I have never been a person who set a big career goal.
In high school I was tested by a careers adviser and told I should study accountancy. It didn’t feel right but he was the so called expert so when I finished high school I signed up for accountancy studies and got a job in an accountancy department of a large corporation. It never felt right but what did I know? I even joined the ATO to be a Tax Assessor. Actually I was good at the lower levels but it was not a long term option for me.
I was not a fit at all. I was just treading water until I saw something else that might be a better fit and that might play to my interests in people and/or current affairs (accountancy versus people and what was happening in the world focus – go figure! How far off the mark can you be?). I think that I also had to build confidence in myself. I was a bit reticent and didn’t always trust my ability. I had to use time to build a base to “have a go”.
If I think of my own journey I am struck by the impact that individual people had at a moment in time. People who were leaders who gave me direction but also the room to do my job. When I was in the ATO I met someone who encouraged me to work with him in the people side of the business. What he taught me was a lot more than about getting on with people or reading the organisational tea leaves, he taught me about music, art, theatre, diversity and broadened my thinking and tolerance for people and their journeys. He taught me to think about how the world looked if you tried to stand in other people’s shoes.
When I went to PNG I had a CEO who asked what should be done to prepare the organisation in terms of workforce with self government and independence coming. To be honest I was making it up as I went. I knew nothing about workforce planning. I was flying by the seat of my pants. We created a shadow organisation. We identified the key roles for the future and the skills and capacity gaps that existed. We recruited from Universities and high schools and engaged in accelerated training and real time action learning in country and overseas. We used long term permanent expatriate staff to be coaches and mentors. We worked out a plan to release permanent expatriate staff over time but seek to focus on the organisation not losing its core workforce strength. This meant that many expatriates would be required for some time to come. In the end the aim was to form one organisation that had a balance of staff and skill sets that would take the organisation into the future when Independence came. Did we get it right all the time? Not by a long shot. We could have built stronger relationships with key stakeholders. We could have been less naïve politically. We could have sought advice from people who knew how to do this type of work. We could have managed the relationships better with some expatriate staff. We could have communicated better what we were doing across the organisation. We had a story to tell but sometimes we didn’t get it right.
The key factor was the CEO who provided the leadership and support needed and most of all trusted me. He sometimes “took the heat” for us so we could get on with the job. Did I leave a legacy? No, I got “localised out” when the CEO changed. However there was a core group of indigenous leaders who were connected politically and who had enough confidence at a moment in time to have influence. I learnt a lot. Mainly about myself, about organisational change and organisational culture, and, about the culture of country and what grows it and what weakens it. I learnt that I was just a cog in a wheel and that I had to let go and let others lead and take change. I left a lot of my heart and soul in PNG but also took away learning that could not be repeated.
Most interestingly, I didn’t know that this experience would play a part in establishing an executive search and Action Learning Set business many years later.
I got blown away in Cyclone Tracey in Darwin and headed to Canberra as a “refugee” from Tracey. I floated around for 6-8 months across 4-5 different departments before getting a permanent job. This time in Health! Again, I found a leader who said what do we need to do to support the restructure of the Department and who then supported building an organisation and staff development function. I got lucky. I got the job of building a cadre of leaders for the future. I made lots of mistakes. I had a general sense of direction and kept heading along that path whilst trying to be attuned to changes in “wind direction” so I could adjust quickly and trim the sails accordingly. I never thought I would end up in Canberra but I will always be grateful. I learnt so much about how to “read the politics” and how to think through what would this story look like on the front page of the newspaper. I learnt about working for Ministers and to stand in their shoes. I learnt to understand the ebb and flow of politics and its impact on the system. I got to observe some amazingly intelligent and clever executives who wanted to lead and who were exquisite “Mandarins” who were also driven by policy that would be of national benefit. What a privilege it was.
My role was to build leadership capacity linked to change management problems. This started in Health then shifted to a central department. I employed some very talented consultants to learn from and some amazingly talented individuals for the team. I used to wander the Executive Leadership floor in the building talking to people. Team members would ask where I was and what was I doing. I was building relationships. I was building networks of trust. I was gathering intelligence. Not really different to what I have done as a business owner. I was fortunate that I had a leader who encouraged and challenged me and a Deputy CEO who scared me but from whom I learnt so much in terms of mentoring and coaching.
Then I left the public service. I had an itch to scratch to do it for myself. This is the sense of direction comment above. It could have been a disaster however I had built a strong network and was able to do leadership and team facilitation roles for clients. Then I thought that I had used action learning for leadership development and Learning Set initiatives internally so why not to a broader base. Again, my networks were connected to The Kings Fund in the UK and that started Learning Set trials in the Health arena. We then decided to build Sets as a business. During one of the earlier set meetings, I got asked to find a Deputy CEO for a Set member, which became the first executive search I would run. The rest is history.
For me relationships, networks of trust, and a capacity to understand the context/environment that clients lived in is crucial. I have been lucky to have had amazing leaders to learn from who were hard and soft as needs be but always driven by a desire to make things better for society.