Looking at Boards through the lens of international development

MARGIE COOK joined WoB a few months back. In January 2019 she was awarded the AO for services to the international community for the promotion of democratic electoral processes and for human rights.  She penned this article for Women on Boards. 

From the desk of Margie Cook AO

My interest in boards stems from decades of work leading some incredibly tough and contentious major projects globally. Projects where staff have been killed, projects where violence and intimidation have been commonplace, projects which have transformed countless lives. While most of these have been focused on elections and international human rights, what I’ve learned boils down to two simple things.

  1. First, the essence of leadership is not about strategy, although it matters. The trick of leadership lies in getting disparate groups of talented people to agree on what must be achieved and take a united step toward that goal.
  2. The second lesson is that great leaders empower their people not only by uniting their ambitions and focusing their energy and talent, but by removing impediments to their success so they can get on with what they are good at.

Leadership is service, and beyond goal setting, governance  and monitoring. This leadership is the true role of boards.

On Channel 9’s panel on election night, Chris Uhlmann reflected on how lucky we as Australians are in having such a reliable, honest and participatory system for choosing our leaders. He’s right. We might celebrate, dislike or even be suddenly shocked by the outcome.  But  -  political biases aside  - we didn’t have anything to really fear. The current backsliding into fake news and political lies, however, does no-one any good and mars the fact that Australian elections have traditionally been conducted with integrity and essential honesty, within acknowledged rules, without violence and in peace. And they can be fun. The democracy sausage has become an institution along with the cake stalls and other community-based entrepreneurial activities that now go hand in hand with the event.  

Other countries are less fortunate. It is in these places I’ve spent the last twenty years managing moderate to very large election and governance projects, massive budgets, multi-cultural teams and multi-country donor groups in complex and even violent contexts of transition to more democratic systems.

Before my career outside Australia really took off I had a tripartite focus on media and communications, elections and human rights. There’s an essential interconnectedness between these fields. Government policy and action plays a large part in determining how human rights are enjoyed; without advocacy and voice, the more vulnerable and disadvantaged in communities can be crushed by inaction and oppression, and elections determine policy application.

My relationship with Nine began way back in 1987. Running my own public affairs business for many years I took on clients including AusAID and non-Government organisations like World Vision who sent me off doing stories for the SMH, A Current Affair and other entities in Romania, Thailand, India, the Philippines, Bangladesh  and southern Africa, mainly on children’s rights issues including sexual exploitation, trafficking and child labour.  The human rights field was a good fit with my voluntary background in the sector and previously in the NSW Ombudsman’s Office very early on in my working life. I became media advisor to Brian Burdekin, Australia’s then Human Rights Commissioner and in 1996 took on the full-time role of public affairs director at the Human Rights Commission. By early 2001, with no real career path there, on the advice of a colleague in the Australian Electoral Commission, I sent my CV  to the UN and within two weeks was offered a post co-managing an election project in Nigeria. 

All the threads came together.

Since then, my work in elections and human rights has been outside Australia on long term postings in Nigeria, Tanzania, Cambodia, Kenya, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe where I am currently based, with  many shorter term assignments  in trouble spots including Yemen, Pakistan, Tunisia, Sudan, Sierra Leone  and Rwanda through to the more picturesque Fiji, Mongolia, Latvia and elsewhere. I’ve been privileged to maintain the connection with Nine through all these years.

The work, which includes managing and supporting Project Boards, is all about gaining trust,  articulation and the pursuit of strategy,  managing change,  and most importantly driving consensus  among donors, institutions and citizens whose political objectives may differ wildly. It is about maintaining a focus on goals and accountability while political and literal warfare rages about you. 

It is complex work with high upsides – think Zanzibar beaches and the Masai Mara - and terrible nadirs. I’ve watched as change agents are threatened, gaoled and abused. Some of my own staff in Kabul died when the Taliban attacked their guesthouse, sending a message from the highest authorities that the election outcome was unacceptable. I’ve received threats, and recently had to leave hurriedly from one country after Brian Burdekin and I were recklessly accused of fomenting civil unrest.

While each country brings unique  political and operational challenges, commonalities include a determined grip on power and wealth by the elite; widespread corruption; disproportionate opportunity between the political elite and the vast numbers living in poverty; a history of dictatorship or military influence; conflict;  the subjugation of women driven by culture and religion, and a desire by many for fairness, change and participation in the identification of leaders and determination of futures. Most people just want a safe life for their families, education and opportunity for their children, and a way out of poverty. The creation of political stability and the foundations for economic growth determines in large part how these hopes might play out.

People sometimes ask what it is that keeps me going. The work can be daunting, demanding an inner strength that we don’t otherwise need to call upon very often.  I’ve been very lucky to have marvellously talented and loyal teams in every location with whom strong ties and professional linkages form part of the onward journey.  While the work is all-engaging and often adventurous, I’ve also been careful to invest in the maintenance of friendships, professional linkages, a sense of home, and  personal relationships.  Not all survive. It is also about being aware of and maintaining some kind of balance. For me that comes through yoga – which I also teach - pilates, a minimum daily hour’s walk and lots of reading and continuous learning. The chances to travel and be continuously exposed to new cultures and worlds is an unbeatable plus.

I’m in the lucky position now of moving more into a mentoring and advisory role, looking to plough back the dividends of these years.

For the foreseeable future I’ll continue to spend every election night with Channel 9 as I’ve done  since 1987, first with Laurie Oakes at the helm and now Chris, supporting the Nine team  with detailed background information, crunching the  numbers at they come and marvelling at the freedoms we enjoy so unconsciously. 

What my kind of experience brings to boards beyond strategic skills are the universal leadership lessons of consensus building and removal of road blocks so people are enthusiastic about what they are doing and able to achieve to the best of their abilities. 

They’ve been hard-earned, but they work.

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