At just 21 years of age, Nikki Warburton was appointed the youngest general manager of marketing in the Australian automotive industry and later became the first female general manager in the sector. After a career spanning more than 20 years in senior executive roles, including advertising and subscription TV, the high-flyer stepped away from corporate life. Last year she returned to her roots, as chief marketing officer for Audi Australia, and balances married life and raising two boys, Hugo, 11, and Zac, 15, with running marathons, and credits her adventurous childhood for shaping her into the woman she is today.
INSTYLE: What inspired you on this pathway?
NIKKI WARBURTON: “I have a weakness for cars! I have an accounting degree and started my career in that industry [doing a cadetship in an accounting firm] but straight away realised it’s not what I was expecting. I was looking through a newspaper and saw a job advertised for a marketing analyst in the automotive industry. I thought that’s a really nice way to use those accounting skills, but also being able to get more into the marketing and consumer space.”
In what ways would you say your childhood has influenced your work?
“I grew up in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and went to an international primary and high school [returning to Sydney in year 10 to attend Baulkham Hills High School], so it was not your usual childhood. We spent a lot of time in the expat community and we were always outdoors having to make our own fun. I think that environment shaped who I am—resilient, determined and passionate. I also feel that it makes me someone who connects with people and respects diversity and difference.”
What do you wish you had known before starting in this male-dominated business?
“Don’t overthink your gender. It’s okay to be different; don’t try to become something you’re not. Know your customers and add value that way. Diversity can bring different strengths to the business, so it’s not as much about the industry, but about how you can bring the best of everyone’s strengths.”
In 2012 at the height of your career (as Austar’s group director of product, sales and marketing), you resigned. Was that a watershed moment for you?
“Yes, it was. I thought if there’s ever a time to step off the corporate treadmill, now is a clean time to do it [when Austar merged with Foxtel]. And, it’s always great to go out on the story of success rather than tough times. I had lots of things going around in my mind at that time: would I start up my own business? Would I sit on some boards and do more passion-based projects? Would it allow me to spend more time with my kids? It felt like a natural break for me. I jumped on a few not-for-profit boards and spent time with my boys. It also allowed me to focus on my health and fitness. I trained and ran the New York Marathon.”
How long were you away from corporate life and were you ever worried about returning?
“It was about four-and-a-half years and, yes, the key doubt I had was, would I ever get another job? Because self-doubt really does creep in. I don’t think I ever overly worried about it, but it was definitely there.”
Did you seek advice about returning?
“I’d meet with different people and they’d say, ‘If you’re going to get back in, two years is the window. If you’re out more, you become less relevant.’ But I didn’t know what that next thing was going to be, so I wasn’t going to jump back in just for the sake of getting back into the corporate world. Then this [Audi] opportunity came up and the penny dropped. I realised what I was really missing [was] the team, the environment, [and] the people.”
Have there been obstacles to your success?
“Mother’s guilt [when going back to work], but what mother hasn’t experienced this? I think it’s at the point you accept it and go, ‘You know what, I can’t do everything perfectly. I’m just going to do everything I can, the best I can and accept that for me, working and having a career is really important, but also being a great wife and a great mum is important as well.’ It’s just finding that balance.”
What defines success for you?
“Ultimately, it’s really how you handle it; how you treat people on the journey and how true you remain to yourself. I don’t really define success as something I do alone. I’ve always been about the team. It’s also about building high-performance teams that can then deliver growth back to a business. It’s what you leave behind as well, when you move on. If you leave behind a great, successful, thriving team, then that’s really for me, the [big] tick and they can continue on the journey.”
How important is it for you to be a mentor at this stage in your career?
“Really important, and I get as much out of it I think as they do—it’s definitely a two-way street. Even though [working in a male-dominated industry] has not been an issue for me, I do acknowledge for some women it’s quite intimidating. I think women who have had success in any industry should really be there supporting the next generation of young women coming through.”
And finally, do you have a quote or words you live by?
“‘I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious,’ by Albert Einstein.”