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Getting public sector leaders out of their comfort zone: Stephanie Rowe

26 June 2019

News and media


Image of Stephanie smiling.

Stephanie Rowe’s career hasn’t involved much singing – so it’s fair to say that performing in front of other people as part of ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows Program (EFP) in 2018, took her a fair way out of her comfort zone.

Stephanie’s career has spanned science, policy and operational roles. She is now the Director of Compliance Services for the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries, where she leads a team of close to 300 frontline officers, investigators and analysts around New Zealand. The team undertakes compliance and enforcement activities relating to animal welfare, fisheries, food safety and biosecurity.

Yet last year, she left all that behind – if only for three weeks, to take part in the EFP – ANZSOG’s program for high performing senior public sector executives.

She says it changed her life.

“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I think the thing I loved about it the most is how it pushed you out of your comfort zone in a really safe way. It sort of built up – when you look back at this course, you can see how clever they were and how they got us to work together and what they built over time. You can see it all building up to really influence how we did our final presentations where we pulled in everything from all three weeks. They just manoeuvre you through it in such a clever way and so it really did push you.”

Stephanie was most impressed by the range of presenters she was exposed to in the course of the three weeks of study, and the honesty of the insights they delivered.

“The presenters were of such high quality and the conversations were of such high quality,” she said. “I think the program co-ordinators did really well to pick people whose stories really resonated and who have dealt with some gnarly stuff and are really open and happy to share about what they’ve learned.

“There was lots of new thinking and new ideas, but they got you really hands-on to talk about what it means, and they made it real. You got a really good insight into what’s going on in the mind of a leader; not just what they’re trying to achieve or what others want from them, but what’s going on for them, personally, including what they learned. It’s great to be in an environment where you can hear those stories.”

Stephanie was part of a new-look EFP, which took participants to three countries in the three weeks of study, taking the cohort from New Zealand, where the government’s role in growing the local film industry was examined, to Canberra, where Stephanie found herself well outside of her comfort zone singing in front of her fellow participants, to Singapore, where she was exposed to entirely different ways of thinking about government services and priorities.

“The week in Australia was probably my favourite, and the creative part (the singing activities and visiting the Portrait Gallery), they throw you out of your comfort zone, get you to think differently, get you to challenge yourself,” she said. “Sometimes they talked you through the lessons of it, and other times you had to go away and work it out for yourself. But it became clear and, you know what, it was just so much fun – and we don’t always have fun in our jobs.”

Stephanie has retained contact with her cohort, especially continuing to build bonds with her fellow New Zealanders. Stepping out of her usual world, she was surprised and delighted to discover a kinship with the other students, no matter their day job or level of government.

“You take the day to day and structure of organisation out of it, you’re all trying to achieve similar things,” she said. “People become public servants because they care about public value and giving back, and so it’s really cool to be with a bunch of highly passionate people who all want to do the best job they can, but they all have challenges that they’re working through.”

In fact, it turns out that the three weeks of being immersed in new worlds had a fundamental effect on Stephanie.

“The biggest thing I got out of it was realising over the three weeks that I have a thirst for knowledge and my learning journey where I am now is running out a little bit,” she said. “I was ready to go somewhere completely new, think about entirely new issues and decisions and apply my leadership in a different way.”

She starts soon as Deputy Chief Executive of the New Zealand Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.

Express your interest for 2020 Executive Fellows Program