For Queenslander Courtney Palmer, the Milparanga Established Leadership Program gave her an opportunity to focus on what it is to be an Indigenous leader in a corporate workplace.
A proud Worimi woman, Courtney is no stranger to leadership.
Her current role as state manager for a major national retailer sees her managing and supporting 4,000 staff across Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Most rewardingly, she is also chair of the Happy Boxes not-for-profit charity, empowering Indigenous women throughout remote Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.
The charity provides toiletries, beauty products and basic hygiene essentials to remote Indigenous women.
Focus on Indigenous leadership
Courtney has worked in executive roles for the past six years and undertaken many leadership courses over the time. However, none of them enabled her to focus specifically on the unique challenges of being an Indigenous executive.
When she saw the Milparanga program advertised, it ticked all the boxes on what she had come to realise she was missing.
She said without peers in a non-identified Indigenous role in her workplace, the challenges she regularly faced stemmed being an Indigenous executive.
“I realised that the area that I wanted to further develop was my community leadership, and the concept of a collective identity that supported the loneliness of leadership as an Aboriginal woman in a corporate environment,” Courtney said.
Milparanga Established Leadership Program
In May 2023, Courtney undertook the Milparanga program. She joined a cohort of 15 other Indigenous leaders in a challenging, 10-day intensive leadership course in Albany, Western Australia.
It enabled Courtney to focus on what it is to be an Indigenous leader. Often working hard to connect communities with the systems and mechanisms of mainstream society, she said was a constant challenge for Indigenousleaders. Milparanga had helped her work through the process.
“Bringing the two styles together by preferencing a connected style of leadership based on values and family systems thinking, rather than pursuing the idea of two different styles – community versus corporate organisations – is challenging,” Courtney said.
Milparanga also enabled Courtney to strengthen her passion for rural communities and understand why where she lives is so important. Her connection to community is vital to who she is.
“We have our children growing up with those values of kinship and community values and being part of something more than just the individual family unit,” Courtney said. “From that point of view, it was important for me to continue to balance and progress my career while holding strong to what’s super-important to me and that is community.”
She said the Milparanga program enabled her to learn strategies for managing the impact of her unique style without confirming to the norm. It empowered her to stay true to herself.
Courtney travelled to Albany from her home base in Gumbaynggirr country at Coffs Harbour to join a group of like-minded strangers to undertake the Milparanga program in May 2023.
What followed pushed Courtney out of her comfort zone, but it was all part of the journey. With little known about what she was to face, she said there was a beauty in the secrecy of the program. While at times the immersion experiences were uncomfortable, Courtney said each participant was given the opportunity to hold space and grow.
“Milparanga is going to push you way outside of your comfort zone and it’s going to stretch you in places where you won’t even believe it’s going to take you,” she said. “But you can focus a lot more on yourself, and what it is to be a strong Aboriginal leader.”
Vulnerability leads to learning
Opening herself up, and being a vulnerable was important, but Courtney said with a strong group of people around her, there was no chance of failure, only success.
Course participants have become a tight-knit network, with the alumni actively still connecting, and providing a powerful source of advice, support and mateship.
Having spent considerable time working in the same organisation, Courtney said the opportunity to learn alongside Indigenous people from different backgrounds and experiences was invaluable in her growth as a leader.
The Milparanga program has also assisted Courtney find some balance in what she says is a particularly challenging year for Indigenous leaders in a corporate environment. She said in the year of the Voice to Parliament referendum, it had presented additional cultural load on Indigenous leaders.
With many people looking to her for feedback and opinion on the issue, it had been a blessing to be part of the Milparanga program this year to help her process it. Milparanga has enabled Courtney a chance to think about how she holds and protects herself, and how to educate herself to provide guidance and information.
“It’s not always about sharing my opinion, but to be able to help and guide people to where they can go and get their own learnings as well and be able to elevate the conversations,” she said. “Especially as a senior Aboriginal leader with a huge cultural load, and in thinking about what our team might be going through at the moment.”
Ripple effect of clarity in leadership
As a mother of three, Courtney said the Milparanga program offered more than career leadership growth. She said the program helped empower Aboriginal leaders, promoting a ripple effect in their communities.
“The beauty of one of the key concepts of the program, which also links in perfectly to the Happy Boxes project, is that it’s around not focussing on the deficit discourse when we’re talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” she said.
“It’s more about focussing on black excellence and empowerment. It’s really helped me think about the foundations of what’s important, the foundations of culture and how we blend that into our decision making as well.”
For anyone considering taking part in the Milparanga program, Courtney said the hardest part was applying. “But just do it, you’re going to get so much out of it, in more ways than you could ever imagine,” she said.