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Changemaker  |  Governance

Championing Courageous Leadership

9 January 2017 at 8:20 am
Wendy Williams
Robin McClellan is the CEO of Leadership Western Australia, an independent, not-for-profit organisation that brings together leaders from different sectors to inspire and enhance exemplary leadership. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 9 January 2017 at 8:20 am


Championing Courageous Leadership
9 January 2017 at 8:20 am

Robin McClellan is the CEO of Leadership Western Australia, an independent, not-for-profit organisation that brings together leaders from different sectors to inspire and enhance exemplary leadership. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Leadership WA’s vision is to foster a strong leadership philosophy and practice that goes beyond personal and professional development with the key objective of building stronger communities.

According to McClellan, who has headed the organisation since 2015, leadership is not synonymous with authority.

One of her favourite leadership mantras is to: “Have empathy for yourself and others.”

McClellan, who grew up on a farm in Kansas before embarking on a 24-year career in the US diplomatic service, first lived in Perth from 2004 to 2007 when she served as the US Consul General.

She later made a move to the corporate and then not-for-profit sectors, working at Curtin University as director of Minerals Research Initiatives, in Singapore as ExxonMobil Corporation’s senior advisor for Asia Pacific Government Relations and before that as WA director of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).

In this week’s Changemaker, McClellan talks about finding a job with soul-fulfilling satisfaction, the meaning behind Leadership WA’s striking new logo and why sometimes you should just say “yes”.

How did you make the move from being a career diplomat to working in the not-for-profit sector?

I’ll admit, it was a very, very hard decision to retire from the diplomatic service but [it was] for personal reasons, the life. You get posted in different places and have very little control over that, it just couldn’t work for my family anymore. My husband was very ill. So I thought: “Oh right, I have to do this.”

I very much believe that in that role I was part of something bigger and everyday I felt like what I was working on made an important difference in the world. And after I left that role, it hadn’t dawned on me to be honest that not every job had that sort of soul-fulfilling satisfaction.

I had some great jobs, I’m not at all complaining, I had some fabulous roles and some fabulous experiences but to be honest when the opportunity to join Leadership WA came along, it seemed to me like that was maybe a better use of me, in terms of being able to make a difference in the world at the point I was at in my life.

So it was a big decision to leave diplomacy and then the corporate world but I haven’t regretted it at all. And I think one of the great benefits of being with an organisation like Leadership Western Australia is that we get to see, just about every day, how we leverage other people who then go out and leverage their improvement and their development into making their organisations better. So it is fabulous for me. I don’t have to decide if I’m going to put my efforts into homelessness or combatting drug addiction or infant education or preschool education because I can come to work and do all of those things by supporting the people in our programs who then go out and are even more effective in their work. So I feel very, very privileged to be in this role.

Why is good leadership so important?

I think that’s one thing we’ve always known, whether we’ve defined leadership in the same way over the decades is the question. [But it’s] so many things. If the people you work with are going to be happy and committed and do what they’re doing, so much of that derives from having good leadership.

Leadership is certainly an interesting thing to define and one of our mantras of course is that leadership is not synonymous with authority. You can lead in any kind of a role and in fact sometimes the most important leadership comes from people who don’t have a title that you would think is synonymous with leadership.

So our vision is if we can help people understand how to lead themselves and then if they can understand about that, that is the first framework and only from there can we think about how you influence and lead others in that sense. And then of course how you understand the challenges of the community you live in and identify how you yourself can make the best use of you in order to give back and make our community better.

So, all of our programs we try to have a rough balance, of a third from the not-for-profit sector but also a third from government employees and a third from the corporate sector, because we really want to make the point that you don’t have to be involved in a role that says: “I’m the managing director of a homeless shelter,” to make a difference in homelessness, you don’t have to be someone with CEO in your title to actually be able to influence other people in a very effective way. You don’t even maybe need to be in paid employment, if you think of all the amazing people who give into the community and basically make up the framework of our lives from everything  from school committees to churches to all sorts of groups like Rotary and Soroptimist and all these other things where people give back but they don’t identify themselves as a leader but they really, really are.

Leadership WA recently rebranded with a new logo. What were the reasons behind this?

We were founded about 14 years ago and I think like many things we’ve gone forward. When Leadership WA was founded it was specifically to deliver something called the Signature Program which was for 40 leaders, to help them develop over a 10-month program. And I think in those days it was very important for the organisation to establish its credibility and establish that we were delivering a high quality product and really making a difference and getting especially the corporates on board. I think there was a huge acceptance in government and the not-for-profit sector but convincing the corporate sector who might already have had some leadership or management development activities internally that they would make both this financial commitment and time commitment of their staff to participate.

So the original logo is quite formal looking, and it’s a very subdued colour palette. It looks very top end of town and serious and I totally think that was the right thing at that time. But as we have evolved we now have a range of five different programs and we cater to a real range of participants, again trying to make sure that we have all sides of the corporate sector including small business represented. We have a program for Aboriginal women, we have a program for leaders with disabilities and so I guess we wanted something that was a little bit more flexible, and maybe…[when] we sat down with Block Branding who did the concept for us, a little bit more of an organic feel which I think is appropriate for 2016, now 2017.

So it is just a question of moving over time, and again it is not at all that there was anything wrong with the previous logo and brand but it was time for us to kind of make a statement.

The white circle represents the quiet, still centre within oneself that our programs help our participants find so they can dive off from the L – the platform our Skillsbank Program helps provide – to make fabulous overlapping ripples with their fellow alumni to improve and enhance our community.

Under my watch my goal is one of two things. The first is very consistent with what we’ve done before which is providing opportunities for individuals to become better leaders and a platform for them to give back into the community, which we do through our Skillsbank Program. But I also want us to take some of our content out into the broader population and I keep saying our job is to champion courageous leadership, so we not only have to give leaders an opportunity to grow and develop individually, we have to help nurture an environment in which good leadership can thrive. And so part of that is taking some of the same kind of content, although being very careful about not breaching any of our confidentiality arrangements about what’s said in the room stays in the room, but taking some of those ideas out into the broader community. So my goal is, as I say, if I can get people in Western Australia to talk about good examples of leadership for 10 per cent of the time around the dinner table that their kids talk about the Kardashians, then we’ve made some progress. So I really want to highlight some great examples. It is so easy for our conversations to spiral down into the drama of: “Oh did you see this horrible person did this and did that,” and: “This sports star fell off the pedestal we put him on and this and that,” rather than talking about all the gutsy and courageous things that we see people doing every single day.

So we’ve started a bi-weekly column in the local business newspaper called 10 Minutes on Leadership With, and I interview different examples. Some of them are CEOs of major corporations, you know you would expect to see them there but other people are those who have really just done something that is kind of unheralded… just people who have kind of taken different paths, everything from David Morrison to Richard Goyder the head of Wesfarmers but also man and street cart individuals who are really great leaders. So we will do that again [this] year and hopefully eventually turn that into a book.

In 2016 you launched the Aboriginal Women’s Leadership Initiative. What are your hopes for this program?

Like every organisation in our business the not-for-profit part of our business is really easy it is the not-for-loss part I struggle with. So my first goal is to get it funded so that we can do this at the level it deserves to be done. We’ve done a pilot program and we are doing a second program… here in Perth of what we call Yorga Djenna Bidi which is Noongar for “women moving forward together”, and we’re calling it the Aboriginal Women’s Leadership Initiative because our goal is to do it outside of Noongar Country as well. And it’s to do three sessions of this program in Western Australia every year and then bringing the graduates of the courses together in a community of practice to work on issues of mutual interest and support each other. And if we get the funding, let me rephrase that, when we get the funding, and its up and running full time then at the end of those three years there will be 200 women who have gone through this program and are knit together and I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t get in their way.

The idea is that women, Aboriginal women in particular, sometimes have a challenge in terms of being able to step up in their own community and hold their space and make a statement in a way that is culturally appropriate. And so what I love about Yorga Djenna Bidi is it is actually designed by Aboriginal women using Leadership WA frameworks of how we know adults learn and develop and grow. And so it takes our framework but it is really strongly grounded in Aboriginal culture and Noongar culture in this case. And it was co-developed with Rishelle Hume who was this year’s Western Australian of the Year in the Aboriginal category, and Robyn Smith-Walley and her partner Richard Walley who are very strongly involved in Noongar culture. And we know when we do this outside of Noongar Country we are going to find leaders who also will help us to adapt our framework or use our framework as a basis for the cultural learning that is appropriate in those areas. So that’s one thing that I think is very different from a lot of other offerings that have been done in the Indigenous space. And then of course the idea that we bring, is diversity is the key of everything so even though it is only for Indigenous women it is any Indigenous group, so I think in the first pilot program we had 13 different language groups represented, and the age range from 20 up until late 50s, so the diversity and the people learning from each other across the generations is just fabulous. And of course then the women who completed the program or who were part of the program also then enrich all of our other programs because we ask them to come in and speak or we have graduates of our other programs go and work as mentors and speakers into the Aboriginal Women’s Program and so we start to increase this collaboration in a third space which I think is so important. I can’t speak for other states but in Western Australia we see it is still very hard for people to just have an interaction that is sort of normal and understand each other without the cultural biases getting in the way and so it’s just fabulous. We’ve had a number of our graduates from Yorga Djenna Bidi will come with me to speak, for example when I’m talking to potential sponsors, or also to speak to our Rising Program and our Signature Program about their experiences as Aboriginal women leaders.

One of the young women from the pilot program, the person we hooked her up with as a mentor was involved in the Red Cross and now Taliah has been selected as a Red Cross ambassador for the whole nation. So these great stories, I’m getting goosebumps talking to you, are not stories. When you asked why I would move from what I did before, never in my life have I been involved in something where I honestly wake up every morning and know no matter how much I am worried about the budget and how much my mind is churning to think how we’re going to get the right recruitment strategy out there, we change lives and we change the community. And most of us in the not-for-profit sector are very fortunate that we can say that.

What does a typical day for you entail as CEO?

It’s really interesting. It is a question I ask myself, what should it look like. Because we know the public face of an organisation like ours, of course you get all sorts of requests for: “Can we have coffee?” and I know if I could just have coffee for a living I would be so rich. But how do I, again, make the best use of me and how do I decide what percentage of my time needs to be spent on internal leadership, what percentage of my time needs to be on being the face of Leadership Western Australia in the community, what percent of my time needs to be an actual teacher and facilitator myself, so I stay in touch with what we do and also hopefully use my skills and gifts in the best way possible, and you know what percent of me needs to be in business development and meeting sponsors and potential scholarship donors and nurturing all those relationships. So those are the sorts of things I try to cover, probably not all of them in any one day. What speaking arrangements do I accept, and when do I say: “It sounds like so much fun but it doesn’t fit our strategic goals,” and that’s really hard because I am a person who wants to say yes to everyone and everything and you know none of those things do I dislike doing.

So, I have an internal coach for me and my staff and he helps me keep myself on track in terms of how I’m spending my time and holding myself accountable. I have a fabulous executive assistant, who I think is really, really crucial for anyone in a role where you are trying to get stuff done. Let’s face it as much as I have a great team to delegate to, there are things that I have to approve and I have to write, and I have to look at, so she is very good at helping me not letting those things [pile up], the inbox is just so easy to let it keep piling one thing on top of another because you want to engage with the people. So I guess I try to spend roughly, 25 to 30 per cent of my time on internal issues and about 30 per cent of my time on business development and that’s everything from recruitment to fundraising and making sure that we are aligned with our partners’ goals, because those too change over time, and then probably the other 40 per cent of the time is being that public face, doing what we’re doing right now, speaking at various events… that sort of thing. It sounds so elegant and perfect when I tell you.

How do you find time for yourself outside of work?

I’m not as good at that as I should be, I’ve been getting ill for quite a while and I had to laugh at myself a few weeks ago, I had a horrible sore throat and fever and headaches and I remember my kids when they were little saying to me: “Mum why do you shout at me,” and I said: “Well, because you don’t listen the first six times I ask you nicely to do something”,, and I kind of felt like my body was saying: “Ok I’m shouting now, because you haven’t listened the first six times.”

So, I go to a trainer twice a week which is something I have just started doing but has really helped a lot, I have a girlfriend I go for a walk with twice a week in the mornings, when I’m feeling well, I try to make time to meditate. Some days I have more success than others, and I’m really blessed my two daughters live here in Western Australia as well, in Perth, so I’m lucky I have my family close by.

But my staff is really good, especially since I’ve been a bit ill. They’re just saying: “Ok, I’ve gone through your schedule, you don’t need to do those three things, we’re doing them for you, you can do these two and then you’re going home.” But I’ve always been one of those people that when somebody says: “How are you?” and you say: “So busy, so busy,” I’m allergic to that word because I think if I am “so busy, so busy” then I’m not managing and I’m not leading myself properly. I have staff, I theoretically am able to say no, and so if I’m over-stretched it’s no ones fault but my own, so sometimes reminding yourself of that [is important]… you can’t be a good influence on other people’s lives if you not a good influence on your own and sometimes it’s just hard to stop and remember that. But it’s funny, that’s a question I always ask people… it’s funny becomes sometimes the fittest looking people say: “Oh I never do anything, I don’t run, I don’t do any exercise,” and I’m looking at them thinking this is not fair.

Do you have a favourite saying?

I have so many that I keep reminding myself. So my leadership mantra, it’s not just specifically leadership, or how I want to live my life, it’s first of all: “Just say yes”. When an opportunity presents itself, figure out how you can say yes. Because you never know what is going to come of that opportunity.

And then how important it is to have empathy for yourself, as we were just talking about, and for other people. And I think that is one of the things that we need to remind ourselves of, we can never know everything that is going on in the lives of the people around us. So the grumpy check out person in the grocery store or your staff member who seems a little bit less than a 100 per cent engaged. Even with the most open of relationships you’re just not going to know. Part of that came out of the fact that my husband died of a brain tumour, it was a six year process, and people were very engaged and supportive when it was first diagnosed but like anything life goes on. And some days I just thought I don’t even know how I can be here, but I was there. So empathy is really important.

Confidence, we all suffer what you call imposter syndrome, where you look around the room and think how did I get into this program or why did they ask me to speak or why am I having this opportunity to have this interview, what do I have to offer, we all go through that so knowing that I think should build your confidence. And sometimes you do just have to fake it until you make it.

The other thing I remind myself is don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s so easy to not do something yet because you want to check out one more angle, or: “It could be polished, I need to edit it one more time,” and that’s one of my great downfalls.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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