Tranby National Indigenous Adult Education and Training college was established in 1957 as the first independent Aboriginal education provider in Australia. An essential part of Tranby’s philosophy and success is that of Indigenous ownership and management. Tranby strives to empower Aboriginal people and build stronger Aboriginal communities nationally, guided by our motto ‘Educate, Achieve and Empower’.
In partnership with Tranby college, Executive Central offered this multi-organisational program to Aboriginal senior managers and those on a leadership journey. It was designed for those who wanted to develop their leadership skills, take charge of their careers and build networks. Executive Central’s Glenn Ball ran this program for over a decade. Participants came from a range of government departments across Commonwealth and State Government agencies and from the non-Government sector.
Executive Central’s research indicates that Aboriginal managers are 4-5 times less likely to progress beyond frontline management to senior management and leadership roles in mainstream organisations. Reasons for this are complex, but factors include the common absence of early role models, and a lack of confidence and expectation about career progression. Many Aboriginal managers and those with leadership ambitions may have come from families where there are no jobs at all, let alone managerial positions. And so lack of role models and any expectation of ‘deserving’ to move ahead may create barriers to career progression.
Glenn’s feedback from Aboriginal leaders about generic leadership programs experienced in the past was that they had failed to hit the mark. For an Aboriginal manager attending a leadership program with non Aboriginal people, the opportunity to talk about relevant issues in a safe space was simply not there. That need to ‘ask the silly questions’, and to raise issues specific to the experience of Aboriginal managers in corporate and public sector life, is a very important one.
And there are specific issues for Aboriginal managers that non-Aboriginal managers do not need to consider. For example there is an unconscious assumption within organisations that an Aboriginal person will know about and represent ALL Aboriginal issues, culture and traditions – even though they might be in a role which has nothing to do with their Aboriginality.
This is a kind of stereotyping, just as we might assume that all ‘Anglo’ origin Australian men know how to play cricket. Aboriginal managers are often unconsciously treated as ‘different’: while anti-discrimination and affirmative action legislation is critical, the ensuing fear of political incorrectness often means that senior managers are nervous about giving direction to their Aboriginal reports. These sorts of assumptions make the navigation of organizational life challenging for Aboriginal managers.
The Organizational Leadership Excellence Program for Aboriginal Leaders and Managers combined group workshops, a comprehensive leadership diagnostic (LSI), individual coaching, and matching with a mentor for ongoing personal support.
Glenn Ball used the same exclusive methods and content that might be used with any of his corporate clients, touching on leadership theory and practice, emotional intelligence, power, communication and networking, operating styles, managing change and career management. But the value of this program was not so much about the content – it was the collegiate discussion. It was the opportunity for Aboriginal managers on a leadership journey to talk together about their shared experiences and challenges.
Glenn invited a senior Aboriginal executive to talk to the group at the beginning of each session about his/her leadership journey. The presenter would invariably describe how ‘I was tapped on the shoulder and told I should apply for that promotion . . . I never thought I could do it but someone was prepared to back me. I learnt from that that I should back myself’.
Program participants said a highly valuable outcome was networking with leaders from different organisations. These participants compared and balanced their perspectives, as well as building valuable networks of Aboriginal leaders across a variety of organisations.
Glenn has an extensive background in working with Aboriginal leaders, staff and communities. However, in facilitating group discussions he is very clear about his ‘non-Aboriginal’ and therefore ‘non-expert’ status. He prefers to ask questions such as, “How does the concept of power apply to you as an Aboriginal manager/leader?” He is inviting his participants to bridge the gap between theory and experience, constructing a meaning that is true, pragmatic and actionable in their own professional life. As one graduate said:
‘when I started in the course my self-confidence was at a low and I was questioning my ability as a manager. The LSI was a wake up call in how this was also impacting on my staff. For me the flow from one topic to the next was pertinent and throughout the course you would find yourself reflecting back due to the interconnectedness of the modules. I have been more reflective at work and have pushed myself in building a better relationship with my direct line manager.’
The program was adapted to the needs of clients. For example, as the program grew, it was segmented into one for senior managers (with up to 100 reporting staff) and another for high potential leaders, such as senior project officers and frontline managers.
Almost all participants were promoted after attending the program. One participant commented, ‘the training targets the under-representation of Aboriginal people in upper management positions. It challenges self-perceptions and assists participants to realise the skills and abilities they have to offer. The training is particularly good for Aboriginal people who are constantly working under the additional pressures of community expectations along with employer expectations. Specific attention was given to equipping us with the skills and understanding to set boundaries, negotiate difficult conversations and relationships, build effective teams and to set and achieve buy-in to work related vision and outcomes. It challenged a host of preconceived ideas and discouraged negative management and leadership practices. It also provided the valuable addition of a mentor for on-going support and input once the program was completed.’
More than 85% of participants said they had a greater understanding of leadership and of the skills required for leadership. ‘I really enjoyed participating in this course. It was great to meet indigenous managers who brought a lot of experience to the table for discussion. I personally feel that cross jurisdiction managers work well for the Indigenous Leadership course. There are a number of tools I will use regularly. I also feel a bit more rejuvenated after participating in the course.’