Little lessons in leadership

Nareen Young
Topics Inclusion

I often get asked to speak to conferences and groups about my achievements as a leader and about women's leadership. I'm really uncomfortable about this because I see myself as an ordinary suburban chick who has been lucky enough to work in an area I love and who has had some ideas that others thought were reasonable along the way. However, I'm about to leave DCA after six and a half extraordinary years and I am prepared to concede that what we've achieved in that time is indeed extraordinary and holds some lessons in leadership for other women, and I dare say men.

On the day I took over as CEO of DCA we had under 100 members. As well as a small office in Melbourne, we shared a musty terrace in Surry Hills with another business, we had one piece of research, limited member services, a staff profile that bore no resemblance to the diversity needs of the organisation's membership, a magnificent Communications Director with scant resources to do her thing with, and we were significantly in debt.

Today, DCA has over 270 members and we are in a strong financial position. Our staff in Sydney and Melbourne are accommodated by Deloitte (and until very recently Stockland), who provide office space and IT support. We have, in my view, an amazing team of longstanding staff members who are the best in their fields in Australia. Our research capacity and the tools provided to business and workplaces that derive from it are changing the face of Australian workplaces. When I look at the DCA website now and see the member services that we provide, I see no resemblance to the organisation we started with.

Our Annual Reviews now show a not-for-profit organisation that has transparency in governance and operations as its heart, a constitution that reflects excellence in NFP governance and mechanisms that promote accountability and excellence in financial management so that the significant investment that business makes in our peak diversity organisation flows back to business.

I'm really proud of it, and finally, not afraid to admit it. 

So, what are the lessons?

When I decided to take this job on (not knowing the depth of what I was taking on!), I asked Catherine Petterson as Communications Director and Jane O'Leary, now Research Director but then  'consultant', if we could do it as a team. I'd run an organisation before and while I'd done that successfully, I knew from that experience what I needed to do the best job I could. I'm an ‘external processor’. I need to work in a team.

I had worked with Catherine and Jane during the difficult period before I took over DCA, and I trusted them not only to deliver but to provide me with advice and to listen when I needed to ‘download’. I think leaders need to know that they can't do it all by themselves. We're not perfect at everything; our judgement isn't always right, and we need trusted colleagues to bounce off. They've never let me down.

I also asked a dear and trusted colleague from a member organisation, Nicole Daly, if she would be another sounding board. I thought it was important that I had the member perspective as well as the internal one, and I knew she'd be honest, whether I liked what she said or not.

I don't think leaders should be scared of honest feedback – in fact, to the contrary.  I think they need a variety of perspectives in order to make good decisions, especially where there are significant external stakeholders.

In making decisions, including the major ones that really changed DCA, I followed my instincts. In leadership psychology we hear much about this, and about emotional intelligence. I think my capacity for emotional intelligence is pretty reasonable, but in former leadership jobs I had ummed and aahed and tried to please everybody. You just can't. Most of the time, in making business decisions, you need to move quickly, and you need to trust that initial instinct. It's usually right.

My fundamental belief in running organisations (and most other things) is that there is an underlying responsibility to behave ethically.  This belief has guided me through running two organisations now, and both have flourished in an environment where this is the underpinning tenet.

I believed on the day I took DCA over, and believe now, that strong, commercially-focused diversity practice has a very large role to play in Australian workplaces towards our prosperity. I think DCA has played a large part in the extraordinary shift we've seen in approaches to diversity practice in Australia since 2007, and it's been an honour and a privilege to be part of that.

To all current DCA staff and to Yvette Edwards and Amber Roberts who have left more recently, I say thanks. It's been really hard work, and we’ve had some crazy days, but it’s been so much fun, and there’s been so much goodwill. But please no more puns!

I also thank DCA Chair Anna McPhee, Deputy Chair Sam Mostyn and all current board members for their wonderful support, Anne Summers for consistency of position and friendship, and my partner Paul, kids, dogs, family, mob and BFF Sylvianne Heim for being so incredibly accommodating (especially that year I worked under the stairs at home). 

And yes, we have been mostly women at DCA but this has been by accident rather than by design. I've always relied on what we used to call 'the good men', and this too has proven to be correct. In gender diversity, we've never been able to achieve anything without them, because they've held the power, and by and large still do. I've found the view people in some quarters have that says, “I'm a new and different kind of feminist because I actually like men” bizarre and bemusing to say the least (not to mention sexist!). Relying on Chris Lamb of Lend Lease, Mark Hand from ANZ and Alec Bashinsky of Deloitte more recently as well as former AFP Assistant Commissioner, Mark Ney, Dr Graeme Russell and Robert Orth as board members and diversity leaders of goodwill, commitment and creativity, has been a pleasure.

Nearly last but so not least, we're always told to seek excellent financial advice as business people and as leaders, as there is no better, in my view, than Madeleine Mattera of KPMG. I am eternally grateful to my friend, as is DCA and more importantly, diversity practice in Australia.

To women who are presented with leadership opportunities, take them. Take whatever opportunity you're presented with because it's an honour. Right now, we're in the privileged position of having them. Our foremothers fought for these opportunities and it would be an abrogation of responsibility not to. Be brave, be bold, be authentic (as hard as it can be) and be fearless. Be guided by your ethics and be decent. It's a long life in business and people remember those who behave badly. 

Finally, a good leader knows when it's time to move on. It's time for me, and I'm very proud that I'm leaving a flourishing organisation.

So, that's my two cents. God speed the good ship DCA. Love ya!

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