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Bringing out the businesswoman in public service leaders

Most people, if asked to give an example of a successful businesswoman, would not choose one of the many playing leading roles in large public sector organisations with huge budgets and important social responsibilities.

So it was a nice feeling for Northern Territory Department of Children and Families chief executive officer Anne Bradford to be recognised beyond the confines of the government sector, as the 2006 Northern Territory Business Woman of the Year at Telstra’s yearly awards, when she was a regional manager with the Department of Defence.

Anne Bradford
Anne Bradford

“If I can be really frank with you, public servants have rarely been considered part of the business sector,” she told The Mandarin. “And so I am in that privileged position, for it to have been recognised that as a public servant, I was worthy of being considered a ‘businesswoman’. Suddenly, it was that realisation that you transcend being identified as a public servant, as being someone who is worthy of being in the business arena.”

Bradford became a national judge of the awards, a role she considers “a rare chance to shape, influence and inform the future”. Nominations are open now and she helpfully shared some tips on what she looks for with The Mandarin. Her standard is pretty high:

“I’m looking for someone who is that rare breed that actually has something that’s worthy of hearing, and actually taking the time to listen [to].”

[pullquote] “What it changed was my horizon and the landscape that I looked at. Instead of being on a regional, or a territory or state scale, it then gave me a platform nationally that allowed me to have a voice.” [/pullquote]

Bradford sees judging as “a rare chance to shape, influence and inform the future” and says she also looks for someone who is “genuine and authentic” but also possesses “diversity in thinking” and a willingness to put in extra effort that sets them apart from the rest.

Public service leaders routinely manage staggeringly large budgets and massive staffing rosters, she points out, but that experience still isn’t seen as “equal or relevant” by many in the business world. Greater recognition of public sector achievement, might help to attract more of the best and brightest into government, Bradford suspects:

“I think we want the finest of the fine to be our senior public servants — [people] who honour the fact that it is public money, and that we have to defend and select things correctly, so that we actually do our due diligence better and with more integrity to make sure that we do no wrong.”

She says winning the award herself reinforced her own self belief. “What it changed was my horizon and the landscape that I looked at. Instead of being on a regional, or a territory or state scale, it then gave me a platform nationally that allowed me to have a voice. It allowed me to have not just a simple voice but a credible and respected voice, and permission to speak. So it allowed me then to mentor, to coach, to guide and support the people with whom I worked, enjoying credibility that wasn’t present before.”

People who win awards shouldn’t let them go to their heads, she counsels, or let it change who they are, or the other people who helped them find their core personal values that made them successful.

Bradford goes back to having a set of core values and principles as one of the “fundamental” leadership skills that transcend any specific sector or portfolio. “So whether it be professionalism, whether it be respect, whether it be trust, integrity, honour, courage, or whether it be simply about being innovative in your approach, those are the things that you must hold near and dear regardless of where you work.”

[pullquote] “Leadership to me is about unlocking the potential that is already present in others. For me it’s an action, not a position.” [/pullquote]

Of course, the work itself comes down to identifying objectives and managing resources to achieve them. “It’s about the functions of planning, organising, controlling, evaluating, and the use of resources: people, time, finance,” Bradford said. “Leadership to me is about unlocking the potential that is already present in others. For me it’s an action, not a position.”

Bradford has taught high school, TAFE and university, and worked in the federal and NT governments across health and ageing, Defence, law enforcement, justice, infrastructure and housing. She says there’s no favourite area, and the different things she learned along the way all helped her get where she is now.

“Every one of them has taught me something and its built the person that I am today, and I could never be a chief executive without having woven that history and picked up skills and attributes along the way from the people with whom I have worked,” she said, confessing later that early in her career, she never imagined herself in a such a senior gig.

Opportunities ‘transcend’ gender

But what of the struggle for gender equality in the workplace?

“I need to demonstrate my competence, not based on my sex, but by being a good manager and a good leader, and I have been privileged to work in an environment where if you demonstrate that worth and if you are able to transcend being male or female; being honest and true to yourself, that’s what gives you success,” said Bradford.

“I’m certainly not indicating that in years gone by, it was an easy gig for females in the public service. But I am from a generation that has been given a rare chance to shine … and be told that you are worthy of being given this responsibility because you’ve demonstrated that based on your competence. And that’s how it should be in the public service.”

She certainly agrees there aren’t enough women in senior roles, but takes a view something like the one Julie Bishop has tried to express, to the disappointment of some new-wave feminists: “It’s not about being male or female; it’s about the opportunities that present, and it certainly is up to an individual not to buy in to being male or female, but rather [focus on] demonstrating your competence.”

“So I’m not criticising any female that says it’s tough; it’s damn tough, but not because you’re a female. [It is] because … sometimes you have to go against your own natural instinct and get tougher in the way you portray your decision-making.”

Top photo: Anne Bradford (right) delivers Christmas cakes to public housing tenants with her former colleagues at Department of Housing.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.