Katie McGrath is Chief People and Culture Officer with Seven West Media and author of ‘Deadly Earth’. In this episode founder of Mondo Mentor Simone Allen chats to Katie about the trials and tribulations of her life and how these experiences have led her to be where she is today.
“There is a great power in surrendering to understanding the challenge that you’re dealing with, excepting it, labelling it, talking to someone about it” – Katie McGrath
Daisy Winney 0:00
Welcome to the Mondo Mentor Podcast. A place where we connect with some amazing people to reveal how you might be just one connection away.
I’m your producer Daisy Winney and today founder of Mondo Mentor and the Womens Resilience Centre Simone Allen will be chatting to Katie McGrath, author of Deadly Earth and Chief People and Culture Officer with Seven West Media.
Simone Allen 0:39
Hello, Katie. I’m so delighted to see you again after a decade and delighted that you’ve agreed to do the mentor Evolution Mondo Mentor Podcast, our mission is to interview inspiring, awesome people giving them hope, because we’re only just one connection away often from someone that can just transform our lives. So Katie, welcome.
Katie McGrath 1:03
Thank you. It’s lovely to be here. And to see you after such a long time.
Simone Allen 1:08
I know. I I have to say that I’m honoured to interview you today. I know you’ve, in the you know, the Western world, you’ve achieved so much, Chief People and Culture Officer for one of the most leading largest TV and media companies in Australia. So what I’d like to do is start with a few questions about your book and about you. We all know that people need a sense of belonging and everybody wants to feel that they belong. And I just wondered to Katie, if you could share with me a little bit about your book Deadly Earth. Because I couldn’t put it down. I thought I was reading about a story of a terrible transgression of your parents buying a place that was on a uranium site in Hunters Hill, I thought that’s what the book was about. And so it is. But there’s so much more, absolutely so much more in this book. It’s one of those books now that will resonate with me, will sit on my my shelf and that I will share with others who’ve been through childhood pain.
Katie McGrath 2:16
So a very quick summary of the book. My mum and dad in their 30s were both very driven, very average Australians. Mum was a teacher, dad was a builder. They’d worked really hard and they finally had made enough money to buy their first waterfront property in Hunters Hill. But little did they know they had bought their dream house on the site that was once a radioactive processing plant using uranium to make the glowing watches that they used to have. No, my parents didn’t know that this was the site of a former uranium processing plant. No one was told, in fact, the government knew but had kept it secret. And as a result, Mum and Dad unknowingly bought this house. They’re both in their mid 30s. They got sick, both of them quite quickly. Mum died from leukaemia, and dad died nine months later from stomach cancer, which was just horrendous by all accounts. And now that I’ve written the book, I know a whole lot more about them. Because before I did, I really didn’t know anything. They were desperately in love, a desperately in love couple, just really passionate. Their world was each other. And I think because my dad was Catholic, marrying my mom from a Protestant Baptist background, it wasn’t approved in society. And so they were kind of cast out by both their family. So it was really them against the world. They went on to you know, have have these children and be very successful. And then in the blink of an eye, their world was over, literally, which left us for children as orphans. You know, I was four by the time both my mom and dad were dead. My eldest brother was nine years older than me. So he was 13. And then I had two other siblings in the middle. So we ended up in a really terrible situation, not knowing what was going to happen to us. We ended up in this distant relative’s house, which was shocking, and I’m sure you might ask me more about that later. It was a terrible experience. And it was a really awful ordeal for grieving children. We were just traumatised, we were told never to talk about our parents again. They were dead and gone. And so we should leave that behind us. I mean, who would do that? It’s just inhumane let alone it being in the 70s. There was no such thing as counselling. There were no psychologists, there was no outside support. It was basically just get on. I think in that question that you asked about belonging. I guess it was the very first sense of experience that I didn’t belong. I didn’t belong to the new family that I’d been put into, I didn’t belong to anybody else. I didn’t have parents who felt like they had a sense of ownership over me. I didn’t feel like I belonged at primary school because I was the freak, that people talked about that had no parents. I just didn’t belong anywhere. And it is a basic human need to feel a sense of belonging, and we are a social species. And I think you’re absolutely right to ask that question. Because when you don’t belong, you really don’t feel like you’re a part of the society in which you are and no one else can understand what you’re going through, no one else knows what it’s like to be a freak and to feel very strange and like an outcast. And I’ve actually carried that with me all of my life. In fact, it’s, you know, inadvertently, I’ve turned that into my greatest strength. Because you know, what, I am not like anybody else. And my entire life, I was embarrassed and ashamed to be so different. And now I have to cherish the fact that, you know, I am unique, I am this person that’s full of horror, and awful background and trauma and abuse and grief and dysfunction, but it’s who I am. And I’m doing the best that I can with it. Now not being late in life to start but but I’m doing something with it. And I think that that’s a message for everybody, for anyone that has great difficulty to overcome that. It is who you are, and there’s no point denying it. It’s just part of who we are. And you can belong to yourself. And that’s a pretty good start. And I really feel like it’s only you know, maybe in the last 10 years, I’ve felt like I deserve to belong even to myself. And that’s a really big concept.
Simone Allen 6:50
I love that idea, Katie of belonging to yourself, its such an actualized way to be and I know at 20 and 30, you still can’t kind of even grasp that concept of belonging to yourself, I think the life that you’ve led has and the decades that have added to it give you such a beautiful sense of self. That is one of the, you know what they say, Oscar Wilde says that youth is wasted on the young and I was walking out the other day, and I bumped into my son’s friend who’s 20. He said, oh I’m so sad, because I’m losing so much of my life, you know, being in COVID. But I said mate your life gets so much better. Don’t worry, I’m 50 I’m happier now than I was when I was 20. So you’ll still have great years ahead of you. Those beautiful words about belonging to myself, I really, really like that. Katie, your story is such an incredible story of resilience in terms of gut wrenching resilience, not just you know, kind of a little bit of tough stuff, it’s like you had no support you had not acknowledging your past, you had no trusted kind of community, in your family that, you know, aside from your siblings, there’s like, there was just no one around you. Your your search for, for truth for justice, for identity is so, so very clear in your book. And, you know, I really encourage anyone that’s, you know, searching for trying to make sense out of out of their past and their pain to read the book, because it really, it really does resonate with me, I would imagine, now you found your know a purpose. They say often we find out through pain, we find our purpose. Your career has been extraordinary. And I’ve known you for a long time and watched you just progress in your career. You’ve not had good role models as a child, has there been any body or any your human along the way that’s really inspired, inspired your career path?
Katie McGrath 8:59
I think the simple answer is no. I, from you know, just from being a survivor, it’s pretty much how I’ve navigated every step. There’s been no genuine career planning for me. You know, as a survivor, it’s genuinely just about day to day, week to week, it’s very much how I lived my life. I went through maybe small stages. So you know, I got married when I was 30, early 30s. And that gave me great sense of happiness and a sense of maybe I can be normal like other people in society. But with my career, I kind of fell into stuff like lots of people do. I fell into kind of a career in HR and recruitment and all those things probably because I had a personality that led me to talk easily I was good as well. All that kind of stuff, it was never what I’d wanted to do. I didn’t do psychology as my undergraduate degree, even though that’s what I wanted to do because I had such high marks, you know, that wasn’t a good enough kind of degree to be doing. According to my foster parents, you know, I should do the degree that had the highest mark to get into, which happened to be a commerce double degree at that time. So I did that. But I just fell into this stuff. And I kind of fell from job to job and people would come and approach me. And the weird thing was, I never looked for a job, people came and looked at me. And so I always felt really like, I would never know how to go and apply for a job, I just let these things happen. And because in the background, I was really just trying to cope, I was still dealing with my lack of self esteem, I was still dealing with my lack of ability or belief in myself to actually survive, I had demons that kept me awake at night, I had problems with sleeping, I had problems with depression, with anxiety, not labelled in those days at all, just like why this is my life, day to day to day, just going, I’m on adrenaline, I still got fear, I still, I still think I’m not gonna be able to pay the rent next week, it’s all gonna be over, you know, there’s no one for me to fall back on, I can’t move back with mom and dad, my friends just seemed so carefree. I was just like, that’s never going to be me, I’m never going to be okay. And so I don’t ever think I would have been confident enough to connect with another adult, reach out to someone more senior and say, you know, I admire you, or it just never happened. I’m very self sufficient. And I was very, I looked perfect on the surface. And I seemed confident, but I really wasn’t.
Simone Allen 11:49
So you’re deeply anti dependent, and therefore never, would never reach to anyone. So putting it in a different way. Now, as you’re further down the track, have you found in your life, the people that you so often resonate with, and deeply connect with are people that have some kind of understanding or empathy?
Katie McGrath 12:10
For your journey in terms of friends, I mean, of course, the people that I really connect with are people that have empathy. And typically people that have empathy are people that have had very difficult life experiences. As we talked about earlier, you know, you find a connection with those people. But in a business or a career sense, there’s quite separate things and have been for me, it’s only as I’ve gotten older, in fact, you know, releasing that book last year, it came out in October, one of my greatest fears was, oh, my gosh, the business world. And I, you know, obviously working in the, in the media business that I work in, you know, I have a lot of contact with very high profile people. One of my greatest fears is, oh, my gosh, all these people are going to know, they’re gonna know what a horrible freak i am, they’re going to know what awful stuff happened to me, I’ve kept such a distance, most people wouldn’t even know that. I’m not married. today. She’s Katie, she’s, you know, married with two kids, and everything’s perfect. And he’s got the perfect life, and everything’s lovely for her. And I’m just having this is the biggest shock that people could ever really disturbing to have those two worlds merge. But now that I’m comfortable with those worlds merging, because it’s that journey, right of healing, and, and the journey of saying I accept, this stuff has formed me, I accept these things have happened. They form part of who I am today. And they actually make me a better person to help others.
Simone Allen 13:44
I was interested to say that from producing your book, you connected deeply with some people in your past, which was fantastic. That helped you add more pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of your childhood. And I would imagine in that media world to that you’re in, people might have come out to you and share something of their past or something that you just have no idea behind the scenes as well, that would have built a new connection and a lot of empathy along the way. Did you want to make comment on that?
Katie McGrath 14:16
Yeah, I think a lot of people do feel safer to connect on on a more personal level when they do know, it’s all about the concept of you know, vulnerability, right? Yeah, no vulnerable I am with you, the more likely you’re going to share with me some of your life stories and challenges. And it’s a really powerful way, I think, to connect and yes, lots of people have reached out and people have had really horrible experiences in their childhoods. And I think the more we talk about this stuff, the more we’re able to normalise it. You know, I’m definitely one for making sure that people don’t bury the trauma and the difficult things that are going on for them. And there’s such a big, I don’t want to call it a fad, but a movement around positivity, which I think is very dangerous. And I’m a huge believer in positive thinking and all of that. But I think it’s really dangerous to get focused just on that. What’s most important for people today dealing with trauma and difficult issues, and whatever it might be, is here listening to it, listening to yourself, the reason we’ve got an anxiety epidemic is because people’s emotions are being shut down, they’ve been told to think positive, and to look at social media, and to not actually process the emotions that are going on for them. And my really important message, mostly to my daughters, but to anyone that wants to listen Is that don’t shut that stuff down, it’s actually really dangerous, you need to listen to it, you need to express it, you need to explore it, you need to process it. And then when you understand and can accept that, then you can commit to action and a plan and what am I going to do? And actually, there is something you know that I have to accept this and I can be positive about the future, if I do all that initial work. So I think we, you know, I think this positivity, kind of obsession is dangerous without the first part of the equation.
Simone Allen 16:28
Absolutely. In fact, I, I read something recently, and I think I make it a bit of a practice for me is it’s all very good to write down your daily gratitudes. And that’s, that’s, that’s obviously really important for your sense of feeling good about what is around you, but actually writing down any resentments, your daily resentments, and getting them on paper. And then looking at them and seeing why there’s this deep resentment is equally as powerful in helping you live an authentic life. And even the very power of holding whatever that feeling is, and actually just saying those words, I feel angry, or I feel sad, and actually, physically feeling your body is a very powerful process. So I loved what you you’ve actually given some advice there. Is there anything else? Because the question I was going to ask you is what advice would you give to someone who wants to break the mould and break free from trauma and move ahead?
Katie McGrath 17:24
I think that, I mean, that’s a hugely powerful question. Advice is really hard to give because everyone’s situation is just so unique. But I do think that there is a great power in surrendering to understanding the challenge that you’re dealing with, excepting it, labelling it, talking to someone about it. That is probably the most important advice I could give is put your hand up, we have the most incredible resources in this country. And unfortunately, the people that need those resources the most are often the people that least know how to access them. So the beauty of modern social technology is that you can just put anything into Google, you can find resources to help you. So if you are really struggling, and really not coping, don’t take extreme action. Don’t make rash decisions that you may regret later in life, stop and calm and breathe, and ask for help. Ask for help. Because hope is there. It may not be in the environment in which your crisis is right there. But outside that immediate crisis, and that is what I did not know how to do when I was in trauma and I was suffering. I did not know how to go beyond my immediate physical cycle. And I went through a suicide attempt to you know, as a teenager, which was devastating to have happened. But my way of trying to tell my friends I was in trouble was asking them if they knew what was the best method for someone to kill themselves. And my friends were teenagers, they didn’t have any kind of understanding of the kind of trouble I was in, because it’s not how I appeared on the surface. So they kind of would laugh flippantly or say, What are you talking about You crazy girl, but I didn’t know how to ask for help beyond that. The advice is for anyone in trouble, put your hand up, ask for help find a way to talk to somebody, because there are ways to get help. And that could be you know, it could be lifeline. It could be saying it could be the Kids Helpline, but there’s lots of ways to get help. And I really, really wish that I had known that back then.
Simone Allen 19:55
Well, I’m delighted to hear that you’re now sitting on the council for New South Wales Government.
Katie McGrath 20:00
Yeah, it’s for the eradication of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Simone Allen 20:03
Fantastic. So having lived experience is the key to the right advisory. So it’s great that the government have got you on involved, I think that’s terrific. I’ve noticed that you’ve launched the Mentor Evolution platform for Channel Seven, which allows executives to connect across both teams and borders, you’ve had that for three years now. And you’ve actually practised providing resources across the whole of the organisation to find each other support and help. In fact, my sister worked in the marketing team, I believe she wanted to learn about how to write a legal contract and was matched with a legal counsel person. So it’s good to hear, have you got any comments on that? And how has this helped seven media and their employees?
Katie McGrath 20:49
So at Seven West Media, we are really, really thrilled with our mentoring programme, we call it spark. It’s called mentor spark, and we use your platform. And you know, we’re very grateful to be introduced to the product and platform through mentor evolution. And so we are really happy because hundreds and hundreds of people across the organisation have gotten on board. And, you know, it’s been a slow and steady and now exponentially fast level of growth of interest. And so we’ve got all these really senior people who’ve got decades of experience, whether it is in legal or broadcast, or even our celebrities and talent are involved in it through to the most junior people in the business. So we take a great deal of care and time to make sure that the matching process works well. And I think that is the key to the programme, that the matching processes is well tailored, and it’s very well considered. But people love it, I’m again, you know, I’ve done it multiple times. And my mentee, this year is someone in publicity. And it’s just as rewarding for the mentor. I know everyone says this, but for me, it’s just so I get so much joy, from being able to help someone who’s already senior in their own field and an expert in their own field actually just kind of think beyond the realm of just their day to day job, which is relentless in media. But just to think beyond that, and for someone to just care about them and their progress. And I can just see how much appreciation there is either mentee. It’s just it’s a wonderful programme. And I really enjoy it. I’ve been mentoring for years and years, and I actually am still in contact and friends with some of the people I’ve mentored 25 years ago. So really powerful concept. And, and I think, you know, as long as it’s done in the right spirit with the right chemistry, it’s magic.
Simone Allen 22:56
Yeah, yeah, it’s interesting. I we do see a lot of the mentors saying, I got so much out of it, just going back over my own experience and sharing what I learned was also cathartic, probably like writing your book, actually going back over a process and reviewing it, and then sharing what you learned from it was another is is an incredible process. And in this world we live in where we’re often in small nuclear families, and we don’t have great aunts and uncles anyway, you know, around the corner. It’s it’s really great that Katie, we’ve obviously seen the importance of that for seven wastes media and brought the technology into the organisation. So yeah, hats off to you, because you’re one of the early adopters in Australia for for a corporation to do that. So yeah, thank you for that. And I suppose final question, because I’d love to talk to you for another three days. If you had the chance to go back and talk to your younger self at 16. What advice would you give her?
Katie McGrath 24:03
So me at 16? Well, I would have been in year 10. At school, I probably would have been at the height of my insecurity, I would have looked like all of my other friends and I had really good school friends at that time. I was getting more and more distressed about life, I was feeling less and less capable of coping. It was a slow, steady pathway into really serious distress. So if I look back now, the advice you know, is the same advice I’d give to anyone was actually find a safe adult. Find how do you find a safe adult? I mean, it’s really hard but you know, to trust your gut. Trust your gut when enough is wrong, that you need to step one, find someone safe that you can talk to step two is feel safe enough to trust that person with the truth about what’s going on. And that is a journey for getting help. I felt that there just wasn’t anyone I could tell or that would understand. Or maybe that would believe me. I don’t know. You know, it’s really bizarre now going back in time and doing lots of work on trauma and sexual abuse, and physical abuse as children that one of the biggest challenges, you know, for people is that they worry, you know, what will happen to the person that has caused them the abuse, I was just so full of fear, I didn’t know what to do. And I look back and just wished that there was one person I could have fully confided in and trusted and that that person could have taken care of accessing some help. Really individual situation, but there’s so many people like that, right. So many, Yeah, I don’t know what to do, and how to get help. And I think that getting help is really important.
Simone Allen 26:21
Yeah, that’s a great message. And I’ve heard you say that before and that you’ve wanted your children your two beautiful daughters Jasmine and Sophia to know that help is there. So look, Katie, awesome to reconnect with you after a decade. And yeah, I look forward to staying connected with you now. And your book will no doubt become I would imagine a film it’s a it’s an incredible story deadly Earth. And even my son as I mentioned to you said to me, my god mum, that is the most powerful cover I’ve ever seen. The cover doesn’t give it justice. It’s it is the most incredible read that anybody that’s really wanting to understand more about their own life can do that by reading your book I said to in the first chapter I was you I was you you’re in suck me in as I was you and I could feel it was incredible. So I’m so impressed. It’s you seem like a well known writer, really. And there’s your first book so hopefully you know that you’ll go on and write more because you’ve got a gift there babe and you’ve got to use it.
Katie McGrath 27:29
Definitely a movie is on the cards. And that is my goal. And no doubt we’ll talk again and I look forward to being involved with with the mentoring programme.
Simone Allen 27:41
Thanks, Katie. awesome to see you. Thanks for your time.