Jane Cockburn has a career spanning a number of different sectors and countries. She talks to Domini Stuart about the importance of instigating change and the shifting dynamics of the boardroom.
Cochlear is renowned throughout the world for its ground-breaking hearing technology. As senior product manager, Jane Cockburn GAICD led two critical projects – the international launch of the complete Nucleus 5 auditory implant system and the disruption of Cochlear’s global business model.
“This gave me an insight into design-led innovation and I also saw the magic of helping people who might feel threatened by change to embrace new ways of doing things,” she says. “Getting people to that ‘aha’ moment still gives me a real thrill.”
Today, Cockburn helps both public and private health organisations to embrace transformational change as director of her own company, Kairos Now.
“Kairos is an ancient Greek word that means ‘opportune moment in time’ and this is the message I want to convey to companies that are in crisis or simply want to grow,” she says. “The whole healthcare sector is in a process of transformation as growing health problems related to ageing, lifestyle and diet threaten to stretch our resources beyond their limit. Now is an opportune time to reframe your problems and open your mind to possibilities because, if we don’t change the way the system works, we stand to lose much of the beautiful life we take for granted in Australia”
A future in science
Cockburn always assumed she would be “some sort of scientist”. Both of her parents were doctors and she breezed through science at school. After graduating with a double major in biochemistry and microbiology from what is now the University of Technology, Sydney, she accepted a job in pathology but soon realised that she was not cut out for a career on the bench.
“A holistic picture is very important to me,” she says. “I’m very interested in outcomes – it is the human impact of the work I do that keeps me interested.” So she jumped at a chance to work with Professor Creswell Eastman, a well-known and highly-respected endocrinologist with a primary interest in iodine deficiency disorders.
“At the time, his focus was on the thyroid disorders affecting new-born babies in some areas of China that were caused by a lack of iodine,” she says. “I was involved in designing and developing two investigative procedures in Sydney, then transferring the technology to the Atomic Institute of Energy in Beijing. It was fascinating work and very much a project with a heart.”
Later, as technical marketing manager of Johnson & Johnson Medical, she was based in Hong Kong for three years.
“I had been hired to set up a diagnostic office for Hong Kong and China and to develop a regional support strategy for the entire Asia Pacific region,” she says. “My work there opened my eyes to how differently different cultures interact. For example, it was a real challenge to build a team of trusted advisers in an environment where people are not allowed to question their superiors or their customers.”
Possibilities not probabilities
After Hong Kong, Cockburn took a break from science. “I worked in hospitality and for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games before deciding to start a business developing and installing customised databases,” she says. “I had never done anything like this before so I was teaching myself the skills as I went along. I am very much a person who focuses on possibilities rather than probabilities.”
However, healthcare remained her passion and she returned to the sector to take on a number of sales and management roles. “Working with the inventors of a real-time device for detecting cervical cancer brought home to me how many clever and creative people working in Australia are struggling to commercialise their inventions,” she says.
“I also realised that, if I had a board position, my understanding of the complex and regulated healthcare environment coupled with my experience in marketing, software, media and finance would enable me to bridge the gap between scientists and business people.”
In 2007, a friend introduced her to the chief executive officer of the STaR Association, an organisation which provides early inclusive education for children with special needs.
She was invited to join the board and, over the next three years, helped to develop a business strategy that included new approaches to marketing and fundraising as well as organisational change.
“In that time we built it up from what people call a ‘ma and pa’ organisation to one that could stand on its own feet,” she says.
Changes in the boardroom
Cockburn believes that boards are undergoing a process of transformation which is being driven by increasing visibility, mounting risk and greater responsibility for their decision-making. “It is not just a question of whether directors are keeping up with rapid change but whether they are willing to challenge themselves and look outside where they would normally play,” she says.
“Historically, boards were required to cover a few very functional and operational areas such as law and accounting but I believe there is now a real need for more creative confidence.
“Today’s success is built on innovation and innovation can only flourish in an environment of creative empowerment, cross-cultural collaboration and experimentation. If directors continue to promote a traditional model of command and control, who will have the courage to stick their neck out and suggest doing something in a totally different way? Cultural change does not just happen and it will never gain traction unless it is pulled from the top.”
Cockburn resigned from STaR to set up Kairos Now, which is now well established.
“When I look back on what I consider to be my greatest achievements they all involve leaving something behind, whether that was helping to set up a pathology department at Shanghai Children’s Hospital, building the office in Hong Kong or changing people’s thinking about change,” she says.
“I believe that one of the great privileges of sitting on a board is being in a position to create a legacy by shaping a successful future for the organisation, its stakeholders and society as a whole.”
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