Q&A with Michelle Blicavs, CEO at Association of Consulting Surveyors

Michelle-Blicavs-CEO

#WomenInLeadership, surveying,

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Q&A With Michelle Blicavs, CEO Association of Consulting Surveyors

Today we chat with Michelle Blicavs, a woman of many talents and a force to be reckoned with. Michelle is the CEO at Association of Consulting Surveyors, Chairman of the Top Blokes Foundation and Founder of the Unique Leaders Network, a keynote speaker and mentor.

In the below Q&A, Michelle shares her thoughts on the importance of mentoring, her career journey and empowering women to become leaders.

1.  You once said that it took you 25 years to unlearn what you learned at school. How did you manage to ‘break out of the box?’

I’m not sure if it comes with age or just one day you realise you know some stuff, and you don’t have to do things the way everyone else does. I was never very good at following the usual path – uni, bottom-rung job, climb the ladder etc.  I didn’t do my Masters Degree until my 30’s, and by then, I’d already been managing a business for at least seven years. I was a young female manager in the bus industry, which was dominated by men. I had to learn to stand up and be confident in my own skills and abilities.

At school, you are taught to conform. It’s easier that way. But to be a success in business and life, you need to find your own path and walk it confidently. If that means you’re different from those around you, so be it! I wish I had known that when I was 30 or even 40! I clearly remember the day of my last job interview – August 2017 at Consulting Surveyors.  I realised I have skills. I can do anything I choose to do. This company will benefit by having me as their CEO. I’ll decide if I want to work for them and not just give the answers I think they want to hear. It was quite liberating being out of the box.

2. How did you become involved with The Association of Consulting Surveyors National?

I had just lost the election to be a Councillor on Wollongong City Council for a second term. I was truly devastated – just six hundred votes short! I was running my own coaching business and had launched the Unique Leaders Network.  It was great, and I loved it.  But a friend from the Association sector told me about this job with the Surveyors and thought I’d be perfect for it.

That’s the day I mentioned. I went into the interview thinking, I’m happy where I am, but if there’s an opportunity for me to make a difference with this group of professionals, I’ll think about it.  Let’s see if they can impress ME! 

Well, of course, they did, and I’ve loved every minute of the last four years. It’s been a great challenge, and there’s still a lot of work we need to do to promote the industry and help build thriving businesses in surveying.

3. What would you say to young people considering surveying as a career choice?

I would say do it!  I’ve discovered that surveyors have so many options available to them, and they have such a broad knowledge of everything to do with land development and infrastructure. Surveyors work outdoors with some very cool toys – I mean technical instruments!  Then they come inside and take that data and turn it into problem-solving solutions for their clients. 

It’s amazing to see some of the fabulous projects they work on – from the two lot subdivision to new railway lines and tunnels under the harbour. No building can take place without a surveyor checking it’s all in the right location. They are such a critical part of the built environment.

But if you’re still not sure, then try work experience with any local surveying firm for a week, and I’m sure you’ll be hooked!

4. Studying surveying is still very much a male-oriented activity. How do we attract more girls to this exciting and in-demand industry, and more importantly, how do we make the surveying profession more inclusive?

Surveyors are very open to having women get involved in the profession or anyone from a diverse background! It’s not what it once was. Now the equipment is high-tech and easy to use. We need the different viewpoints and perspectives to land problems that, let’s face it, sometimes only a woman can see! 

There are a number of scholarships available for women at our various universities, and we hold events for high school students to encourage a diverse range of people to try surveying. 

We have some amazing women in our profession, two of whom are Surveyors General, the highest level you can achieve in the profession. Others own their consulting practice or lead major government agencies. The opportunities to expand your career through surveying are endless!

5.  For a while now, you have been offering mentoring and coaching services. Who are your services aimed at, and why do you think it’s essential to have a mentor?

I started out in a small family business. I learned that as a manager in a small business, you have to know everything pretty much – and sometimes you have to do it all as well!  That’s a difficult load to bear for many.  My services are targeted at those business owners who feel overwhelmed by the business load they are carrying. Those who wonder if they’re doing it the “right” way.  Those who haven’t had time to develop a clear plan or put systems in place to ensure success.

Most business owners start out as professionals in their field, so they know their service offering exceptionally well, like surveyors who went to Uni and became fabulous surveyors. But running a business requires a different skill set, and no one teaches you how to do that! Maybe you learned from your previous boss, and you either want to do it the way they did it, or you’re sure you’ll never do it the way they did it!

Running a business has so many parts, and sometimes you need someone to come alongside you and tell you that you’re on the right track or that maybe this area should be tweaked. Having a coach or mentor means you can take a huge leap forward in your business and provides an added level of confidence for you to put clear plans in place that means you will succeed. Sometimes only a Coach or Mentor will give you the permission you need to take that well deserved holiday!

6. COVID-19 has had a profound impact on many SMEs around Australia. What advice would you give to business leaders who might be struggling mentally during these difficult times?

There has been so much change, and the business owner carries the weight of their staff needs, client needs and expectations and the strong desire to stay profitable! It’s a lot to carry alone. My advice is not to do it alone. This pandemic has shown what a huge benefit your industry or professional association can be. I have found great support from the Australasian Society of Association Executives (AuSAE) through virtual coffee meetings and colleagues willing to get on the end of the phone or Zoom and chat about what we’re doing and how we’re managing.

I encourage leaders to connect with other like-minded professionals either through your association or a coaching group to make sure you have that someone who understands what you’re experiencing and can provide the support you need. Family are great, and we love them, but really they have no idea what we do all day! They often don’t get the pressure we can be under to keep our staff employed and happy, and our clients serviced at an excellent level.  Connect with other leaders around you who do.

And don’t be afraid to share if you’re having a bad day! I have a group of colleagues who I talk to regularly. When something goes wrong, or I have a bad meeting, or don’t feel like doing it anymore, I know I can ring one or all of them, and they’ll listen and encourage me to keep going. We’ve started meeting for Friday drinks, and we debrief the week with a drink and a snack, and it’s a great outlet to ensure we enter the weekend more relaxed.

7. You are passionate about the Not-For-Profit sector and have been the chair of Top Blokes Foundation since 2009. Can you tell us more about this organization and what it means to you?

For many years now, society has focused on empowering women, particularly young women – and rightly so! We need to ensure girls and women are supported, and we achieve our diversity goals around the world. But as a result, I fear our boys have been forgotten. 

When Melissa Abu-Gazaleh started Top Blokes, it was with a passion to see young men supported and taught how to be “top blokes.” Today we deliver services to schools across New South Wales and Queensland, talking about the tough issues that no one else wants to address.

So many young men struggle with mental health, and suicide is one of the biggest killers of males aged 15-44.  The stories we hear on the news about crime and fights are heartbreaking. Top Blokes is making a real dent in these statistics. Our most recent social impact report shows we are making a difference in the lives of young men – and this is flowing through to their families and their futures.

Top Blokes is seeing young men lead healthy and safe lives. We challenge and nurture them to be their best selves, and we want to see the good news stories shared of what these great young men are achieving.

Not-for-profits or For-Purpose organisations are not different to any other business. They must be profitable so they can return those profits and funds into the services they provide for the public. Most are filled with passionate and energetic people – usually volunteers, like me. But we need to get to a point where this sector is recognised for the social impact on the economy and the economic benefits that flow. It is too difficult to be completely philanthropic in nature. At Top Blokes, we have a growing team that needs to be paid! We need the community to recognise that paying staff is an important part of delivering the social impact. 

I enjoy working with For-Purpose Organisations to help guide their strategies and systems to ensure they remain profitable and can employ a highly-skilled team to deliver on the social impact to provide the important services our communities need.

8. You are an avid book reader and believe that reading is essential to business leaders. What are the top books that helped with your professional development?

So many! I just read a great new book called “Read to Lead” by Jeff Brown (who has a fabulous podcast), and it guides people who aren’t avid readers to discover how they can read more, learn more and grow more through reading. So many great tips and tricks, and he listed more books I need to add to my list!

Another recent favourite is “The Practice” by Seth Godin. One of my favourite lines in this book is “Love what you do is the mantra for professionals.”  So often we whinge and complain about work – so why do we stay if we really hate what we do? I personally love my work which is why I’m so passionate talking about it everywhere. Sure, I have down days or tired days, but as a professional, my mantra is “love what you do”, so I don’t give up!

I think the key to reading is to find something that works for you right now. What are you struggling with at the moment? Is it the work culture? Is it your own knowledge about financial management? Not sure what strategy you should set – read up on strategic management. There are thousands of books out there!

But the absolute best book just released earlier this year is “Business Made Simple” with Donald Miller. Over 60 days, this book unpacks everything you need to know to be a valued professional wherever you work. In fact, I loved it so much, I signed up to be one of the Coaches, and this material forms the basis of my coaching with business clients.

9. In the last few decades, we have experienced a wave of female empowerment, and your career is an excellent example of it. When you close your eyes and imagine an empowered woman, what do you see?

An empowered woman knows who she is. Her strengths, her weaknesses, her passion, her priorities. She knows where she wants to go, and she’s on that path. When a bump comes in the road, she finds a way over, around or under it!  She never gives up. She never lets the naysayers get in her ear and talk her off the path. She has a group of friends or colleagues around her that cheer her on. She’s achieving her goals – one project or task at a time. She’s living life on her terms. She takes time off when she needs to, and she works hard the rest of the time.

She is unique and accepts her uniqueness with confidence. She is willing to step up on behalf of others and is never afraid to speak out against injustice. Any woman can be empowered – it’s a choice. You don’t need someone above you (particularly a man) to tell you, “okay, you’ve made it! You’re empowered!”  Empowerment is all about you and the choices you make in life – the choices you make today. Choose today to accept your unique leadership style and let that empower you towards your dreams and goals in life.

10. What is keeping women from moving into high-level leadership roles?

I think more and more women are moving into high-level leadership roles as they become available, particularly in Government. I’m still surprised when I coach women who see or hear of a job that’s the next level up and don’t think they can do it! I think women have much higher expectations of themselves, and they often want to give credit to the team who accomplished the outcomes – the team they lead!

Women need to believe in themselves. Look back at what you’ve achieved – you’ll likely be amazed! You might want to give credit to everyone else but take a good look. And ask yourself, would that really have been achieved if I wasn’t involved?

Accept the leader you are – at whatever level of the organisation you’re in now. How many men do you work with, particularly in leadership, and you wonder how did they get that gig? Nobody is perfect. And most good employers are not looking for perfect. They are looking for someone with confidence and passion who can get the job done. If that sounds like you, then go for it!

11. What strategies can help women achieve professional success, especially in male-dominated industries such as surveying?

Surveying has 3% of women who have achieved licensing and registration. And surveyors, male and female, are the most humble people. Most are not in it for themselves or about promotion, they love the land, and they love surveying. That’s what makes them fabulous surveyors!

At the Association of Consulting Surveyors, we have introduced a Business Academy and Coaching that provides the opportunity for women (and men) in surveying to learn more about the business side of what they do.  We see this program provide the confidence they need to step up in their leadership opportunities within the organisation.

We are also encouraging the next generation of girls to consider a career in surveying through our Diversity in Surveying day, where we show girls who are excelling at school to use the instruments and see how it works and hear directly from others in the profession.  These days have proved hugely effective, with our first attendees now enrolled in surveying at University. 

12. What’s next for Michelle Blicavs?

I am focusing on business coaching for the surveyors to help them build thriving firms that will last the test of time.  And we have just launched a new Surveyors Academy in partnership with the University of Southern Queensland during National Skills Week to support the vocational education needs of the profession. Quite the venture!

Personally, I continue to mentor and coach small business leaders and professionals who want more from life and business – those who have a dream but aren’t sure how to reach it.  I’ll be launching a new website in the next few weeks where I hope to be providing regular content to support the Unique Leaders out there!

And WHEN we open up, I hope to reach more leaders through my Keynote presentations on becoming a value-driven professional and building a resilient business.


Bio: Michelle Blicavs is the CEO of the Association of Consulting Surveyors for both NSW and the National body. She is passionate about seeing small business owners be successful and seeing women embrace their unique leadership potential. Michelle is also the Chair of the Top Blokes Foundation which is encouraging healthy young men in our communities.

Find out more about Michelle’s mentoring and coaching services here: https://www.michelleblicavs.com/

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