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Insights from Deborah Donehue on Overcoming Self Doubt and Prioritising You

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Insights from Deborah Donehue on Overcoming Self Doubt and Prioritising You

Deborah Donehue, Career Coach & Head of Planning at Kathmandu, shares a powerful and relatable message about overcoming self-imposed limits and doubts, embodying the idea of breaking through one’s own glass ceiling. Deb knows firsthand the strength required for self-empowerment and the importance of finding the right environment to thrive in both professionally and personally. By reconnecting with her passions, Deb has rediscovered joy, encouraging others to envision their future selves using ‘I am’ statements.

Through her journey, Deb provides guidance on remaining strong and confident whilst staying true to your authentic self. Her inspiring story highlights how these lessons have fortified her self-belief as a female leader.


1. You mentioned you felt you had to wear armour to work rather than being authentically you. Can you tell us more about this?

Deb’s journey to leadership has been marked by her powerful strength and resilience in an often male-skewed and biased environment. Early in her career, she felt the pressure to don a metaphorical armour, much like Ironman, transforming herself to fit into her work surroundings because she did not feel like she “belonged.”

Reflecting on the beginning of her career, Deb shared, “I went in as an accountant. I hadn't even studied then. I'd been flitting around the world trying to discover me. So, I probably already had a bit of a complex of, well, how did I even get this job? But I got it. It might have been six months in, and my boss pulled me aside and said, ‘I didn’t expect you to be as good as you are - I actually hired you for your looks.’ It didn't even cross my mind that that was why I was hired, so I think I started to put my personality in the back seat as early as that.” This idea of assimilating to fit in and moulding her authentic self to fit the criteria of a role also lends itself to the role of ‘mother’ in her personal life.

Deb shares that her transition into retail at Kmart added another layer to her challenges as she encountered leadership and colleagues reminiscent of her past experience. “I was with a whole lot of people that looked very similar. I was also in an environment where I had come back to work with a three-month-old baby, so I was struggling with the identity of being a mum. At the time of announcing my pregnancy, my dad rang my husband at the time, and he said, ‘Look, you're going to have to look after that child because I don't know that she's going to be a very good mother.’ So now I've got two parts of me that have been questioned, so I started to build this shell around me.” One for work – one for home.

Deb's method of coping involved a unique mechanism to switch roles between work and home life. “I had to put on this piece of armour. When I got home, I needed to switch to being a mother and a wife. How do I take it off and be the person I need to be at home? I found this mechanism: I would run to the toilet because of the commute. I would come back and open the fridge pour a glass of wine, and no one talked to me until that wine was finished. And then suddenly, I was home, and I was able to be that person. The opposite happened when I went to work because I would run to the cafe, grab a very long coffee, drink it, and then return.”

This sense of armour activation served as a key technique for Deb to maintain the demands of her personal and professional life. As she progressed higher into leadership roles, she recognised the need to protect herself from herself. “I was telling myself I didn't deserve to be there because I'd heard that many times before.”

Deb recounts that progress emerged once she allowed herself to reconnect with her emotions and see herself as a valuable leader. “The moment I knew I had made progress was when my mother-in-law rang me and said, ‘Do you want coffee?’ I asked my eldest son, ‘Why would she do that?’ He turned around and said because this is the first time you’ve ever allowed yourself to be available. I realised at that moment that I didn't have that armor anymore.”

Not only does Deb acknowledge that making room for yourself and your feelings enables freedom in authenticity, but she also relays the message that career and personal life work in tandem. When both may feel as demanding as the other, it is important to remember what environment you need to be in to thrive as an employee and a leader and the support you require to fulfil your multiple roles as a woman in this life and the industry.


2. Can you share more about your career breaks and what you did to bounce back into retail and become Head of Department?

Navigating career breaks requires immense mental strength, particularly for female leaders like Deb, who are dedicated to cultivating self-confidence across all aspects of life. For Deb, these breaks were not just pauses but crucial opportunities for profound self-discovery and personal growth.

“I was working at Target, which was a pretty horrific place to work at the time I am reflecting on. I managed womenswear as the divisional planning manager and was also still running the Online business (which I loved). Ultimately, it was a career success, but when you carry that armour for so long, it suddenly gets heavier and heavier and heavier.” This metaphorical armour, symbolising the façade she maintained, grew increasingly burdensome. Her breaking point arrived during a commute home. “I sometimes had a 2-hour drive home, and I was doing it at 10:00 at night, and I realised I had nothing left in the tank, so I fell over. I literally pulled up on the side of the road and bawled my eyes out, not really understanding why.”

Transitioning to Mecca offered new challenges and insights. “Instead of saying ‘No, I need to stay here and support my team and be the best I can be’, I'm going to listen to those triggers, and I'm going to leave.” Here, Deb began to acknowledge and embrace her innate leadership qualities. “I started to hear voices that I think I had heard before but didn't believe. And that is, ‘Deb, you're an amazing leader. Look at all the people that have gone through you and have become amazing successes themselves.”

To embark on her new path, Deb pursued coaching fast track. "In that experience, I learned a whole array of tools that I likely needed throughout my career.” Her journey of self-improvement included unconventional methods, including seeing a shaman and studying astrology. During a shamanic session, Deb had a profound realisation. “I just realised that the only glass ceiling I'm trying to break through is my own opinion of whether I can actually be as successful as everyone else was seeing me to be.”

Rediscovering joy through her passions became another transformative endeavour for Deb. “I also then knew that there were a whole lot of people that I used to be who did a lot of different and creative things. I used to sail, which was a huge passion of mine and creative arts – I started to put myself out there again.” Through reconnecting with her old passions, Deb began reconnecting with her authentic self and shattering that metaphorical glass ceiling.

When selecting her next role, Deb prioritised finding an environment that aligned with her values. "In choosing that organisation, I started to think about the values that were important to me. I live on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. It had to be an environment that nurtured all parts of me." Her current role at Kathmandu epitomises this holistic approach. "I'm now working full-time at Kathmandu, and it is a brand with lots of work to do, but I love the challenge, and I suppose that's what I needed to get back to."


3. Do you have any advice about how to take control of our career?

To take control of your career, building self-confidence and valuing yourself as an employee in your workplace is essential. Deb’s journey exemplifies the strength required to become a female leader and the process of breaking down her own barriers to find the right role, environment, and mindset to be the best version of herself.

Deb’s experience at Kmart highlights the importance of being proactive in your career. "I probably never knew what I wanted to be, so I allowed everyone else to take me on that journey. No one told me, but they kept putting me into these positions that I knew nothing about, so I never had the confidence to believe I belonged there.” This is a sign to take charge of your career path and limit others’ ability to define it for you.

Deb advises envisioning your future clearly through the 'I am' statement: "If you don't know where you want to be in five years or in 10 years, stop thinking about that and actually imagine yourself there. I love the statement ‘I am.’ I am living on the top of a hill. I am in nature. I am proud to be a mother." Visualizing your desired future helps set tangible goals and fosters a sense of direction and purpose.

Additionally, honour your values as a human being, as these act as a true sense of guidance for you. “Understand your values. Not the values of the companies that we have all worked in. There's more substance to your values; honour them when you feel they are being crossed; trust your intuition. Your intuition is the biggest wisdom you have, don't put it aside for the ego, because we're good at that one to survive.” As Sally King mentioned in the blog, “Insights from Sally King on Navigating Your Career”, your personal checklist of values is the backbone of your professional and personal life, so don’t disregard it. Rather, use it in every environment you enter and every role you possess.


Honouring Your Passions and Unearthing Your Authentic Self

Taking control of your career, envisioning your future, understanding and honoring your values, rediscovering your passions, and identifying the authentic you are some of the most challenging yet essential tasks for female leaders in the industry. These endeavours take time and resilience, and as seen through Deb’s story, it is how you confront these challenges that truly unlocks your true self, both professionally and personally.

Deb’s realisation that she needed to break her own glass ceiling to envision her future with an ‘I am’ mindset lays a strong framework for others navigating their careers, particularly women in the industry. Her story resonates deeply, emphasising the importance of self-discovery and forging a path that aligns with your values and passions.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to the event hosts, Lyndsay from Retail, or Lauren from HR, or any of our wider team to discuss these themes and how you can develop in your career.

To read more about the event, the themes discussed, and the other panelists, visit our blog Bouncing Back as a Woman In Leadership."