Their Stories

Embracing diversity

15 February 2017

Lisa is a graduate of Course 19 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP)

It isn’t difficult to lure Lisa Dwyer onto the topic of the ARLP. It is an experience she is passionate about, and one she generously espouses as a key part of her current life and leadership.

Her enthusiasm is inevitable, she explains, because the lessons of the program, and the skills it develops, are life-long.

“I recall our program facilitator said that we would only extract roughly forty per cent of the value of the course at the time we were taking part, it’s not until the years that follow that a lot more will make sense as circumstances transpire where you’re forced to reflect on the tools you might be able to draw on to meet a particular challenge,” Lisa says.

“That has absolutely been my experience. Honestly, there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t draw on something that I learned as a result of the ARLP.”

Lisa and her family run a dairy farm at Hawkesdale, Victoria, and she was relatively new to the industry when in 2012 she was selected as a part of the 19th program cohort.

“I was finding myself increasingly drawn into roles of responsibility that had some connection to agriculture, and I knew that I wasn’t able to contribute to my full potential because of those limiting factors that we all have,” she says.

“There was no way I was going to take on a role unless I was able to contribute something of value, otherwise I was only preventing someone else from doing a better job.”

A nudge from ARLP Course 14 graduate, Chris Griffin, prompted Lisa to look into the ARLP, and she was swayed by the program’s promise of assisting people to become more well-rounded and effective as leaders.

“My first impression of the program’s opening session in the Kimberley was ‘you can’t be serious!’” Lisa says of the period participants spend forging self-awareness and reflecting on their leadership styles in a remote outback setting.

“I found the program pushed me physically, psychologically and intellectually to the limit. It’s only as a result of being tested at that level consistently that you’re forced to consider different ways of doing things. That’s where my growth has come from.”

Lisa has harnessed this growth alongside a parallel expansion in her leadership roles. While continuing to dairy, Lisa took a role as a Director at Dairy Australia in 2014, joining the board of the organisation that provided her scholarship to participate in the ARLP.

“The dairy industry recognised some years ago that unless they had a pipeline of up-and-coming people who had the capacity, the willingness and the support to move into leadership roles, then the dairy industry was going to suffer as a result,” Lisa says.

“So, the industry has invested a lot of resources in this, and I am one of the beneficiaries. I often reflect on how lucky I was to have been given that opportunity. I feel that I now have a responsibility to pay back the investment that was made in me, and I take that very seriously.

One of the ways the dairy leader intends to repay this debt is through encouraging her industry to in turn push itself beyond the status quo.

“I believe that the dairy industry would greatly benefit by broadening its view and looking beyond promoting people who are just like us.” Lisa says.

She identifies insularity as a stumbling block for Australian agriculture as a whole.

“I think there is a degree of reticence to really, genuinely embrace much greater diversity, and I’m not just talking about gender. What I’m really referring to is that diversity of experience, culture and all of those elements that bring to the table perspectives that will ultimately provide better decisions, solutions and outcomes,” she says.

“Where the ARLP has really made a fundamental difference to me is through a recognition that it doesn’t matter whether the people around the table have been involved for five minutes or thirty years, every single person has something of value to bring to the discussion.”

Lisa says that without her program experience, she would probably be among those more likely to resist change.

“The program has been an enormous advantage for someone who is a born-and-bred country girl like me—for someone who hadn’t travelled and been exposed to some of those controversial and challenging aspects to society, like homelessness, poverty, different politics and personalities.”

She cites her cohort’s visit to India as impacting her current ethics, tolerance for difference and her openness to change.

“My experiences in India provided me with a new perspective on life. It helps me to discern the things that are inconsequential distractions, and not fundamental to making the world a better place, or living a better life.”

Lisa recently moved from her role with Dairy Australia to take on a Directorship with Murray Goulburn Co-operative. She is well aware she is experiencing each side to the industry coin during an unprecedented time of difficulty.

“There’s no question that 2016 has been exceptionally challenging for the dairy industry in Australia, particularly the southern states.” Lisa acknowledges.

“People are affected to varying degrees, depending on how long they’ve been established, their business management abilities and even their personalities.”

Part of Lisa’s approach is being mindful of these differences, and case-by-case needs.

“For people like me, it’s about being very considered in the ways that we identify solutions, support, and what the priority areas are that we need to focus on. It’s important not to take a position based on my personal view. One of the lasting legacies of my ARLP involvement has been the approach of sitting off the pace a little bit and observing, and giving others the opportunity to put their views, rather than assume I already know what the outcome should be.

“I also learned to harness the fact that people have strengths where my weaknesses exist. In recognising and taking advantage of this, you can actually come up with some pretty amazing results,” Lisa says.

But every leadership position comes with frustrations and disheartenment.

“Unfortunately the more responsibility that you obtain, the more you are exposed to overt criticism and being undermined,” Lisa says.

“I do sometimes think, why not just focus on my business and my life rather than all of the other things I do?

“Ultimately it comes down to two things: First, it is just my nature. I understand that in order to achieve something, you have to work very hard to get there. Secondly—what’s the alternative? Do you let the cause or organisation you represent suffer? I just see that there is a much more important objective out there that’s bigger than me, and bigger than those who choose to sit on the sidelines rather than be involved themselves.”

Alongside her board positions, Lisa has enjoyed a foray into government via a regional partnership established by the Victorian government. It involves business and community leaders coming together to prioritise areas that will help the state’s Great South Coast region to progress.

“That feeds in to a sub-committee of cabinet, so it’s something of a direct line into government,” she says.

She is also a Director on the Board of the Australian Livestock Export Corporation Limited.

“I’ve no doubt that without what I learned through the ARLP and the exposure to different people and different ways of thinking, I would not have been ready to take on what I have,” Lisa says.

The broad scope to her leadership is all part of the legacy Lisa hopes she is building.

“Not my personal legacy, but the legacy of a much stronger, more diverse sector. If through my involvement I can create the smallest amount of change that means Australian agriculture can be a little bit more resilient, successful and a little bit more prosperous, then I will know it was better off with my contribution than without it.”

As she continues to negotiate the trying forces afflicting Australian agriculture, Lisa is mindful that there are over a thousand ‘lifelines’ just a phone call away in the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation’s Alumni Network.

“The network is one of the very best things to come out of being an ARLP participant. In many ways it’s those that aren’t involved in the sector you represent that can be most valuable, because they have the knowledge and expertise that you don’t,” Lisa says.

“I recently caught up with Sarah Crooke of Course One, at an industry event. She gave me her card and invited me to ring her to chat about challenges or anything else I might be contending with. Just by virtue of doing the program, I am part of a network far beyond anything I could have pictured.”


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