Adam Fennessy: going part-time didn’t kill this secretary’s career

By David Donaldson

Friday March 4, 2016

Adam Fennessy
Adam Fennessy

The secretary of Victoria’s DELWP talks to The Mandarin about disruption, rolling out flexible working across the VPS, and how his path to becoming a departmental secretary confused his male colleagues.

Adam Fennessy was one of the first men in the Victorian Public Service’s senior executive to take time off work and shift to part-time to look after his children.

“I had to negotiate that under a fair bit of pushback”, he told The Mandarin in his office overlooking the Melbourne Museum. “The view at that time was, frankly, why doesn’t your wife worry about that, and I said well no, that’s important to me.

“I ended up getting to deputy secretary level with that flexibility.”

Asked whether attitudes have changed a few years on, he is uncertain. “A little bit.”

“With my male colleagues, who are all CEOs and male champions of change, there are a lot of different views about what flexibility means.”

But it’s hardly hurt his career. Over the past decade he’s moved from being an executive director in the Department of Premier and Cabinet to secretary of the Department of Environment and Primary Industries and, following post-election machinery of government changes, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Fennessy initially had no interest in the policy areas he ended up making a career in.

After completing degrees in economics, law and politics, he received offers from a few Commonwealth departments. Noticing how committed then-secretary Allan Hawke was to the graduate program, he decided the Department of Transport and Regional Services “felt like the department to work for”, despite having no background in transport itself.

“I very quickly learned that some of the policy areas were fascinating, like state rail and road connectivity,” he said. “To me working for good leaders and on interesting issues is more likely to be satisfying.”

As a resident of the goldfields town of Bendigo, he’s the only Victorian department head to live outside Melbourne. Given that his portfolio covers a whole range of rural issues, from back-burning to local government, this places him in good stead to hear public feedback — positive and negative — whether on the Vline train he catches in to the city, at the supermarket or in the department’s own, smaller office in Bendigo.

It also means when there’s a big storm or a fire — or there are problems with Vline services, as there have been recently — he’s there experiencing the disruptions along with his neighbours in a way many of his colleagues wouldn’t.

The secretary secret

The man now in charge of one of Victoria’s seven government departments maintains he never thought he’d end up a secretary. Early in his career he’d look at what his bosses were up to and thought “they always seemed to be working and not really have much of a life”.

Times have changed. While DELWP is a great organisation to work for and Fennessy enjoys being in such a strong public value role, it’s also important he has a connection with his family.

“If you want to become a secretary, you probably haven’t got the right frame of mind.”

The morning before our meeting he had been at Marysville, a town north of Melbourne largely destroyed in 2009 Black Saturday fires. Someone asked him how one becomes a secretary.

“You become a secretary by not wanting to become a secretary,” he explained. It’s about doing the job you’re in well.

“If you want to become a secretary, you probably haven’t got the right frame of mind. I didn’t expect to be in this role, but what I did enjoy was over the years working on really interesting and complex projects and trying to see them through.

“My advice is work in areas you’re interested in and follow through on a project where you can see what it’s like at the start, the complexities you’ve got to work through, how you engage with the community in particular, and ideally if you see it through to the end it’s very satisfying.”

‘Are you worried about discriminating against men?’

Becoming secretary has allowed Fennessy to make his commitment to gender equality tangible.

In just the past two and a half years, the number of senior executives who are women at DEPI and its successor DELWP has jumped from 28% to 46% of the total. In recruitment he insists on gender equal selection panels and a gender equal candidate shortlist. “I call that conscious merit,” he says.

“In some parts of our organisation I find I have to be positively disruptive, so behaviours won’t change until we actively appoint new leaders who’ve got a different background.”

In the places he’s actively pushed for change, Fennessy says he’s seeing “really rich leadership groups”. Some staff still find this confronting, so he thinks a key way to bring people along is to “talk about it a lot”.

“I was at one water sector conference — our water boards are now 50-50 men and women — and the first question from the floor was, ‘are you worried about discriminating against men?’ And I said they’ve still got 50% to go for.

“I just think for men to take a serious role is important because then it becomes not a women’s issue but just something we’re all going to work on.”

A better flex system

Following his own experience working flexibly to be a part of the raising of his children, Fennessy is a big advocate of men in particular taking such opportunities. He still works in Bendigo on Fridays, and uses commuting time to get things done.

“That flexibility signals to the organisation that your effectiveness is as much about your connection, your networks, your mobile connection. I share with the organisation that I do the school drop-off because that’s important to me. I went part time and I encouraged people generally — but men in particular — to think about that.

“If men go more flexible then that supports their partners and benefits everybody.”

He now chairs a group on flexible working arrangements.

That committee is working with the Victorian Public Sector Commission and the Victorian Secretaries Board to figure out what flexibility looks like across the whole public service as jobs and technology change. It’s also about shifting attitudes, and he admits “a lot of views and attitudes are just reflecting biases and attitudes that are out of date”.

“With my male colleagues, who are all CEOs and male champions of change, there are a lot of different views about what flexibility means,” he explains.

“In DELWP since the start of last year we’ve gone all-roles flex. I said to my colleagues — some of whom are sceptical about that — that firstly it’s important to signal that, and then you’ve got to deliver on it.

“We’ve got a lot of professional services workers who will be in the city, and they can be a lot more flexible, particularly because of digital technology. We’ve also got a lot of field-based bulldozer drivers and firefighters. Sometimes we need people to fight fires from 8[am] til 8[pm].

“The question is what’s flexibility look like for a field-based workforce? To me flexibility could be you know what your shifts look like, you can do a three or four-day shift instead of a five-day shift, you can trade shifts with your colleagues.”

One of the main insights has been the importance of support from the organisation for flexible working, he says.

“It’s been a fascinating process … I think that with technology and support from leadership there’s no reason why we can’t be more flexible. A lot of it is just an attitude shift.”

Part two of The Mandarin‘s interview with Adam Fennessy: how — and why — to say sorry in government

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