As a teenager, my only claim to sporting ability was with swimming. I was near-talentless at anything relying on hand-eye coordination and balance, although I did go on to be quite capable as a billiards/pool player. The Mountain Pool Swimming Club was the focus of my social life; where I was on equal physical terms with other swimmers, and about the only place where I was brave enough to talk to girls. I missed out on most of that action, but I did start to develop friendships with what had been an alien species for an adolescent boy in a family with no girls.
I still love swimming, but the bigger legacy of those days was my introduction to work on committees. My mother was the Secretary of the Club, and one day she couldn’t go to a meeting. She asked if I could attend and take the minutes. I looked at her hand-written minutes-book, and it looked pretty straightforward. After training that evening, I stayed on, and was waiting in the meeting room when the Club President arrived. He was a tall, loud, abrasive man, who I found out later had a hearing problem dating back to his days as an artillery gunner in the Western Desert. This led to him barking ‘What was that?’ and ‘Speak up’ whenever people spoke quietly. I spoke quietly, as I do still, so our interactions were often fraught.
In his booming sergeant-major’s voice he asked, ‘So young David, what are you doing here?’ I explained, and he said it might be better if one of the other adults did the job, but by then a couple of others had walked in, and one said, ‘Give the boy a go, he’s a loyal member of the club.’ The President agreed on condition that I read out what I had recorded after each item.
My recall has always been good, at least so far, and I love picking the essence out of whatever is being discussed, so it all went quite well, until a long wrangle began on that old chestnut, a possible change to the monthly meeting schedule. Because the President was an active and sometimes belligerent participant about this, he forgot to check in with me for about twenty minutes. No agreement could be reached, so it was to be status quo. He turned to me and said, ‘David, read us out how you summarised all that.’ I read ‘Mr S proposed a change of meeting dates from the first Monday of the month to the first Wednesday. After lengthy discussion, it was agreed to retain the current arrangements.’
The President harrumphed loudly and asked the meeting if they were happy that most of their (and his) salient arguments had been lost to history. They not only agreed with my version, but later talked to my mother, asking her to become an ordinary committee member, so that I could do the minutes from now on. She was more than pleased with that outcome. My life in meetings had begun.
I was really buzzed by the whole experience. I knew I was good with words, and that I had a good memory, but now I could see this actually led to life skills that others wanted. I could sit in a meeting with a bunch of adults, see and remember what was going on, and summarise for them in ways that they found really useful. Just as long as I was careful not to be a smart-arse, because there are people like that president in many meetings, who resent the youngster with the gift of the gab.
It was an epiphany for me. I started to listen to my Dad talking about his job as manager of a local factory, and director of the parent company. It turned out to be a safe zone in our conversations; one that didn’t veer to competitions that I would always lose, often painfully. For whatever reason, Dad was happy to share with me every aspect of his leadership style, and the difficult decisions of the day—and showed genuine interest when I made suggestions. Management had its hooks into me, and it would never let go.
For the next few years, I was absorbed in the adventures of growing up; getting engaged and married, getting though my university studies by the narrowest of margins, and becoming a teacher. Along the way, there were many situations with friends, fellow-workers in my various part-time jobs, and with student groups, where I found myself being a facilitator, chairman, spokesperson or reporter. But I don’t recall thinking about becoming a manager as soon as I had the chance. Perhaps I just assumed it to be the natural order of things for a capable, well educated young man from a well-off family. Conversely, I did rather badly in my first couple of years at university, and I know that dented my confidence for a few years.
Whatever the reasons, I was completely pre-occupied by teaching and post-graduate studies until I was about 24. That year, 1971, I was selected to be part of a conference on the development of ‘open-space’ teaching settings, which put several classes, with their teachers into one large area. I was surprised to find that it was a small symposium, with about thirty people participating. Half were teachers, and half were principals. In the first session, the facilitator told us we were going to swap roles. The teachers, many of us very young, would role-play being a school principal, and vice-versa.
The facilitator then paired us up with one other, in the opposite roles, and gave us a problem to solve about open-space teaching. I remember the first issue we were handed was about four teachers working together in one unit. One is not pulling their weight; not helping with discipline, not preparing for lessons as agreed, etc. How should this be dealt with? After 15 minutes or so, the pairs reported briefly, then each person worked with someone else. By lunchtime I had teamed with about six principals. Initially I was hesitant: the first was a man about 60 years old, a vastly experienced and widely admired professional. But he immediately accepted that I was the decision-maker, and we had a sensible discussion that I summarised from time to time.
Each pairing worked better than the last, with several of the real principals saying very nice things about how much they enjoyed problem-solving with me in the lead. I shouldn’t have been surprised: there is ample literature on how readily people fall into new roles in these sorts of experiments. But I was not just doing my part; I was also loving it. My listening, reasoning and clarifying skills fitted the situation like a glove. By the end of that day I had made up my mind; I was going to get into a position where I could give effective leadership to help teams of people make progress on things that mattered to me. I had no plan yet, but from that day I was thinking about opportunities.
1971 was a very busy year for me. I was teaching, and struggling to do that well, although I loved it. I was also studying political science, doing what was called a Masters Preliminary, the equivalent of an honours year, and tutoring first-year politics students at University two evenings a week. I was at a crossroads. If I had really buckled down and applied myself more to the tutoring, I could see an academic career beckoning. It was fun, but my heart was in the leadership thing now, and I had a view that teaching at University was never going to be ‘the real world’, whatever that is. Late in the year, I got my chance
I had a friend working in the ‘welfare department,’ and he told me about an up-coming fast-track executive development scheme for outstanding candidates. The new department head had decided he needed a few people to completely disrupt the models for working with neglected children, victims of family violence, young offenders and others served by approaches that hadn’t changed much since the nineteenth century. I had a preliminary interview, and everything I heard convinced me this was what I wanted. The big jump in salary wouldn’t hurt, although it wasn’t the main driver for me. They short-listed me, but now I had a problem. In those days teachers who had been assisted though college had to serve out a three year ‘bond’, and go wherever they were posted. I had been lucky with that one because of my Masters’ studies and because I was married with a wife who worked in Adelaide. I dodged the bullet that saw friends doing three years in one-teacher schools in remote country regions.
Leaving the Education Department a year before my bond expired was regarded as career suicide, as well as risking a demand to pay back of all my student assistance. So I asked my principal at the time if there were ever any exceptions to this policy. He was adamant—no-one could evade a bond. Then he added, ‘Unless the Director General himself agreed that was the right thing. And that will never happen, so just accept that you have to wait another year.’
To the principal, after forty years of loyal service, the Director General was a remote, almost mythical figure of authority. To me, brought up in a household where my father had a very senior job, the Director General was just a man who was a boss. That day, I rang his office, and his assistant said she would check his appointments and get back to me within a couple of days. Very soon, I had an appointment. I told the principal, and he was so shocked he excused himself and stayed pruning the roses in the school garden all day. This was his standard response to difficulties, along with constant smoking.
A few days later, I went to head office, and met with the DG and his deputy. They asked me why I wanted to take on ‘welfare’ work with very difficult people. I told them the truth—I wanted to be in a position to make a difference for people who needed better government services. The DG was quiet for a while, then said, ‘The point of the bond scheme is to keep good people in the public service where they are needed. It seems to me you will be doing just that, even if you are in a different department. I’m going to tell my colleague in the Department for Community Welfare that if he wants you he can have you.’
I got the final interview for the position of ‘Assistant Supervisor in Training’ that same week, and was offered the job. Three weeks later, my teaching career was over, and I was a management trainee. At just 25, I was in a department of a thousand or so staff where I was in the senior ranks, on track to become a member of the Executive. Writing about it now, the situation seems outlandishly lucky, but at the time I thought only of how much fun I was going to have. I was so young I was puzzled by the awkward reactions I got from people thirty years older than me, who I had just leap-frogged with no apparent effort. I got humbler and kinder about that sort of stuff over the next few years, but early in 1972 I was completely absorbed with possibilities that seemed endless. I was going to be a boss, and I was going to help make a better world. The swimming club minute-secretary was on his way.