In this wide-canvassing interview with The Mandarin, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs secretary talks about inspirational leadership, serving veterans, and responding to the pandemic.
Success in leadership depends on being true to yourself. Know who you are and what you stand for. That pretty much sums up Liz Cosson’s approach. Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs since May 2018, Cosson became a career public servant in 2010 after serving 31 years as an officer in the Australian Army.
In the Australian Public Service, as in the military, Cosson has reached the heights of leadership. But not without facing huge challenges and setbacks. And not without believing in herself.
In 2005, she became the first woman to be promoted to the rank of Brigadier in the Australian Army, and by 2007 she was the Army’s first female Major General. Previously, in the late 1990s, she was deployed as chief of staff to the peace monitoring group in Bougainville.
“I like to be authentic. What you see is who I am,” Cosson says.
“I learned that as a young officer, when I used to watch some of my colleagues. As a young officer, when you’re in a male-dominated environment, surrounded by males at the bar or with your senior NCOs – and in those days they were predominately Vietnam veterans – they used to love to swear. And in those days you had nudie posters up in your warehouse.
“I recognised I couldn’t be one of them. I’m quite short in stature and I’d like to think of myself as quite feminine, and you can’t be a blokey bloke when you are who you are. So I learnt very early that I need to be who I am, and that’s why I’ll always go back to the value set from my upbringing.”
Cosson initially joined DVA as a first assistant secretary, before moving to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (now Home Affairs) as deputy secretary, and then to a similar position at the Health Department.
She returned to DVA as deputy secretary in 2016 and was promoted to secretary two years later.
Her honours include Member of the Order of Australia (Military Division), a Conspicuous Service Cross, and an ACT Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership.
“I like to give back to women who are starting off their careers or trying to attain the senior ranks,” Cosson says.
“But it’s not about saying, ‘Look I’m a trailblazer’, it’s more about what I learned from my experiences. Because sometimes you can look at the next level and think, ‘that’s so far away, I’ll never get there’.
“When I first joined the military there really were no senior ranks in the female ranks. There were a couple and you would look to them. I think it was more during my service that so many opportunities presented. And that’s probably one of the key lessons from my career – to take those opportunities when they present.
“I could have said no to Bougainville. I mean, it was really down to, ‘Liz, you are ready, but it’s your decision’. And there are so many other examples of that through my career. When I went to Home Affairs I thought ‘Hmmm, I’m quite happy in this Veterans’ place – do I want to do that?’. But then, ‘actually that’s going to present an opportunity’, because I did want to eventually come back here [DVA] and I said to the secretary of the day, ‘I want your job one day’ and he said, ‘yeah, mate, that’s not going to happen – because you’re not a public servant’.
“It’s not about being a trailblazer. It’s about saying ‘I’m just a person that was (1) presented opportunities, and (2) had great mentors and champions. Angus Houston (then Chief of the Defence Force) was one of those in the military – incredible human being. He taught me about knowing your values and the importance of your values.
“I learnt a very hard lesson from a mistake I made, in what values meant and what a leader is all about.”
What the secretary is referring to is when, as a brigadier in 2006, she was assigned to investigate the circumstances surrounding the bungled repatriation of the body of Private Jacob Kovco, who was accidentally killed while deployed to Iraq.
Following a meeting with the Victorian Coroner, Cosson inadvertently left a CD-ROM marked ‘secret’ in a Qantas Club lounge computer. It was a draft copy of her report and it fell into the hands of the media. Radio journalist Derryn Hinch subsequently broadcast some of the report’s damning contents.
“When I immediately realised what had happened, you feel sick,” she says.
“And I had to get on a plane from Melbourne to Canberra and I was told ‘when you get to Canberra, the CDF wants to see you’. Ok, so I’m sitting on a plane from Melbourne for an hour and I felt so sick for the (Kovco) family. I knew what this meant.
“I didn’t know where the disc was at this stage, I just knew it had gone. And when I landed, I went straight to CDF’s house and his wife Liz said ‘He’s in the study’. I walked into the study and he got up from behind his desk and he came and put his arms around me and he said, ‘We’ll get through this’. What a leader. Didn’t get angry, just said ‘Ok, we’ve made a mistake. It’s not about the mistake now, it’s about how we’re going to deal with this, and let’s just work out what this all means’.
“I still had to deliver the report, and it was still a job to be done. That was an incredible lesson for me, and I say this to staff now: ‘Don’t’ be afraid if you’ve made a mistake, let me know, because then we can deal with it. Because if you try to cover it up or find a way to deal with it, we may not get there and it may become worse.’
“When you’ve made a mistake, well that’s where I talk about values. It’s that value set that you know is in you from your childhood. Angus used to talk about that – values-based leadership and if you just turn to your values, then you’ll always make the right decision.
“You do your job and yes you’ve made a mistake, you’ve learnt some incredible lessons from that mistake. How do you now use that mistake to be the best you can be? Because you could wallow in it and say ‘I’ll never get anywhere’. But it really then drove me to say ‘I need to be the best I can be here’. And I was given opportunities again, given wonderful opportunities to demonstrate that I had learnt from that mistake to go on and do the best I could do.”
Doing her best for the veteran community is something that is evident. Cosson, even before becoming secretary, has been the driver of the department’s transformation program – redesigning interaction with veterans and their families by involving them in the design itself.
That the department’s approach needed improving is an understatement. It’s problems and claims against it are well-documented. But Cosson is a veteran herself. She is the daughter of a veteran; a wife of a veteran. Her great grandfather served in Gallipoli and France in WWI. He was killed by shellfire while under German counter attack. He received a Distinguished Conduct Medal and is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.
She understands vets and has a genuine desire to do the right thing by them.
DVA has spent the past four years asking veterans about their experiences with the department, through interviews and workshops.
“The key message I heard from all of those workshops was, ‘Why don’t you know us? We’ve served in the Australian Defence Force for x years, you then make us tell you again who we are and prove who we are and then tell our story, which sometimes is quite difficult for us. So why don’t you know us?’,” Cosson says.
“That was the first foundation piece for me – how do we get to know you? So working with Defence, we now know everyone who enlists, every single person. And when you leave — 6000 leave a year — we send you a card to say, here we are, this card will give you access to any mental health treatment you need.”
The second message DVA heard was, ‘It’s so difficult’ to fill out 40 pages to lodge a claim and provide evidence of illnesses and injuries and how they are connected to military service.
“So that’s where we then delivered the digital MyService and we now have over 174,000 registered users on that and have made it easier for them to connect with us. We have streamlined those 40 pages down to maybe five questions.”
DVA has also streamlined phone systems and is using voice biometrics to help get vets talking to the right people in the department – with a 94% connection-success rate.
“And the fourth pillar of transformation is that of respect… We put in legislation last year, a new Bill, which is for all Australians to recognise and acknowledge military service… and we issued a pin, the veteran’s pin.”
“When COVID did strike, I was quite — not nervous, but thinking oh how are we going to actually respond to this, not just for the department, but for the veteran community. And I have been so proud of how the department has responded,” Cosson says.
“We have over 80% of our staff working remotely, which the technology has just been able to stand up to. I’m seeing happy staff. Happy staff can actually lead to productive staff and it can lead to a better experience for our veterans.
“So that’s the first point, I’m really proud of what we’ve done. We were able to work closely with the other agencies of course. We provided some staff to Services Australia to help with the growth in demand to support our citizens.
“But then we were able to deliver over 222,000 stimulus payments to our veteran community. They were eligible under the government’s stimulus and 1,200 of our dependants who are receiving education support received that $550 reported payment.
“We wrote to over 70,000 of our most vulnerable veterans… we sent out over 27,000 SMS text messages to say don’t forget we’re here if you need us. We wrote to 20,000 GPs to remind them that they could bill against telehealth services and it was important to keep up support to veterans, and we also offered shopping to our veterans receiving veteran home care if they needed that assistance.
“We put out a special e-news bulletin on COVID and that reached over 150,000 of our veteran community. Because what I felt, and what our whole team felt, was what was important is just to let our veterans know, like all Australians know, that there was support there for them and that we hadn’t closed because of COVID, and we were still delivering services.”
DVA has made particular efforts of late to reach out to the veterans in those Melbourne suburbs where the coronavirus has resurged.
A better image for veterans
“The majority of those 6,000 that leave each year go on to lead very healthy, productive lives, either through employment or through voluntary services,” Cosson says.
“If you just think of those men and women who put up their hands to serve in the Defence Force, they’ve done incredible things. Their purpose has been to serve our country and the majority of them go on to do that.
“But yes, there are a small number who need a little bit of extra help and that’s because their whole life has been perhaps wanting to join the military and then something happens. Either medically, physically or administratively they can no longer serve. And some of them struggle for that short period of time to re-establish their purpose, post their military service.
“That’s a minority. The message is that we’re not all busted and broken. We’re actually really resilient people and we’re good. We bring incredible skills to employers. But for those who do have a little bit of difficulty in that transition, that’s why we’re here.”