Frances Crimmins’ keynote address – 2017 Australian Leadership Excellence Awards

1 September 2017

The Australian Leadership Excellence Awards celebrate the contributions and achievements of outstanding leaders and managers on a national scale. They bring together individuals whose vision, skill and integrity distinguish them from the crowd and inspire others to succeed.

On Thursday 31st August, YWCA Canberra Executive Director, Frances Crimmins, delivered a keynote address at the 2017 ACT Regional Final of the Australian Leadership Excellence Awards. As the 2016 ACT Leader of the Year, Frances’ speech was a call to action, urging leaders to consider women at all levels of the decision-making process, and to lead with courage.

Below is a transcript of Frances’ speech, as delivered on the night.

Good evening.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on, and pay my respect to their elders past, present and future.

Thank you to AIML for inviting me to provide the keynote address this evening, at this important leadership event celebrating leaders and trail blazers in our communities, workplaces, and businesses, who are challenging the status quo of leadership today.

In the briefing that I received for tonight’s event, I was asked to touch on a range of leadership qualities and skills, and paint a picture of the state of leadership in Australia.

I was also asked to put forward my view on where leadership should be heading, and how the esteemed finalists and winners of tonight’s awards are contributing to this vision.

So, before I delve in, I think it’s important to note that my white, able-bodied privilege frames my values and opinions. I have a safe home to live in, I have two children, a loving family, I live well.

I like to draw attention to this privileged position when I speak publicly, as it’s something that is often overlooked by people who are lucky enough to possess it.

This includes people in positions of power, who have the ability to address the complex intersections of disadvantage experienced by many people in our community – be it due to their gender identity, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, religion, physical or mental capability, or simply their appearance.

As the Executive Director of YWCA Canberra, one of the longest standing women’s organisations in the ACT, I have the privilege of continuing the work of the wonderful Y women who came before me, who worked tirelessly for the last 88 years to make our city a more equal, safe and inclusive place for all.

Our vision is women shaping our communities.

Why women? Because we know that when women hold positions of leadership in our governments, businesses, families and communities – everyone is better off – plus, women make great leaders!

In my role I hear from many leaders who are not prepared to accept the status quo – instead they challenge structural barriers, transform the people they work with, and are bold in their efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive vision for leadership in their organisations.

Now, this is a celebratory occasion, and today I have met many authentic leaders who are transforming their organisations and communities.

But – we do have a way to go to improve the leadership landscape in Australia.

The state of leadership at a global level is an unfortunate reflection of many of the issues we face here in Australia.

So, while I will talk to you about some solutions based on my own views and experience, it is time in this country for some truth telling.

At this point in time, we are largely maintaining a leadership identity built on a history of patriarchy and colonisation.

We must rebuild the leadership paradigm to reflect our communities’ expectations, and the diverse society we are today in modern Australia.

In order to move forward, we must first acknowledge our current leadership legacy is one that is built on exclusivity, privilege, and power held by few.

Yes – there have been waves of progression in leadership, however we really have not come far enough.

We need leaders of today to embrace and value difference.

I’m talking about the kind of leaders who are brave and recognise that difference contributes rather than degrades, leaders who have the integrity to be a transformational change agent, leaders who have the self-awareness to challenge their own paradigms of leadership identity, leaders who have humility, and who are accountable.

Disappointingly, we continue to reward those who maintain the status quo.

I understand the psychology around why negative news sells. But we don’t exactly give journalists much of an alternative to report on in terms of the actions of our current leaders.

Our political, public, corporate and for purpose leaders, continue to provide an endless supply of stories of corruption, unethical decision making, fear and divisiveness, and profiteering at the cost of the most vulnerable.

So as a society what can we do to set the bar higher?

Well, tonight we are celebrating leaders who are setting the bar higher.

It’s important to say at the outset that leadership comes in various forms and roles, and some of you may not have even identified yourself as a leader until the nomination hit your inbox.

This evening all of the nominees have been acknowledged by either peers, staff, their boss or their clients. You have demonstrated ethical leadership, insight and influencing and making a positive contribution to the people you lead, whether at the grass roots level, or internationally.

Thank you for sharing your leadership journey so openly with the judges – we have learnt from you.

In thinking about all the things that I believe are important to me and what makes a leader effective, I find it useful to reflect on what leadership is not:

  • Leadership is not synonymous with popularity
  • Leadership does not make you the most important person
  • Leadership does not mean getting it right all the time (and that’s okay – it’s how you address mistakes that’s the most important thing).

But what is important about leadership to me is that:

  • Leadership takes courage
  • Leadership styles are all unique, as are the skillsets that come along with different leaders
  • To survive in leadership roles, you need to retain your sense of humour.

I believe your leadership journey and skills never stop developing.

I have a trusted group of peers I regularly chat to and discuss my experiences, learning, and challenges with. This is an important part of my reflective practice regarding my actions and decisions, especially given that my actions and decisions will affect the organisation that employs 300 people and provides services to so many in our community including our most vulnerable community members.

An organisation is much bigger than one person, but the actions of an organisational leader will undoubtedly impact that organisation’s success.

I am fortunate in that I can directly contribute to an issue I am very passionate about – promoting and sustaining women’s leadership, and pushing for a gender equal society to improve everyone lives – both women and men.

At YWCA Canberra, we believe that women’s unique perspectives and experiences must be heard, and that developing the leadership of women, young women and girls is fundamental to advancing a more equal and just society.

Research and experience tells us that if women are able to participate equally in employment, and have safe, secure, and healthy lives, this has a positive impact on all of society in economic, social and welfare terms.

Increasing womens’ participation isn’t all about the money (although this does improve the bottom line), it is about broadening the talent pool and embracing diversity.

But why start with gender equality, when we’re talking about enhancing the state of leadership?

Well, the impact of gender inequality in Australia is far reaching, and you only need to look at the current literature to see how it continues to play out in our society.

I’m not going to recite the statistics, they are shameful.

Rather, I’m going to remind you all of the day when the Queen last came to town, and was greeted at our airport by the former Governor General Quentin Bryce, the former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the former ACT Chief Minister, Katie Gallagher.

This day was a stark interruption to the status quo, it was a moment I will cherish, and it is one that sadly I do not think I will see again in my lifetime.

But achieving gender equality isn’t just about women. Our current unequal status negatively impacts men.

Men can face discrimination or disapproval when taking on career paths, caring responsibilities and activities traditionally reserved for women.

For example, men account for only 5% of the early childhood education and care workforce and are radically under-represented in the maternal child and health workforce. This creates challenges for men seeking out careers in these industries.

While many men want to take more equal responsibility in caring for children or parents, workplace practices and gender norms often prevent or discourage them from taking extended parental leave or from working flexibly.

We know that men who have better access to flexible work are more productive in their jobs, report higher work performance, cope better with higher workloads, have fewer absences and have lower levels of personal stress and burnout.

As Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner so eloquently puts it:

“It’s time for the men, who by and large hold the positions of power in our community, to step up beside women to advance gender equality. Change needs everyone and will benefit us all.”

But you don’t have to work in a women’s organisation to make a contribution to gender equality and excellence in leadership. One of the most powerful statements you can make as an emerging or established leader is by “walking the walk”.

If you’re looking to enhance your workplace culture, diversity or attract more women into leadership roles within your organisation – start with you.

As a parent of two school-aged children, I make a point of demonstrating to all my staff how I contribute to both work and family commitments. For example:

  • I take time during the work day to attend important school/family events, as they arise and openly communicate that as the reason for not being in the office (internally and externally)
  • I work from home when possible, for example when one of my children is unwell
  • I arrange my annual leave around school holidays
  • I schedule key management meetings during school hours
  • I ensure no internal meetings go beyond 5pm to allow carers travel time to get to childcare facilities, including after school care, by the standard close time of 6pm.

You can do this without a specific policy or program in place, these are simple actions!

But, it is important that your teams know that these are not privileges reserved for only those in the upper ranks of your organisation.

I would like to invite you, as well as the finalists and award winners tonight to consider what action you will take to help build and support women’s leadership to see an end to gender inequality.

I also wish to congratulate all the finalists and winners for their commitment to effective and outstanding leadership, and for challenging the status quo – there is a lot of work for us yet to do.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with some wise words to ponder, from former YWCA Canberra Patron, and former Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, The Hon. Dame Quentin Bryce AD CVO, who said:

“It is what we each do in our own lives and families and workplaces that ultimately determines the critical mass that moves us towards or away from change.”

Thank you for listening.

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