It’s probably overstating it to say that when Fiona Blair joined ANZSOG’s prestigious Executive Fellow Program (EFP) in 2018, she was a woman on a mission, but she definitely knew why she was there.
As a local government veteran, she was excited to be able to mix with senior state and federal public servants in an effort to foster greater understanding between the triple tiers of government, and to push the case for local government no longer being regarded as the lesser of the three.
“I think in government roles, local government is often forgotten and I think to achieve really good public value, all three tiers need to work together, so for me it was an opportunity to learn more about how state and federal government work and how to partner with them better than how we do now,” she explained.
But Fiona wasn’t only there to learn. She believed she had an important message for other public servants from across the spectrum.
“I think I got people to think a little bit differently about local government,” she said. “Local government is sometimes forgotten but when you consider that trust in governments across the world is at an all-time low and local government is the one that’s most connected to the community, I think there’s an opportunity for state and federal to learn from local government.
“I think local governments need to be very active in how they engage and deliver public policy that is what the community is looking for. It was good to have a voice of local government within the group.”
Fiona is Port Philip Council’s General Manager of Infrastructure and Amenity, in the bayside suburbs of Melbourne, controlling everything from the construction of a major surf club to street cleaning, local safety and amenities to parking enforcement, animal management and events.
It’s a major leadership role and Fiona says the lessons learned during the EFP continue to resonate. “We did do some work around leadership of self, the importance of authentic leadership and the importance of reflection, and so that’s certainly something I’ve brought back into my practice here; learning to reflect and to look at how you can do things in a different and better way,” she said.
“One of the most important lessons was the importance of bringing diversity into problem solving which is something we were really able to do and see in the EFP, working with such a diverse group of people.”
Fiona said she had even brought specific frameworks from the program back into her team, leading to positive feedback among her council colleagues about how they fostered problem-solving and the importance of building relationships.
The EFP is a three week program held in Wellington, Canberra and Singapore, pushing the cohort of 70 or so in directions they’re not used to and challenging them on many levels, including real-time, on-the-ground problem solving in different cultures. Fiona loved that as the three-week course progressed, the cohort became more comfortable with one another, more trusting, and gave frank and deep feedback, while remaining respectful.
“You’ve got a group of senior leaders, most of whom are used to delegating , not necessarily doing the work themselves, and there were lots of conversations where people had different views, but always in an appropriate and constructive and respectful way that added to the learning,” she said. “How they framed up the course is that over the three weeks you moved around and worked with different people. By the end, I would have interacted with everybody on multiple occasions.”
Like many EFP alumni, Fiona found the experience of having three weeks away from her day job liberating and stimulating, as she was able to throw herself completely into the study. She said it was important that her council had given her a genuine licence to turn off, with her role capably filled. “To have that opportunity was fantastic, everyone else shared the same feeling,” she said. “As much as, in a senior role, you can turn off, I think most people tried to do that.”
Fiona would recommend the EFP to any senior public sector executives looking for self-improvement. “It really gave you an opportunity to reflect on your leadership,” she said. “I just loved the opportunity to meet and work with some outstanding leaders in the sector from such a diverse background and countries as well. That was the best part of it, listening to other people’s experiences and being able to share yours and you create those networks and friendships. Those links are very strong now, the group is still in regular contact and you know you could pick up the phone and ring anyone for counsel or advice or to work through an issue.”
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