Change Agent

Thursday, July 1, 2010 - 08:54

Networking, tactics, mental discipline, teamwork, consultation and collaboration: Julia Gillard must work the gamut of leadership skills to realise her passion for making positive change. By Georgina Jerums.

Growing up in Adelaide after emigrating from Wales with her family as ten-pound Poms when she was four, Julia Eileen Gillard's interest in politics was sparked by her father, John. A psychiatric nurse who often worked overtime, John was keen for Gillard and her older sister Alison to make the most of the education opportunities on offer in Australia.

"My father would make sure we watched Four Corners and around the family dinner table we'd talk about ideas," recalls Gillard on the phone from Parliament House.

"I took that interest in public affairs with me. At university, I got involved in political campaigning against funding cutbacks to education. And I kept getting involved. That's the journey that brought me here. It's what's driven the passion, particularly the passion for change in education."

Certainly, change management is a huge driver for Gillard. Always has been. In student politics, as a partner in industrial law at Melbourne firm Slater & Gordon championing the rights of migrant clothing and textile workers, and now in Parliament.

Today, at 49, Gillard's chance to create and direct change continues, with Australia's first ever female Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education and Social Inclusion a contender for the top job.

Beyond the fact that she's got the smarts, a popular common touch and lethal debating skills, there's the 'Teflon Julia' media tag, (slightly dulled by My School overspending, her critics may crow), but also her determined stance with the Australian Education Union over the My School website/league tables debate that describes her tough leadership acumen.

Management tactics

Gillard's management catchcry is to prioritise; a must when her department employs more than 6000 people. "My mindset is 'not a day to waste'," she says. "You've got to have mental discipline. Government's a very big machine and if you didn't have a sense of priorities it would be very easy to go home having worked hard but not having done the important things."

In between getting the day's tasks done, how does she deal with the media or an aggressive Opposition when they launch a personal attack?

"Look, you've got to be passionate to live this life, passionate for change. That spurs you on and the criticism falls off the sides. But you do have to have a clear sense of self rather than being psychologically hostage to whether they're saying good things about you or bad things. The big lesson is to take the hard days with the easy days."

And to realise that the modern parliament works a relentless 24/7 cycle.

"You never say, 'I've got it all right now'. You've got to get up every morning and think about it again," explains Gillard. That means beyond the reforms she is now delivering in schools, she is also considering higher education reform and policy upgrades for pay equity and family-friendly workplaces.

Negotiating table

Given the sheer scale of her job, Gillard believes it's critical to be seen forging the way while also investing real faith in her team. Resilience to make potentially unpopular decisions is also required.

"You've got to be able to take people with you, so that requires genuinely listening and consulting," she says. "But when the process of listening and consulting is done, it does require the capacity to make hard decisions and show determination and fortitude in delivering on those decisions."

One such consultation was the Fair Work Act, passed in April 2009 after countless colourful meetings with unions and employers. "We picked up good ideas wherever we found them. And while no one walked away saying, 'Gee, I got everything I wanted', I think everyone walked away saying, 'That was a fair process and it was good to be involved in, and we did get to make a difference'. Ultimately, the decision rested with me for the legislation that we presented to Parliament, working with all my Labor Caucus colleagues, but I think you are enriched by giving people a fair go to express their views."

Also, at day's end, whatever decisions have been made, Gillard has another management weapon: she can readily separate work and private life.

"I can switch off. When I'm home with Tim, [Mathieson, her partner], we'll have a glass of wine and a chat. I like having baths after a hard day. Just simple things. The more publicly recognised you become, the more precious home time is."

Work the room

Networking continually with communities, academia and business is easy to facilitate because the Government's lure of money (to fund projects) talks, according to Gillard, and each person she meets may be able to share an idea of note.

Gillard calls those instances "quality transactions", where she probes people for ideas she can take away. The flow-on is the chance to be innovative in policy making and "beg, borrow and steal good ideas from wherever we find them".

As examples of innovation, Gillard cites the Brotherhood of St Laurence, who are training long-term unemployed, and Abbotsford Biscuits in Melbourne, a Jesuit social services outfit equipping recently arrived arrived refugees with work skills.

Once such ventures are identified, the Government can work out how to best reinforce and upscale them, notes Gillard. It's the sort of management innovation that fits the Government's brief of social inclusion, about making sure more people get to share in the wealth of the nation.

On gender

In both politics and business, Australia is moving through different stages concerning women in positions of power, observes Gillard.

"In the past, there was more of an emphasis on the one woman who was going to be first to do something. We're moving beyond that now to a sense that it's good for everyone, men and women, for there to be balance and quality in teams. There's obviously more to do, particularly at CEO and board level, but I'm really optimistic about the capacity for change. We can get there."