Blending in wasn’t going to work for Carmel McGregor. Now she mentors those with vision, not just personal ambition


Carmel McGregor

The influential former Australian Public Service executive talks to Verona Burgess about forging a career of meaningful impact.

When Carmel McGregor became Deputy Secretary, People Group in the Department of Defence in 2012, an early task was to sign a multi-million-dollar Australian Defence Force recruitment contract with Manpower Services (Australia). She wondered aloud whether the global giant ought to change its name.

“They thought I was joking.”

As Deputy Public Service Commissioner, she had just conducted the first comprehensive gender audit of Defence’s APS employees, in the wake of the infamous Skype sex scandal involving cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Her move to Defence after four years at the APSC (including being on the advisory group for the 2010 APS reform “blueprint”) reflected a “carpe diem” approach she tried to take throughout her career. She began in service delivery in the then Commonwealth Employment Service in Brisbane, armed with a degree in psychology and sociology, moving from there to the national office Canberra.

“I got swept up in labour market issues and interventions and worked on big labour market programs. It was a very robust place. People said it was a blokey environment; I never thought of it as that, just robust. I suppose looking back, the figures would show an imbalance of men and women but at the time, I still felt I could make my way.”

When Centrelink was created in 1997 as a stand-alone central service-delivery agency, McGregor moved across under the leadership of Sue Vardon, who set about ensuring her Senior Executive Service had gender parity. McGregor had already learnt that the best way to build an interesting career was to move around. At Centrelink she experienced the value of having a critical mass of women in senior positions.

“Sue was so focused on achieving a 50:50 balance in the SES ranks from the get-go, and it was a social-policy type of environment with a predominantly female workforce in the lower ranks and in the service delivery arm. I regarded it as a place where there was every overt encouragement and respect for a variety of voices – and not exclusively about gender diversity – and that was just wonderful. I think it was the most enjoyable time of my career, those early years when you were learning about leadership and Sue encouraged us to get engaged and look outside, to look everywhere. It was very much encouraged – hard-wired.”

She says diversity also creates a better balance in performance and culture and helps mitigate a problem where some women feel compelled to fit in with a dominant male culture.

“When I went to Defence I heard, particularly on the ADF side, ‘Just blend in and don’t stand out and hope like hell that you get noticed’. It didn’t strike me as the most effective strategy.”

In trying to fit in, some people – men and women – instead adopt a gung-ho management approach which may be contrary to their authentic style, and it doesn’t always turn out well.

“Importantly, staff interpret what’s expected and if it starts to rub up against their inherent sense of what is good and appropriate, they react against it. That’s because it sets the tone. People fall into line and they think ‘Righto, I’ll think about how to play that’. So they operate in a way that seems to fit but often it’s not sustainable, because it’s not how they want to operate. It is important that people have loyalty to the leader but if they feel they have to operate subversively, that erodes the culture.

“So I think that approach can be useful in the short term and probably not much damage is done, but people want to be decent human beings. And so they’ll vote with their feet and leave – or else become part of a complaint culture. They take comfort in the mechanisms of lodging grievances and then you’re on a short road to a very poor culture, environment and very poor performance.”

Carmel McGregor in the Commonwealth Employment Service Job Taskforce

Developing good management skills does not happen overnight and everyone makes mistakes along the way. That is why she believes it is essential to gain practical service delivery and program management experience early on – and certainly by APS6 and EL1 levels. She also thinks it should be a core qualification for the SES. No policy is a good policy unless it can be implemented.

“To see people in policy departments who go and sit in on a service department to have a little look at customer service for a few days and ‘tick, understand service delivery’ is just facile. I think these are deep sets of experiences that should be built into a career.”

In 2005 the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon unlawful detention scandals erupted at Immigration. A new team was parachuted in to reform the culture, led by a new secretary, Andrew Metcalfe. McGregor was on that team. History has overtaken that particular set of reforms but it demonstrated that timing matters.

“When a problem is uncovered and everyone is looking, don’t waste those moments! You can get further with the spotlight on.”

McGregor is, typically, cautious about claiming any enduring influence of her work at Defence, which was the civilian corollary to then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick’s higher-profile work on the treatment of women in the ADF. She defers to Broderick’s wisdom and generosity in leading the progress on all fronts within Defence.

Yet McGregor’s landmark report – the Review of Employment Pathways for APS Women in the Department of Defence – remains on the department’s website today among eight reports that underpin the ongoing Pathway to Change strategy. The representation of women in the SES and on Defence boards and committees still has a way to go but has improved significantly.

Since retiring from the APS in 2014, McGregor has become a quintessential “inside-outside” APS leader, role model and mentor.

“People have come to me ask me to mentor them. I am so very happy to do that and continue to do so. However, when their objective is ‘wanting help to get into the SES’, at that point I might suggest finding someone else. I find it a really dispiriting thing. I’m not interested in talking to people if that’s their only ambition. I want to understand how they want to contribute, make a difference, how to ignite and pursue something really meaningful for the APS and community.

“I think there is too much emphasis on, ‘I must achieve a certain level within a certain period of time’ and it’s not healthy. I do think people are looking for interesting challenges. That’s the real test for organisations: how they can create meaning for people coming in and allow them to take risks.”

If she were advising her younger self, she would say a good career is not always planned or deliberate.

“Take every opportunity you can; pay attention to the differences of people in teams. It’s about respecting the quieter voices, not always the out-there type of people. I always learnt a fair bit from watching my bosses. I learnt a lot from those who were great, and I also learnt a lot from those who weren’t very good, about what I never wanted to do – and how you can be damaged by people like that and how you need to get out of there as fast as you can.

“Take responsibility for your own learning and development – this expectation that it will be handed to you on a platter is just self-indulgent. Strong networks are crucial, not only to understand where your impact is and what your working priorities are and how they sit in the broader context, but also for what you learn about yourself and how you can rely on others.”

How do you know whom to trust?

“I think decent human beings really stand out from the pack. I think you can also spot those who lack integrity really quickly. It’s not worth hanging around thinking they might change or improve, if your radar’s going off. It’s a shame and it’s where I got caught one time, where I was vitally interested in the work I was doing.

“Fortunately I had a deputy secretary who said, ‘It’s time to move.’ I said, ‘But I’m really enjoying this!’ and he said, ‘I’m telling you, they’ll get you.’ And with his support and others I did go to another area, but I was very lucky that good people were looking out for me at the time.”

Carmel McGregor with Greg Taylor, then Secretary of Department of Employment, Education and Training

She agrees it can be useful for public servants to spend time in a ministerial office and is heartened that this difficult area is receiving attention in the current review of the APS. She well remembers the 1996 change of government and the former Department of Employment, Education and Training.

“A lot of outstanding people had been in ministers’ offices, whether as advisors or DLOs [department liaison officers] and they were all gone within a year. Some had chosen to leave; others were told they’d lost the confidence [of the government]. So it is perilous path for some. I don’t know that there is one right answer.”

Carmel McGregor is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra. She was Australia’s representative and Vice Chair of the OECD’s Public Governance Committee from 2008–2012. She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management, a Fellow of the Australian Human Resources Institute, a Fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia, Vice President of the Institute of Public Administration Australia in the ACT, and a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. She is also a member of the Northern Territory Chief Minister’s Advisory Group on Defence. She was awarded a Public Service Medal in 2013

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