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Edith Cowan Memorial Lecture - Lessons in leadership

Governor of Western Australia, Kerry Sanderson AO, delivered the annual Edith Cowan Memorial Lecture at the Mount Lawley Campus.


I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Noongar people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

It is my pleasure to be here this morning to deliver the 7th annual Edith Cowan Memorial Lecture, and I thank the University for the invitation.

Edith Cowan was clearly a giant of Western Australia’s history. In all the firsts we celebrate on International Women’s Day, Edith Cowan is a standout as the first woman to prove her capability as a Parliamentary representative. She is remembered through a university named after her, an electorate named after her, her image and signature on the $50 note and a clock memorial erected to her on the traffic island at the entrance to Kings Park.

She wrought many social reforms that have had a positive impact on Australian women and Australian society.  But she also set us an example by overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges in order to make such a mark. 

Her mother died when Edith was seven. It’s hard to imagine the impact on a little girl of her mother dying in childbirth – the seeming abandonment by her mother, the grief in the home and the loss of family life when the tragedy had her sent from the pastoral station to boarding school in Perth.

There was perhaps an even higher hurdle to come eight years later, when she just fourteen.  Her father, a well to do pastoralist and explorer, murdered his second wife and was executed.  He was hanged in Perth Gaol in 1876, a decade before the gallows in Fremantle Prison came into use in 1889.

What a horror and humiliation for teenage Edith. Her father, Kenneth Brown was tried three times, with details of how her father shot his wife set out in the press. What a comedown from having a father of high status in the young colony - running a sheep station and thoroughbred racehorse stud, and gaining renown for his expeditions exploring the country beyond the station.

She had been born into a family of standing through her mother too. Her mother’s father was an Anglican Clergyman who had been appointed by the British Government to be the Colonial Chaplain for the Swan River Colony in 1829. 

I am a great believer in accepting hurdles as challenges and recognising how challenges strengthen us. But young Edith was presented with challenges that would defeat many. Demonstrating extraordinary 2 resilience and determination, she didn’t just rise above them, but soared above them to ring in such positive changes for social reform and for women, particularly.

As an interesting aside Annabel Crabb’s book says that while he was helping with door knocking for her election campaign her husband, James, was told by an earnest lady that this Mrs Cowan was neglecting her children (the youngest of whom was by then thirty).

What an example Edith Cowan gives us of meeting challenges and triumphing over them.

I often think women of my generation are lucky, and the younger generation even more so. I was encouraged by my parents to go to university and I studied science, and along the way changed from wanting to major in pharmacology to a double major in maths. T he maths degree was great training in logic, and once I started work with the WA Treasury I recognised the need for a qualification more related to my work and commenced part - time study for a degree in economics.

When I first started work female graduates were paid less than male graduates, it wasn’t a huge difference and it was being phased out. I faced some discrimination, but mainly from people who didn’t know me. Attitudes were slowly changing. I actually found that there was quite a change in my view of the acceptability of senior females when female Ministers were appointed. By that time I had reached CEO or deputy CEO level and I think that I was also able to make a difference to other women by role modelling and encouragement.

When I started with Treasury in 1971 it looked like promotion would be impossible because all the jobs above me were filled. However people left and I worked hard and within 5 years I was Chief Research Officer and in another five Director of Treasury’s Economic and Financial Policy Division. The work was complex and interesting, and I may have stayed longer than 17 years had it not been for the then Under Treasurer, who was retiring , suggesting that I needed to broaden my experience.

Along the way I gave birth to two wonderful boys, the first when I was in Treasury and the second towards the end of my 4 years as Deputy Director General of Transport. By the time the second one arrived I took only 3 months maternity leave as I was, by this time, Acting Director General of the then Department of Transport.

I had been back from maternity leave around fifteen months when I was asked to take on the position of CEO of Fremantle Ports, on an acting basis. The job was later advertised and I was then appointed. Going there on an acting basis was a career risk because I had no experience at a port operational level and Fremantle Ports had incurred an underlying loss of around $30 million and an actual loss of around $70 million the year before I went there, hence lots of change was required to restore profitability. There were also around 20 industrial awards and 14 unions and the Port hadn’t started to grapple with waterfront reform, which was then in its infancy around Australia.

But as well as a risk and challenge I saw it as a very worthwhile opportunity to help exporters, which after my time in Treasury I saw as very important, and to restore the reputation and profitability of Fremantle Ports, which I saw as one of the State’s great trading enterprises. And working with a wonderful team that is what we did, including restoring profitability, paying the government dividends and tax equivalents, becoming commercialised and using the Australian Business Excellence Framework to ensure we were systematic in our change process. So as a team we made huge changes.

I was breaking new ground, and when I left Fremantle Ports after 17 years I remained the only female CEO of a port in Australia and one of less than a handful in the world. But I believed that I had worked hard to learn an d innovate in the industry and been accepted as indicated by the fact that I was 3 Vice President and then President of our national association, Ports Australia, and also the inaugural inductee in the Lloyds List Shipping and Transport Hall of Fame in 2007.

After 17 years as Fremantle Ports CEO I went to London as the first female Agent General from any Australian State and I am now sworn in as the first female Governor after a line of 31 male Governors.  Between returning from London (where the Agent General is based) and taking up my current role I had a challenging yet enjoyable career as a director of a number of different commercial Boards and charities.

In looking at parallels with Edith Cowan I think it would be because of women like her that I was able to pursue a non - traditional career path. While I know that the expectation of some employees at Fremantle when I went to Fremantle Ports was that I wouldn’t stay the distance (possibly not helped by the fact that I had long curly hair and wore frilly dresses when I first started) , I had inherited a determined streak and had previously chaired a Steering Committee on change management, both of which were very helpful.

In terms of my career learnings it was apparent to me that we needed to start with a focus on delivering for our customers, we also progressed strategic planning and waterfront reform, including the elimination of work practices such as demarcation, in a consultative manner.

Some of my career learnings, most of which relate to my seventeen years as CEO of Fremantle Ports, include:

  • Top of the list is the importance of accepting opportunities....I should add that women often lack confidence to apply for jobs, feeling they need to satisfy all selection criteria before applying for a job , we can help other women by encouraging them to apply for jobs.
  • Second is the importance of persisting and being determined...as part of our change process at Fremantle Ports we used the Australian Business Excellence Framework (what I liked about the Business Excellence approach was the fact that it meant that you had to improve on a broad front, in other words you couldn’t just focus on customers but needed to focus also on your people, leadership, strategy, information and  knowledge, processes, success  and sustainability. We persisted in using the Framework as part of our improvement journey for many years and I was proud when in 2007 Fremantle Ports was judged to have reached the top (gold) award level. In that year we also received the Australian Business Excellence medal for the best organisation in Australia in terms of business excellence. The persistence for many years with Australian Business Excellence Framework meant that we achieved our goal).
  • My third learning is the importance of strategic planning. However you not only have to know and agree with the team in your organisation your objectives and what you want to achieve, but you need to measure and monitor progress against these goals regularly, as well as review the plan at least every three years.
  • Fourthly I had a learning about the importance of setting out expectations for our leaders. To illustrate when I was reflecting on why several of our leaders weren’t helping their teams resolve conflicts or focus on the strategic plan I realised that it was really my fault because, as CEO, I hadn’t developed, in a consultative way, or promulgated my expectations of our leaders so it was unrealistic of me to expect them to do what I wanted without that. And I also needed to define who was a leader, and in fact everyone needs to display leadership in their jobs.
  • My next learning is the importance of organisational values and the clarity provided through discussing and agreeing organisational values such as honesty, continuous improvement, valuing both customers and other staff and care for the environment. People need values to know how to show initiative in their jobs, and how to indicate how others should improve (I should say that prior to agreeing our values we had first to agree on behaviours we wanted to expunge such as violence as a way to solve differences).
  • Another important learning is that you have to have confidence and believe you are going to succeed, otherwise you are giving up before you even start (eg Lou Tice)
    “if you believe you are going to succeed and you come to obstacles you will look at ways around or under them whereas if you believe you will fail you will give up at the first sign of an obstacle”
  • Finally I would mention the need to aim high (this was my school motto, and is so important), and Michelangelo’s saying on this is one of my favourites:
    “The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and we miss it but that we aim too low and we reach it.”

I would also mention what I learnt from my grandmother, namely the importance of being determined and resilient. I always think that it is the difficulties in life which show your strength, because it is easy to be strong when all is going well.

The philosophy of continuing to improve is one which is very important for both an individual and an organisation, and as part of my continual improvement I have had a commitment to lifelong learning. This has involved taking challenges in my work to take me out of my comfort zone, also some formal courses and considerable reading on management and leadership. I particularly like Stephen Covey’s eight principles, five of which I would particularly mention today, namely:

  • Seek first to understand before being understood (ie listen).
  • Begin with the end in mind
  • Put first things first (ie prioritise)
  • Sharpen the saw (ie continue to renew yourself and improve), and
  • Communicate (this he added later but reflected that it is critically important in leadership)

As I reflect on the importance of continued learning I want to take a minute to reflect on some outstanding educators in an area where more is needed.

The latest Closing the Gap Report released last month (11 Feb) again points to the sadly low rate of literacy and numeracy in our Aboriginal communities.

Among the women we honour today must be those women, Aboriginal and non - aboriginal, who have dedicated themselves to the advancement of our Aboriginal people through learning.

Of course right here in Colleen Hayward AM we have a shining example of the power of education. A university professor, and inducted into the WA Department of Education Hall of Fame for Achievement in Aboriginal Education, Professor Hayward heads ECU’s Kurongkurl Katijin Centre, she was an inaugural director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative body, the National Congress, and was the 2008 National NAIDOC Aboriginal Person of the Year.  She has lived by her own dictum to Indigenous people:

“Set your sights high and have a go. We can all be nervous about things that are different ... but you’ll never know unless you give it a go.” (This is very similar to my own learning about taking opportunities and believing in yourself).

Colleen’s father was a trailblazer before her — ECU’s first Indigenous Australian graduate, the first formally trained Aboriginal teacher in WA, and the first Aboriginal principal. 

The first female Aboriginal teacher in WA, May O’Brien, was born around Laverton and sent to the Mt Margaret Mission when she was five. There was her challenge in missing her mother and the life of her culture. But she excelled - and so was sent to Perth for secondary schooling. That itself was another challenge, given she was older, at 17, than the other students, and she also had to overcome at first failing an IQ test. But she took it upon herself to appeal to the top and was accepted – doing well and returning to teach at the mission and to encourage generations of students.

Her hard work, enthusiasm and role - modelling made an impact on bridging t he gap between cultures and creating opportunities for Aboriginal people. She helped create Aboriginal committees of education around the State and was a foundation member of the National Aboriginal Education Committee. She was appointed Superintendent of Aboriginal Education, serving a total of 34 years in the education system before retiring to write bi-lingual children’s books. She is an Ambassador for numeracy and literacy and has long campaigned for social justice and equality for Aboriginal people. Her advice is to ‘use words instead of fists’.

May O’Brien has achieved so much while still grappling with the injustice she felt about being taken from home and sent to the mission:

“Not having parents who cared for you and being at the mission with 30 other girls it was quite lonely at times. Not being able to talk to someone and call someone your own.”

I very much empathise with those of the stolen generation, it would have been very difficult for them and required huge strength of character t o succeed. Today we can also reflect on their successes.

And of course there are many other examples of women forging ahead to create today’s world, just think all four category winners as Australians of the year in 2015 were women.

However in celebrating the achievements of women I wanted to end with my concern that we (men and women working together) still have work to do. When we have a situation where women are graduating in a higher proportion than men and make - up 48.5% of the Australia n workforce but only hold 1 in 4 of the positions in the top three levels of management there is something which is not working.

I hope that I have given some food for thought in my comments today and I would be pleased to answer questions.

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