When Nellie Kavenagh decided to take time away from work to raise a family back in 2015, someone she worked with at the time said it would ruin her career. But those four years off did not stop her from finding success later. In fact, Kavenagh not only landed a job at Atlassian, but she was recently promoted into a leadership position at the software company.
The idea of returning to work after a long break can be daunting and discouraging, especially for women who might worry they won’t be able to get hired. One piece of advice from Kavenagh? Find a company that wholeheartedly supports working parents. “I needed a place where it wasn’t just accepted, but expected that my family would always come first,” she says. “Being completely open and honest about my need to find a role that allowed me to continue being the mother I wanted to be was critical. It really helped weed out those companies that would have given me a hard time about that.”
Kavenagh found a fit in Atlassian—and today is leading a sales team as an enterprise advocacy manager for the Asia-Pacific region., all while working from home.
Here, she shares more advice on returning to work after taking a break to raise children, her secrets to maintaining work-life balance, and what it’s like being a new manager.
Tell us about your career journey, and what led you to your job at Atlassian.
I started my career in recruitment, which is where I first considered a career in technology. This was just after the dot-com boom and things in Melbourne were starting to pick up again. I met so many people with fascinating jobs and I wanted to be a part of it. I needed to find a role where I could use my account management skills and was lucky enough to find a role at Hitwise, which had just been acquired by Experian. After almost two years, I was transferred to New York, which was a dream come true.
I worked for Experian Hitwise for four more years, then spent 14 months at an amazing startup called Stella Connect. I loved this job! I had a fantastic manager who gave me the direction and support I needed, but also trusted me to make the best decisions for my clients and the company.
I met my husband while living in New York and took a break to have children. I ended up taking four years off from my “corporate” career while I had two children and helped our family move from New York to Sydney and settle in our new home. This time with my children was such a gift that I feel incredibly privileged to have had.
What made you realize you wanted to go back to work full time?
Shortly after the birth of my second child, while completely ecstatic about being a mother and having another little one to love, I started to feel like I was losing a little of who I was. I craved the mental stimulation of work, but I wasn’t ready to return full time. I got the idea to start a business helping parents teach their children to sleep, something I didn’t even realize had to be done before I had my own children! I had already been doing this with friends and family after having so much trouble with my first baby that I read everything I could, then went on to complete a sleep consulting certification.
My business took off and was really gaining momentum, which led me to take a pause one day . I realized that I missed going to work, having work friends, and being part of a team. I started applying for jobs and decided that I would only take a role that offered complete flexibility. That’s when I found Atlassian.
What attracted you to work at Atlassian?
I chose Atlassian for a few reasons. I believed in what the company and the founders were doing and saying on social and environmental issues beyond just technology. I was interviewed by three women in management roles, one of whom was working from home with her twin babies in the crib behind her.
The Atlassian sales team was and is still forming. I could see that Atlassian had already had so much success and was in a state of rapid scaling. But the sales team felt like a startup within this incredibly successful company. I could see the opportunity available of joining such a team.
Finally, I had used and loved Atlassian’s products and truly believed in the mission to “unleash the potential of every team.” I remember using them for the first time while working in New York. I was blown away by how well they helped our teams collaborate. I was also pretty proud as an Aussie in New York that this Australian company was having so much success in the U.S.
What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?
As a first-time manager, I am super excited to have hired a group of incredibly talented and driven people. Speaking to so many amazing people during the recruitment process about their experiences at other companies reminded me that Atlassian is truly different.
Atlassian is very proud to have achieved their early success without a sales team and this drives the culture. We are not a traditional sales team, with outrageous targets and constantly moving goal posts, where teams compete with each other rather than support each other. At Atlassian, we truly want to help our customers make the right decision about their Atlassian strategy and therefore do not push them to make decisions based on dollar amounts.
Each new member of my team is so happy to have joined Atlassian and their excitement is contagious. I am so inspired by their energy and enthusiasm and believe one of my most important tasks is to help them stay motivated.
Tell us about Atlassian’s new parental leave policy. How does it exemplify the way the company supports working parents?
Atlassian has a fantastic parental leave policy that is available to all parents from the day they join the company. The support extends well beyond those early days with children, with coverage for emergency childcare and the ability to choose where we work from: home, office, anywhere.
Parents and caregivers are given the flexibility to take the time they need during work hours to tend to sick children, volunteer at school, participate in kids sporting events, etc. I have never felt disadvantaged or judged as a parent at Atlassian. My need for balance is celebrated.
As a mom of two in a leadership role, how do you find work-life balance?
I’ve found the best way to achieve work-life balance as a mother in a leadership role is to be completely open with my team, management, and customers about who I am and what my priorities are. Everyone I deal with knows I am a mom with two little kids and that ultimately they come first, always.
At Atlassian, we are given the freedom to dictate our own hours, and we are measured on the outcomes we achieve, not how much we work or how much facetime we put in at the office. I choose to work almost exclusively from home, which helps me manage my workload by not wasting time commuting.
I need to make every minute that I am away from my kids count. I have to be incredibly organized and efficient, and ruthlessly prioritize my work. I block my calendar until 9:15 AM every day, so I can enjoy the mornings without the stress of rushing to early morning meetings.
From 5 PM every day, my calendar is blocked and says “FAMILY TIME - please do not book a meeting during this time without checking.” Of course, working for a global company, there are times I have to work outside these hours, but I can choose whether to accept those meetings or not.
What have been the keys to your success as a woman in a leadership role?
We have all heard the stats on how men are more likely to apply for jobs when they don’t necessarily have the experience or qualifications for the role. Same goes for internal opportunities. Just because you don’t look like or have the same style as other people in leadership positions doesn’t mean you won’t be good at it. I don’t see myself as a natural leader. I was never a particularly confident person growing up and I still often doubt my abilities.
When I was approached to consider a position leading a team, I had to believe that the person asking saw something in me that made him believe I could do it. I had to trust that I could do it, and the only way to do that is by being me.
I try to put myself in the shoes of each of my team members and really think about how the decisions I make will affect them and make them feel. I have an incredible team of smart and ambitious people. I want to give them the tools and support they need to be successful, and then get out of their way and watch them go.
I’m only a few months into my leadership role, so I have a lot of learning to do. I am asking every manager I meet what advice they have for someone starting out, including what they wished they’d known as a new manager and what they’ve learned along the way.
What tips or advice do you have for other women who want to pursue leadership roles?
Be yourself and back yourself. Be brave and ask for what you want.
Don’t assume people can read your mind. Everyone is busy and while you may be working hard and doing all the right things, if you don’t put your hand up for opportunities, you may be overlooked.
Start doing the job you want before you get it. Find ways to stretch and challenge yourself in your current role, and position yourself as a leader in your team.
I worked with a high-performance coach last year who recommended keeping a record of my achievements and successes so I had real evidence I could draw from when applying to transition into a leadership role.
What advice do you have for anyone hoping to reenter the workforce after an extended break such as yours?
Keep active and engaged during your time out of the workforce. I started a company during my “time off” because I followed a passion and needed to reach a personal goal. This definitely helped show future employers that I was a driven and entrepreneurial person, which aligned well to a role in sales. But there are less extreme ways of showing you’ve still got a strong work ethic. I became president of my child’s daycare. I’ve had friends take volunteer or mentoring roles, organize social sporting events, or use the time to study and/or receive a certification.
Use your networks and try to apply for roles where you can leverage a relationship with a former colleague or client—someone who remembers you as a professional and can vouch for you.
Lastly, I wrote a tailored cover letter for every application. I included a very honest and vulnerable account of my skills, my desire for a new role, and an explanation of why I took the time away from my career and what I had learned from it. I implored the recruiters to look beyond the four-year gap on my CV and see the work experience I had before I became a mother, and the life experience and resilience I had gained by becoming a mother.