Walking in two worlds: accelerating Indigenous leaders into executive roles

In 2017 the AGSM @ UNSW Business School was chosen by the Elevate RAP (Reconciliation Action Plan) Working Group to pilot a new program – the Emerging Indigenous Executive Leaders Program (EIELP). The program was founded to accelerate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander talent into executive leadership roles – combatting the leadership gap identified in recent research from the Australian Human Rights Commission that found a mere 0.4% of senior figures in Australian workplaces are Indigenous Australians.

Two years in, the program has already demonstrated incredible impact – for the individuals participating, their workplaces and for broader communities.

“This program was an unrivalled opportunity for me to work, experience and study with other First Nations professionals, while gaining access to some of Australia’s most prominent business minds,” says Graeme Kennedy, a 2018 program graduate and Analyst at CommBank.

The EIELP covers five modules over nine months, with classroom sessions held in Melbourne, Sydney and Uluru, complemented with online coursework. It aims to empower Indigenous leaders to embrace their distinct cultural identity in their workplace to create strategic change, and prepares them to step into executive leadership roles in the future. 2019 marks the third year this program has run.

Natalee George, Assistant Director for People and Culture at the Department of Health, says the program has inspired her to understand what motivates her team to help them achieve their work and development goals – as well as her own. “I have learnt about my leadership style and gained confidence where I can now identify who I am, grounded in my identity. I know what my strengths are, and I’ve also developed the realisation that I am not far from achieving my goals.”

Making waves in the workplace

Each participant is tasked with a strategic challenge project to work on throughout the year – something they develop and implement in their workplace to create change.

Eva Freedman, AGSM Program Director of the EIELP, says the 2018 participants have implemented incredible change in their workplaces through their strategic challenges.

One participant from the ATO set out to create a support network for Indigenous employees. “He decided there needed to be more support for Indigenous employees in his organisation,” explains Freedman. “So he invited staff to nominate themselves and join a network of people who Indigenous staff could approach if they needed, and by being part of the network demonstrated their support of the ATOs Indigenous workforce.”

Staff distinguished themselves as members of the support network by wearing a beautifully designed lanyard with Aboriginal art. The results were remarkable. “He thought about 10 people would sign up – instead, he had 600 Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff members sign up,” says Freedman.

Another student, who works with Transport NSW, worked to create a memorial plaque to honour the Stolen Generation at Sydney’s Central Station. It will be unveiled by the end of the year. Central Station was a significant landmark during the Stolen Generation years, a tragic destination in the separation of children from their families.

While the course also focuses on individual improvement through learning, the change these future leaders are creating as a result is even more powerful. It is about leading wider societal improvements and initiating cultural change that permeates throughout their organisations and beyond.

Balancing Western economics with Indigenous spirituality

Mark Rose, traditionally linked to the Gunditjmara Nation and professor at RMIT, is the Academic Director who leads the program and is supported by the AGSM faculty who facilitate modules throughout the year.

The program is unique in that it draws on Western frameworks as well as Indigenous philosophies, in an approach known as ‘walking in two worlds.’ This is also reflected in the course locations, with the 2018 participants beginning their studies in Fitzroy, known as the urban heart of Aboriginal culture in Victoria. There they focused on leadership, culture and identity. And in September 2018 they met in Uluru to focus on personal effectiveness, resilience and managing change.

“It was wonderful to spend time with my colleagues in Uluru and other environments that encourage discussion around the context of the course: what it means exactly to walk in two worlds and how best can we achieve this,” says Kennedy. “The program has helped re-shape the way I think about, and approach, what it means to my Indigenous identity operating within the confines of Western frameworks.”

Opening up new avenues for leadership

Many program graduates have seen the fruits of their experience, with two 2017 grads taking up PhDs and another who moved from Rio Tinto to become General Manager for the Pilbara YMCA – her dream job.

2018 participant Natalee George also gained the confidence to test the market and applied for a Director role, with limited prior experience. She was found suitable and is on the merit list for the role. “For me this was a successful outcome – I’ve proved I’m competitive at this level and in the meantime have secured a new role that will provide me with broader experiences across HR.” Twenty-two participants from across Australia graduated from the 2018 program – up from 16 in the 2017 pilot year.

And for some, reflecting on the impact of the course will be a new journey in itself. “I believe this program creates deep seeded changes which spread more like ripples across a pond growing larger as we continue our journey and reflect on those things past,” says Kennedy.

To find out more about the Emerging Indigenous Executive Leadership Program, click here

To apply for the 2019 course, click here

Applications must be submitted to AGSM no later than Friday 8th February 2019 at 5.00pm.

Photo Credit: Joseph Mayers Photography

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