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Leadership in challenging times

Qualities of leadership in a pandemic

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Cheryl Vardon is Chief Executive and Principal Commissioner, Queensland Family and Child Commission, overseeing the safety of 1.2 million children. Her distinguished career includes Chief Executive, Director-General and senior positions in private, public and not-for-profit organisations, in addition to board, university council, and statutory roles on tribunals and commissions. In 1997, when Vardon participated in the first Australian CEO Survey, she was Director General, Education,Western Australia.

Twenty five years after PwC’s first Australian CEO survey, leaders are again having to develop new approaches to challenging times. Cheryl Vardon says people are looking to Chief Executives in government and corporate sectors, for purposeful leadership.

Trust and Leadership

The pandemic’s global impact has placed unprecedented demands on leaders. Agile CEOs now need to pivot, to focus on skills beyond growth and strategy, while balancing community needs with business or government demands.

“Leadership qualities that people look for today are being able to speak with authority, and to be able to influence and promote your organisation as a trusted brand,” Vardon says, adding that trusted leaders can influence government decisions in positive ways. Trust, she says, has to be built over time, and organisations need to recognise people with this skill and foster it. “Those who have the ability to build trust are often quiet operators, whose persistence and talent helps build trust. To be trusted, you need to be strong and flexible. Building agency and community relationships and partnerships also builds trust.”

CEOs today need to be empathetic, particularly with employees working from home, to build a sense that ‘we’re all in this together’. Vardon says she talks about feeling devastated about being separated from her daughter and grandchildren as a result of border closures.

After a career specialising in rebuilding organisations and refocusing their remits in both public and private sectors, she says today’s leaders must look outwards to understand the geopolitical landscape, and inwards, to people within their organisations to develop a sense of solidarity. Looking ahead to new ideas requires sound partnerships and relationships plus persistence and courage. “Effective leaders need to be game enough to voice unpalatable truths when necessary,” she says.

Innovation with change

Reflecting on that first survey, Vardon concedes there was a general reluctance among business leaders to embrace innovation. She says it still exists today, particularly in relation to the pace of change within government sectors like social services. “Collecting data that matters will take at least a decade at its current rate of progress. As a mentor and coach for high performing CEO’s , I have encouraged business agility built on identifying and facing emerging trends and looking ahead,” she says. “The pandemic has helped accelerate government processes and cut through red tape. Leaders are now much better at taking multi-agency approaches to create strategies that solve difficult problems.”

Leaders should look to their core business as their north star, while refining and polish their strategies. “They need to avoid ‘shiny new things with noise’ that take their focus away from the business and their remit, so they stay focused on systems thinking, workforce skills and executive education opportunities to foster internal growth.”

Vardon says the best CEOs have their own voice, are passionate about their work and step up when action is needed. But she says passion without action is very harmful. “Labelling styles of leadership is something I’ve always felt best to avoid. We need to gain self insight rather than live up to a label. I’ve met very clever people who become CEOs but cleverness takes them away from the organisation and they’re not taking people along with them.” And Vardon’s no fan of corporate jargon. “Jargon and slogans obscure truth and shortchange people,” she says.

Diversity and inclusion

Today, public discussion of diversity issues tends to be stuck around gender pay gaps. “That’s hugely important, but let’s hear the opinions of more women in broader areas while working on structural impediments,” she says. As for seeing more women CEOs and in boardrooms, she says government and corporate Australia is moving in the right direction, but the discussion still hinges around a narrow set of issues. “There are certainly more women in leadership but it’s still very fragile and can suddenly change. There is no robust culture to support continuity of diversity.”

In 1997, Vardon was one of the very few female Directors-General in Australia. "I had led, as Chair of the Ministerial National Gender Equity Taskforce, the work of assessing the differences between curriculum taught to girls and to boys.” She also had excellent male and female mentors. She feels more attention should be placed on mentoring. “Trying to accelerate diversity can lead to failure if people are brought into senior roles without the resilience built from the hard yards of experience and sound judgement to back decisions.” 

Vardon’s passionate about mentoring for middle and junior ranks of an organisation. “I’m very interested in developing opportunities and skills of staff as they move through organisations. Skills I take an interest in include good judgement, persuasive writing, the ability to notice red flags and to debate issues constructively. I also look for people with digital skills to present our information and data in new ways, and quick thinking, a priority when dealing with harm to children,” Vardon says.

Contact us

Matt Graham

Matt Graham

Managing Partner, Assurance, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 412 744 547

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