On the shoulders of others

Occasional address by Claire Braund at the 121st Speech Day of the New England Girls’ School, Armidale NSW on 7th December 2016.
In considering what I would say to you all today, I decided to crowd source some responses from Facebook, so posted the following message.

Honoured to be the guest speaker at the 121st speech day of my High School -New England Girls' School in Armidale. Given many speeches in my career, but not many to 12-17 year old girls whose place I was sitting in 30 years ago wishing the 'boring old so-and-so'' would hurry up so holidays would start.

I received 70 likes and 26 comments – some of which we will come to in a moment.

This morning I also tweeted on my company account to 14,000 followers how delighted I was to be here, and this afternoon, will no doubt post a selfie taken with one or more of you to Instagram. All from my mobile device – which I also use as an on the go office as my business is stored in the Google Cloud.

By comparison, in 1986 when I was sitting where those of you in Year 11 are today - I could not have posted to my social media networks as they were yet to be invented, nor did I have a mobile phone to connect to the outside world – or even to my parents.

I well remember that along with 83 other Year 7 boarders in 1982 (we had 87 start that year) I used to line up at the single pay-phone in the boarding house once a week to call home … or hope I was around when mum called the office. In fact, one of the great daily highlights was Mail Call, when a prefect would come like Santa with a sack of letters at recess, call your name and throw them into the crowd.

So did I like NEGS? It must be confessed that I did not like being a boarder. The food was terrible – imagine feeding 500 hungry girls three times a day in two dining room sittings and I missed my horse, my grandmother, my farm and my parents. So I enjoyed it far more when I moved in with my mother’s parents in Armidale and became a day girl in my third year. 

Did I take advantage of and appreciate NEGS and all it offered me? Well, I worked very hard and did well, but it was really with the benefit of hindsight and knowing what I know now, that I have a greater understanding of how extraordinarily privileged I was to grow up a country kid and go to this school.

And I suspect that like myself, you may not yet fully appreciate the value of this school, the opportunities it offers and the deep and abiding networks and connections it will build which will be important throughout your life.

Lesson one – maintain, nurture and love your friends – they are your networks of the future.

Which brings me back to Facebook and how I connected to my old school network to ask them what I should say to you today. 

Some people suggested I tell some stories about my university days studying journalism at CSU in Bathurst. Maybe this was meant to be a possible inducement to get you to attend – but I think some things at university are best left for you to experience – not me to tell you about! 

And university as I knew it will be vastly different from university as you know it. The Internet and Google will see to that. Consider how much has shifted in just 10 years? In 2006 just one of the world’s most top six most valuable public companies was in Tech, three were Oil and Energy, one in financial services and one was a conglomerate. Fast forward to 2016 and five of the top six companies in the world are in Tech and only one – Exxon Mobil – in Oil and energy. 

Just the other day, the Foundation for Young Australians released a report to help young people, such as yourselves, navigate your working lives – where you might have eight, nine or more different careers. Titled a New Work Mindset – the report revealed seven new job clusters in the Australian economy where the required skills are closely related and more portable than previously thought. So instead of spending time at school pondering “what you want to be when you grow up” – which many of us are still trying to figure out – you will be able to think about what you are good at and put yourself into one of seven job categories:
  • the generators (jobs that require interpersonal interaction such as hospitality, entertainment, retail sales)
  • the Artisans (manual jobs such as those in construction, production, technical maintenance)
  • the technologists (jobs requiring high understanding and manipulation of digital technology)
  • the carers (jobs that improve the mental and physical health and well-being of others)
  • the coordinators (administrative and process jobs)
  • the designers (deploying skills in maths and science to engineer and build)
  • the informers (information, education and business services)
For those concerned parents in the audience – the key to making your child fit for the new work order is not to worry about jobs that will not be there or which career from “the big book of jobs our child should do”, but to shift our focus from thinking about jobs to thinking about skills in order to prepare young people for the future of work.

So my second take-away is to always be open to change, always be ready to adapt and shift and alter the way you think and work. Much as David Hockney – the great British artist whose work is currently being exhibited in Melbourne – embraced acrylics in the 1960s and now, well into his 70s, is doing most of his work with a stylus on an iPad – and reproducing them as massive living canvasses.

However, it is really important, that, like David Hockney, we understand that technology such as our mobile phones, iPads and apps, are not the change themselves – just the enablers for change. Change only comes from one place – within. The capacity to think of new things and to shift our views is entirely dependent on us being thoughtful, being authentic and being curious about others and the world around us.

Another friend, Kerrie Benham, studied Chemical Engineering and has had a career with BP in Australia, Singapore and is now president of women in engineers Asia. Her message to young women heading out into the world is to be brave and to practice stepping out of your comfort zone when you are young so it's not so scary when you move into the workforce.

Sometimes in places like NEGS you can become very secure, very protected and not realise that you actually live in a bit of a bubble. Stepping outside this to understand the world of others is a great way to start - through volunteering, working with people who are less advantaged than yourselves and those who feel displaced and dispossessed because they do not have the deep roots many of us do in Australia. Knowing others and their context will always be an advantage – and you never know who you will meet on your journey through life.

My dearest friend, Meredith Kirton, horticulturalist and author, advised “don't stop studying when your career is going great...keep improving your education at every opportunity. This might not be what those of you approaching Year 12 want to hear, but learning is a process on your journey through life, not an end point. Learning is our greatest gift as humans – something that is not diminished by use or by age as are many other possessions. 

But I can’t go past Meredith’s favourite memory of NEGS which is the time the school conspired with the Armidale fire department for a fire drill. Apparently we had not been responding quickly enough to the fire bell so one night they filled garbage bins with wet hay and set them on fire at the end of the corridors to our dorms. Never have 100 children evacuated Saumarez so fast – literally sliding down the frosty steel fire stairs from all three stories. The smell for days was appalling. Do not try this at home on your holidays!

My third message is to always remember that you stand on the shoulders of others in all that you do

When I co-founded Women on Boards in Australia 10 years ago there were (still are in fact) some who decry the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s as a bunch of hairy arm-pitted, aggressive women who yelled at men a lot. When we are more thoughtful and look at things in context, many women had to make a “choice” between work and marriage, placed themselves in unimaginably risky situations because in many states they could not have a legal abortion, were effectively locked out of places at our universities because of their gender and so it went on. 

In that context – which remember was only 50 years ago - a few of us might have forgone waxing for a few months, chained ourselves to a railing or two as well and shouted at the odd police office when arrested for protesting these conditions!

It was therefore important to my colleague and I when we set up Women on Boards in 2006 as an organisation with a clear purpose “to move women into board and leadership roles to achieve 40:40:20 gender balance” that we both respected the past and looked forward to the future. For those of you appearing mystified, this means 40 per cent men, 40 percent women and 20 per cent of either and or gender.

In standing on the shoulders of the women who came before us we have been able to achieve far more than had we acted alone. So today I invite you to stand on the shoulders of the 36,000 women who make up WOB here, in our UK business and across the 80 countries from which women participate in our programs. They are extraordinary but ordinary women – as are we all and as you will become.

Finally, I would like to share with you my core values which have sustained me throughout my career and the ups and downs of life. These were very much drawn from my farm and rural community upbringing…I call them the three R’s. Having Respect for others, taking Responsibility for my own actions and developing Resilience to go out into the world and be the change I want to see. 

This is great reminder that your values are shaped here and now, at home with your families, at this school and in all that you do. Be true to them and hold them dear - as they are what will sustain you throughout your lives.

In closing, can I ask you all to dream and to follow your passions – do the things you love to do not the things others expect of you. For your imaginations are our nation’s richest resource and you indeed are our futures.

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