From textbooks to tech start-ups, Lisa Paul takes leap of faith

By Stephen Easton

Friday January 29, 2016

Commonwealth Department of Education and Training secretary Lisa Paul says her imminent departure from the public service feels “a bit like jumping off a cliff” after more than three decades, including 11 years at the highest level, earning a swag of awards and honours along the way.

It’s the only career she’s known, having moved to Canberra for university in the early ’80s and lined up to sit the entrance test for a government job after graduation like so many others. She wasn’t really sure of her chances, until the bloke next to her fell asleep during the exam.

Now, Paul sees exciting opportunities spreading out around her in the world outside the Australian Public Service. “I’ve decided to move from doing the one big thing to what they would call a portfolio career, which is doing a range of different things all at once,” she told The Mandarin.

After an impressively long run as a federal secretary, Paul hopes to lend her wisdom and experience to the boards of both companies and not-for-profit organisations as a non-executive director, and to individuals as a professional mentor and executive coach. She’s also thinking about exercising a latent entrepreneurial streak.

“I am proud of the trust that I’ve built … and I’ll never break that trust.”

“I have some tech start-up ideas on my mind, and I have no idea how to make them real but I’m kind of excited by thinking about trying,” the secretary said ebulliently, as an electrical storm rapidly enveloped the top-floor office she’ll soon vacate.

“I hope to follow some passions that I haven’t had time to over all these years, like fashion … I reckon that if I hadn’t been brought up with a public sector focus, I might even have been in the fashion industry, somewhere.”

The seasoned mandarin clarifies that she would stick to the administrative side of any start-up that might eventuate, and leave the creativity to others. Whatever she ends up doing, she doesn’t want to stop feeling like she is “making a difference”.

Paul’s initially unplanned but ultimately very successful professional journey began in Canberra’s Housing Commission, before the territory got its own government. “And I did that because I’d done an honours thesis on welfare housing,” she explained, musing that, as a graduate back then, she could have chosen something grander like foreign affairs or the Prime Minister’s Department.

But it was in public housing that Paul was “instantly turned on to the difference [public servants] can make” in society. Professional pride in the job permeated the capital in those days, and she is convinced it is still a strong motivator within the APS community.

Of course, no longer being a top public servant will allow her to dispense her policy expertise and advice in other ways, such as consulting and advisory roles, or even academically. “It depends what people offer me,” Paul said realistically.

Free of the need to stay apolitical after so long, will she begin to wade into the kinds of arguments a senior public servant best stay out of? “No. Absolutely not.”

“I am proud of the trust that I’ve built and that’s been offered to me and the department, by all the ministers that I’ve worked with and their offices, and I’ll never break that trust,” said the secretary.

Leadership: juggling, genuine care and strategic vision

According to the outgoing incumbent, the hardest thing for DET’s next secretary will be “keeping all the balls in the air at once” by triaging tasks based on urgency while being flexible in changing circumstances.

“And I challenge my successor to care for people in a genuine way,” Paul added, based on a firm view that what business leaders need most of all is a combination of strategic acuity and empathy for their staff.

“I’m proud of the culture that, I hope, I’ve been able to help shape. I’m proud of the relationships, the true partnerships we’ve had with ministers and their offices, relationships of trust and high performance. And I’m proud of my commitment and our commitment to Indigenous business being everyone’s business, in all of the departments I’ve led.”

Recently, Paul says, that mantra became even more important when the Coalition government moved Indigenous Affairs into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, taking some indigenous-specific programs out of the Education Department at the same time.

“That meant that the notion that ‘indigenous business is everyone’s business in the Department of Education and Training’ had to be lived especially through mainstream programs, through every program,” she explained.

“So I would say: ‘What’s international education doing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?’ And actually, it’s doing things like supporting Aboriginal researchers to study overseas, or Aboriginal students to study overseas, say through the New Colombo Plan.”

That particular machinery of government change has been questioned by some, but Paul says it’s been a “good challenge” for DET that has forced its staff consider how they can improve outcomes for indigenous people through core programs that serve every Australian.

“You can’t overdo communication in times of change. Give people as much certainty as possible in an uncertain environment.”

In a sector where much of the action happens at state level, Paul sees the federal department’s ever-growing role in primary and secondary education as providing “national leadership” for parents, schools and the universities that produce the teachers.

Such is her passion for the topic, leadership is likely to be another major theme of life after the APS, and no doubt she has an extensive library of anecdotes to draw on.

Paul starts from the principle that “everyone is a leader” and relies on research suggesting Australians primarily want leaders who can define how each employee contributes to the organisation’s mission, and also treat them with respect. She believes good leadership boils down to getting the job done in a way that is respectful, courteous, consistent, supportive and clear, never frightening.

“That’s caring for people. It’s wrapping around people who have a personal crisis in the workplace. It’s celebrating diversity because diverse teams produce better work,” she said.

“I always require both those things of my senior leadership and of everyone in the department, and I hope that my personal commitment to that approach has helped build … a culture that is very high performing as well as being a really satisfying place to work.”

Dealing with change — whether from crises and natural disasters or political developments and decisions by ministers — is an important facet of public sector leadership. Unsurprisingly, Paul says getting it right is all about communication.

The unexpected and making near-impossible seem easy

Leading the domestic response to the Bali bombings was both a career highlight and one of the hardest tasks Paul took on in the APS. She is widely credited with rising to that challenge, and it earned her a Public Service Medal, but it was something else out of the ordinary that really tested her mettle.

“I reckon the hardest time in the whole 11 years as a secretary in a leadership sense was the creation of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. And that’s because it was a massive machinery of government change; it was two whole departments coming together and a large part of a third,” she said.

Paul contrasts MoG changes with the way mergers and acquisitions are normally handled in the private sector, with a lot of support from board members and significant funds allocated to the careful planning and execution of the project.

“In government, you know, it has to happen overnight. It’s completely seamless. There’s no funding for it; in fact, government took a dividend [from creating DEEWR],” she said.

“I think we’re very good at machinery of government change [in the APS] but nonetheless, they are quite disruptive.”

She and her team decided they had been quite efficient when they benchmarked the cost of building the former mega-department — $80 million in IT and remuneration alignment — against a merger of two small banks that cost $150 million.

“I think we’re very good at machinery of government change [in the APS] but nonetheless, they are quite disruptive,” said Paul. She thinks the bureaucracy has gotten better at doing the MoG shuffle over time, but it’s hard to know for sure. It could just be technology making it easier.

“It is a bit more seamless and I think shared services will help. Nonetheless, it does take a lot of communication and a lot of leadership to do any organisational change well.”

The formation of DEEWR demonstrated the value of having multiple lines of communication up and down the organisation, especially in times of change, making up an informal organisation-wide discussion alongside the formal change management process.

Along with the typical all-staff meetings, blogs or even tweets from the secretary, it’s important for staff to be able to respond and ask questions. Paul favours confidential channels for staff to discuss their personal worries directly with their immediate supervisor or with senior management through a confidential email address or anonymous phone line.

“I think you can’t overdo communication in times of change,” she said. “It’s very important to try to give people as much certainty as possible in an uncertain environment.”

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