As Australian governments and senior public servants grapple with the challenges of COVID-19, Ginna Webster has found herself repeatedly drawing on lessons she learned during ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows Program (EFP).
As Secretary of the Department of Justice in Tasmania, Ginna is playing a leading role as part of team responding to the emergency.
“Dealing with a pandemic is different to a bushfire or a flood where there is a short, sharp crisis but then it’s over and you get into recovery,” Ginna said.
“We are still in the crisis but also dealing with recovery. You can’t lose sight of people feeling really anxious and uncertain about their future and you need to be really, really clear in your leadership.”
This was a key message taught during the EFP and regularly repeated by presenters who addressed the subject of leadership in a crisis.
“Whatever you do as a leader is really going to reflect on the people you lead. It isn’t about you anymore; they’re looking for support, they’re looking for guidance, they’re looking for answers, they may be just looking for communication,” she said.
“When people are working from home they may be feeling isolated, some of them live alone, some are living in difficult circumstances, some are trying to home school children. You have to be the calming influence and the clear voice of communication.”
Ginna has introduced a daily staff update emailed to everyone in her agency; she records a regular podcast to share with staff; and holds a daily 30-minute videoconference with her three deputy secretaries to workshop the day’s events.
Another EFP lesson was that different perspectives bring different ideas and solutions.
“We help each other with problems we’ve got and make sure we’re not key-person dependent. We are all in this together and you can’t do it all yourself. It’s not sustainable.”
Ginna joined the public service at 18 – after her ambition to become a vet was shattered when she discovered an aversion to blood during a stint of work experience.
Following a brief stint in the Tasmanian Health Department she sat the Commonwealth public service exam and joined the Australian Customs Service in 1984. In 1986 she landed another dream job, training and handling drug detection dogs, a role that took her to Hobart, Darwin, Sydney and Canberra before she was appointed inspector of the NSW Dog Unit, the largest unit in Australia.
In 2002 Ginna returned to Tasmania and has spent much of her time since with the Tasmanian Department of Justice, in roles including Deputy Secretary – Administration of Justice and Director, Community Corrections. She was appointed Secretary in August 2019.
Since returning to Tasmania, Ginna has completed two ANZSOG programs: Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL) in 2010 and the EFP a few years later. Both were supported by Tasmanian public service scholarships.
Putting herself forward for these helped her career and not only by completing the programs, she said. “By putting my name forward, people got to see my CV and got to see that maybe I was worth investing in.”
The programs helped her build a strong national network of experienced public sector leaders, showed her that problems are similar across jurisdictions, and gave her the confidence she had something valuable to contribute.
“There is really good validation that you’re all on equal footing, that no one person has the answers, and that you’re all part of a team,” she said.
“First and foremost, you’re a senior leader in the public service and while we might all have our own portfolios – Health, Roads and Transport, or Justice – the complex problems are all about people, how you communicate, stakeholder liaising and working with complex systems.
“Child and Youth Services is a highly emotional, really complex system, but that doesn’t mean to say there isn’t a communications approach that someone in Roads and Transport is using that would be useful.
“We also learnt that you don’t have to have the all answers. We were able to take a step back and take a more holistic view of things.”
Ginna now advocates for Tasmania’s public service as the state’s representative for the ANZSOG Alumni Advisory Council, a role that helps her ensure the programs remain contemporary and relevant while helping her build valuable connections across other jurisdictions.
“Professional development is a necessary part of leadership and it doesn’t matter what role you’re in or aspire to,” she said.
“Taking an opportunity to reflect on how you do things, making sure you’re connected to contemporary management techniques and leadership styles and continually learning is really important, and the difference with ANZSOG, and the value of ANZSOG, is that it’s aimed at the public sector.
“We’ve got to maintain that and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the best public sector that the community deserves.”
Find out more about ANZSOG’s Foundation Programs
A part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for high-performing public sector managers.
A three-week program challenging senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting.
A unique two-week program that helps public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the capacity to reflect and learn continuously.