“You need to be hungry. That is work on yourself and be committed, because things never just fall on your lap in your career. You need goals, a plan and a strategy to get there and to have thought through how you’ll manage some of the inevitable sticklers that will be in your way.”
Having grown up on her family farm in rural Victoria, Ruth McGowan doesn’t have the background you’d expect of an Order of Australia Medal recipient, the author behind the first national guide on how to run a political campaign, ‘Get Elected’, and highly respected mentor and coach to local government leaders.
She’s also been awarded the National Emergency Medal for services and leadership as Mayor during the Black Saturday Bushfire disaster of 2009, and being contracted by the Victorian Government to research and produce the Best Practice Guidelines on Gender Equality for Local Government.
Now she’s a mentor and coach to helping Local Government leaders achieve their goals, and remove everything in between.
“It’s really tough being a leader in local government because there are so many stakeholders that you need to respond to and the biggest stakeholder is the community who have high expectations of service delivery.”
However obtaining employment in the first instance is a challenge of its own.
“Right at the very top in Victoria we’ve got CEOs and in NSW you’ve got General Managers, they’re appointed by councillors and two thirds of Australia’s councilors are male and many don’t have any experience in recruitment. Unless they’ve come from a small business or the corporate world.
“We know that unconscious bias seeks to confirm ‘leaders that look like us’. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle because you’ve got a male CEO or general manager and they’re more likely to employ men in their leadership team so the cycle perpetuates.”
Ruth cites the dismally low percentage of CEO and General Manager positions in local councils which are held by women, against the backdrop of approximately 60% of employees being female.
So, too, are the majority of local government consumers of services such as libraries, leisure centres and child care centres.
“It’s a bit ironic that most of the customers are women, most of the staff are women but up the top it’s mainly men. And in fact in NSW there’s still a number of all male councils and all male executive teams.
“When a woman is a CEO or a General Manager, she’s far more likely to foster women in senior leadership roles and women in turn are more likely to apply for roles when they see another woman at the head.”
Asking recruitment agencies for a gender balanced shortlist of applicants is one strategy Ruth mentions to provide women with a fighting chance, however there are ways women artfully scale the career ladder.
“The beauty of local government is that you can move. There’s 533 local councils in Australia which is a fantastic opportunity. If you’re skilled and trained say as a Planner, and a bit stuck in the current council, you can apply for the one next door. Because they need a Planner with your skills as well so the job is very transferable across different councils.
Underpinning that is women having the ability and courage to move to another council and to move up.”
While Ruth encourages leaders to be emotionally intelligent and self-aware of how you operate in the world, there is a lesser known form of intelligence making waves in government.
“We all know a lot more about IQ (intellectual intelligence), we know a lot more about EQ (emotional intelligence), but the third and often missing component is political intelligence or PQ.
“When you’re working with multiple stakeholders, you must be politically astute, and working with elected representatives you must be politically astute. When you’re working with government officials and everyone from Ministers to Department Secretaries and stakeholders in local government, you need to be politically astute.
“I’ve heard many women say things like ‘I can’t stand politics, the backstabbing, the gossip, the sucking up, I’m not going to have anything to do with it’. That’s what I call the negative side of politics, however there’s a positive side to politics and I call that POP which stands for Positive Organisational Politics.
“Ultimately if you choose not to be political at work it’s not only naive but it also puts you at a disadvantage. It’s going to be to your career betterment.”
Accompanying Ruth’s POP philosophy, she cites five areas aspiring leaders should harness:
- “Being emotionally intelligent and self aware of your behaviour and how it affects others. Do the work to understand yourself and cut loose the baggage.
- Understanding how to influence or convince others of your view point and ideas. This firstly involves, understanding where they are coming from, their preferences and what are their goals. Then tailor your message to appeal to their agenda
- Work on your network which is about forming mutually beneficial relationships with a wide range of diverse people. LinkedIn is a great professional tool for this. (Last week I was talking to a CEO and they were recruiting for a senior manager and 72% of the applications came through LinkedIn.)
- Be genuine and be yourself. Avoid gossip and being fake.
- Be hungry – work on yourself and be committed. Things rarely just happen to advance your career. You need goals, a plan and a strategy to get there and to manage the inevitable obstacles that will get in your way.”
When asked what advice she would give to someone who feels like they are stuck in a career rut, she encourages them to take a step back from the situation.
“Consider what is it about the current situation that’s irking you. Is it the workplace? Is it the people? The travel? The values of the organisation? Is it the actual work? Is it boring? Too taxing? Unpack what problem the problem is because each of those will have different advice strategies.
“If you’re annoyed with your work, I would encourage people to get a career coach who will help them unpack all of that and develop a strategy either to change where they work or transition.
“And that transition could be ‘well I’m sick of being a planner, I want to be an engineer’. Actually working with a career coach to get a plan to change your skillset.”
Ruth is facilitating Women in Local Government Leadership, an interactive, two-day masterclass in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne this December to assist women leaders in building their legacy.
“I’d like to think that this 2-day workshop is the preparation needed to equip participants to go on an exciting adventure into unknown lands. Practically speaking they will walk away with an achievable action plan to develop their career further and build their legacy. If you like, she will have a map in her hand to head into new, exciting territory.
“In addition, every woman who attends will walk away inspired and more confident to make the changes that she needs to in her work life to master her future. So, to keep the metaphor going of an adventure, she will have her backpack filled with skills, tips and tools and she’ll also have a compass to help navigate and binoculars to help her keep her focused on the future goal. She’ll have that adventure sorted.
“And then, in addition, every woman who walks away is going to be inspired and more confident to make the changes that she needs in her work life to master her future.”
To anyone feeling unfulfilled with their work life or stuck Ruth says simply, “don’t put up with it. Life’s short.”