Tonii Skeen—excelling in two worlds

Background

Tonii Wajaay Skeen is a young Indigenous woman descended from the Yawuru Jabbir Jabbir, Bardi, Bunuba, Nyikina and Jaru peoples of the Kimberley region. At 23 years old, she already has a strong background in community development and youth work, having worked for Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, ICEA foundation and Nyamba Buru Yawuru over the last seven years. Through this, Tonii has been involved in a number of community driven initiatives in the Kimberley region – including ones focused on healthy lifestyles, suicide prevention, and youth leadership.

Jawun first met Tonii in 2015, when she was working on a Kimberley youth leadership program (featured in a 2016 Jawun case study). She stood out for her leadership ability, and her strong relationships within a highly supportive team. Jawun’s former GM Remote Regions Rose Manzini remembers how the youth leadership team organised components of the Jawun Executive Visit – with incredibly successful results: “Tonii and her team of other young people had everything sorted, from venue and catering to presentations, an icebreaker game, and a round of ‘speed dating’ so the youth leaders could meet all the Execs – it was so impressive!”

In late 2017 Tonii was mentored by Courtney Devine, seconded to Nyamba Buru Yawuru from Downer. Around then, Jawun connected with Tonii to offer her a place on the second ever Indigenous Corporate Leadership (ICL) or ‘reverse secondment’ program. Tonii recalls that her first reaction was to turn it down because she felt too young and not ready. But Courtney encouraged her – “Grab the opportunity! You’ve got the smarts!” – until Tonii was convinced. She had a lot to plan, not least ensuring that in her tight-knit family, her mother and siblings were prepared for her to be in Sydney for nine months, but she managed.

This case study depicts how Tonii’s leadership ability has grown through ICL, and through Jawun’s Stories of Female Leadership network.

Approach

During the nine-month secondment, Tonii worked across several teams within CBA and gained practical experience in many areas.  With no prior experience of the corporate sector, there was much to learn.

First, Tonii gained practical insights into fundamental business areas such as strategic planning, financial planning, profit and loss reporting. She gained firsthand understanding of approaches including visual management tools and 90 day workplans. In line with her goal to learn more about corporate governance, Tonii also spent time at the business and risk academy receiving “one on one mentoring in the fundamentals of business opportunity and risk, in corporate governance, and in how to really understand financials”. Throughout, she kept in mind how this could be applied back in Broome.

NAIDOC Week was a chance for Tonii to strengthen her event management skills. She organised a CBA breakfast event to mark the 2018 theme, ‘Because of Her, We Can’. Tonii admits this was a step change from her prior experience, remarking on the huge lead-in times, approval processes and extensive planning and documentation required in an organisation of this size. Her manager Julienne Price (Head of Social Impact Sector Banking) remembers proudly how it was not only valuable learning for Tonii, but also a chance for her to shine and add real value:

“The event was amazing and the people there absolutely loved it. A lot of people gained a much richer understanding. Tonii’s strengths came out and it was a real opportunity for me to see those.”

Julienne and Noel Prakash, Tonii’s designated ‘buddy’ at CBA and National Manager, Indigenous Banking, worked hard to structure Tonii’s learning experience as it unfolded. They were adaptable and worked on the principle, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. With the chance to do it again, they feel they would give more time to understanding more in advance about Tonii’s experience, learning objectives, and future professional position. At the time it was an iterative process, shored up by strong relationships between Tonii and both Julienne and Noel.

Responding to Tonii’s interest in design thinking, it was suggested she spent time at CBA’s Innovation Lab, attending masterclasses and working on projects. Tonii instantly related to the design thinking methodology she learned and saw its potential value. As she puts it, “Back home we see a lot of complex issues but we don’t have any framework to work through them, and that’s often when it becomes chaotic and too hard.”

So profound was the Innovation Lab experience that Tonii travelled with Noel back to Broome to co-facilitate a community ‘design jam’ focused on Indigenous business growth. This was also a chance for CBA to refine a more participatory approach shaped significantly by Tonii’s inputs.

Tonii also prepared a number of reports for the Indigenous Business Banking Team and learnt to extract key information from sources and formulate precise reports used by Noel and senior managers to inform key decisions.

Finally, Tonii spent time working with the ‘Women in Focus’ team as they looked at barriers faced by Indigenous women in business. Initially, research was to include phone calls with women in Sydney, but with Tonii’s guidance and emphasis on a truly participatory approach, this extended to a series of ‘yarns’ with Indigenous women across the country.

Outcomes

Tonii approached the nine months of learning, including relocation far from home, with courage and determination. Through CBA’s support, she feels that a secondment in which she stepped far outside her comfort zone enabled a very wide spectrum of learning. As well as a raft of new skills, Tonii adds, “I got to constantly learn to be open and vulnerable in the team I was placed in.”

Overall, Tonii’s leadership confidence grew. Contrary to most who would consider the small town of Broome a place that allows time for reflection, for Tonii ‘the concrete jungle’ as she describes Sydney was her respite. For nine months, Tonii was afforded time to think about her plan for the next five to ten years; about how she, as a young person, can effectively challenge the status quo and be a role model for other young people in her community by passing on her skills and knowledge, new and old.  As she put it, “I took this time for myself, for Yawuru, for the community. It has confirmed my worth, what I want to do, and how I want to do it.”

Tonii also made a very significant contribution to CBA. This was through the NAIDOC Week breakfast attended by 80 people, with the Women in Focus Group of nearly 200 people, and at the Innovation Lab, and through interactions with her team; challenging and evolving the standard ways of engagement to ensure a participatory approach. Julienne describes the breadth of this impact: “Tonii worked with a lot of teams, and strengthened a number of programs with her inputs. They have better understanding of Indigenous ways of working and have been able to bring these into their programs to achieve greater impact.  Then there’s us personally, probably a hundred people, having a much deeper understanding of Indigenous culture and aspirations.” She concludes:

“You can go to courses but that just doesn’t cut it compared to how much you learn with someone like Tonii on your team – someone willing to open up and share stories about how it is back home, things completely foreign to the average Australian.”

Next steps

Back in Broome, Tonii is putting in place plans and timeframes to achieve the goals she has set herself. This may include a university degree, or other learning, to enable her dream to empower her people and be a leader in her community. Her new confidence was remarked on by Howard Pedersen, Principal Policy Advisor Government of Western Australia, who has worked with Tonii in several roles and is a firm supporter: “The ICL secondment has really given Tonii an optimistic view of what she could do in the future.”

Meanwhile the Jawun ICL program is entering its third year, bringing the total number of Indigenous participants to eight.