13 February 2014 — Narelle Hooper, former Boss magazine editor, well-versed facilitator and women’s champion, wanted to know when Sam Mostyn was going to be PM.
Yes, Mostyn was electric. She was speaking on a panel at the Green Building Council of Australia’s Leading Green Women forum in Sydney. We’d all seen her before and she has always been superb, but on Tuesday morning something special had taken hold. A certain energy, new and still indefinable, and it had infected the whole room.
The session was the start of a national round of panels, at least in part sparked late last year by one audacious article penned by CBRE’s Amanda Steele for an awards publication and picked up by The Fifth Estate, before going viral.
The GBCA, picking up on the growing vibe, had brought together not just the leading women on the panel but a room full of women and a few interested men who were all hungry to hear a message that could dissect the chestnut of women and the role they play in sustainability and leadership.
On stage were: Siobhan Toohill of Westpac; Megan Motto, chief executive of Consult Australia; and Carolyn Viney newly announced chief executive of Grocon. GBCA chief executive Romilly Madew introduced the sessions, and moderator was Jenine Cranston, senior director at CBRE.
The big questions popped. How do you prosecute the sustainability agenda at corporate and board levels stacked with people who scoff that “it’s a load of crap”? What did the preponderance of women in sustainability jobs mean? More soft jobs with a socio/eco bent that could be fobbed off every time there was a downturn in the economy? Or was sustainability the new centre of power where you can leverage change and where new opportunities are identified and seized?
Mostyn said you needed a few tricks up your sleeve to negotiate your path in the higher echelons of commerce [and politics, no doubt].
The most dangerous thing, she said, was to be labelled a “greenie”, a “leftist”, a “feminist”.
What was fascinating was the range of tactics on offer.
Siobhan Toohill said you can push sustainability by advocating the value it brings. Her experience has shown her the skills need to be resilient above all.
“The amount of times I’ve been referred to as the CSR girl, the Treehugger, an irritating greenie, but also the number of times I helped secure development approval as well.”
There’s a lot to be excited about with sustainability, Toohill said. But what was needed was to constantly demonstrate the value of sustainability, and to work on the language around it.
Megan Motto – Sustainability is a freight train
Motto pointed to research that debunked “the myth” that women come to engineering because they’re attracted to the social side of work.
“The reason women choose to go into engineering is because they like to make order out of chaos,” she said.
“Sustainability is really about taking different elements and coordinating them to make more of a difference”.
Motto wants to make sustainability more mainstream.
“How do we take this message to the halls of power in a mainstream way?”
That’s the work currently under way in her group’s project, The Business of Sustainability, she said.
Needed are the power words of “productivity and efficiency”, because this is what resonates with business and government.
Motto uses logic as a weapon.
Here’s a sample. At one male-dominated meeting or other, a member of the group declared, “climate change is crap and it will ruin the economy”, Motto recalled.
Motto countered and said she would not buy into the climate change debate because “quite frankly you can’t debate ideology because it doesn’t come from a rational place”.
“The agenda is a freight train that is moving forward; it’s global; it’s produced the biggest opportunity, not just here but in the region and globally,” she said.
“The sustainability movement is taking hold, it’s going ahead in leaps and bounds. Do you want to be left at the station or be on the freight train?”
The big question was understanding the downside risk of acting now versus later.
“We’re not just women and not just sustainability people, we part of something much larger – the Australian business community and society. So how do we take our message and make it mainstream?”
“You will be marginalised and cut down from time to time, but that breeds resilience.”
Sustainability is a hard job
Sam Mostyn was clear.
“The sustainability job is not soft – it’s a hard job, there’s nothing soft about it,” Mostyn said.
“And in any organisation it should be the job that every man and woman wants to get to because it’s the big lever of change.
“We’ve got to stop thinking about power and success and sustainability in two different domains.”
Mostyn pointed to the head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde as someone she admires and she urged the audience to follow her.
“In the Financial Crisis Lagarde said that unless we put women’s equality at the centre no economy would recover… that the equal presence of women is central to recovery.”
Mostyn confessed that sadly she was often the only woman on a board.
But don’t think it’s just about getting women on boards that’s important; it’s about diversity, people from different backgrounds that produces resilience and creative thinking, Mostyn said.y
There may well be independent thinking within members of a homogenous group but will they speak up?
Often no. (Memories of the schoolyard pack, perhaps?)
You need a provocateur, she said. It often takes an outsider to raise an issue, because of “the rules of engagement”.
“I don’t want to criticise the men I’ve joined because often they’re the victims of a homogenous environment where there hasn’t been a provocateur to challenge the conventions.”
Several have thanked her after the meeting for raising a question that they would like to raise but have failed to do so.
But it’s no different for women’s groups. “I get nervous of all an women’s group because it’s the same problem.”
The rules of engagement
Mostyn warned successful challenges in the boardroom were not straightforward.
“If the woman carries the sustainability question then she has to be very careful how she raises that question, how she deploys that first question so she is not labelled left, green, radical, feminist.
“These labels become very, very dangerous.
“There’s a trick to that and it does take a bit of skill and patience.”
Pick a frame that speaks to risk and opportunities for an organisation instead, she advised.
Raising the sustainability question, however, was increasingly the clear and logical path.
“From what I’m learning, the sustainability story is really the future of our economy. It is now about changing the conversation and changing the language.”
On the recent announcement that Toyota would stop producing cars in Australia, Mostyn said this would have been clear a decade ago.
It may be a tragedy, she said, but it was not surprising.
“If people said a decade ago what are the threats coming Australia’s way they would have said a high Australian dollar, and asked, what sectors we have to work to transition. I suspect motor engineering would have been on that radar.
“That’s the failure to have the sustainability discussion, which is about looking to the future and predicting the risk.
“And it’s also missing the opportunity – might we be the best manufacturer of wind blades or lithium batteries?”
Getting women into the room for that discussion at that time (which didn’t happen) would have gone some way to avoiding the current pain Australia is about to undergo, perhaps.
“Not because women were any smarter, but because there would have been the strength of diversity,” Mostyn said.
It’s complex and it’s about engaging with the future.
It’s also “frightening and exciting”.
Carolyn Viney – Leadership needs to come from the top
As newly appointed chief executive of Grocon, one of the biggest private developers in the country, Carolyn Viney has been at the forefront of engineering change in the company since joining in 2003. Not just as a woman but as an advocate of sustainability.
You need to have three key elements to embed sustainability in an organisation, Viney said.
These included making sustainability a value of the organisation, understanding where it fits in the pecking order and leading from the top.
“Pre-GFC, Daniel said without consulting anyone – you can do that when you own the company – ‘we’re not going to deliver anything other than 5 Star’.
“If the leadership isn’t going to come from the CEO then it needs to come somewhere else in the leadership ranks,” she said.
But all of it is much easier “if there is someone in the bunker with you”.
Even with the company owner alongside it has sometimes been a struggle all the same. Getting the small but uber-sustainable Pixel building in Melbourne off the ground needed courage. Internally not everyone was convinced, Viney confided.
“We had opposition and in the end we did it off balance sheet,” she said.
Likewise, Legion House in Sydney required its own level of courage and commitment. Partners liked the project but when it come to putting “some balance sheet on” it was clear the company would be doing it on its own.
In the case of the Common Ground project, a series of social housing developments in Melbourne Sydney and Brisbane for people at risk of homelessness, which Grocon committed to delivering at cost, there was also opposition. The client wanted housing projects, pure and simple.
“Our team said we’re only delivering them if they’re green.”
The big question is who is going to champion the idea?
Especially when striving for 6 Stars makes it harder to win the projects.
Who would pay for sustainability was the biggest question.
“If something is cheap, who’s paying for the cheap? Is it cheap labour or it is the environment?”
Women need to dial it up
But the company is a people business. Viney has needed superior people and communication skills to steer change while keeping staff on side.
She has some strong advice for women considering the promotional ladder.
“If someone sees something in you and offers you advancement, take their judgement, say yes first and don’t use excuses,” Viney said.
There is a dominant psychology, she said, of women waiting to be perfect in their current job before thinking they can move ahead. Wrong.
Viney has sat on a variety of employment panels and if there is one trend she has seen come through strongly it’s the vast difference in the way men and women present themselves.
Women tend to play down the qualities and behave modestly. “They don’t invest in the first couple of sentences that come out of their mouths.
“The woman will tend to say, ‘I don’t think I can do it; I don’t feel confident,’ versus the man who will say, ‘I can nail that job and by the way you need to pay me a hundred grand more.’
“Women need put a lot more into their image; the substance is there.
“They should dial it up a bit.”
Understanding people and motivation
In her experience at Grocon where she is still considered a newcomer, Viney said being a quick thinker has helped.
“The one thing I’ve had to get better at over time is understanding that person on the other side of the table and what is motivating them.”
It’s important to get the message across, whatever it is, without offending the other person.
“The hardest thing invariably is not the decisions around strategy but in how you deal with people and how you get them to come on trains with you.”