Beating the odds

After several unsuccessful attempts to break into the senior executive ranks of the public service, in 1981 I applied to be a Regional Director in the Department for Community Welfare. This one really mattered to me; mainly for a reason that seems pretty silly in retrospect. It wasn’t because I could do more to shape policies to help people in need. It wasn’t because I would get a pay rise. It was because I was 35, and many years before I had promised myself that I would be an executive by that age. I’ve written before about how I was still feeling the pain of my lost years at university, a delay that had put me a few years behind the people I privately chose to compete with. Several of them had made it, but not me. With only a few months left before my self-imposed deadline, I felt a bit desperate when I was told the position would be going to someone else.

I put in an appeal against the selection decision. I knew the odds for an appeal were very long—about 8% were successful. I wasn’t hopeful, and so I applied for two other jobs; one as a senior lecturer in a social work faculty, and one as CEO of Adelaide’s biggest non-government welfare organisation, the Adelaide Central Mission. The selection processes could not have been more different. The College of Advanced Education (soon to upgrade to be a university) interview was conducted by a panel of 14 people It was some sort of higher appointments committee that met infrequently, and appeared to have no structure or process. The questions seemed vague and rambling. One man slept through most of the interview. I was told they would get back to me.

The Mission interview was a complete contrast. The previous CEO had been kicked upstairs to be Superintendent of the newly formed Uniting Church in Adelaide, and he chaired the panel. Inevitably we got around to my views on religion. There had never been anyone in their senior ranks who was not a leading member of the congregation, usually a priest. So their attention was laser-like as I answered that one. I said that if God is love, then love is God, that is, the supreme guiding principle that underpins the good and successful life of any individual or community. I also said that I had enormous respect for the radical socialist principles that Jesus taught, which gave us a very clear mission to leave no-one behind in our society.

I hadn’t said I was a Christian, and I’m not, and I hadn’t said I went to church, which I don’t, but they seemed to like my answers. Two down, one more to go. I switched my full attention back to the Appeals Tribunal, which was meeting in the same week. This was a very tense affair. Another man at my level had also appealed the decision, so he, I and the guy who had been selected were all in the tribunal, with several people from our Department, who were now effectively a legal team out to squash these two appeals.

I loved this sort of situation, and I had marshaled enough of a case to show that I was ‘manifestly the superior applicant’ for the role. That of course involved demonstrating that neither of the other two could match my credentials. I did a reasonable job of keeping it all non-personal, but I had to prove, especially with the guy selected, that his achievements were just not adequate to take on the job of Regional Director. There was some very pointed repartee all round, with the Tribunal members grilling us, especially on claims we made about our past employment.

That weekend, I felt a great sense of peace. I had put myself in the frame for three top jobs, any one of which I would enjoy doing, and I had come away from all three selection processes feeling I couldn’t have done better. Although a win would be nice, whatever happened next was going to be much easier to accept with that knowledge.

The following Monday was extraordinary. I was notified by all three organisations that the job was mine. They all gave me 24 hours to think over their offer. For me it was easy. Of course, being a CEO sounded very glamorous, and would pay the most, and working towards a doctorate while teaching social work could be a whole new way of having an exciting life. But I was very committed to public welfare services, and I wanted to play my part in making them as effective and accessible as possible. Plus the people who I privately used as benchmarks of success were all in government executive roles. So I accepted the job of Regional Director.

The Professor I spoke to at the school of social welfare wasn’t surprised. He knew me well, and he was pleased that I would be in that department at the top level. But the Superintendent of the Mission was furious. He said he and his colleagues had gone way out on a limb to convince the governing body of the church that this young agnostic could do a great job for them. We parted on frosty terms. And the next meeting I had was even more difficult. The Director General, my boss and now fellow member of the Executive, Ian Cox, called me in to his office and closed the door. I thought he might congratulate me; let me into secrets reserved for the few; but I had mis-read him completely. In an angry, rambling outburst he told me I had ‘destroyed a good man’ who he was sure ‘would have been a fine Regional Director’. It was going to be ‘very difficult’ for him to work closely with me after this ‘nasty business’.

I’d never seen him like this; bitter and unforgiving; and I still don’t get it completely. It was around that time he began having policy arguments with his ministerial boss in the government, which in less than two years’ time would end his career. Maybe my successful appeal looked like treachery from someone he thought of as a loyal acolyte. He’s long dead so I’ll never know. But a week later, we were working together, apparently happily as usual on some major issues, and it was almost as if I had dreamed those awful moments. I like to think of it as a temporary brain-fade. There was so much to admire about Ian Cox that I prefer to remember.

There I was, three weeks short of my 36th birthday, in the executive ranks at last. I had been so hungry for this, ever since my days as a primary teacher, driven by the need to put my woeful early university failures behind me; ‘to join the A-team’ as one colleague put it. It wasn’t the end of that hunger. Wanting more doesn’t just stop when you tell it to. I wouldn’t feel the profound relief of finally getting that monkey off my back for another 15 years or more. But for now, I was having some of the happiest days of my working life. Winning all the glittering prizes in one week, against the odds, is hard to beat.

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