VicWater People Summit reaches new heights

The VicWater 2023 People Summit delivered an incredible array of speakers from both in and out of the water industry in Victoria.

The VicWater 2023 People Summit delivered an incredible array of speakers from both in and out of the water industry in Victoria. The day-long event provided awareness of the people they deal with every day.

“In general, leadership defines the culture, whether it is the smallest organisation – like organising a school fair – to the largest organisation listed on the ASX,” said Julia Banks.

People are the water sector’s most important asset. Without them, the Victorian water industry would be unable to deliver world-class services to enhance the liveability of our communities.

The summit sought to showcase safety, culture and leadership and put a spotlight on all things people. Some key areas of focus included managing psychosocial impacts on staff, the water sector safety pledge, driving cultural change and leaders of the future.

As part of the acknowledgement of country and welcome by VicWater CEO Jo Lim, Director Victor Perton was welcomed to the stage. He’s also the CEO and Chief Optimism Officer at the Centre for Optimism and a Director of Yarra Valley Water.

Referencing the recent passing of Tina Turner, Perton spoke about how the people at the summit are “Simply The Best.” He encouraged the attendees to enjoy the day. Perton also set three challenges for the attendees. The first was to meet someone new and keep in touch. The second was to laugh a lot. The third was to aim to be at the best people and culture summit ever.

Keynote speaker Julia Banks

Banks was the keynote speaker. She has unique leadership experience spanning a career in law, the corporate business world and as a Member of the Federal Parliament of Australia. Banks drew on her experience to talk about workplace culture, gender bias, the role of trust, and the values of doing the right thing in authentic leadership.

Banks opened her presentation with the trailer for the 2022 film, She Said. She spoke about how the Weinstein Company failed on all three counts of safety, culture, and leadership, compared to what it looks like on the outside. Banks pointed out that while very few organisations are perfect, she likes to think that most organisations are on the positive end of the scale. She also acknowledged that the existence of microcultures can cause problems.

Power is part of the structure of inequality. The way people use power over someone else was a key point of Bank’s presentation.

“Every CEO has two types of power, personal and positional,” she said. “Everyone in this room has personal and positional power. What differentiates the good from the bad and the ugly is how they use their personal and positional power. What makes a difference in positive and negative workplace culture is how power is used by the leaders of the organisations.”

Reflecting on her time in parliament

In looking back at her time in Federal Parliament, Banks reflected on the period in which she announced that she would no longer contest the seat of Chisholm in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. She spoke about the bullying and negative workplace culture she experienced in the lead into the 2019 federal election.

“Often when good women call out or are subjected to bad behaviour, the reprisals, backlash, and commentary portray them as the bad ones: the liar, the troublemaker, the emotionally unstable or weak, or someone who should be silenced. To those who say politics is not for the faint-hearted and that women have to toughen up, I say this: the hallmark characteristics of the Australian woman… are resilience and a strong, authentic, independent spirit,” said Banks on the floor of the House of Representatives on 27 November 2018.

Her discussion of workplace coercive control described the behaviour as always taking someone’s voice. Banks referred to an incident in a workplace where an emerging female leader’s potential promotion could have been stymied by one person who felt threatened by that woman’s ambition. She spoke of the CEO using their personal and positional power to stop the irrelevant conversation and focus on the essential aspects of the woman’s career path.

“You do not have to meet the stereotype of a strong leader,” she said. “You can be your own kind of leader.”

Panel discussions

There were several panel discussions throughout the day following Banks’ keynote speech. The first looked at managing psychosocial impacts in the workplace. The panellists were Frances Anderson from the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office, Rebecca Hanley from Coliban Water, and Danielle Nigro from Davidson.

The discussion focused on the mental health of employees within an organisation. They included topics such as how health and safety laws relate to psychological health, building strategies for change management, properly communicating crises, and holding a mirror to yourself as a leader for better interventions. The panel concluded that leaders need to understand the risks of not addressing mental health by developing a positive workplace without considering it a compliance issue. They also agreed that taking a data-led approach will generate better organisational outcomes.

The second panel discussed the leaders of the future. InSync Principal Tony Matthews chaired the panel. Sarah Cumming from Gippsland Water, Maree Lang from Greater Western Water, Jane Brown from Salesforce and Christine Nixon AO, APM from Leadership Victoria, discussed the topic. The key focus points for the panel were the idea of what the future leaders of the water sector might look like, what skills they will need to have, and how they need to work inside and outside of their organisations. The idea of “We don’t do that here,” as presented by Christine Nixon, was one message that reverberated through the crowd.

Individual speakers

Andrew Jeffers from Wannon Water spoke on behalf of the VicWater Safety Executive Group. He discussed its approach to safety and well-being across the Victorian water sector.

“Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress,” he said. “What gets measured gets managed, but the question is what should be measured.”

Jeffers was followed by Deb Fankhauser from Lower Murray Water, who discussed inclusion and diversity. She spoke about what diversity and inclusion mean for the water sector, where the industry has come from and where it is going. Her closing polls provided a deep insight into what the Victorian water sector needs to do in areas such as neurodiversity. Participants also pushed for more work to be done on assessing organisational leaders on inclusion and diversity.

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