We were thrilled when Dr Kirstin Ferguson agreed to share her leadership journey with us. I liken Kirstin to a modern Renaissance scholar. Someone who is widely studied, accomplished and experienced across numerous diverse fields. She also possesses a generous dose of wisdom.
Kirstin commenced her career as an Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. Professionally, she has worked across the professional services, mining and resources, media, construction, arts, sporting and education sectors. Named as one of Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence in 2014, Kirstin has been awarded an astonishing array of medals, academic accolades and honours, which must take up a lot of shelf space at home.
Kirstin is an experienced independent non-executive director on ASX100, ASX200, private company, and government Boards. Her current Board appointments include Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), SCA Property Group, Hyne & Son and Layne Beachley’s Foundation, Aim for the Stars. Previously board appointments were with Queensland Theatre Company, SunWater Ltd., CIMIC Ltd, the Queensland Rugby Union, and Dart Energy Ltd. Diverse, yes?
Kirstin is also the Founder of Orbitas Group, a leading international consultancy specialising in safety governance and safety leadership for senior executives and boards. Kirstin speaks at international conferences, writes articles for industry journals and advises multinational corporations. We discovered Kirstin in her spare time, passionately advocating for gender equality, and were curious to learn more about her.
During your time as CEO of Sentis, it was rated as the 5th best place to work in Australia in the BRW “Best Places to Work” awards. As CEO, what changes did you implement at Sentis, to drive such exceptional employee satisfaction and engagement?
I think any time you are leading people you need to listen, communicate and then listen again (and repeat constantly) to ensure you are engaging with those you work with. Authenticity was one of the key values of Sentis. It was a value asked of everyone, but most importantly by the leaders of the business.
It takes a strong leader to admit vulnerability, when they do not know the answer, or may need help. But demonstrating these qualities, particularly when you are leading a group of people who are passionate about the work they do, will ensure an exceptional workplace culture. Emotional intelligence is absolutely critical for leaders of successful businesses. Pure financial or commercial acumen will get anyone so far. However, truly high performing long-term leaders understand that being able to engage with and listen to others is essential.
You are a member of many women’s organisations including Chief Executive Women (CEW), Women Corporate Directors (WCD) and you sit on the board of Layne Beachley’s Foundation, Aim for the Stars, which provides opportunities to women and girls to achieve their dreams. Have you always been passionate about helping other women?
I must admit it is something I have cared about about more deeply in the last decade or so. I started my career in the military. Then I worked in professional services, followed by the mining and resources industry. I now sit on boards where I am the only woman in the room. So for much of my career I have worked in male-dominated environments and talking about gender was something I tried to avoid. Like many women, I just wanted to ‘fit in’, be one of the guys and just get along with doing my job.
I have the benefit now of having 20 plus years of experience in those environments, as well as two teenage daughters. I am much more vocal about wanting to stand up for other women to have exactly the same opportunities as men. The gender pay gap will continue to motivate me on these issues. And while I have always been against quotas for women on boards, I have recently changed my views after witnessing the glacial rate of change. So there is much to be passionate about.
You have a number of University degrees including a PhD, a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours). You are also an Adjunct Professor at the QUT School of Business. Do you think it is important for women to keep learning throughout their careers?
I am a great believer in life-long learning. My first degree in Arts majored in History, in fact Military History of all things. It was interesting, but not practically useful in my career. However, it taught me a huge amount about critical thinking, writing, reading and a love of understanding how the past can impact our future. I then completed an Honours degree in Law and more recently, as you mention, a PhD.
In between these formal degrees I am an avid reader. I attend lots of conferences and I seek to learn however and wherever I can. Doing so keeps not only your brain active, but I find that something I read in one place links back to a problem I am dealing with somewhere else. Or there are links between different fields of study and reading that I love to be able to make.
I am passionate about ensuring all women are provided access to education. It does not need to be a formal University degree since that is not for everyone. Courses and other learning opportunities can be priceless.
What unique leadership qualities do you bring to the diverse Board Directorships you currently hold?
I like to think I am very collegiate in my board roles. Every board has a unique culture and set of norms. As a director, you need to be able to assess those dynamics and adjust to that environment, whilst also bringing a critical mind to the issues at hand. The role of a director is to influence others and to ask powerful questions. The most effective way to do both those things will vary according to the culture of the board you sit on.
The diversity of cultures and people you get to work with as a board director is one of the unexpected pleasures I have found in this career. It is also one of the matters any prospective director needs to assess and understand well before agreeing to join a board. A poor board culture can be crippling to good governance and good decision making, and will often reflect the broader culture of the organisation.
As a public figure, you are using your voice to amplify women and girls doing amazing things. Is there one story in particular you would like to share?
I am currently using Twitter to try and drive an initiative called #CelebratingWomen. As a regular user of Twitter, it is impossible not to notice there is frequent denigration of women, often for no reason other than offering an opinion on an issue. To try, even in a small way, to counter that I have been using the hashtag #CelebratingWomen to share stories of women from all walks of life doing amazing things. I have been astounded by how many people have chosen to get behind it.
The other bonus with #CelebratingWomen is that every single woman is a role model to someone else. Therefore, the more we can make women visible, the more diverse examples of role models we can share . One of the stories I shared recently was of a performance psychologist, Gene Moyle. Gene was a professional ballerina and is now Head of School at QUT School of Creative Practice. She has done some incredible things, including a role as a performance psychologist for the Australian Winter Olympic Team. There are millions of women like Gene, living their lives, doing amazing things who deserve recognition and celebration.
What is one piece of advice you have for future female leaders?
Say yes to opportunities since you never know where they will lead. Seek feedback wherever and whenever you can and learn from it. Try to be kind to yourself, so often we are often our harshest critics. And remember it is okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them and move on.
What has been your greatest challenge?
As it is for most women, having children and pursuing a full-time career was a challenge. My recommendation is to make a conscious choice to lose the constant feelings of guilt. When I had young children I always felt I was letting someone down: the kids who were being cared for by others, my employer when I was leaving work to collect kids from daycare, or my husband in amongst the daily chaos. At some point I decided I would consciously try not feel guilty any more. Easier said than done of course!
Once I accepted that I loved working, and I loved being a mum, I found a way for it all to co-exist. My children are now young adults and they are perfectly balanced and loving and kind. They are everything I could have hoped for as a parent. So looking back, all that guilt I initially felt was really just wasted energy.
What has been your proudest moment?
There are many professional achievements that I am proud of and that I look back with a sense of humility and honour.
But without doubt I am proud of being someone that my friends feel able to call when they need help, or even just someone to drink a glass of wine with. I am proud that my children tell me all about their day and ask for advice openly and frequently. And I am proud that my husband and I will be celebrating our 20th anniversary next year and are happily dreaming of where we may spend it.
So I am proud of living a full life.
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