by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Flexibility shouldn’t be a stretch

‘I’d hate to think you’re using the Department as light entertainment’.

This sneering comment came from my manager as he knocked back my request for an additional four months leave-without-pay. I’d been back at work for a few months following the birth of my first child but due to personal circumstances, I needed some more time away from the office.

This incident was two decades ago when I worked for a government department as a young research scientist. Now, in 2018 when it comes to flexible working arrangements, I’d like to think things have changed somewhat since the 1990s.

That particular manager held the view that women working part-time in the workplace were a drain on resources and that I ‘obviously’ wasn’t committed to my scientific career if I wanted to access flexible work arrangements. He failed to understand that workplace flexibility actually delivers benefits all round; not just for employees but also the employer.

Bring on the Benefits

Earlier this year, a government report on Flexible work, good for business? quantified the significant benefits of flexible work strategies. The Nous Group was engaged by the Victorian Government to quantify the costs and benefits of more flexible work strategies. They reported that organisations can experience a net benefit of as much as 4% of their revenue as a result of flexible work conditions.

These benefits came from improvements in labour productivity, recruitment, retention and reduced absenteeism. The report noted that these benefits are significant and in some organisations:

can amount to tens of millions of dollars each year. Replicated across the entire economy, the net benefit could be in the billions. (Nous Group)

Equality enabler

You only have to look around your own office or ask a sample of your friends about conditions at their workplace to know that flexible work practices are a popular and valued part of many people’s employment conditions.

Strategies such as varied start and finish times, or flexible leave arrangements (like 48/52) can support employees with carer responsibilities as a result of children or elderly parents. It’s a vital way to help carers manage all the tasks they need to get done each day such as meeting medical appointments that inevitably fall within work hours.

Part-time work or time-in-lieu can help volunteers manage the juggle of paid work with their other responsibilities. Think of the parent-coach who is able to leave the office at 3 pm to help with after-school sports.

Working from home or job-sharing can also assist people recovering from ill health to transition back to employment or help senior staff adjust their hours as they move towards retirement.

Flexible work strategies not only make good economic sense, they advance equality in the workplace for everyone.


Talk or walk?

The positive news is that in 2018 more workplaces are implementing flexible working strategies. The latest national data found 70.7% of organisations reporting to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) have a formal flexibility policy and/or strategy in place.

The not-so-good news is that there is still a need for considerable progress in terms of genuine action to deliver workplace flexibility for all employees. Unfortunately many employers still just view the issue as ‘allowing part-time hours for mums’. This reinforces gender stereotypes and according to WGEA, results in men feeling judged when they seek to consider more flexibility in their working hours and then disengaging from the opportunities on offer.

If you have a flexible work strategy in place, it may be interesting for you to consider does your organisation’s action reflect their talk? WGEA reports that only about 1-in-4 organisations with flexible work strategies actually provide training for managers on flexible work and just 1-in-20 set targets for employee engagement in flexible work.

This ‘action gap’ is impeding progress and it’s probably costing your business money. (To find out how much check out the FlexiWork Calculator). The WGEA Manager Flexibility toolkit explains how to turn the talk into action.

Entertained AND committed

In the end, there was a happy outcome to my request for flexible leave.

As a new mother requesting a few extra months leave without pay, I eventually received approval following my appeal to the HR manager. Like many employees satisfied with flexible work conditions, I went onto to work for that organization as an engaged, committed (and entertained!) employee for another 15 years.

That sneering manager has long since retired, but the Department where I once worked (now called DEWLP) this year reported an annual saving of $31 million dollars as a result of their workplace flexibility programs. Thankfully many Department heads now value workplace flexibility because it’s not only the right thing to do for equality, but it also make good business sense.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for equality in local government through her work as a consultant and coach.

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The myth of merit

Australians. We like to think we’re a nation of decent people, ready to give someone a fair go as long as they are prepared to ‘have a crack’. We also like to think we have good ‘bullshit radars’ meaning we are not afraid to call it out when someone is not being ‘fair dinkum’.

I’m having a go. It’s time to call out the term ‘merit’ as bullshit.

I’m fired up after attending the Equal Future forum this week, run by the Municipal Association of Victoria. Coincidentally, the same day the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) reported that the gender pay gap for women continues to sit at 79% of men’s salary.

Speaking at the MAV Forum, Catherine Fox, Walkley-Award winning author of  Stop Fixing Women spoke about the way ‘Merit’ is a term that unleashes our cognitive biases such as unconscious bias and affinity bias.

The Myth of Merit

This is what’s wrong with the notion of ‘Merit’. It might sound like an objective filter for sifting out those who deserve a promotion, reward, accolades. But, as Fox argues, it’s time we scrutinised the term and better understood how it is an insidious barrier to gender equality.

According to Fox, merit an elusive, subjective term that is really just ‘smoke and mirrors. The danger of this concept she says is that

merit is a self-reinforcing concept for those in charge (Fox)

When this happens, like-employs-like. The ‘mini-me’ in corporate Australia results in scenarios such as men apparently being ‘nine times more meritorious than females as CEOs in the ASX 200’. In other professions, such as Law, women make up to two-thirds of graduates yet fill only one-in-10 senior counsel and Queen’s counsel positions according to the Law Council of Australia.

We often hear that ‘he got it on merit’ whether it’s a job or an award. Fox says the perpetuation of this term is handy as ‘it doesn’t rock the boat … and perpetuates inertia’. In short, the term is an excuse used not to take action to address inequality.

If you still think the predominance of men in most spheres of leadership, corporate Australia, politics and holders of Australian Honours is as a result of merit, then what you are actually saying is that men are inherently more capable, deserving, skilled and talented than women in those same professions and industries. Really?

Personally, I don’t think so. Taking a small step to address inequality, last year I co-founded a movement Honour A Woman to address inequality in the Australian Honours where men consistently receive 70% of the awards. After 43 years on inequality in this area, we are finally making some progress.

The Gender Equality Paradox

Turns out that in addition to the Myth of Merit, there is also the Gender Equality Paradox.

Remember last time you heard someone rave about how great their organisation is at gender equality? Turns out that when the evidence is analysed, they’re probably not.

For example, your organisations may have employed a Gender Equality Officer. So far so good. But look closer. Is the position well resourced or is it merely a box-ticking exercise? She (and it nearly always is a woman) may not have much of a budget and probably works flexible hours with limited resources and lack of management support. (She’s probably also expected to organise the International Women’s Day breakfast and other tokenistic tasks such as sourcing a few ‘ethnic-looking’ stock photos for the annual report).

The irony is that while employers may think they deserve praise for their Gender Equality Plan the reality is there is rarely an associated action plan that makes management accountable for delivery.

There’s a level of complacency that ‘the job’s sorted’ which leads to an action gap between the rhetoric and the behaviour. That is the paradox.

This Action Gap has been highlighted by WGEA as a serious issue in Australian workplaces. In November 2018 they reported that more than half of employers (58.4%) don’t even bother to scrutinise the basic data (such as pay data) for gender pay gaps. And of the 70% of employers who say they have a policy or strategy to support gender equality, most of them didn’t back the plans up with action. For instance, only 30% of employers with plans, made managers accountable for delivery with relevant KPIs. And of those employers that had conducted a pay gap analysis, only around 18% actually reported the results upwards to their Board for action. Even when gaps were identified, only a bit over a half of employers took any action to address the gaps identified (58%).

It’s a lot of talk without real action and its time it was challenged.

We’ve stalled

Here in Australia, WGEA reports women still face considerable barriers in the workplace and that ‘we still have a long way to go’. After five years of data, the trends show ‘virtually no movement in gender segregation across Australian industries and little improvement in either access to paid parental leave or the representation of women at CEO level or on boards.

This comes on top of the 2017 WEF Global Gender Gap Report estimates that it will be another 217 years before we achieve gender parity. ARGHHHH!

Anyone else yelling with me? Or are you still asking, ‘Why does it matter’? If you need to ask why it is worth getting cross about this lack of action, I suggest you check out WGEA’s updated guide on the business case for gender equality that demonstrates the benefits to people, workforces and our country. Equality is not only the right thing to pursue, but it also makes good economic sense.

Next time you hear someone from HR boasting about their ‘fantastic Gender Equality program’ dig deeper. Ask about the data they collect that demonstrates if it’s actually making any difference.

If you are interested in practical actions you can take to address the insidious barrier of merit, check out Avoiding the merit trap, a report by Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change.

And while we are at it, let’s ban the word MERIT, which Catherine Fox jokingly said stands for

M.E.R.I.T = Mates Elevated Regardless of Intellect or Talent

Let’s talk about suitability, capability and potential for exceptional performance. Let’s challenge the paradoxes and myths and reap the benefits of a fair and equitable workplace for women, men and our country. It’s time for the talk to reflect the walk and everyone to be given a fair go.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. 

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

About to fire your CEO? Do it right!

“Our organisation is seeking a different leadership style going forward“. “The Board wishes to test the CEO market and see what’s out there”.  “The Managing Director has decided to retire.”

Sound familiar? From the leadership of this country to your local council, lately, it seems a lot of bosses are getting the flick.

Last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was rolled by his party colleagues (without much explanation). Then there was the termination of the contract of ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie by the ABC Board (for her ‘leadership style’). And now, Elon Musk has been forced to step aside as Tesla chair (because of a legal settlement).

Add to this the high level of CEO churn which has hit more than 50% of Victorian councils and it seems that ‘giving the boss the boot’ is becoming increasingly common.

If you find yourself in the position of needing to ‘move the CEO on’ would you know what to do? Or, how would you respond if your CEO drops a bombshell that they are leaving and hands you their resignation? Do you have a plan?

Most Councillors and board members at some stage of their term need to contemplate a change in the CEO. If this happens to you, get the next steps right. Otherwise, risk reputational damage to the organisation, impact staff morale and incur excessive legal costs or a media backlash.

Should you sack the boss?

Showing your CEO the exit door is not a decision to be taken lightly. On one hand, the costs to the organisation are significant. Not to mention the personal costs to your (soon-to-be-former) CEO.

Replacing a CEO is time-consuming, expensive, and potentially disruptive – the implementation of board decisions can be left in limbo, staff morale can plummet and there is always the risk that the new CEO will not perform any better. Before rushing to dismiss the CEO, the board must balance the costs of replacement against the potential benefits. Better Boards

On the other hand, if you have been elected to a local council (or appointed to a board), you have an obligation to recruit and manage the best talent possible to lead your organisation.

Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. The CEO may have a different focus for the direction of the organisation that is incompatible with the council or board’s vision. Alternatively, if you have lost faith in the CEO’s leadership or if they are under-performing, you have a duty to move them on. Especially if they have acted illegally or unprofessionally.

Do it right

If you’re contemplating sacking the CEO, here are some points to consider before putting the boot in.

  1. Plan the transition

Before the firing the CEO put these three plans in place; the CEO performance plan, a communications plan and a succession plan.

  • The CEO performance plan is the main tool to assess whether your CEO is meeting expectations.
  • Once the decision has been made, the board/council should develop a communication strategy around the announcement which will be made by the Chair/Mayor.
  • Then, ideally, the board or council will implement a succession process for either the retiring CEO to gradually transition out of the organisation or they will appoint an executive manager to step into the acting role during the recruitment process for a new CEO.

Also, consider the timing of the decision. Ideally not before or just after local government elections when stability in leadership should be a priority.

  1. Utilise the Performance Plan

The CEO Performance Plan is the evidence base which ideally informs the decision to end the CEO relationship with the organisation. Managed well, this Plan will illustrate the trends that identify problems and help to justify subsequent action to terminate a contract. For example, feedback could show a surge in staff turnover, scathing feedback from stakeholders or plummeting staff and community satisfaction results.

If the CEO is under-performing or failing to meet board/council expectations, the case should be clear and mutually agreed; the CEO needs to move on. Don’t leave it too late.

“Academic research shows boards err on the side of taking too long to change CEOs. In some cases, underperforming CEOs remain at companies for years before change is made and only leave after a crisis,” AICD 

If the CEO is planning to retire, or maybe has career ambitions elsewhere, the performance planning process can facilitate frank discussions about his/her intentions to leave. The exit can then be managed in a way that minimises disruption for the organisation.

  1. Manage the message

A communication plan is imperative to manage the messaging around the reasons why the CEO was ‘let go’.  Implement the plan with advice from communication specialists and legal and ideally, input from the ex-CEO so that his/her dignity and reputation can remain intact.

It is important to clearly explain why a CEO has been fired and to be as honest as possible in the circumstances.

The message should then be delivered with authority by the Mayor (or Chair of the board).

If you are stuck, here are some well-used phrases:

  • We are seeking a change in direction for organisation leadership
  • We’ve decided we needed to test the market and see what’s out there
  • We will not be renewing her contract as we seek a change in leadership style
  • He’s resigned for family (or personal) reasons
  • He’s accepted employment elsewhere for his career development
  • The CEO has tendered her resignation to explore other employment opportunities
  • He has decided it is time for him to retire
  1. Follow the rules

Before you fire a CEO, seek legal advice and ensure you follow applicable employment law as well as the specific clauses in the CEO contract. Check the fine print!

Ideally, have the severance package approved and ready to go. It will be a vital part of that difficult conversation the Mayor (or Chair) will need to have with the CEO to let him/her know that time is up.

Be fair in the redundancy package but avoid the legal implications of paying out too much (a mistake made by the City of Ararat Council and investigated in a state government commission of inquiry in 2017.)

  1. Have a strategy for what next

Following the announcement, the Councillors (or board) now need to consider what’s next?  At this point, the continuity of organisational operations is the main consideration.

It’s now time to pay close attention to addressing the disruptions that will inevitably occur with the changes following the termination of a CEO’s contract.

As people adjust to the change, this time can also be an opportunity to signal a refocus of the organisation.

It’s also important the Councillors (or Board members) use this time to have frank discussions and reflect on what has been learnt from the experience. For instance; is there a need to refine the CEO position description? How well were expectations communicated to the CEO through the performance plan process? How can support and feedback to the CEO be improved in the future?

You will get through this

The various stages of the grief cycle predict acceptance will eventually follow on from the initial shock and anger that may surround the news of the firing of a CEO (or the departure of one who’s been there forever).

If you find yourself in the position of having to fire the boss, you will get through the next stage with care and planning.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a consultant, coach and trainer to local government. She supports Councillors as an independent, expert adviser in the recruitment and performance management of their CEO as well as the departure. As a former Mayor, Councillor and a member of a number of boards she has first-hand experience of having to ‘move-on’ the CEO. Follow Ruth on LinkedIn


by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

10 tips politics could take from business

When even the new Prime Minister has called our national political scene a ‘Muppet Show’, you know things are a bit of a mess.

Constantly changing leaders, claims of bullying, allegations of corruption, sleaze, personal attacks, sexism and school-yard theatrics…it all combines to make us turn-off from politics.

We might roll our eyes and despair, but the truth is we can’t afford to disengage. Politics is too important for that. The decisions our elected representatives make every day, affects our daily lives and we need to stay engaged.

‘You can choose not to be interested in politics, but you can’t choose to be unaffected by it’  Senator Penny Wong

What can politics learn from business?

Just imagine if federal politics was a listed company? The share price would be in free-fall. However, it’s hard to imagine shareholders in corporate Australia tolerating this sort of thing in a corporate board.

Many politicians have business experience. Maybe it’s time they followed the example of corporate Australia and hit the reset button.

Here are ten things they could consider that might help reverse the decline in political trust.

1.Articulate a vision of excellence

Companies that deliver outstanding customer service, are organisations that have a clear vision and a strong corporate culture. Think of QANTAS airlines which has a vision of ‘being the best’ and aims to be Australia’s premium airline. This guides the corporate values and the actions of staff so they have pride in working to do the best they can, every day they go to work.

Political leadership is about setting a vision of excellence and then ‘walking the talk’ of values and behaviour.

2. Build your future workforce

The future belongs to millennial employees.  Smart organisations have programs to attract and retain talented staff, such as the mentoring program at Mars Australia, winner of the 2017 Great Places to Work.

Political party membership is declining.  More voters are now supporting minor parties and independents. At the last federal election, one in four votes drifted away from the ALP and the Liberal/National Coalition. The days of the two-party duopoly are in decline.

3. Create a great culture

Successful organisations are known for their attractive culture and being great places to work. It’s not just about the job location, salary and staff benefits; it’s about ‘the way we do things around here’.

A political party needs a culture that inspires people to join up, stay and help with election campaigns. If the culture is toxic, political membership dives along with voters’ support.

4. Diversify or die-off

Savvy businesses have diversity and inclusion policies in order to embrace the unique experiences, voices and opinions of their diverse employees. They know that diversity “makes good business sense” and is “clearly linked to improvements in organisational performance, effectiveness, profitability and revenue generation” as articulated by the Diversity Council of Australia

Our politicians need to better reflect our diverse citizens in gender and cultural background.  We are a nation of immigrants, and half of Australia’s population is either first- or second-generation migrants and 51% female.  This is not reflected in Federal Parliament where less than a third of Members are female and according to analysis, fewer than 20 of the 226 parliamentarians serving have a non-English speaking background – less than 9 per cent.

5. Consider the downside risks before sacking the CEO

When a CEO has a track record of creating shareholder value and the stock price is good, most boards extend his/her tenure.  They know the risks of sacking a popular CEO on the share price; especially if the decision is hasty and not well explained to the market.

Before he was sacked, Malcolm Turnbull was the preferred Prime Minister by 19 per cent on his rival Bill Shorten according to one News Poll. Many voters, regardless of their political views, can’t understand why he was knifed. They didn’t like it when the ALP did it to PM Kevin Rudd either.

If you’re going to sack your leader, you probably need to explain the decision to shareholders or suffer the ramifications.

6. Recruit the best by being the best

Top companies invest in excellent recruitment practices to attract and keep the best talent. At it’s best it is based on merit. Increasingly Australians see politics as a ‘jobs for the boys’ recruitment process. It seems candidates must come from the right faction (or union), have a powerful party mentor, be a good fund-raiser or maybe they are an ambitious ex-staffer of the retiring member.

To thrive, political parties could aim to recruit on merit, not connections.

7. Manels are so last century

All-male panels, or ‘Manels’, are fast becoming a thing of the past. This is in part to pushback on social media of yet another all-male line up at a conference or industry event. Also because of the Male Champions of Change Panel Pledge and the commitment of corporate leaders and speakers to speak only on diverse panels.

Wouldn’t it be great if political leaders took the panel pledge when forming their front bench?

8. Evaluate performance regularly 

CEOs, Executives and most employees are subject to regular performance plan reviews. It keeps things on track and projects aligned to the company vision.

What would the KRAs be for politicians? Here are three simple goals; a prosperous economy, look after people (especially the vulnerable and needy) and secure the long-term future of the environment.

9. Emphasise integrity and ethics

Strong corporate governance is critical to a company’s success. Follow the law, manage conflicts of interest, practice integrity in all business dealings.  If there are concerns, it’s reported to the regulatory authorities ASIC and ACCC.

Trust is declining in politicians. At the National level, we don’t yet have a federal anti-corruption watchdog. Perhaps it’s time. It can investigate concerns about influential political donations, transparency of lobbyists, whistle-blowers and behaviour of politicians.

10. Listen to your customer research

Customer and market research is essential to support a company’s business objectives. This research is important to understand customer satisfaction levels or testing a new product.  When there is overwhelming demand for (or against) a product, a company listens. If not, there can be disastrous consequences; remember the Kraft brand disaster with Vegemite iSnack 2.0?

Given more than two-thirds of Australians supported marriage equality, it’s clear that most people are supportive of equality and a fair go for their fellow citizens.  Sexist, racist, divisive policies are not going to fly with most Aussies.  Great leaders embrace difference, they are not threatened by it.

What other tips would you add from your workplace to assist politicians and political parties?

Ruth McGowan OAM is a consultant and coach to local government. She delivers training to support quality candidates to Get Elected to public office. Ruth is also a former Mayor, Councillor and advocate for gender equality and diversity in political representation.


by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan 1 Comment

Why (would a woman go into) Politics?

It’s turbulent times in Australian politics. Many of us are shaking our heads at the games recently played out in the tumultuous environment of our federal parliament.

But, spare a thought for the women involved.  MPs Julie Bishop, Julia Banks, Emma Hauser and Sarah Hansen-Young are household names after recent events in federal parliament. But I bet these women would rather be known for their political leadership and public service contribution rather than examples of how gender can define political debate.

Increasingly, it seems these women may have sacrificed a lot in their efforts to represent their community.

A time of anguish

I remember the first time I saw the famous French sculpture of The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin. Even though it was decades ago, the art continues to inspire me. Beautifully rendered in bronze, the sculpture captures the agonising surrender of six community leaders (Councillors), who in 14th Century France volunteered their lives in exchange for a peace deal. The victorious English King who had long waged war on their town wanted their heads. In Calais, France, the Burghers are in a group, their faces etched in agony, defeat and grief. They seem to be walking towards their death, nooses around their necks and the keys to the city in their hands.

The faces of those brave Burghers came back to me this week. This time, reflected in the anguished expressions of four, 21st Century, female politicians.

Through various media reports, I witnessed the chilled resignation on the face of Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, realising she had missed out on the top job despite 20 years of competent service. Federal MP Emma Hauser in near tears, defending her decision to step down in the face of hurtful, personal attacks which she described as untrue and a form of torture. Federal MP Julia Banks calling out ‘bullying and intimidation’ in her party which prompted her to quit at the next election after only one term. These came only weeks after Senator Sarah Hanson-Young instigated a defamation case against a male politician for his remarks to her which she says were ‘slut-shaming’ and caused her ‘considerable harm’.

Female leaders who have sacrificed themselves by stepping forward to represent those of us who desire an inclusive, fairer democracy.

Women are turning-off

I’m into politics. I support women to run for public office. When people ask me ‘why on earth would a clever, competent woman possibly consider running for public office when this goes on?’ I know it’s a good question.

Currently, women make up one-third of our State and Federal parliaments yet female representation has been slipping back in recent years. In terms of political empowerment of women, Australia used to rank 38th in the world eight years ago, now we are 48th.

We can’t afford for this to decline and for women to turn-off politics. For the sake of our country, our councils, our legislatures, we need women to be at the table; sharing the power and contributing to good decision-making for all of us. We can’t give up.

“It’s not good enough to be heard. Women must be at the decision-making table” Jacinda Ardern

We need female politicians

With greater representation from female politicians, democracy becomes more effective because we get to hear from ‘the other 50 per cent’. As a result, parliaments tend to be more inclusive and responsive.

Madeleine Albright said that women in power “can be counted on to raise issues that others overlook, to support ideas that others oppose, and to seek an end to abuses that others accept.”

Not only do women contribute different views, studies also show that women politicians engage more with constituents and are better lawmakers than men. American research into the legislative impact of women in politics found that:

“As more women are elected to office, there is a corollary increase in policy making that emphasizes quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities”.

The National Democratic Institute reports that when comparing male politicians to female politicians, from all parties, women tend to be more likely to:

  • work across party lines
  • be highly responsive to constituent concerns
  • help secure lasting peace
  • encourage citizen confidence in democracy through their own participation, and
  • prioritize health, education, and other key development indicators.

Another analysis suggests that parties that struggle to get women into parliament also find it harder to get women to vote for them. In short, a party with a ‘woman problem’ and a ‘boys-club’ culture may find that it has a problem with women voters.  The results of the next Federal election may demonstrate this.

Five reasons for a woman to run

Next time someone asks ‘why would a woman run for politics?’ here are my top reasons why I would encourage a woman to definitely consider politics:

  1. Successful democracies reflect the views of their citizens. Australia is a fair country. When women step up, we get to hear from the ‘other 50%’ of us.
  2. As a politician a woman has power. She can get stuff done. Why let the fellas have it all? Get to the table and have a say.
  3. There’s no point in complaining about the current situation if you are not prepared to be part of the solution. As the slogan goes ‘Don’t get mad, get elected’.
  4. ‘Be the change you want to see’. Become a role model for other women (and to those young girls who dream of being Prime Minister one day)
  5. Hillary Clinton said, ‘Politics is the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible’. As an elected representative you have the enormous privilege of making a positive a difference for your community, state or country. Grab it.

It’s time to run

Fortunately, those brave Burghers of Calais met a happy ending. According to Wikipedia, they were saved from their execution by a woman. The English queen persuaded her husband the king, to show mercy as their deaths would be a bad omen for her unborn child.

In answer to that question: A diverse democracy thrives on the views of female politicians. Our parties need women candidates in order to win. We need female lawmakers for fairer decisions.

The data shows that our politics are improved with more women politicians. Let’s not see recent events as an omen for the future of inclusive politics. We can choose optimism over despair. It’s time to support women to stand for office or vote for them (if we like their policies). Let’s work together for more #WomenInPolitics.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a past Mayor, community activist, councillor-coach and consultant to local government. She is a champion for more women in local government and delivers training on political campaigning. Follow her on twitter @hula_grl  (Photos Wikipedia commons) 

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Council CEO Churn hits a high; why?

Right now, if you’re a Chief Executive Officer in charge of a Victorian council, I reckon you would be hanging on pretty tightly to your seat.

That’s because the last two years have seen an enormous change in the local government sector with ‘CEO churn’ at an all-time high.

Thirty-Three. That’s the number of CEO roles that have been up for grabs across the Victorian Local Government sector in the past 20 months; a massive 42% in 2017 & 2018. And you can bet there will be a few more CEO roles up for grabs by the end of the year.

From tiny Buloke shire in the north-west (pop 6300) to the enormous City of Casey on the edge of Melbourne (approx. 300,000 people) both have recently appointed new CEOs.

It’s the same all across Victoria. From Moyne shire in the south-west to East Gippsland it feels like every second council has or is looking for, a new CEO.

Why the movement?

Given that there are only 79 councils in Victoria local government, it’s not considered unusual to have up to ten CEO roles advertised in any one year. However, recently, many of the ‘more-senior’ CEOs have retired and are enjoying a well-deserved break from what can be a full on (yet rewarding) job.

Ambitious, younger CEOs have moved to larger councils to advance their careers. Others simply haven’t had their contract renewed by Councillors or have been unceremoniously ‘moved on’ after failing to satisfy the elected representatives.

Perhaps the current surge in appointments has to do with the election cycle.

Under the Local Government Act, Councillors have only one employee to hire and manage -their CEO. Previous council elections (October 2016) saw around a 50 % turnover of Councillors. With a new bunch of elected representatives, sometimes Councillors don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with the direction of a previous council. Fairly or unfairly, some may attribute past council action (or inaction) to the current CEO. As a result, sometimes Councillors will seek a change in direction by searching for a new CEO.

At other times, a CEO might see ‘the writing on the wall’ and choose to resign in their own time, rather than being ‘pushed’ by a new council. Sometimes a CEO may choose to leave in the middle of the Councillor term, enabling Councillors sufficient time to recruit a new CEO and settle him/her in prior to the next election (October 2020).

Does it matter?

What are the implications of this level of ‘churn’ in the sector and does it really matter? Perhaps change is good for Councillors who want to avoid complacency, and the risk of a CEO becoming complacent, or one who stops listening and delivering results.

How long should a CEO stay? A Harvard Business Review article on this topic suggests seven years, plus or minus two as  ‘a reasonable number: seven years is probably the period of maximum effectiveness for most people in what can be a very stressful job’[i]. They suggest there are three phases to a CEO job which evolves from the Entry stage to Consolidation and then Decline.

Ideally, a CEO will realise it is time to move on when they are “at that sweet spot of being at the peak of their performance, just before the decline”. 

Councillors need to skill-up

The other impact of all this CEO recruitment activity is that many Councillors who have never employed a CEO before, are suddenly finding themselves having to build their knowledge and skills around the process of executive recruitment, placement and performance management.

The fact is, that Councillors come from all walks of life and few have experience in hiring staff at the executive level.

Many simply don’t have the skills to employ staff at the level and salary of a contemporary Council CEO. Typically a council will spend approximately $30-60,000 on the CEO recruitment process. It can involve hundreds of hours of Councillors’ time as they engage a recruitment agency, advertise widely, select and interview candidates and finally manage the placement of the preferred candidate

At times, this means Councillors may put blind trust in the executive search agency and take a ‘hands-off’ approach when they really could be paying more attention to the whole process for their ‘one employee’.

It is important for Councillors to successfully manage the recruitment of a new CEO and get it right the first time. They certainly don’t want to waste ratepayers’ funds by having to go back to the beginning because of a ‘dud’ appointment.

Independent advice is important

Many Councillors are recognising the value of independent support to guide them through the CEO recruitment process.

Increasingly, as part of my consultancy services, I am being approached by Councillors who are seeking assistance from an independent expert who has no conflict of interest in CEO placement and can, therefore, advise Councillors on what they need to know, manage and avoid. They see this as an important investment in due diligence.

The importance of independent support in CEO employment has also been recognised by the Victorian State Government who have proposed a new Local Government Bill (currently before Parliament) to deliver greater transparency in CEO employment. The Act requires Councils to develop and adopt a CEO Employment and Remuneration policy and to obtain independent professional advice in relation to the matters dealt with the CEO employment.

There is an unprecedented level of CEO churn in Victorian councils at the moment. With all this change it is heartening to see many Councillors seeking independent advice and support with the recruitment process to help them employ an outstanding candidate for the council team, officers and the municipality. Please get in touch if I can assist.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a consultant to local government and supports Councillors as an independent adviser in the recruitment of their CEO. She is a former Mayor, Councillor and has been on a number of boards where she has been involved in CEO recruitment.

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Want to run for politics?

You have a desire to change the world for the better and think you can make a difference. You’re curious about getting involved in politics. And why not you? Especially if you are young, or female or from a diverse cultural background. Take a look around at who’s representing you and you will find that one thing’s for sure – we need greater diversity in our parliaments and councils.

Before you dive into campaign mode, here’s six things to ask yourself before you ask others to ‘VOTE FOR ME’.

1)    Why are you running? Capture your issue clearly.

First, you must be clear why you are running. In my experience it’s usually one of 3 things; Candidates are pissed off, or they are passionate, or they are political.

Some candidates are so angry with the government or local council that their outrage drives them to run.

Others are so passionate about a cause that they want to get into politics in order to make things better for their community, or the environment or the local economy.

Then there are those who see politics as a way to acquire power. Generally, these people are either be altruists or love the combat of Party Politics.

Once you are clear on why you are running, write it down in a simple sentence to articulate why someone should vote for you (and not the other mob).

2)    What is the job and can you do it?

It’s one thing to want to run for office, it’s quite another thing to have the ability to do the job well and confidently represent your constituents.

In a democracy anyone can run for office but it doesn’t mean everyone can do it.


  1. Are you eligible? The citizenship fiasco showed that many politicians failed to read and understand the fine print when they ran for federal parliament in 2017/18. Don’t make that mistake. Make sure you read the eligibility criteria in the Candidate Handbook which is printed by the Australian Electoral Commission. Follow the rules for eligibility on where and when you can nominate to run for office.
  2. Are you competent? Consider doing a ‘personal skills audit’ to see if you have what it takes to do the job, or identify where you need to build your experience (for example in public speaking).
  3. Do you have the confidence? It helps to have both personal confidence in your abilities as well as the confidence of a support team to assist your campaign.

3)    Where will you run? Pick your level of government.

There are over 5700 opportunities to get elected at a local, state or federal level in Australia.

This includes:

  • Local government – approximately 5000 Councillor roles across 530 councils
  • State and Territory government – several hundred roles in various Lower and Upper Houses
  • Federal Parliament – House of representatives (150) and the Senate (76)

To decide where you will stand, do your research. Perhaps chat with a local councillor or State or Federal member about his/her role. Also, check out #AusPol on twitter.

4)    How will you run? Will you join a party or be an independent?

Traditionally, the simplest route into politics has been to join a major party. It’s certainly the pathway for the vast majority of candidates get elected. However, with the increasing dissatisfaction in party politics, more voters are putting No. 1 next to independent candidates or those from minor parties.

Consider- will you join a minor party or stand as an independent? Maybe you could even start your own party!  Or, will you go the major-party route and seek the backing of the ALP, Liberal, Nationals or Greens? But beware. It can be a bruising experience to fight for pre-selection to be the representative candidate for one of the major parties.

Will you party or not? It comes down to your personal philosophy, preferences, and pragmatism.

5)    When to run? Time your race.

Currently, in the federal system, the Prime Minister can call an election any time, as long as parliament doesn’t run for more than three years. It’s a bit more complicated for the Senate.

However, for  State and Local Governments, most elections are now run on a ‘fixed term’ basis. This means that election dates are set by law and everyone knows the date of the election day well in advance. For instance, in Victoria, the state election is held every four years on the last Saturday in November and two years apart, local council elections are held on the third Saturday in October.

There are three times to run for an election; now, later or too late.

Politics is a hard job. The toll on your personal life can be brutal as Federal MP Tim Hammond explained as he resigned from parliament earlier this year. It may also disrupt your professional aspirations. If you need to consider family obligations and career options, later on, may be an option.

If you leave it too late to start your run for office, you can miss the boat. When elections are only every four years you may lose the chance to swing support behind your cause because the electorate may have moved on.

If you are serious about public office, the best time to think about running is now.

That’s because with fixed terms, campaigns can run over four years and your competitor’s campaign has probably already started. There are opportunities right now to think about running with a Federal election coming up, local council elections in Tasmania and South Australia and Victorian State elections in November.

6)    What will you do? Time to decide

Finally, there is only one more thing to do; decide if you will run for public office.

You’ve thought about:

  • Why you are running – on the issues important to you
  • What is the job – whether you can do it
  • Where you will run – the level of government
  • How you will run – independent or with a minor or major party
  • When you will run – now or later or too late

If you decide that your answer is ‘no, not for me’ then I hope you can support someone else to run for office on their campaign team or financially.

However, if you say ‘YES!’ then, hello candidate and good luck!

Ruth McGowan OAM is a community activist, councillor coach and consultant to local government. She is a champion for more women in local government and delivers training on political campaigning. In 2018 she is writing Get Elected! an Australian guide to political campaigning follow her on twitter @hula_grl  

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

What dirty politics can teach you about protecting your brand

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone: (Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi)

Like most Australians, you are probably becoming increasingly disillusioned by the behaviour of our politicians. It seems like it’s just getting worse. The latest sexist name-calling by a Senator just compounds the low opinions many have for those elected to public office. It comes on top of a year of affairsscandals and the citizenship saga.  *Sigh*

However, instead of just shaking your head at the dirty tricks – what if you could actually learn something useful from the dark art of politics? Something that could help you protect your brand and shore up your reputation?

Domain theft

Recently, a political dirty trick has shone a light on ‘your name’ domain theft. A tactic that competitors can use to deliver serious implications for your brand, your business or your political campaign.

Domain hijacking. If you haven’t heard of it before you have now. Read on.

Political dirty tricks

This is what happened. Last year, the former premier of NSW, Kristina Keneally ran as a Labor candidate for the federal seat of Bennelong. The by-election was announced when the former sitting Liberal member John Alexander, had to resign after being caught up in the citizenship bungle. Kristina Keneally announced she would challenge the seat.

However, both the candidate and her advisers, failed in one massive way before she even began her formal campaign. They failed to buy up the digital real-estate that could protect her brand.

On the day Ms Keneally announced her candidacy, Buzzfeed reported that “Domain registration records show the NSW division of the {Liberal} party took ownership of the website … at 11:30pm that night”.  They proceeded to fill this website with content unflattering to the candidate.

A dirty trick? Sure. But in politics, some people think that ‘anything goes’ in the battle to win votes.

Could it happen to you?

Dirty tactics like this can prompt you to think about the safety of your digital real estate. Do you own your domain name with either the .com or suffix?

As a political coach, I advise anyone considering running for public office to purchase their name as  .com and before publicly announcing their candidacy.  

In the end, it’s a lot cheaper to buy a couple of domain names than to have to pay money to purchase it back. It’s also cheaper than having to fight a court case to get back what is rightfully yours.

If you don’t own your name domain, is it time to buy? It’s a relatively cheap policy to protect against having your name and brand sullied by a competitor who has no scruples about playing dirty.

Fake news could hit you too

In a world of ‘fake news’ a competitor can set up a website in your name, fill it with unflattering stories or lies.

Unfortunately, people are gullible and many could truly believe what they are reading on a fake website about you is legitimate.

Hillary Clinton recently visited Australia and I was one of the thousands that were privileged to hear this global leader talk about her life and political campaigns. It was sobering to hear about the negative impact of several false news stories in the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Many people genuinely believed the fake news stories spread to discredit her. This included made-up stories such as Pope Francis endorsing competitor Donald Trump and allegations that Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS.

Besides fake news, there are other tactics that could affect your digital footprint. I’ve heard of businesses where competitors have purchased the domain name and then ‘cyber-squat’. They buy the name (or one very similar to the business name) but do nothing with it, in an effort to block potential customers trying to reach the genuine business online. Apparently, these cases are on the rise and can pose a real threat to businesses.

Protect your brand

Heard the story about the multi-millionaire who bought the property next door and then bulldozed it down? All to protect his sea view and deliver serenity forever without annoying neighbours blocking the vista?

Fortunately, the option to buy your domain name is a lot cheaper than buying the house next door but it can also deliver significant peace of mind.

Think of it as an investment in brand name insurance.

Take a lesson from dirty politics. If you are working in a tough business environment, consider that a competitor could buy a domain name similar to your name (personal or business name) and use it to malign your brand.

Your domain name is rightfully yours so protect against theft. You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone but don’t leave it until it is too late.

Ruth McGowan OAM coaches political candidates, community leaders and trains councillors. She also writes about women in politics and how to Get Elected! 

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How to make a tough decision a good decision

“What ought one do?” a question often asked by leaders when considering how to make a tough decision a good decision.

It’s a question the great philosopher Plato put to his wise teacher Socrates, around 400 years BC as they sat in the Greek Agora, probably discussing the political issues of the day.

I like to imagine that, in response, Socrates turned to his bright precocious student, gave a big sigh and delivered his philosophy advice on an ethical decision by saying something like:

 “It’s pretty simple Plato, one must follow one’s purpose and do what is good and right”. 

But if it was that simple why is our trust in politicians and those who lead our corporations and financial institutions at such a low in terms of public satisfaction?  What can today’s leaders learn from those ancient Greek philosophers that’s useful when considering how to make tough decisions and stay true to what is good?

What the Greeks left us to think about

Socrates’ teaching has informed philosophical discussion on morals and ethics for the past two millennia. Perhaps you have heard of his famous quote that the unexamined life is not worth living.

For many leaders, this call to examine the purpose of life, can be a useful prompt to examine the values that drive your behaviour in life, work and public office.

Like Plato, leaders have been pondering the question of “what should I do?” ever since those ancient times when democracy seemed like a brilliant idea for those Athenians.

Unfortunately, the Athenians didn’t think to include women, foreigners or slaves in their democracy; that would come eventually many centuries later (women finally got the vote in 1952). However, although suffering from a severe case of unconscious bias towards anyone that wasn’t an adult, of male gender or a Greek citizen, the great philosophers did leave western civilisation with a useful ethical framework to assist us to think through how to make good decisions.

The three considerations of making a difficult decision a good one

As part of my work, I coach Mayors and deliver training to local government councillors in good governance. Discussions cover issues such as how to manage potential conflicts of interests or how to ensure fair consultation when gathering information to assist in their decision making. Often circumstances arise where a councillor needs to make a tough decision about ‘what ought I do’.

By taking a philosophical approach to decision making we can consider three components of thinking. These have been outlined by ethicist Dr Simon Longstaff of The Ethics Centre in his very practical book, Everyday Ethics.

According to Dr Longstaff, ethics “can be viewed through the prism of values, principles and purpose”. This forms the basic structure of human choice and hence decision making.

Three questions

When it comes to making a tough decision, I suggest to leaders that this ethical framework can assist them. Put simply, it’s these three questions:

  1. What are your values that underpin your choices about what is good?

Dr Longstaff calls values the “guideposts giving you direction on your life journey”. Can you list yours? If you need a prompt, there are various check lists and tests on-line you can take to determine your values.

2. Is your decision informed by a framework of principles that covers what is right?

The principles that inform what is right could be religious (such as “do unto others what you would have them do to you”) or even legislation such as the good governance rules of a Local Government Act. Can you list some of your principles?

3. It your decision aligned to your purpose of why you are here?

It can be useful to contemplate your purpose in life and consider why you choose to do the work you do, whether it’s as an elected official, community leader or a manager leading a team or organisation. Consider what is the difference you wish to make in the world through your actions.

Declining trust

What role does ethics play in politics? It seems that we are losing confidence in our political leaders to make good (ethical) decisions for our nation. In fact, a number of recent studies measuring Australian’s satisfaction with democracy have shown the level of satisfaction in our politicians is plummeting.

Last year, the Eldeman Trust Barometer found that a majority of Australians believe their government is a broken institution.  Another study by Australian National University researchers reported on attitudes towards democracy following the July 2016 Australian Election Study (AES). Disturbingly, they found that 40% of Australians surveyed said they were not satisfied with democracy in Australia (levels not recorded since the days following the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government).

While levels of trust in our politicians are low now, sadly it’s probably going to get worse. This survey was conducted before the debacle around Section 44 of our constitution where 12 sitting MPs had to resign from parliament after admitting that they failed to declare they were duel citizens before nominating for office. It was also before news surfaced of the personal affairs of the ex-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Holding leaders accountable for making good decisions

Is it any wonder trust in politicians is so low when much of the current political discourse focuses on personalities, media performance and poll results?

It’s time to hold our leaders accountable for their decision making and bring trust back into our political system.

Imagine what the debate could be like if we challenged our leaders on their values, purpose and principles? In the end, it might give them pause to reflect a little bit more on ‘what ought I do”? It could even lead to better decision making.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a consultant, trainer and coach in local government with a passion for politics and good decision making.

*Photo credit: Wikimedia commons detail from The School of Athens, by Raphael.