As a confident and highly visible leader in agriculture, one might assume that Catherine Marriott OAM is afraid of nothing and no one. Her effervescent energy has taken her from the cattle yards of Indonesia to life as a shire councillor in Broome and countless board roles with rural and regional organisations. The 2012 AgriFutures (formerly RIRDC) Rural Woman of the year is just as comfortable jillaroo-ing as she is ‘renovating’ organisations in need of redirection and rejuvenation.
Yet a recent appearance on national television pushed the leader well and truly outside of her comfort zone.
“I bumped into [Q&A host], Stan Grant in Tumbarumba and had a yarn for about an hour on climate, Aboriginal Australia, mental health and trade and market access issues. He said ‘right, I’m putting you on Q&A … a producer rang and said they wanted me on for the jobs program.”
Despite her passionate role speaking out for rural Australia, Catherine admits she was “terrified.”
“There was such a fear of judgement there. That show can be so divisive, and it seemed like an awful space to be placed in – one where you have to face those fears and really hold to your value-set.”
Naturally she said yes.
“I couldn’t pass up that amazing opportunity to represent rural, regional and remote Australia as a great place to live, a diverse professional space and a source of smart people making incredible contributions,” she explains.
“I didn’t sleep for about four days prior. I just watched the news and made sure I was informed about absolutely everything I could be.”
While an uncomfortable experience, Catherine acknowledges that it was an opportunity that she had a responsibility to honour.
“The Australian Rural Leadership Program changed my life for the better, and it’s a gift that I’m always working to pay forward.” Catherine explains.
She was sponsored by AgriFutures Australia to take part in Course 17 of the ARLP while she was working as a consultant to the feed-lotting industry in Indonesia and the Philippines.
“I still work really closely with AgriFutures, and have a real connection with them. The biggest gift they’ve given me through the ARLP is a way to channel the energy and passion that initially I had no idea how to manage.” She says.
Catherine was in her early twenties and had just completed a leadership program through Marcus Oldham when someone mentioned the ARLP to her.
“I said ‘yep, roger, that’s what I’ll do’ and threw all my passion into it. I cried in my interview and was convinced I’d failed. I threw a follow-up letter from the Foundation in the bin and my sister fished it out to let me know I’d been offered a place. I’d still be trying to get into that program if I hadn’t succeeded back then.”
Catherine’s connection with the Foundation has been a constant throughout her different roles and responsibilities, with the leader working with subsequent cohorts; sitting on selection panels and most recently mentoring two other leaders as part of the Foundation’s Drought Resilience Leaders program.
But her seemingly boundless leadership energies are currently at maximum stretch, with Catherine releasing some commitments to give everything to her current role as CEO of independent farming systems group, Riverine Plains.
“My leadership journey right now is focused on the juxtaposition between leadership and management.” Catherine says.
“I started with Riverine Plains almost two years ago, and it has needed some re-energising and some renovations, including in its financial performance,” she says. “Your leadership is challenged straight off the bat coming into an organisation with a dedicated team and a strong history, but the need to redefine its purpose, and really reconnect with its members.”
In her short time with Riverine Plains, Catherine has diversified the organisation’s research portfolio to include livestock; gotten boots on the ground to talk to members about their needs; and added $3.6 million to the budget over the last 18 months.
“Our members are grappling with the big issues affecting most of us in ag: climate, soil health, overall business management, social license, making sure we are aware of big trends, how to use agri-tech to address those macro trends and being forward-thinking to de-risk what we do.” Catherine says.
And while certain extra-curricular roles are on the backburner for the busy leader, she is determined to be attentive to those up-and-coming leaders around her.
“If I have something I can share and someone is interested, then I will make the time to do that. You invest in young people, and you invest in the planet … My sponsor on the ARLP took a risk investing in me, and without that I know I would have headed straight for burnout. I would have used my energy and passion, but perhaps not have been as beneficial and targeted in my impact as I’ve been with the skills, knowledge, courage, curiosity and vulnerability that the ARLP gave me.”