In the lead up to International Women’s Day, we’re talking to inspiring women doing their part to make a positive change in Australia. Lesley Podesta is one such woman. Starting her career in State and Commonwealth government and appointed as a senior executive of the Victorian government aged just 22, Podesta has worked across everything from regulating aged care to improving Aboriginal welfare over her illustrious career. Now, in her role as CEO of the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, Podesta works to ensure Australian children are safe from violence and bullying, both in schools and online.
Here, she shares what it takes for women to get to the top in the workplace, the best piece of career advice she’s ever received and the biggest challenge she’s faced in her working life.
Could you please tell us a bit about your background and what lead you to where you are today?
I was one of the first people from my school to go to university. I was very lucky. I went to Sydney University and studied philosophy, before finishing my degree at Deakin University. I did some further post-graduate work at the University of Melbourne, before heading into my first professional role working in schools in Victoria. I looked at disadvantaged schools and why certain children missed out on the benefits of education - why schools didn’t always work well for every child. I ended up being appointed as a senior executive of the Victorian Government when I was just 22. My work was focused around creating a fairer, kinder society for people with disadvantaged backgrounds. I then ran the Victorian Women’s Trust, but my career really took off when I joined the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing. I ran aged care for the Australian Government and led the Health Department response to the health crisis in Aceh, Indonesia following the tsunami and the response following the Bali bombings. Then I was appointed to Aboriginal Health and I worked for four years working to improve Indigenous people’s health and wellbeing.
Why was the Alannah & Madeline Foundation started?
The Alannah & Madeline Foundation came out of the Port Arthur tragedy in 1996, where 33 people were tragically killed. It became a turning point for gun control in Australia. As part of that terrible rampage, two young girls, aged six and three, were killed. Alannah and Madeline’s father, Walter Mikac, is an extraordinary man who didn’t want to give his life over to hate, so he formed the Alannah & Madeline Foundation to help keep children safe.
What is the Foundation’s main aim?
When we started, the focus was very much on physical safety and bullying. However, as technology has progressed, we’ve become increasingly concerned about online safety and cyberbullying. Technology is an amazing benefit that opens up the world, but children need support and skills to ensure they are safe as well. One of the programs we’re committed to is building the digital literacy of young people because we see how technology can be such a threat to their wellbeing. Our children access such a broad range of information on the internet and we know that people can distribute information that targets those with lower levels of knowledge and literacy. The Foundation is committed to building the skills of children so that they can recognise the authenticity of the information they’re reading.
What does your role entail?
Being a CEO is an ever-changing role. I lead its strategic direction and bring the resources needed to be able to make ensure it happens. Much of my job is helping to create a vision and ensuring that we’re all on the same page. It’s about being able to understand the environment and what’s necessary, and then bringing people together to make it happen.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a CEO? And for women wanting to climb the corporate ladder?
You have to have a tough hide [laughs] and you can’t have everyone like you. If you think that the most important thing is for everyone to like you, it’s going to be difficult because you have to make hard decisions. I think to be a good corporate leader and a good visionary as a woman, in particular, requires you to support other women, to be respectful of your colleagues and look out for each other. Always be decisive and have faith in your judgements - trust yourself. Read widely, understand widely and have trust in yourself and your own judgment.
What are you most proud of?
I’m incredibly proud of the work I did in Aboriginal health and bringing forward the program to support mothers. I’m delighted to see the results of the program and see Aboriginal children succeeding at preschool, and having strong positive relationships with families and with their mums. I am so conscious about our first people having all the growth and economic benefits from our country. Being able to support Aboriginal families and to help bring out confidence in young people is such an important part of what we need to do as a society.
Who is someone that inspires you in your work?
So many people. At the moment, Tick and Kate Everett are two parents who had the unbelievable agony of losing a child, their daughter Amy, “Dolly” Everett [who ended her life at 14 in January 2018 after sustained and relentless bullying]. They managed to put aside their own personal pain to care for other people’s children and stop cyberbullying by introducing Dolly’s Law. That is unbelievably inspirational.
What’s the best bit of career advice you’ve ever received?
There are two things I was told early on in my life which I’ve always held important. Firstly, you can’t get by without knowing what you’re talking about. Take the time to learn and understand data, financial policy and the law surrounding anything you’re working on. Everyone has a good idea but knowing what you need to do to make it happen is the difference. The second piece of advice is to be ethical. You can be charismatic, but if people don’t trust you then you have nothing.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced or a moment of failure that you have learnt from?
For me, there have been two challenges. When you’re a senior public servant in the government and there’s a policy that you personally can’t agree with, it’s really tough. I made a rule that my values always came first and if it came to choosing between them and my job, I shouldn’t do the job. The biggest challenge I’ve had in the not-for-profit sector can be working with people who are unused to this space, who don’t understand how professional and competitive and how much hard work it is to run a charity successfully and with integrity. Making the change from the public to the private sector is a tough transition for a lot of people. It’s actually harder than anything I’ve ever done but, ultimately, more rewarding.
What is your top interview tip?
Always remember that the person interviewing you is selling their job. The most important thing you can talk about is how you can help them, not how the job will help you.