Career advice for graduates, from someone who’s been there

By Helen Silver

Friday May 14, 2021

Helen Silver

One of The Mandarin‘s distinguished brains trust panel, Helen SilverAO, this week delivered the graduate address at Monash University, after being awarded an honorary doctorate. Her speech contains valuable advice for graduates seeking a career in the public sector.

Like any seasoned bureaucrat, I researched the role of a commencement speaker before putting pen to paper for my address today.

A 1959 journal article said: “The purpose of the commencement speaker should be to inspire the members of the graduating class, not to amuse or to instruct them, and certainly not to bore them!”

So I am here today not to bore you but to offer advice. Mine is simple: find a career that uses your talents and that lets you be yourself. But most of all, follow your passion.

I was a career bureaucrat for most of my career. I’ve spent ten years in the private sector, working for NAB and Allianz, but 30 in government. For me, public service has been an overriding feature of my life.

I had the good fortune to reach the highest levels of government, which gave me a seat at the table to provide advice and influence in what I hope and in cases know were better outcomes for Victorians and Australians.

More recently, I have been able to work at the most senior levels of business. I am often asked how did this happen or how did you make this career path.

I studied economics at Monash and I found markets intellectually fascinating, but what excited me was public policy, the prospect of having a positive impact on society.

I followed my dream by joining the Victorian Public Service following a short stint in the commonwealth public service.

That wasn’t an obvious choice in the early 1980s. There were not a lot of professional women in the service. There were even fewer economists.

In theory, it might have made more sense to go to work in the commonwealth government. But I’m a Victorian and wished to spend my career here. I quickly learnt there were many opportunities for advancing public policy reforms that had a daily influence on people’s lives at the state level.

My first role in Victorian government was as an economics researcher in the housing department. I was its only economist. I didn’t have a job description. I didn’t have any role models. So I studied housing markets, funding arrangements for public housing — using the excellent training Monash had given me.

I started writing memos and distributed them broadly. I figured that there must be an audience for my work and all I needed to do was find it. This I might say is not the standard way you would expect to approach your first job. But I had boundless energy and passion and it also provided me with a lesson learnt that it always pays to look for the opportunities no matter where you sit in the organisation.

One day I got a phone call from what I thought was a senior officer. Had I written a particular memo? I had. Come upstairs. Which I did. I was then unexpectedly asked to go into the next office to explain my brief to the then housing minister.

That’s how I met Jeff Kennett. In ways, we were an effective match. I was determined to get someone to listen to my ideas for change and he most definitely wanted to make change. He listened with great interest to my analysis of what commonwealth policy was doing to Victoria. While I was still there, he picked up the phone and called the federal housing minister. The next morning, the front page of the Herald Sun carried an article about the robust conversation that ensued.

That was the day I really fell in love with my job. I learnt what my path needed to be. I had to get close to people who could make decisions, you needed to be able to clearly explain your ideas and you had to have a bit of courage and passion.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. But it happened enough. I took risks to move across different areas of state and federal governments in an effort to continually learn and develop competencies. This was crucial to my final public sector role as head of the Victorian public service.

I had the privilege of working closely with three premiers — Steve Bracks, John Brumby and Ted Baillieu — and on consequential matters of state significance. Three that come to mind are the response to the global financial crisis, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the Black Saturday bush fires — both management of the crisis and the subsequent royal commission inquiry. All left enduring legacies.

Commonwealth-state relations has been a recurrent theme in my career. In case you believe the public sector is a soft option, I promise you, the negotiations on which I supported Victoria’s political leaders were as lively and demanding as anything in the private sector. And in ways, potentially more deadly.

You get a seat at the table on three conditions. You must find a decision-maker to advise (or be that decision-maker).  You must know your stuff. You must be able to communicate.

As you rise through any organisation, the decisiveness and fortitude you seek will sometimes be your own. You need to stand up for what you believe. You need to stand up for your people. And people need to know what you stand for.  Effectiveness requires authenticity.

Fortune favours the brave, but it also favours those who have done their homework. Opportunity has a short half-life in a political and business environment. When a premier, prime minister or chairman stops you in the hall or a meeting and asks if you can explain how such-and-such works, you have an opportunity to create a customer for your advice, but only if you can answer the question there and then.

Briefing is a fundamental skill. Time is short. If you can’t deliver clear, succinct advice, no one will listen to you. Nor will they join your team. Muddy briefings tell people you lack confidence let alone technical skill.

What advice can we extract from this story? Your education isn’t over. You need to cultivate qualities that universities don’t formally teach. This narrative calls out two: curiosity and courage.

I made some venturesome choices in my career — moving among departments, joining the commonwealth public service (but staying in Melbourne) when I took a job at the Productivity Commission, even accepting initially a step down in the hierarchy to get more experience. It broadened me intellectually, built my self-confidence and made me a better candidate for economic leadership positions. These moves were also crucial to my final shift to the private sector.

My final advice is to cultivate humility. It helps you become a good listener. It lets you learn from customers and colleagues at every level. And it will make you better company.


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