Leadership interview: 'I can look at myself and see where I need to change'
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Leadership interview: 'I can look at myself and see where I need to change'

Jenna is an APS officer in a large agency. This is her story.

My first career was in the army. I left school when I was 15. My dad died in a car accident pretty soon after that and I just felt directionless. I liked the idea of structure and I didn't think uni was for me – so I joined the army and had pretty good career doing a range of different things. I loved the camaraderie and felt like I fit in. The only thing I hated was having to go to church on the weekends. The alternative was cleaning detail; on Sundays, no matter how tired I was, mostly I did that. Cleaning.

As I reached my thirties, I started to think about whether I wanted to be in the army for the rest of my life. I wasn't great at school but I knew I had a good brain. A civilian career didn't seem too daunting and I had no trouble getting a job as an executive assistant in one of the bigger government departments. I'm good at organising things. You meet some seriously impressive leadership types in the army. These are people who've made life and death decisions. Sometimes they've made mistakes, and they've learned to live with that and back themselves when they're in a corner.

"I loved the camaraderie in the army and felt like I fit in."

"I loved the camaraderie in the army and felt like I fit in."Credit:Glenn Campbell

After a few years of being an EA, I started to get a bit bored. I think I was pretty good at my job; I was showing leadership in the sense that I was in charge of a diary and I had to be pretty assertive and show a lot of initiative so everything ran smoothly. But it was hard to feel connected to the bigger picture as an EA. I had a feeling I was working below my potential. If I had an opinion, no one really wanted to know what it was. And the longer I worked in the public service, the more I started to have opinions about things and to want to express them. I also thought my background was a bit unusual and that had to be an asset. You don't meet that many working-class people in the public service.

So I talked to a few people about moving to a policy role (my boss, a branch head, was very supportive) and it soon became clear I needed to get a degree.

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No one in my family had ever been to university. The thought intimidated the crap out of me. In the end, I think the only reason I went was that my frustration with my job overpowered my fear of failing out of uni. But it was hard; I think one of the hardest things I've ever done. I had no role models, no one I could relate to. I just had to believe in myself. I don't think anyone had ever believed in me before, and I realised that the person who believed in me would need to be me.

About this time, I met my partner, Steve. He is really supportive, so things started to come together for me in a good way at that time.

I enrolled at the Australian National University in an arts degree with majors in history and politics, and kept working in the public service part time. I handed in my first assignment late. Modern European history. I didn't start it until it was overdue; I was that frozen. I spent heaps of time in my first year just obsessing about how no one could be interested in what I had to say. Impostor syndrome: that was me. Just scared the whole time that someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and say: "You, get out, you don't belong here, you're not good enough to get a degree." I talked to my branch head about this, and he laughed and said: "Everybody feels that way, even the secretaries." His tip was to imagine everyone naked and that really worked for me. I've really learned what a difference you can make to someone's life because of the difference my branch head made in mine.

About six months before I graduated, I started applying for policy jobs at the APS4 level, and after a few goes I got one. My branch head gave me a great reference. That was two years ago. I landed in a team working on a big project that was high profile and very busy, and believe it or not my old branch head was then transferred to my new branch. That was actually really hard, because the pressure to carry out EA-type work was intense at first. I was finding the policy work really daunting and I didn't have the skills to say "no" to my branch head. He had been really good to me. So, for a while, I kind of slipped back into being an EA. It was easier than being bad at policy all day.

Then, one day, I just crossed a line when I was asked to organise travel for an EL1 in the branch and I thought "no more". I was really passive aggressive about it, but people got the hint. As my policy skills improved, I started to feel like I could add value, and I started to say no to my branch head in a much better way. It was more about reminding him where I wanted to be in the longer term, and me staying calm, and also coming from a place of believing that it was OK to say no. Training myself out of my bad habits and learning to say no in a good way took a while, but I hung in there. I think that's a real strength of mine: I can really look at myself and see where I need to change.

I'm better at saying no these days. People don't mind if you're straight with them. They mind if you're passive aggressive or get upset or are expecting them to read your mind. People like to hear a reason, and I know now to speak up much more about what's going on for me. In the past, I would have thought it was obvious and they didn't care.

I love policy. It really gives me a sense of making a difference. At the end of last year, I applied for a promotion to APS5. I had acted up a bit in the last year so I knew I was ready. I'm reliable, I get things done and I have a practical outlook. I'm low maintenance, too. I'm not showy and I'm a good listener. I've now been in the team the longest and my branch head calls me the backbone of the team. I know where everything is and have more corporate memory than anyone.

A few days ago, I was offered an APS5 policy role in my current team. I'm stoked. So's my mum. I know my dad would be really proud. It took a bit of doing, and a lot of faith, but I'm now in a place I could only dream of five years ago.

* Not her real name.

Jacqueline Jago is a certified executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting. This article is the first in a series of occasional interviews, in which public servants give their thoughts on leadership.