Leadership matters

Let's celebrate our own Gail Kellys, says John Mitchell.

John Mitchell's Inside VET column for Campus Review, Tuesday 22 March 2011

On International Women's Day, it was uncomfortable to watch a few members of the audience of the ABC's panel show Q&A taking some cheap shots at the CEO of Westpac, Gail Kelly. Instead of encouraging Kelly to talk more about her approach to leadership, some members of the audience seemed keen to embarrass her about her multi-million dollar remuneration package.

Classic ocker behaviour. Invite a world-class leader onto a panel and take pot shots at her. And if the target is female, double the barbs. Tall poppies are fair game.

This public swipe at a prominent female leader affected me for a number of reasons. First, I was mindful that the draft report on the VET workforce by the Productivity Commission barely mentions VET leaders, focusing almost entirely on teachers, causing me to reflect on what value are good VET leaders.

Second, I hold in high regard female VET leaders, having edited two publications on their ideas and strategies, and I continue to see in this cohort many outstanding skills and behaviours that greatly enrich the system.

The Productivity Commission's draft report lists three categories of VET workers: teachers, trainers and assessors; other VET professionals; and general staff. Leaders are tucked into the "other" category, and described as follows:

"Other VET professionals - staff who manage, support and facilitate the VET-specific services provided by trainers and assessors. This group includes: managers who oversee and provide strategic direction for the operation of VET institutions; education aides who assist practitioners in the delivery of VET; and other human resources and education professionals whose skills need to be somewhat specific to the VET industry."

Notably, the term manager, not leader, is used in this definition. And in the remainder of the report, VET managers and leaders are given scant attention.

By the way, could you imagine the reception to a Productivity Commission draft report on the higher education workforce that did not pay due respect to Vice-Chancellors and other university leaders, or a report on the school sector workforce that did not acknowledge and describe the key role of principals and other school leaders?

Do we need leaders? Yes, because leaders identify organisational goals and outcomes and motivate staff to achieve those goals and outcomes. Effective leaders also provide vision, develop strategies, manage resources, influence change, empower people and drive the business. Of course, as she pointed out on Q&A, a sensible leader like Gail Kelly fosters and collaborates with a high-performing leadership team.

International research continues to show that leaders can make a major difference to the performance, and therefore the productivity, of the workforce, by creating the conditions where staff feel safe, valued and able to give of their best. Leadership interventions are particularly powerful where the leader builds on the trust of the staff and sets high expectations for their performance.

Do we need good leaders in VET? Recent VET research that I have contributed to confirms unequivocally that the roles of VET leaders are paramount as VET becomes less supply-driven and more demand-driven and more aligned with industry's complex and fluctuating needs.

VET leaders' roles are vital in assisting the nation grapple with macro political and economic challenges such as reducing skills shortages, retraining unemployed people, accelerating apprenticeship training, enhancing human capital, increasing productivity, influencing workforce development, improving workforce participation and achieving international competitiveness.

Australia also needs VET leaders to build more agile, customer-facing organisations that are more networked and collaborative. And there are ongoing issues for VET leaders in addressing the ageing of the current cohort of senior managers and in responding to related leadership issues such as talent management and succession planning.

Fortunately, to meet such challenges VET leaders are developing new capabilities. For instance, some leaders of TAFE Institutes and community colleges are becoming increasingly entrepreneurial, and some leaders of private providers are driving social inclusion programs that were once seen as the preserve of TAFE institutes.

With the blurring of the boundaries between schools and VET on the one hand and higher education and VET on the other, VET leaders are developing new skills for spanning these boundaries.

Research also shows that, faced with these increasing pressures, many of the finest VET leaders are women. Like Gail Kelly, they have sharp minds, deep experience, great successes and extraordinary skills, and around forty of them have been profiled in this column. Like Gail Kelly, they deserve respect, as do the many effective male leaders in the sector.

Hopefully there is still time for the Productivity Commission to add a chapter to its report on the VET workforce, celebrating the role, capabilities, achievements and significance of VET leaders.