Indigenous Corporate Leadership Program – Tonii Skeen at Commonwealth Bank

Tonii Skeen,
Youth Development Project Officer, Nyamba Buru Yawuru

Associate Not-For-Profit Banking, CBA (April-Decemer 2018)

“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 Wajaay Skeen is a young Indigenous woman descended from the Yawuru Jabbir Jabbir, Bardi, Bunuba, Nyikina and Jaru peoples of the Kimberley region. Tonii was one of three participants in Jawun’s 2018 Indigenous Corporate Leadership (ICL) program, a ‘reverse secondment’ of Indigenous leaders to leading corporate companies. She previously worked at Nyamba Buru Yawuru, with a focus around healthy lifestyles, suicide prevention and youth leadership. Tonii’s ICL secondment was at Commonwealth Bank (CBA), where she sought to gain business and professional skills to bring back to Yawuru and her community in Broome. This involved relocating to Sydney, a major undertaking and source of significant learning.


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 tools for visual management 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 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.

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.


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:  

“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.”

After ICL

After completing the ICL program in December 2018, Tonii went back to Broome. She is putting in place plans, goals and timeframes to achieve the aspirations she has set herself. This may include a university degree, or other learning, to enable Tonii’s dream to empower her people and be a leader in her community.