High Performance Teams – Interview with Liz Broderick

Elizabeth Broderick is the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission. She is a member of the World Bank’s Advisory Council on Gender and Development, Global Co-Chair of the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) Leadership Group, a joint initiative of the UN Global Compact and UN Women and since her appointment in 2007 has annually represented Australia in the United Nations in relation to sex discrimination issues. In 2014 she was the overall winner of Australia’s “100 Women of Influence Awards”. She is a recipient of two honorary doctorates of laws, one from the University of Sydney and one from the University of Technology.

Prior to her appointment as Commissioner, Elizabeth was a partner and board member at Blake Dawson (now Ashurst) one of Australia’s leading law firms. While at Blake Dawson she developed the firm’s business case for flexibility in the workplace and her efforts contributed to creating a workplace where more than 20 percent of the law firm’s workforce now uses flexible work arrangements.

One of the many areas Elizabeth has focused on during her time as Commissioner is promoting women’s representation in leadership.  In April 2010, Elizabeth was instrumental in bringing together some of Australia’s most influential and diverse male CEOs and Chairpersons to form the Male Champions of Change group. The group aims to use their individual and collective influence and commitment to ensure the issue of women’s representation in leadership is elevated on the national business agenda.

Mark:             In your current role you interact with a broad range of leaders across a broad range of industries and sectors. What do the most effective leaders have in common?

Elizabeth:     I’m working with leaders in the military, the community sector, the Parliament, business, and the union movement so I see the way courageous leaders operate all across the country.

The most effective leaders I see recognise that the change starts with them. They understand that if they don’t model the types of behaviours they want, then they are less effective as leaders. They understand that we are what we do, not what we say, so a lot of people can talk well but they actually are not very inspiring in the way they lead.

The other common thing I am seeing among the best leaders is they have a very compelling way of communicating a vision and making sure that everyone is on board with that vision.  They construct a value set and a purpose that engages and unites their teams.

Mark:             What do you see as the key challenges for leaders trying create high performing teams?

Elizabeth:      I think there’s a range of challenges. For starters, a decade ago, definitely two decades ago when you were a leader, the people that you were leading were always present. That’s just no longer the case. With greater flexibility people are as likely to be virtually present as physically present.

Now more than ever effective teams have to be built on a high level of trust because you can no longer look outside your office window or walk out the door and say it’s ok John’s working because I can see him sitting in his little office or his box or whatever. That’s no longer the case.

Another challenge is the aging of the workforce. High performing teams have people of all ages so good ideas are likely to come from the person who’s just joined through to the person who has been there for many years. The thing is to make sure everyone has a voice.

I think making sure everyone has a voice is perhaps the key challenge for leaders trying to create a high performing team. When I think about the work we do here at the Human Rights Commission we seek to ensure that everyone has the right to participate in decisions that will affect them. It can make for some robust conversations because often the views are diametrically opposed.

Good leaders will allow all the views to be heard and put in a very respectful manner and then work to build up, if not a consensus in the team, at least help everyone own whatever the end result is, even if it’s one that they didn’t originally start with.

Mark:             From a gender perspective, are women being allowed to be heard?

Elizabeth:     It’s clearly a challenge even for successful women. Many women I talk to who are on Boards comment that often they feel that they are just not heard. They will give us examples of situations where they make a contribution at the board meeting and no one makes any comment. Then the male colleague sitting beside them makes almost an identical contribution and “oh, that’s a great idea, yeah why don’t we do that”…

I think that’s about the fact that we hear messages from people who are like us and we tend to minimise or have lesser regard for those messages that come from people who are not like us. I think that’s a real problem. It’s a problem because you miss out on some great ideas.

Here at the Human Rights Commission I work every day with an incredible range of people. Indigenous Australians, refugees, people with disabilities of all sorts including intellectual disability, physical disability, older Australians, younger Australians, men and women. When you put that type of team together, and people of different sexual orientations including trans-gender; when you put a team like that together you see the power of different views.

Here, everyone’s view is important. No one’s view is minimised or trivialised and it’s about creating an inclusive team and a team which values difference. Just because a view is coming from a trans gender woman, an indigenous Australian, or maybe a person with a cognitive disability it should not be minimalised. I’ll give you an example.

I ran an amazing workshop for about 200 women with disability. Now many of them had cognitive and communication disability which meant they had disability in communicating their idea through cerebral palsy or whatever so they used voice synthesizers. You know what, some of the most amazing contributions came from those women; from women with cognitive disability who needed more time to make their point. The point they were making was just so insightful but they needed more time. So the question becomes how do you create the space for all these voices to be heard in the busy world in which you operate? I have to say it was one of the most inspiring and informative days I’ve spent in seven years as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

Mark:            I really like how you have framed the challenge in terms of how do leaders create the space that allows people to be heard. I think one of the challenges for leaders is not being so quick to judge and not being so quick to form opinions. The key is learning how to really listen.

Elizabeth:     It’s such an underrated skill.

Mark:            Well it’s a hard skill that requires focus and practice. All the research demonstrates that most of us do it badly. We are inherently poor listeners because we will be jumping ahead, we will be thinking about what we are going to say, we are only hearing what we want to hear.

Elizabeth:     Exactly, we are filtering.

Mark:            And we filter all the time. When I work with people in groups I get them to stand up and rate themselves as a listener. Most people rate themselves far higher than the research shows, because we all think we are ok but the reality is, as those of us with children are told constantly, we are not that good at listening.

When you think about the best leaders you work with, what are they doing to allow people to be heard?

Elizabeth:     I think number one is they’re highly inclusive. They want participation from every member of the team and they run meetings and conversations where they invite contribution in a way which creates a safe space for that person to speak.

Let me illustrate what I mean by sharing a recent personal experience where this didn’t happen. The other day I attended a very important discussion forum on Australia’s economic future.  I think there were maybe 80 men and 5 women in the room. Now I’m a reasonably confident, empowered woman but in that forum I felt I couldn’t participate, I really felt quite intimidated about making a contribution. The facilitator didn’t lead in a way that encouraged me or indeed any of the other women to participate. I think only one woman spoke.

Now a good leader would recognise where the power lies in the room and they would invite those that may not have that same power to speak. If the facilitator had said “oh Liz, I’ve heard that you’ve done some good work in x, y and z, why don’t you tell us about that” that would have been an entree for me. Instead they did what was a very male dominated approach, which goes on at the UN too, where you have to put your little name tag up and then you can speak.

What I’ve learnt over the years is that if you don’t actively and intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude. And that’s what happened in that meeting. There was no intention to exclude women but because they weren’t actively and intentionally included in what was essentially an incredibly male dominated environment, they were unintentionally excluded. I think that can happen not through ill will but through a failure to recognise where power sits in a room.

I really believe this is important for leaders to be conscious of when managing their teams. When I bring together the Male Champions of Change to do big public events, I say to the men, and they are among the the top leaders in Australia, from companies like Qantas, Telstra, Woolworths, the leading banks and so on, I say “listen I am going to design the seating in the room so that I balance power in the room. If you are ordinarily sitting on table 1 you won’t be anywhere near table 1, you will be on the outer reaches of the room and those people who ordinarily would not have a voice and who may feel less empowered in the environment will be sitting right down on table 1”. And I have to say it leads for a much better conversation. It’s about power, evening out power.

I think that one of the things that distinguishes high performing teams is that people are not aware of an overt hierarchy. They actually feel on a level playing field with everyone else, irrespective of what their positional authority is, and in that way they are encouraged to put their views forward in a way where they don’t fear victimisation.

Mark:            Can you share an example of a leader who you admire in terms of this ability to ensure people are heard no matter where they sit in terms of hierarchy?

Elizabeth:     Interestingly, I think of the army. Now you couldn’t get more overt power than in the military. You’ve got basically your rank stamped on your forehead so I know where you sit in relation to me. Power is very overt.

One of the leaders I admire is David Morrison, the recently retired Chief of Army. I have seen him bring together not just his leadership team but also key agents of change across all levels and he will very inclusively invite people to speak.

Because that’s the other thing about the military, you don’t speak unless you are asked to speak. So the skill becomes even more important. It’s even more important because the 2-star general or the 3-star general is the one who has the absolute authority. If the 3-star general reaches out to the private 20 levels below him and says, your contribution matters as much as that person sitting there, it’s a great skill to have and secondly it’s likely to lead to a much better outcome. When I look at the cultural changes happening in the military now, it’s been about ensuring that everyone has a voice, so that’s been good. That’s one example.

Mark:            I have no doubt that leaders who create an environment where people feel safe to speak and work in a generally collaborative way get the best outcomes.

Elizabeth:     I think that’s right. It’s about respecting everyone’s view. You don’t have to agree with it necessarily but whenever someone puts a view it should be respected. I think that’s what we’ve done in the quarterly Male Champions of Change meetings.

It’s a safe space for these senior men to speak out on issues. Sometimes the questions or the views they want to put may not be politically correct in a sense, but they feel safe to put them. They are sometimes anxious, “am I saying something dumb or really illinformed in this area”, because it’s not a core area of expertise for most of them. Why would it be? And I think because we’ve got the safe space, even though there are competitors there, no one feels that any question or any comment is not valuable.

Mark:             Final question. If you were talking to a group of young leaders about what they need to do to create a high performing team, what would you say?

Elizabeth:     I look at leadership in four ways. As a good leader it’s what I say, what I do, what I prioritise and what I measure. Those dimensions are all incredibly important and in every dimension you need to be the change that you want to see.

I would say they should be focusing on having a diversity of voices. Not everyone who thinks like them. Diversity is absolutely key. I’ve seen just how well it works in a commission with an incredibly diverse staff. Views that you couldn’t even conceive because you’re coming from your own background and perspective are put into the group. Diversity definitely leads to better thinking and better outcomes.

I’d say work to bring the team together in a shared value set and build trust. Trust is absolutely essential and it helps to build an inclusive culture. And for me the teams that work really well, there’s a deep human connection between each of the team members. You don’t have to agree on everything but by respecting each other as human beings you will be able to have robust discussions which are very important to getting the best outcomes.

Lead in the way that you want other people to behave.  Be accessible, hold people to account for sure but be human in how you do it. Always be respectful.

Be ready to call out bad behaviour when you see it in a discreet but effective manner.  It’s not about humiliating people but more about helping them see that the way they behave in the team is not really working for the team.

Deep connections at a human level between team members are absolutely critical because that’s what’s going to get you through the difficult patch.


Mark Rosenberg