  Everyone’s always very open to that and to having constructive conversations about different situations. We have a really great team who are always looking for different opportunities.

Please describe 1-2 examples in which you have been courageous.  What did you do?  Who/what enabled you to be courageous?  What was the outcome?

Speaking up in internal forums has required courage.  At the start of my career I didn’t really speak up about what my opinion was or what I thought would be right for my category or my customer.

Over the years I’ve learnt that if you do share your opinion and knowledge, you achieve a better result.

I guess it feels uncomfortable at the start, particularly if your opinion goes against the majority, but as long as you communicate clearly and in a constructive way, team members are always receptive.  You should be able to do that in the workplace and do it with the respect of your peers.

Another example is having a new job in a different part of the business.  It is really exciting as it’s a part of the business that I’ve wanted to explore for a long time.  There’s also fear as I don’t know what to wholly expect in this new role – “Will I be able to do it well?”  Also, this is something that I’ve wanted to try for so long – “What if I don’t like it?  What’s next?”  I think once you have been in a role for a while it’s important to try something new to give yourself new perspective and broaden your understanding.  It’s important to give it a go.

As a leader, how do you create the environment for others to voice their opinion?

It’s about giving people the opportunity to own certain tasks so they can understand them fully and report back to wider internal or external forums. For me, knowledge is what gives me the courage to speak up, so I have tried to pass this on. I have been really fortunate to have had great leaders who have created this environment for me. They have coached me on how best to share the customers view or push back when I don’t feel aligned to what is being presented, so I hope I have in-turn created this for others; I encourage others to give it a go.

Where does the notion of “giving it a go” come from?

I guess this comes from my parents.  They have role-modelled this and encouraged it in us (my sister and I).  They’ve always instilled the importance of applying ourselves and giving our best.  I think as long as you have a strong support network around you and people that trust in you, then there is no harm in putting all your energy into something and seeing where you land.

I’ve also been very lucky to have some really amazing leaders who have helped me to understand that it’s time to take the next step. I like to have all the details and fully understand a situation/role before I move on, so I’m always quite conscious of doing the next thing too early.  My leaders have empowered me to make decisions, even if I didn’t quite think I was ready to do so.

Nicole RHow has it felt when you have taken the next step?

Really good.  I’m thinking of a time where I didn’t take the next step, and I think I now would have handled that situation differently.  Since then, I’ve learnt to trust myself more and trust the people around me, knowing that they will always support me.

What role, if any, has courage played in your going back to work as a new mum?

I knew you would ask that.  Again, I don’t feel like that’s courageous; for the most part, I went back to work because I like working. The people you have around you enable you to be courageous because I couldn’t be at work if our families weren’t around us to help.  I think I found it harder thinking about it, than actually doing it.

Months before going back, I was super emotional about leaving Olivia; about missing out on milestones and moments.  Mum offered to take her to classes and my thoughts were “No, I’ll take her to classes.” So, I just didn’t want to miss anything at the start, but you do get used to it.  When the time came to go back, I thought, “Great. I’m ready to go back now.”

I guess sometimes the thought of having to do something challenging or uncomfortable is worse than doing it.  Perhaps courage helps you get ready to do it.

I was also nervous about being able to do my job.  I had questions about, “What had changed?”; “Would I still be able to manage?”  It was very uncomfortable at the start, but again, you just get on and do it.

I really like to do both – be a mum and go to work.  I have realised that I can still do it (the work) and actually, having been away for a year gave me a different perspective about what I do.  I am still very invested in work, but when I come home I more often than not, leave work at work, whereas I didn’t always do that before.

If a returning Mum was about to go back to work, what advice would you have for her? 

If you like what you do, then it won’t take you long to fall back into a good rhythm. At the end of the day everyone is different so just do what makes you comfortable and makes you happy.

My only other advice would be not to put too much pressure on yourself.

Easier said than done, I know, but everything does eventually fall into place and you move past that uncomfortable part at the start.

To what extent do you think our Australian leaders are leading with courage?

I don’t really feel like I can comment specifically on what’s outwardly represented in the media because I don’t know the intricacies of what’s taking place, but I think that they are most likely making courageous decisions every day; it’s just that we don’t always see it.

There are other people in this country, outside of politics, that are very courageous.  Neale Daniher for example.  He is someone in our society who is just the ultimate depiction of courage and strength.

If you would like to connect with Nicole, she can be contacted via LinkedIn:
Nicole (DiRoberto) Rees

I remember the day that Nicole was born; she is another of my wonderful nieces.  She was impatient to come into the world, and although premature and hence very small, it didn’t take long to realise that she was strong.  I have been truly fortunate to have her in my life and to watch her grow into the dedicated and talented woman she is today.  It has been an absolute delight and honour to watch her grow in her role as a mum. 

I thought I’d do a little strengths-spotting for her – I would guess that Nicole’s Signature Strengths are fairness, honesty, humility, leadership, love and self-regulation. 

With much love and gratitude,


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