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A liberated leader: Catherine Marriott

15 April 2019

From confident cattle industry leader, to so much more, Catherine Marriott reflects on what she has learned since taking part in course 17 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program, and how the challenges along the way have forged her style of leadership.

A bout of heat stroke over the hot WA summer took Broome-based Catherine Marriott by surprise while preparing for her role as a team leader on Tour de Cure – a cycling movement dedicated to raising funds for cancer research. This year, they are riding from Sydney to Geelong (1400km) in 9 days.

She will be leading ‘Team Sunrise’, which includes Channel Seven personality, Mark Beretta and Ex Sydney Swans great, Plugger (Tony Lockett).

But getting a touch of heat stroke in her quest to do something she cares about is indicative of the lengths Catherine will go to, to champion what she believes in.

“We lost dad to cancer when he was 40. Riding to cure cancer is an awesome way to look after my own health while raising money to ensure other families don’t have to endure what we have,” she says.

So how does the former RIRDC Rural Woman of the Year fit it all in – and more importantly, know what to say ‘yes’ to?

“For me, it’s always a challenge, but ultimately, you need to understand why you do things. The powerful driver for me is building resilient and vibrant rural communities, so anything I do has to positively influence those things.”

Despite being known for her confident, driven leadership in agriculture, last year Catherine was forced to confront a challenge beyond anything her life as a leader had prepared her for.

In 2018, after a guilt-ridden period of paralysis, she put in a confidential complaint against then-agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, of sexual harassment to the National Party. Her name was then leaked to the press.

“It was pretty traumatic, to be perfectly frank. I had to call upon all my resilience and also my amazing support network to get through, which I was very blessed to have.

“It was just this quagmire of emotion, and I guess I was conscious of not being known as ‘the sexual harassment person’ … I chose to take a stand, but I didn’t choose for it to be public. That took a lot of grappling with, because all of a sudden I was known for something that was supposed to be private.

“It’s changed me because I’m no longer scared. I’m actually really grateful for last year, for the lessons I’ve learnt. I’m not grateful for having gone through the experience but I’m very grateful for what it has taught me. The people that supported me from all levels of power and political persuasion was overwhelming at times,” she says.

“I’ve learned to be much stronger. I’ll call things that I typically wouldn’t have called. I’m happy to be the example if it means it becomes easier for the next person.”

Indeed, Catherine’s sights are now set on playing her own, formal role in leadership development, and putting to use a few of her unique insights into ‘identity’ and leading authentically.

After becoming a leader known for her work in the cattle industry, Catherine says she was aware of raised eyebrows when she left the industry to establish an organization focused on building confidence and capacity in women.

“All through your life, it’s easy to get caught up in that identity thing. I have now realised, people will often keep you playing a role because it suits them. I don’t think it is a conscious thing on their part. It’s only when you pause and reflect on what you want and why you are doing something that you get clarity.” She says.

“I’m looking at gaps in rural and regional Australia, and I see a space where we need to continue to pull the knowledge and experience out of retired farmers … I’d really like to develop a program that brings that knowledge back into the fore and makes them feel valued, while adding value to the industry,” she says.

“Then there’s another part – I’m developing a slightly different program to enable people to pause and reflect on where they are, how they got there and determine if the role they are playing serves them, or enslaves them. Then work to either get out gracefully, or build to get stronger and more efficient.”

Catherine’s vision for her own leadership programs are, of course, inextricably linked to her own leadership development experiences, including participating in the ARLP at the age of 28.

“Hand on my heart, no holds barred, the ARLP changed my life. It turned me from a leader who was a proper little upstart, who didn’t realise she had so much to learn, to realising the power of vulnerability and the power of asking for help,” Catherine laughs.

“It made me realise I didn’t have to have all the answers – I could recognise skills in other people, and therefore make team dynamics much happier, but also much more effective.

“It also helped me understand the power of listening, and actually appreciating people’s stories. This challenges your judgement and breaks down barriers. I think empathy is essential for effective leadership.

It also comes back, Catherine reflects, to the filter she has become so adept at applying to what she chooses to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to.

“It’s about being clear about what you stand for and importantly why; communicating effectively and being generous with your spirit. I think it’s really important to have a vision that’s bigger than you, making sure your goals are benefiting a greater good. And then stopping and listening to other people’s ideas so that they actually buy-in to it.”

The ‘hats’ she currently wears include WA Manager for the CRC for Northern Australia; a Commissioner with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research; an elected member of the Broome Council; a board member of the Kimberley Development Commission, a member of the Broome Visitor’s Centre Board and a member of Rangelands NRM Board, as well as running her key-note speaking and MCing business.

And if there’s one ARLP lesson she carries across all these roles?

“Recognise strengths and passions in others, listen to what they are, and aren’t saying. The role of a leader is to create a vision, challenge the norm, build capacity in your team, then get out of the way and through guidance and reassurance, let the magic happen.

Photo first published on ABC.