Australia's first female governor-general on leadership, learning and survival

Friday, 29 June 2018


    Dame Quentin Bryce AD CVO reflects on her trailblazing journey... so far.

    “Across my life I’ve held some significant public roles and had some terrific opportunities and experiences, but on the whole, mine has been a pathway pretty typical of many women of my generation. It’s an Aussie story of the girl who grew up in the bush, went to the city to be educated — boarding school and university.

    Then marriage, graduation and overseas to Europe. It was a great time to be in London, the swinging ‘60s, a new wave of feminism and political activism in Paris. When we came home, I went to law school (University of Queensland) to do a refresher. I wanted to get on with my career, but had no idea how I was going to do that with two little ones in tow. The plan was to go into legal practice. I was surprised when I was offered a job as a tutor — I said ‘yes’ straight away, as I lived nearby.

    The following years were important and influential in my life. I came to understand what community means and learned many things that have stood me in great stead ever since. When you talk about membership of boards, that’s where it began for me, in my neighbourhood.

    quentin bryce

    Women on the rise

    Our children were brought up in a ‘village’ where we shared a sense of belonging and made enduring friendships. We got together to do things. When we needed childcare we’d ask, ‘How do we do that?’ Everything started with meetings around a kitchen table. We allocated the jobs; fundraising was constant, endless and fun. It was a time of vibrant social change, legal reform and an emerging women’s movement — exhilarating. We learned how to bring people together, how to organise, how to lobby politicians, write press releases. I became involved in mental health, juvenile justice, children’s rights, working with inspiring people. That’s also when my engagement in non-profit boards began. (That environment) developed my confidence and taught me how things worked. I learned the basics about running meetings, committees, office bearers, accountability and responsibility. Energy, commitment, purpose.

    Follow the money

    Financial management is key. We had tiny budgets that we had to manage very carefully. We learned how to read profit and loss statements, balance sheets, cash flow statements. It is amazing to think of how many women of my era became financially literate through our work in our community, P&C at schools, sporting clubs. We learned about leadership, too.

    Some people have said the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Finance Industry findings were no surprise — well, I’d say for people like me in the not-for-profit sector it has been a huge shock. We were brought up with serious notions of accountability and responsibility. I’ve observed high levels of legal, financial, and HR skills in women’s non-government organisations across decades. I’ve seen board members with professional expertise, giving [their time] voluntarily and generously. An impressive example is the YWCA, which recently announced a new national structure.

    I’ve been involved with the organisation since the 1970s and as patron, I was thrilled when the legal transaction effecting the amalgamation of the new entity was approved by the Federal Court in May. This signifies four years of hard work from members, volunteers, leaders and partners, including valuable pro bono expertise.”

    quentin bryce

    Survival tips

    “Be prepared. This means scheduling plenty of time for meeting papers. This is why you should carefully think about what you take on — do you really have the time that the job requires? I have had a deep personal and professional commitment to every position I’ve undertaken. The same goes for boards. You need to give your best and be seen to be giving your best.

    Have confidence. Speaking up, intervening, asking questions can be nerve-racking at first, but experience brings confidence. Hold on to your commitment and integrity.

    Don’t hesitate to ask. It’s easier to ask people to explain something again rather than say ‘I can’t do that’. It’s a good thing for an outsider like me to be asked to join a group. A couple of years ago, I was on an environment forum where most around the table were experts. When asked why I was there, I replied, ‘because I’m deeply concerned about my grandchildren’s future — and I do know a little about carbon capture and storage!’ You must have a sense of humour.

    Embrace change. It’s important to maintain lovely traditions, the ones that matter. The challenge is to find just the right balance between doing this and being contemporary and visionary. I was particularly sensitive to this at the Women’s College at the University of Sydney and in my vice-regal roles. It’s an issue for our great institutions.”

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