Leadership and resilience: Victoria's Aboriginal career development program

By David Donaldson

February 9, 2018

While governments have been making efforts to boost the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public servants for a while, they haven’t always been focused on ensuring those careers are rewarding.

Many Aboriginal people see government recruitment as having a ‘tick the box’ approach, rather than asking “why are they going to come and work for us?”

The Aboriginal Employment Unit at the Victorian Public Sector Commission is trying to change that.

Participant Caroline Kell with Victorian Public Sector Commissioner Paul Grimes.

It’s shifting the focus from recruitment to retention through initiatives such as the Barring Djinang employment strategy, which includes a career development program for mid-tier staff.

The Mandarin headed along to the completion ceremony for the first cohort of fourteen staff to complete the career development program. Several were visibly excited, with one telling new Victorian Public Sector Commissioner the experience was “life changing”.

The participants, who came from various departments and from both regional areas and the city, received six individually tailored coaching sessions over a period of ten months. Coaching focused on building personal confidence, mapping career trajectories and developing leadership skills. Participants were helped to learn more about their own thought patterns, asking themselves questions about their motivations and how they approach problems.

Morale booster

Indigenous staff face particular challenges in the workplace. Although many enjoy giving back by working with their community, Aboriginal staff often face being ‘pigeonholed’ into working in Indigenous affairs or identified positions.

One woman said the program had opened her eyes to career possibilities she hadn’t previously considered. She has been attending more managerial meetings and is becoming more involved in peer support activities to help develop the capacity of her colleagues.

“I just wish something like this was available early in my career,” she told The Mandarin.

“There’s been a lot of box ticking around getting Aboriginal people into the public sector in the past, but it seems like senior people are serious about helping us develop, so that’s boosted my morale.”

Resilience against racism

Racism is still a problem at work. Another participant said she feels the needs to prove herself capable in each new job she takes.

The thing she most valued was that the program gave her methods to deal with racist comments — something she’s endured throughout her career whenever issues like Mabo, Australia Day or Adam Goodes are in the media.

“Every time there’s something in the newspaper I know someone will make a comment. Some people are very insensitive,” she said.

You never know when someone will say something. “It really grinds down your resilience.”

She now feels more able to cope with those comments. “I’ve already put it to use,” she said.

Putting yourself out there

Caroline Kell, who joined the VPS as a graduate in 2015 and is now acting senior project officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, said she was motivated to work in government to help right historical wrongs.

“The career development program enabled me to have confidence in my abilities,” she said. “I now put my hand up for tasks that I previously shied away from. I learnt a lot about myself in order to help others.”

The program seems to be working: Kathy McKenzie, one of the professional coaches on the initiative, said all five of the participants she worked with had already received promotions.

It is important the workforce reflects the diversity of the Victorian community, said Public Sector Commissioner Paul Grimes.

“The needs and aspirations of Aboriginal Victorians shape the work of the government. Sustained investment in the development of Aboriginal staff will ensure we have more Aboriginal voices at the centre of decision making.”

The Aboriginal Employment Unit will stay in touch with the graduates to keep them in the loop about upcoming career opportunities.

There are already two more cohorts undertaking the program.

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