What has been your biggest career challenge to date? We ask senior leaders…

We all have days where the tank is a little emptier. Where it is difficult to get moving in the morning and to maintain motivation. Knowing that you are contributing to vital public purpose work is a great thing, and something to be proud of every day. But – every once in a while, it is comforting to know that even our most senior leaders face challenges every day in their roles. We ask government senior leaders about some of the challenges they face in their positions.

Michelle Lees – General Manager, Department of Human Services

Probably a big challenge was creating one department out of four different agencies – when the Department of Human Services was created from Centrelink, Medicare, Child Support and Australian Hearing. Being a project lead for the transition and looking at how we would do that, and then being a senior operational leader when it came into effect was quite challenging.

I was running a very large geographic patch, from Woodridge to Wynnum to the city out to Goondiwindi in QLD, down to Tamworth and Moree in NSW. In involved bringing together people from different organisational cultures in a very geographically dispersed part of two states and trying to build one culture, trying to build an understanding of complex social issues in city vs country environments, trying to have an integrated government service offer across the different programs, whilst at the same time managing staff who were feeling as though ‘We don’t want to be part of Centrelink’ and ‘We are getting taken over by this big beast’; so there was probably that cultural change challenge when you had to also keep the business operating. You had to keep making income support payments, you had to keep processing Medicare claims – so how do you actually work through the corporate and internal issues at the same time as making sure you kept the service to the community going at a high level?

In terms of overcoming it, it was a case of working very closely with my direct line reports and having a concerted effort and really managing it as a change management process over a 12 month period. Lots of communication, lots of building relationships, lots of pragmatic things. When we had our leadership meetings every three months, we would have them alternate between the city and the country, and we implemented a staff exchange program, so that some of the city staff would go out to the country and vice versa. This allowed for people to appreciate different perspectives and they could work out why they needed to help each other virtually when things got tough in different locations. It was a lot of people leadership, as well as supporting people to learn, helping people to feel part of a new team and organisation, and an absolutely concerted effort in building the greater leadership team to influence and build the culture with the people they led.

We ended up being one of the highest performing geographic areas and we had the biggest change effort as we had people from not just three different organisations coming together, but three different parts of three different organisations coming together – for example there were people from Medicare who were in my geographic who hadn’t worked together and with slight variations on how things were done. It made for an interesting change management process in terms of consistency of approach and practice. But for me, I think the cultural change challenge in these situations is always the biggest one, particularly when trying to change and embed culture whilst also keeping the business of the day going.

Katarina Carroll – Commissioner, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services

Coming into the QFES as an outsider with views as to how things should go forward I’ve had to stand up against that status quo on many occasions and my leadership team now looks very different to the one I first had. And that was because we had different views of the world as to where the directions of the organisation should head.

You’ve got to balance that though, with the greater good of the department and what the community expects of the department. I think if at the end of the day, you know your end point and you can go comfortably to sleep at night knowing you are getting that balance as right as you can get it, there’s nothing else you can do. I spend a lot of time with people explaining decisions, but not everyone’s obviously going to see it that way and that’s ok.

Neil Scales – Director-General, Department of Transport and Main Roads

There have been three major challenges in my career that I like to talk to.

1. I put the only piece of private legislation through parliament that was opposed at every level when the Mersey Tunnel was built in the UK. I managed to have that legislation pass after three or four years of advocacy. This challenge took a lot of tenacity and stamina and going through the houses of parliament in the UK to get a piece of legislation through for the Mersey Tunnel was probably the most difficult job I have done. But in the end I did it – and achieved a significant leap forward for Mersey.

2. I bought a German U-Boat which was an incredibly complex project. I purchased the U-534 boat for 1 Euro, and then turned it into a prominent tourist destination in Liverpool. Buying a German U-Boat in a country that got hammered by U-Boats in a city that was the centre of the Atlantic wharves was a challenge on every level. Getting all the stakeholders on board was a huge task; and logistically transporting the U-Boat itself was a massive challenge. The boat itself was 76.76 metres long and weighed 1200 tonnes and we couldn’t transport by road. We chopped it up into seven pieces and floated it down the river Mersey and put it all back together again. It was the most complicated thing I have ever done but it was worth every moment because it created a true attractor for Liverpool.

3. Lastly, the challenge here in Queensland is that of distance. If you go from Brisbane to Cairns it’s 20 hours and 1600km and you are only at one end of the state! If you go from Brisbane to Mt Isa, it is about 1800kms– and you are at the Western border – so distance-wise, this state is a challenge from any angle. There are also only 5 million people, with 85% of those within 50km of the coast – so the challenge is being equitable to all people across the state.

Rachel Hunter – (then) Director-General, Department of State Development, Manufacturing, Infrastructure and Planning

There have been many challenges obviously – but you don’t learn without challenge.

Challenge is a catalyst for the development of new skills and experience. I think certainly my time in TAFE, particularly in the latter years was very challenging, because the whole national policy environment was shifting, and the TAFE system was under enormous pressure to transform.

There was a strong focus on developing a competitive training market and there were many challenges associated with building a business model policy that would enable TAFE Queensland to remain viable and competitive in an increasingly complex policy, funding and market landscape

Partly in response to that, I decided that I needed to further my qualifications and enrol in an MBA to better understanding the business environment, and the strategies we would need to deploy as a system to ensure the viability and sustainability of TAFE as public training provider.

That was a challenging time, because while I was very wedded to the importance of the public training provider, I clearly understood that the system had to change to remain competitive. We as leaders had to build strong commercial capability and culture with staff who were very committed to the traditional values of the business; around skills formation, second chance education, and community accessibility. Culturally, it was a challenging adjustment.

Ian Stewart – Queensland Police Commissioner

Colleagues who have become jaded and cynical for a variety of reasons who tend to be toxic in the workplace. Over the years I have tried to persuade and mentor these individuals so that they can take responsibility for their actions and their future.

If I think back to when I started, there was very little diversity. Even the culture that worked against females was very strong, but that mirrored society; and I think it mirrored what was generally happening in society. The big changes have occurred in the past 10 to 20 years, where the true value of diversity, and not just gender diversity, but diversity in its broader scope has started coming to the front. We still have a long way to go as far as diversity is concerned, which is why I call it a journey.

Particularly in organisations like policing, there is still a strong male culture; there is no doubt about that. We are doing lots of things to try and engineer that to a better place, we have 50/50 recruiting. That alone is one initiative that I am very proud of, but it is not the only one. Our Culturally and Linguistically Diverse recruiting is an important factor within our organisation. For a long time we have targeted Indigenous recruiting with variable success but we are trying different methodologies and models all the time to try and escalate the diversity of the organisation because it is a critical factor for the future.

We still fight very strong culture and opinion, but we are an open organisation and I would rather people who have the different view to tell us so that we can work with them, and if we can’t persuade them, give them parameters to work within and if that doesn’t work, and if they are still affected by the model then we can discuss options. Our values are set by the majority and what is best for the community.

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