SoFL – A network of women connected in two-way learning for leadership

Background

Since 2001, Jawun has facilitated significant two-way learning and connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. Over 3,000 corporate and government employees have worked alongside Indigenous leaders, organisations and communities through secondments, and almost 1,000 senior corporate and government leaders have been connected with Indigenous leaders through Executive Visits. Through its approach, Jawun has realised the power of meaningful connections between individuals from Indigenous, corporate, philanthropic and government sectors. Over the years, outcomes have included firm friendships, fruitful exchanges of skills and learning, and some powerful partnerships and alliances. But in 2015, Jawun observed that many of these alliances were between men. It asked ‘How can Jawun foster Indigenous female leadership through collaboration with corporate and government partners?’

In response, the Stories of Female Leadership Network was created. The desire to strongly connect some of Australia’s leading women led to what is now one of Jawun’s key initiatives for strengthening a sustainable pipeline of Indigenous leadership.

After a luncheon and discussion panel in 2015 with 25 women from community, corporate and government backgrounds, it was clear that there was enough common purpose to grow the network. In 2016, around 40 women gathered to workshop ideas for the future of the network. A common desire was for immersive experiences where strong connection, collaboration and cultural exchange could take place. The following year, 40 female leaders came together in the birthplace of Jawun, Cape York, for a convention named Jalbu Jalbu, ‘the strength of women coming together’. Over three days, the group agreed workstreams and created activation plans to fulfil the agreed-on vision of ‘unlocking female leadership for a better nation.’

Today, Stories of Female Leadership (SoFL) is a network of over 250 influential female leaders from diverse backgrounds and from a cross-section of community, corporate and government sectors, who come together to invest in their own leadership development and to create pathways for the next generation of female leaders.

Approach

As a result of the 2017 convention, specific areas of work have been progressed including an immersion program developed by members of the Leadership Development workstream. The purpose of the program is to expose SoFL members to different experiences, environments and people to enhance their leadership skills over a two or three-day immersion in an identified workplace.

Cath Ingram (Chair, KPMG Canberra) and Kirsty Broderick (CEO, Cape York Land Council) were the first to pilot this program. They shared their experience with the network at the 2018 SoFL convention in the East Kimberley, named Gawooleng (‘women’ in the local Mirriwoong Gajerrong language).

There, Fiona Djerrkura heard of the immersion program. Fiona is a Wangurri woman from North East Arnhem Land. She is part of the senior leadership team at Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation managing a team of community social workers across the Gove peninsular. In 2017, Fiona participated in the Jawun Emerging Leaders program, which connected her to the Stories of Female Leadership network.

Over the three days in the East Kimberley, Fiona found a natural connection with fellow SoFL member Suzi Hullick, who works for Westpac in Darwin. After the convention Suzi reached out to Fiona to extend an invitation for Fiona to spend two days with her and her team. There was no structure, the aim was simply for Fiona to ‘walk in Suzi’s shoes’ and for the two to spend time learning and sharing ideas with each other.

Fiona shared that she felt at a crossroads in her career and was taking time to reflect on the strengths and limitations of her own leadership style. Suzi knew how complex Fiona’s many roles in her community were, admired her clear strengths, and looked forward to continuing their conversations about leadership and different forms of influence.

Over the two days Fiona shadowed Suzi in her role as National Manager of Indigenous Business (as well as Westpac State General Manager, Commercial Banking SA/NT). It was a busy time that saw them attend six to eight meetings a day – on commercial banking in general, Indigenous banking in particular, and a range of Westpac Group initiatives.

Outcomes

Originally unsure what she learning she might take from a big bank back to an Aboriginal community health organisation, Fiona found herself learning from Suzi’s team management style and the way she actively invested in organisational culture. In one tangible example, Fiona witnessed a regular ‘team huddle’ that demonstrated personal engagement, milestone celebration and agenda-setting. She saw a clear opportunity to adopt a practice that could add value to her own organisation, Miwatj Health.

In turn, Suzi sought Fiona’s feedback and maximised the chance to learn from ‘someone from the outside looking in’. As she explained,

“I’m always trying to improve my leadership style, a different perspective is always enlightening. It was a two-way process and there were some really thought-provoking conversations between us that I quite often think about. We talked a lot about influence, Fiona is very much an influencer”.

Cultural competency was something the two discussed at length. Fiona shared her experience from a community perspective, including on certain product marketing pieces. She brought valuable insights on the tone of the language used, and matching product offerings to the needs of community. She reflected with Suzi on the structure and skills of her own team at Miwatj Health, and how it had been formulated to respond to the needs of the community it serves. Suzi pledged that when next thinking about recruitment, and appointing people to roles, she will be asking “What would the people I’m trying to serve want?”

The two-way learning and reflection made it a validating process for both sides. Suzi reflected, “It was reassuring that I can still provide some insight and support to others, and can still learn things as well.” Calling Suzi “a true inspiration”, Fiona’s learning from the two days affirmed she was on the right track:

I am at a stage of my career where I am progressing and taking on more responsibility, and I was feeling a bit alone in that space. Suzi inspired me, through observing her in her work and through the conversations that we had. It’s been really helpful having someone validate my thinking and my aim to move forward and take on more responsibility.

The experience has also given me tools to be a better leader – ideas and frameworks that are going to help me be the best manager for my team, particularly around supporting staff and sustaining a Yolngu workforce. I’ve got cultural expertise, and now through Suzi I have a stronger understanding of the business side.”

Next steps

Fiona and Suzi stay in touch regularly. Both continue to reflect on the conversations and insights shared, and how to bring positive change and influence to their organisations. In Westpac’s Indigenous Banking team, Suzi is implementing learnings around serving remote and regional Indigenous customers. At Miwatj Health, Fiona plans to implement a weekly team huddle not only across her team, but the whole organisation. In late 2019, Suzi will spend two days with Fiona in North East Arnhem Land and at Miwatj Health. This second phase of the immersion will give Suzi more insight into Fiona’s roles both in community and at Miwatj Health. Their two-way learning is set to continue. And through Stories of Female Leadership, meaningful connections and two-way learning for many others is also underway.