Ann Cairns was the first female engineer to work on offshore oil and gas rigs in the UK and now manages thousands of employees across hundreds of countries — and she's done it all without answering a job ad in her life.

The London-based mother-of-one started her career as an engineer, managing more than 50 colleagues during her 20s.

She went on to forge a phenomenally successful career in banking and restructuring before joining MasterCard, where she is now president, International.

She said one of her best career tips was to embrace change — and not to wait for opportunities to come to you.

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"One consistent thing in my career is that I was never frightened of change. I went from being an engineer to a banker then a restructurer then to MasterCard which is a technology company. I've always liked change and never felt afraid of it," she said.

"I've never applied for a job through the normal processes. I haven't ever looked at a job vacancy and thought, 'Oh, I'll apply for that'.

"What I've done with my life is I've thought of things I'd like to do, then reached out and talked to people who could help me do them."

She said no one should be afraid of cold-calling.

"When I was a research scientist I thought I'd like to work offshore so I looked up some names and called a man and said, 'You don't know me … but I'd love to be an offshore engineer,'" she said.

"What's the worst that could happen? He could have put the phone down and said that woman is crazy, but he didn't.

"Sometimes you know what you want and you shouldn't be afraid to go after it."

Cairns, who is responsible for the management of all markets and customer-related activities outside of North America, said young people should look at their careers as a marathon, not a sprint.

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"If the thing you want takes longer to get, then take longer to get it — don't just jump at the first thing that comes your way," she said.

"I've been working for nearly 40 years and in your 20s you tend to think, 'If I don't do this I'll miss the opportunity,' but life's not like that — you can always course-correct or go back to school and learn something totally different.

"The important thing to pass on to a young person is that they'll probably work up to 60 years so if you look at your life like a marathon, the thing that will make life enjoyable is if you are inquiring and learn new skills and basically develop yourself — don't get stuck on one track."

Cairns is a passionate advocate of gender diversity and said she wanted to see more women in leadership roles and in the science and technology industries across the globe.

She said: "The World Economic Forum published something after schoolchildren were asked to draw people in different professions — and they were six times more likely to draw an engineer as a man. It shows that many men and women hear the word engineer and automatically think 'man'.

"Images on TV, role models and the way we speak to children is so important."

She is visiting Australia for Mastercard Women's Leadership Network at the moment, which aims to advance women's careers through a culture of mentoring and coaching.