Part of the Stolen Generations, the prominent indigenous director talks to Tony Featherstone about how indigenous governance and living standards can be lifted in Australia.

    The journey towards directorship often begins from an executive position in a capital city. Kate George’s journey began at the 494-mile peg of the rabbit-proof fence in Western Australia, when she was taken from her family at the age of three.

    The youngest of 10 children, Kate George GAICD, was part of the Stolen Generations, the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were forcibly removed from their families and placed in institutions or foster care. Most were aged under five.

    George could not speak a word of English when she was taken from her mother in 1953, was not used to wearing clothes and, in her words, was a “wild bush kid”. She lived in a Perth institution for the next 12 years, at times suffering cruelty and abuse, and describes her time there as being an “inmate”. Although she showed great aptitude for reading and history, George was trained for a domestic life of sewing, cooking and cleaning for others.

    She has since become a qualified barrister and solicitor, ministerial adviser, consultant and company director. She has served on the boards of more than a dozen organisations and is currently a non-executive director of the Telethon Kids Institute (Twitter @childhealthnews) and the Kariyarra Mugarinya Property Joint Venture in the Pilbara.

    George has also worked with some of Australia’s largest mining companies and wrote the first employment and training strategies for Aboriginal people in the resource sector in the 1990s. She is CEO of the Kariyarra Mugarinya Developments, the project manager for a consortium of two Aboriginal groups. It recently completed a 12-hectare commercial residential land development in South Headland in Western Australia as a first step to ease a chronic housing shortage for Aboriginal people. The groups represent the land’s traditional owners.

    Other milestones have just as much meaning. George was the first Aboriginal woman at Sister Kate’s Children’s Cottage Home to make it through high school, the first Aboriginal woman to study law at the University of Western Australia and graduate from the Australian National University and the first Aboriginal woman admitted to practise law in WA.

    She developed a burning passion for Aboriginal rights at university and organised student protests against apartheid in South Africa in the early 1970s, crossing paths with governance luminaries, such as a young Michael Chaney AO FAICD, on campus. Since being admitted as a barrister and solicitor in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and WA, George has worked in Aboriginal affairs for more than 40 years, advising federal and state ministers, senior public servants and community organisations.

    George’s story has been told in documentaries and in 2011, she was inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame. Less known are her views on indigenous governance; her belief that Aboriginal boards need more mentoring and support, possibly from non-Aboriginal boards and directors; and the need for new regional employment and training models to link business and Aboriginal communities.

    “If you want to improve the standard of indigenous governance in Australia, you have to first improve the management standard of Aboriginal corporations,” says George. “Too many indigenous boards are being asked to govern organisations that are rife with problems and inefficiencies.”

    Like many high-performing directors, George has a sharp intellect, curiosity, and a great sense of collegiality. Her difficult upbringing and Aboriginal heritage adds a different type of courage and governance wisdom that is hard to describe.

    She favours a hybrid model of indigenous governance, where boards take the best from the “orange” paradigm of mainstream governance, compliance and rules, and combine it with the “black” paradigm of Aboriginal culture.

    Asked what the Aboriginal culture offers boards, George says: “Aboriginal communities are very structured, with lots of rules. There is no single leader among us. We are part of a team. In my situation, I am the interpreter or the enabler who understands the white world and its legal system, and can translate that back to my community, or work with a translator. We draw everything on a board, listen and do oral transmissions of knowledge to pass that knowledge to others.”

    George’s governance description, at its core, is similar to some of Australia’s top boardrooms – passionate directors working as a team, listening carefully, thinking about values and culture, interpreting and enabling management, and sharing knowledge.

    But governance, says George, is still new to many indigenous corporations, and a difficult style of decision-making for Aboriginal people.

    After a lifetime of public service, George could be forgiven for seeking fewer executive or board roles and spending more time with her two children. However, the flame still burns bright for the determined Aboriginal child who wanted to become Prime Minister; for the teenager who put herself through a tech college to get a high school certificate and for the young woman who went to university with “virtually no life skills” and would later organise protests after developing a deep sense of social injustice.

    It is also clear that the three-year-old who was taken from her family, and separated from her sisters, is never far from George. “It meant estrangement from my mother and my sisters, because we were split up,” she says. ‘”You never get that sense of family back and you end up in a different place to most.”

    George adds: “When I was taken away I didn’t see Mum for three years and I lost my early memories of her, even though my Mum would later come and see us in the institution. A Putijurra aunty who had brought me up when I was little said she had been waiting 35 years for me to come home. The impact of children being taken away has affected so many Aboriginal families, and continues to do so. I don’t know all of my family, but I’m one of the lucky ones who knows where I am from.”

    George comes from the Putijurra people, part of the greater Martu people who are believed to have lived in the Great Sandy Desert in excess of 20,000 years, with the last of the people emerging from the desert in the 1960s. She is a proud Putijurra woman. George describes the landscape and Martu communities as a “beautiful, difficult place”, full of incredible humanity, courage, kindness and loyalty.

    The desert seems a long way from boardrooms in corporate towers, but it gives George the perspective to lead, for the benefit of others, in a shifting landscape of indigenous governance.

    Here is an edited extract of her interview with Company Director:

    Company Director (CD): You have advised on Aboriginal affairs for more than 40 years at federal and state level. Has there been enough progress for Australia’s indigenous community during that time?

    Kate George (KG): In some respects, there has been incredible progress for indigenous people especially on the formal rights front. From a legislative perspective, we had constitutional change in 1967, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and Racial Discrimination Act in 1975, the Mabo Case and Native Title Act in the 1990s, and the Equal Opportunity Act. That is a huge change from when I grew up.

    CD: Which problems most concern you for Aboriginal people today?

    KG: Indigenous health remains a huge problem. We effectively have a third world disparity for health outcomes for Aboriginals in Australia. Life expectancy for an Aboriginal man in the Pilbara region of WA is 53 years, compared to 80 for the general male population. For an Aboriginal woman, it’s just over 60.
    Sometimes I feel lucky to still be alive, a comment I don’t make flippantly. I only have two sisters left of my 10 siblings. Aboriginal people have grown used to living with death at an earlier age and it’s not right. I’m passionate about improving health outcomes, because without good health, Aboriginal people can’t take advantage of other opportunities.

    The high rate of incarceration for Aboriginal men is another terrible problem. They make up about 44 per cent of the adult prison population in WA; yet Aboriginal people are less than three per cent of the state’s population. Social and economic exclusion are other long-term problems for Aboriginal people where there has not been sufficient progress.

    CD: Is there a better way to tackle these complex problems?

    KG: It has been a long journey for all of us. I have concluded from talking to many people about these issues over the years that we need to take a regional approach to problems in indigenous communities. We cannot apply a blanket solution. We need some real out-of-the-box, big-picture thinking, rather than relying on traditional approaches that are not working.

    CD: How could models of engagement between business and Aboriginal communities be more effective?

    KG: I emphasise that a model for one region could be very different to another. Each Aboriginal community has different needs and circumstances. The starting point is thinking about engagement between companies and Aboriginal workers beyond industry. Rather than think about how the mining industry can employ indigenous people, we should think how a dozen different companies, across different industries and sectors in the region, can work together on this issue, and develop a whole-of-region response, working closely with the Aboriginal community.

    We know that Aboriginal people are connected to our land and community. Unlike fly-in, fly-out workers, we do not work and live in very different places. That is one reason that should make Aboriginal workers attractive to companies. So the question becomes, how do we find constant employment for Aboriginal people in remote areas, in companies, across industries and, importantly, within their community, should they choose to give up their job in a company?
    For example, a young Aboriginal person joins a mining company. After a while, he or she finds the job very isolating and challenging, because he or she might not have experience of the world of work or the same education or social skills as the other workers. So he or she quits their job, goes back to the community, stops working and gives up.

    Under my approach, there is a financial and social safety net for that young person who leaves the job, and just as important, organised work for them back in their community. It might be activities that have not been traditionally recognised as work, such as recording the community’s oral history, art and language, or other jobs that help build the community’s strength and resilience. The goal is that the young person applies the skills they are acquiring, does not stop working, remains on a structured day and is paid.

    When he or she is ready to re-enter the external workforce, the person might choose to work in a different industry or sector in the region, as part of the area’s program to support indigenous workers. This model helps Aboriginal people in remote communities who are more likely to move between jobs, and back to their community, rather than assume all young Aboriginal workers who get a job with one company will keep it for many years.

    CD: What is the role of education and training in your model?

    KG: It all starts with education. We must ensure education is valued among our young people and that it is an appropriate education, which recognises the importance of cultural education, traditions and values. Nelson Mandela, for example, had a classical education as well as learning from his village elders. Companies need to recognise that an Aboriginal person’s education might be very different from others in their workforce, and respond appropriately.
    Rather than assess people on their reading and writing skills, they might test or train them using pictorial representations or simulators. I understand there are occupational health and safety issues, but companies need to find alternative ways to show Aboriginal workers, who might struggle to read or write, how to do a job, similar to what Australian companies operating overseas do for their workers.

    CD: How can Australia develop more indigenous leaders who work beyond their community, in business, politics or other parts of the economy?

    KG: There is a misconception that we should be developing future Aboriginal leaders to leave their community and work in mainstream Australia. Many Aboriginal communities are concerned about a “brain drain” of their young leaders leaving and not coming back. We need to find ways to help develop indigenous leaders, expose them to the private or government sectors, perhaps in interchange programs and find ways to bring our leaders back home to their community.

    Any leadership program or position cannot be tokenism. The last thing any of us want, on boards or elsewhere, is to feel like we have a position that has been given to us, and is not valued. Sadly, too many indigenous boards have token roles, in my opinion, because their CEO makes all the decisions and only has a board because the organisation is required to do so, to receive funding.

    CD: How can the governance community help develop indigenous leaders?

    KG: It is an interesting question. Indigenous directors are dealing with two governance paradigms: for illustrative purposes, the black paradigm that is our culture and traditions and the orange paradigm that is mainstream, compliance, black-letter law and management of different knowledge. In a practical sense, these paradigms are mutually exclusive. I am a fan of hybrid models of governance, where indigenous directors take the best parts from both paradigms, to create a new paradigm to best govern their organisation.

    I relate to the views on indigenous governance of the University of Arizona’s Professor Stephen Cornell [who is also leader of the Harvard longitudinal study on indigenous governance at the John F. Kennedy School of Government]. He says indigenous governance is not about ticking a box, but rather a model reflecting the values and aspirations of the community.

    Under his approach, there is a cultural underpinning to indigenous board decisions, which provides cohesion between traditions and also recognises the contemporary world Aboriginal directors live in. A success factor reflected by the Harvard study is that economic and cultural decision-making is carried out by separate processes with cultural values informing the economic decision-making.  While there is not a strict dichotomy, there is recognition that different skill sets are required for each. The key is linking compliance and culture, and making the rules very clear to indigenous directors.
    CD: What does the Aboriginal culture bring to boards? 

    KG: Aboriginal communities are very structured, with lots of rules. There is no single leader among us, and we are part of a team. In my situation, I am the interpreter or the enabler who understands the white world and its legal system, and can translate that back to my community, or work with a translator. We draw everything on a board, listen and do oral transmissions of knowledge to pass that knowledge on from one to another and importantly aim to ensure that the community  or shareholders are involved. Although we have a different approach to conventional boards, an effective indigenous board brings great skill around listening, working together and being selfless.

    CD: How would you characterise the state of indigenous governance in Australia?

    KG: There has been an enormous increase in the number of indigenous boards, largely because these organisations need to be incorporated and demonstrate their governance, to receive government funding or to receive benefits from the mining industry. There is big money and responsibility involved.

    I wish I could say all of these new indigenous boards had lifted governance standards, but that is not the case. Too many organisations, in my experience, rely almost solely on their CEO, usually a non-Aboriginal person, to make decisions. The board is an afterthought. The CEO and management often do not genuinely listen to the board, even though directors are the first to be blamed if something goes wrong.

    It you want to improve the standard of indigenous governance, you have to improve the management standard of Aboriginal corporations. Too many indigenous boards are being asked to govern organisations that are rife with problems and inefficiencies. We desperately need higher-calibre CEOs across Aboriginal corporations, who can work more effectively and ethically with their boards.

    To be frank, I understand why some people think it is too risky to be a non-executive director of an indigenous board at this time with the increased director’s personal liability. I sometimes think it is becoming too much of a professional risk.

    CD: Is there sufficient governance support for indigenous boards?

    KG: Yes and no. One of the best things I ever did was the Australian Institute of Company Directors program for indigenous leaders. It was an incredible eye-opener for me about the importance of good governance and skills required, and at the same time a bit of a double-edged sword, because I could see many Aboriginal corporations and their boards had big knowledge gaps and deficiencies in governance around, for example, succession planning, the respective role and responsibility of the board and management, and so on.

    If you put up your hand to raise these issues, you are immediately branded a trouble-maker, so directors stay quiet or resign and the cycle of poor performance and governance, at too many Aboriginal organisations, continues. We need to unpack these issues, depersonalise them and have a sensible conversation with Aboriginal communities about supporting indigenous governance in Australia.

    CD: How could the governance community better help indigenous boards?

    KG: I would love to see Company Directors work with Aboriginal directors to develop and test models to help indigenous boards and lift indigenous governance standards, and develop a whole-of-sector governance approach. Training for indigenous directors is a great initiative but it needs to go further.
    I wish more indigenous boards had a mentor they could draw on for governance advice. The board, for example, could form a sub-committee on strategic planning, and ask its mentor, who might be a non-Aboriginal director on the board of a top public or private company, for advice.

    Or like mainstream boards, we could form a finance and risk management committee and ask our mentor for their specialist advice in this area. It is difficult for indigenous boards to have all the skills needed to make governance decisions, and unrealistic to expect, without access to ongoing support and assistance. We must find ways to link indigenous boards with non-Aboriginal directors, in an adviser capacity, who are willing to share their knowledge and passion.

    You must remember that governance is something still quite new to us. A board process is not normally the way Aboriginal people make decisions. Indigenous boards sometimes have trouble relating to a non-Aboriginal CEO or assessing his or her performance. Being able to draw on the expertise of a professional company director as a mentor or adviser would add great value.

    CD: Will we see you on more boards in coming years?

    KG: Possibly. However, I am very busy with work at present and looking to cut back a little on board roles as I get older. I’m one of those people who struggle to find an appropriate work/life balance. I am trying much harder to have more of a life. I still love reading and history. As you get older, you realise you only pass through this life, in this form, once. You need to make the most of it.

    CD: How you do feel when you return to your spiritual home in the Western Desert? 

    KG: I feel happy, relaxed, and at home. You go from living this busy life in the city to the basics of living in a remote landscape and community.
    It’s a beautiful, difficult place. It can also be very confronting. You witness the incredible courage of Aboriginal people who struggle each day, while having this wonderful sense of humanity, kindness and loyalty to each other.

    I am fortunate to have that attachment to my land and my community, and to be so proud of my people. I wish all Australians, not just Aboriginal people, felt a similar sense of attachment to the land.

    Instead, I sense this growing estrangement across our country, as the pace of life quickens while, paradoxically, people are increasingly searching for a sense of belonging and community.

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