Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Notes from the Communities in Control Conference in Melbourne, May 29-30, 2011

Women Achieving and Flourishing

A Pre-Conference Seminar with Christine Nixon (Our Community & Women’s Leadership Institute Australia)

I am keeping my promise to report on my experiences at the ‘Communities in Control Conference’ in Melbourne. ‘Our Community’ has so far organised this conference for nine years but this year is my first time as a participant. It is really exciting.

My partaking was made possible with the kind support of Qld Health and Caddies Independent Minds, Drug and Alcohol prevention program for Youth-at-Risk which is funded with Qld Health CHIC funding. Already at the pre-conference seminar I was able to meet people who work with youth in other parts of the country.

From the start, it was a crash course in networking. As I was early to the seminar and did not know anybody, I needed to make friends and fast. Luckily for me all the other ‘early birds’ in our table were chatty and willing to share. Quickly we found that we all were keen users of the social media as a vehicle for networking. It gave a lively start to introductions all around.

By the time the official seminar started our table had found that we represented different States: Queensland, Victoria, Canberra, South and Western Australia and worked in a wide variety of services from fundraising and education to aged care and youth support services.

We established that we had all come to the seminar because we had been inspired by Christine Nixon’s work as a former Victorian Police Commissioner and as the Chief for the Victorian Bush Fire Recovery.

Previously, I had also been told by another participant that this particular seminar opened up a new area, namely leadership skills as a pre-conference seminar for ‘Our Community’. “Usually”, I was told, “the seminars have been about fundraising or grant writing.”

This one was particularly aimed for women and 120 of them turned up as duly invited to the seminar. It shows that there is a great call for this kind of seminar and that it was a good move on the part of the organisers. Each table had approximately eight places. They made a working group each.

At first we were introduced to ‘Chatham House Rules’ by our facilitator, Christine Nixon. They mean: ‘What is said in the room, stays in the room’. In her outline, she was adamant that the seminar would be a safe place for personal discussions and that respect would be shown to all participants.

First discussion:

Known achievers in female leadership.

We were asked who the female leaders we admired the most are and what qualities we think they could give us. Obviously Christine Nixon was high up there as an admired female leader.

I found it interesting that many people mentioned their local female council members and Mayors as most admirable. Obviously many also admired Joan Kirner. Not so many world leaders were mentioned apart from the Queen and Oprah Winfrey. Mostly, it is those near us like our own teachers and managers that make the deepest impact on us and so influence our future. Observably, I was the only one who counted in legendary feminist world leaders apart from Indira Gandhi, who was mentioned. No other historical leaders were mentioned.

Here is a summary of how an admired female leader looks like according to the seminar.


• Has lived the work and the family balance
• Has a belief system and a conviction
• Is authentic
• Is collaborative
• Is very respectful of others
• Uses a gentle form of influence
• Advocates
• Is compassionate
• Is resilient and determined but does not have to take on male traits to achieve it
• Translates ‘mothering’ as a leadership quality

Second discussion:

How to grow to become a good leader?

Christine outlined a woman’s possible pathway to a leadership role. In many cases she used herself as an example. It is why we went there, to learn from her experience as a for-runner for female leadership with heart in the tough male world of the Australian Police Force. In my observation she exhibited a quality of inspiring positivity which was recognised by the audience. We were hanging on her every word.

According to Christine, the early stages of leadership growth are shaped by the personal environment. The people around us influence us and show us the way. Often we just ‘go along'.

Very soon, though, an aspiring leader shows itself in the form of the development of direction and the show of resilience with the blending of values. ”A leader learns to lead” and soon has her own voice.

An ever growing leader blends her experience with reflection on her own and other’s behaviour. It is a tough thing to do, but the learning curve is worth the trouble. There is always a way to work through the tough parts. For Christine Nixon it is: “Layering the experience, having a go at it and learning from it.”

In the handout, we are recommended to read R. Kegan and L. Laslow’s (2009) book Immunity to Change (Harvard Business Press) as a practical source for good leadership strategy.

They say that a good leader:

• Reflects on their own and other’s behaviour
• Is able to handle contradictions
• Is flexible and can see both sides of the argument
• Leads to learn
• Makes sense of the situation at the time
• Selects, focuses and drives forward
• Is able to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’
• Is openly ready to take on information and different points of view

Third discussion:

Managing people means ‘unlocking potential’

In this part we discussed the kind of managers we have encountered. On average it is found that each person has experienced two inspiring managers in her life. They are the ones we can ‘walk over hot coals’ for.


• Have strong rapport with us
• Have presented us with a safe environment
• Are worthy of our trust and respect
• Are empowered
• Care about our professional development
• Did what they say they do
• Show patience and humour
• Are inclusive

Mentoring is a way to enhance women’s leadership traits. It was highly recommended as a positive action. It ensures the continuity for female leadership. Emotional support is also recognised as important.

Christine highlights a survival strategy: “Don’t take yourself too seriously and focus on financial, physical and emotional wellbeing. Have a plan.”

Fourth discussion:

Focus on ourselves

We think about what barriers we face in achieving a leadership role. We find there are many:

• Being afraid
• Imagination
• Circumstances
• A limiting self-belief system
• Fear of success
• Lack of self-discipline

Christine asks us: “Has anyone ever told you that you are never going to amount to anything?” Many participants have experienced this. Many find it a constant struggle to overcome the barriers.

Christine tells us her favourite line on how to endure: “This is not a sprint, it is a marathon!” She has heard it from some wise person in her past as a comment. It pretty well reflects everyone’s idea about overcoming the huge barriers women in general still face in leadership roles is many work environments. I certainly see that as a long-time advocate for women’s and human rights.

Luckily this seminar has demonstrated that most of us can name an admired female leader more close to home. One we can learn from and mirror, if we are so inspired.

Concluding remarks

When Christine was asked about her management style, she said that she uses ‘the shared leadership model’. She also translates the ‘good parenting model’ of “I do not like that behaviour but I love you” in her leadership practice. She tells us she used ‘support and pressure’ model in order to get results as a Police Commissioner. As an example she tells us about working towards lowering the number of stolen cars in Victoria, or lowering the number of domestic violence cases. She tells us to think about “what is real” and to have ‘a sense of yourself.” It is really beneficial to think about who you are. It is also important to admit to mistakes.

About criticisms and those who want to put us down Christine advices: “Have a look at who your critics are.” There is a need to make a decision about the people criticising you, to decide if listening to them is beneficial for the direction of your future.

Lastly Christine quotes Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself because everybody else is taken.” This is good advice to us all.

To say the least, I enjoyed this seminar very much. It was a really inspiring experience and gave me a chance for reflection. Many fellow participants along with me liked the fact that we got the Certificate of Recognition at registration, right at the start. Only showing up was enough to be recognised.

I am really looking forward to reading Christine’s book. It is called Fair Cop and comes out in August.

Since this report is put on my blog a few days after the seminar, due to the Internet failure in my hotel, I can also report that I had many follow up conversations on this seminar. I had these conversations not only with the participants on my table but also with others, including men who the participants have talked enthusiastically to about the seminar. What did strike me the most was the accuracy of the proceedings that was recounted back to me.

It is very positive to know that the seminar had an effect beyond the day it was held.

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