Sonja Cox takes the responsibility of being a public servant extremely seriously.
“I see myself as working for the community so when they’re footing the bill for my salary and my development, then I owe them something, and that’s commitment,” she said.
This philosophy was never more on show than in the two years Sonja spent completing ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA), graduating in 2018. She committed so completely to the program that she was awarded the Dean’s Award for the best overall academic performance across the EMPA subjects.
Why does she think she won the award? “It happened because I didn’t take for granted the opportunity that was given to me by our public sector,” she said. “That was an incredible opportunity to have a fully-funded scholarship. I don’t go into anything half-arsed, and I gave it my everything. I knew it would be a couple of years of incredible sacrifice, and I made sure I was able to do that and give it everything.”
Is it any wonder that when Sonja gave a pep talk about leadership to her son’s football team recently, they won by a goal? This leader inspires everywhere she goes but also considers that it was taking on the EMPA that gave her back her mojo.
A single mother with three sons and a very demanding job, she admitted in her acceptance speech for the Dean’s award that she had been struggling to retain her usual passion for her work as real-world issues built up.
“I must admit that I came to the EMPA perhaps a little bit broken,” she said at the awards ceremony. “Having served in the sector for over 23 years I felt I had lost my way. The complexities, the battles, delivering outcomes under unrealistic political timeframes and with little investment, had deflated me. But I was energised (by the study), and I am shining brighter for that experience. Now we have toolkits that are brimming with ideas and knowledge and we have graduated with renewed passion for our purpose.”
Sonja works within the West Australian Government, recently named as Executive Director of People, Culture and Diversity for the WA Public Sector Commission. She is in charge of developing the government workforce, including future planning, as well as actually managing the culture of government departments and what the word “culture” actually means. Finally, she is in charge of diversity within the government workforce and holds strong views about turning diversity from a necessary requirement into a competitive strength, including achieving true diversity around the decision-making tables within the government.
Like most senior public servants, Sonja admits that she struggles to talk about her work in social circles, because most people don’t understand what it means to be a public sector leader. Unlike, say, emergency service workers, her role is invisible to the public.
It’s one reason she loved her time within the EMPA cohort.
“To be with a bunch of people who really understand who you are and what your business is, it was really, really great,” she said. “Some of the people in the cohort have become my best friends, and I know now that when I’m struggling with something at work or we are trying to do something innovative, I have got a ton of people I can flick out an email to, saying, ‘hey, what are your thoughts on this?’ Or: ‘you’ve done something like this, tell me what your learnings were’.
“The EMPA is a great forum to be inspired and hear about what works and doesn’t work. And to be with people who understand why you do what you do, and who get you. They get you.”
Winning the Dean’s Award was invaluable for Sonja because she said her sons, aged from 9 to almost 16, got to see the reward for all her hard work, slaving over a laptop on the kitchen table for two years.
“They’re incredibly proud”, she said.
And how does she see the EMPA, now that the tickertape has faded?
“It’s a cliché but really it was life changing,” she said. “It made me think about myself differently as a public sector leader and has given me a massive tool kit that I can now draw on when tackling some of the hardest problems I have to tackle. I have a lot more confidence now.
“For some people, the biggest barrier would be: it’s not the right time. But take it from me, there is never a right time. There’s always something going on in someone’s life, so if the opportunity presents itself to do the EMPA, say yes and just do it. It was a truly remarkable experience.”