Complete the Head & Heart Leader Scale™ and receive a free, personalised report here.

From Kirstin's Desk

Home | All | Change Happens with Dr Kirstin Ferguson

Change Happens with Dr Kirstin Ferguson

Share this aticle

Never before have we been in such a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment. Governments around the world are running containment strategies, while business and the community are flung into a situation of fear, that in some cases borders on panic.Episode 1 of Change Happens

Host Jenelle McMaster, EY Oceania Markets Leader, discusses leadership in challenging times with company director, author and leadership expert Dr Kirstin FergusonListen now on: Apple PodcastsSpotifyOr where ever you get your favourite podcasts.

Host: Jenelle McMaster is Managing Partner, Oceania Markets at EY.

Guest: Dr Kirstin Ferguson is Deputy Chair, Australian Broadcasting Corporation | Non Executive Director | Keynote Speaker | Author


Intro: Change happens how we respond to change can make or break us and our careers. Join us for an intimate insight in to how senior business leaders face change. The good, the bad, and everything in between because whether we like it or not, change happens.

Jenelle: Hi, I’m Jenelle McMaster and I am the Managing Partner of Markets at EY Oceania. I’ve spent my whole career fixated on people. Why do they do what they do, how do they respond to change, what experiences led them to respond to change the way they do and how do they help others through change. The reality is that change happens and it’s how we deal with it that makes the difference. This podcast is a conversation with senior business leaders on leading through change and the lessons they’ve learnt along the way. Today’s conversation is with Kirstin Ferguson. Hi Kirstin, welcome.

Kirstin: Hi, how are you?

Jenelle: Not too bad. Who are you and what do you do Kirstin.

Kirstin: Yeah it’s a funny question to ask how you are at the current time but I am a company director, so I sit on a range of different boards, I’m deputy chair of the ABC and I sit on two ASX listed boards and a large private company board and then as well as that, I’ve sort of been living and breathing leadership my whole career, whether as CEO myself or I did a PhD in the field and I love, you know, speaking and writing about leadership, particularly in times of crisis so it’s interesting that obviously I’m having cause to think about that a lot at the moment as well.

Jenelle: Absolutely you do and its no accident that we’ve got you on the podcast today, but lets get some background on Kirstin and get to know a little bit better. So I assume that’s all been cut in.

Ben: Yeah, cool.

Jenelle: Many of us are familiar with the VUCA acronym – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and never before in our generation have we been in such a VUCA environment. Governments around the world are running containment strategies while business and the community are flung into a situation in fear that in some cases, in many cases, borders on outright panic and in this podcast, I’ve asked Kirsten to join me, due to her amazing ability to give perspective on the most complex situations. Kirstin, you and I discussed doing a podcast together late last year and we talked about, you know, discussing your insights into leading in a crisis and your lessons with change but I think its fair to say that neither of us expected to be having that conversation in the context that we now find ourselves.

Kirstin: No [laugh], I think if we’d created that for this podcast, yeah. No I think we were interested in, you know, looking at diversity and inclusion and how we can all lead through challenging times but here we are really experiencing something you know, no one has ever lived through before and particularly no one has ever led through before.

Jenelle: Correct, correct. Now that said, you have had a fascinating and evolving career. So you joined the Air Force while completing your first degree and you not only graduated as the most senior female cadet at the academy but you also became Dux of the Royal Australian Air Force Class that you were in. Yu then shifted into law and of course if that wasn’t enough, you then completed a PhD in safety leadership and safety governance for board members and senior executives. To me it feels unbelievably relevant right now, all of that background in this time of global pandemic. So given a lifetime of the experience that you’ve have, what are the things that, you know, are really resonating with you as you think back for those twenty years worth of study and experience. What’s really standing out for you as resonating.

Kirstin: Yeah, look its impossible not to be observing, not only what’s going on in the world around and how leaders are responding indifferent ways but also being self-aware of how you are responding yourself and I’ve always been a real advocate for believing that, you know, leaders can have the intellect to lead and I think most do, simply by, you know, having been in the room wherever they are making decisions but having the emotional intelligence to actually lead well is something that’s rarer and its been interesting to observe, you know, over the last few weeks, you can really tell an emotionally intelligent leader who’s able to balance, you know, the nuance of sharing information with an ability to be fearlessly transparent and almost courageous in how they build trust and how they calm people with information rather than perhaps traditional ways of calming people by keeping the details to themselves and so that’s something that I’ve found really interesting and its continuing to evolve as leaders themselves are learning what’s working and what’s not.

Jenelle: And that whole striking the balance of fearless transparency with no wanting to create panic and alarm. How do you … how do we get that balance right.

Kirstin: Yeah well its almost, you know, counter intuitive because I think in a traditional sense we’re taught to keep everyone calm, you know, you don’t tell the kids everything that is going on, you make sure you give them information that they need and when. Whereas in this particular crisis, the entire community is experiencing at themselves, whether through going to the supermarket and seeing there isn’t enough food on the shelves at the current time, whether that’s rational or not, that is something they are directly experiencing or they might know someone who’s in quarantine or who’s got the virus themselves. So telling people not to panic is absolutely counterproductive. It causes panic and I think we saw that a bit at the beginning, through just a natural tendency to want to calm people down and as the situation has evolved, I think we are seeing more courage from our leaders and I’m not talking about any particular leader or whether government or business or community leaders, but just trusting the people that you lead. If you truly trust that they can handle what you have to share, whatever that information is, I think it sets you on a much better path and generally speaking, people will trust what you have to say when you treat them that way and in turn, you will be trusted more. So to me, a lot of what we’re seeing, the panic buying, the real, you know, genuine sense of concern which is quite well grounded, is because of a lack of trust and its impossible for that trust to be repaired overnight. Its impossible for a leader to say “look I know I got things wrong last year and you don’t trust me anymore, but I actually need you to trust me now”. That won’t work until I think they’ve built trust through being transparent and frankly authentic and emotionally intelligent with those that they are leading.

Jenelle: I think the other thing that sort of helps with building trust is the fact we all can see things are evolving so rapidly so even if you said something that was different before, it was based on the information that you had at the time, I think the people are seeing, you know, hour by hour, day by day, the situation is changing so the information needs to change. I think there’s a higher level of acceptance of moving information than we would typically have.

Kirstin: Absolutely and you know some of the leaders I’ve heard have actually said “I’m telling you this now but I’m most likely to tell you it will be different, you know, in a few hours. That’s the kind of transparency I think that’s helpful because we know that to be the case, so I’d rather that you just told us that that’s going to be the case and we can accept that and I think people are also accepting of mistakes where there’s trust as a foundation and so the more leaders can say “look we thought this was the best thing to do but we’ve now learnt this and this is what we’re doing to repair it” and frankly this applies in any situation. The more trust is built but it takes courage for leaders to be able to believe that that is the case and to actually lead in that way and for many, its unnatural but I think in times like this, it’s absolutely essential.

Jenelle: And is there anything that’s surprised you as you look around at global leaders and business leaders, what are the things that are surprising you at this time.

Kirstin: Oh, I am surprised, and I think again it’s just observing from afar, some leaders and again it doesn’t matter where they’re from, but that inability to move quickly in their mind as well as in actions so you can observe some … whether it was sporting decisions or just different decisions to cancel things and the Olympics is an interesting example that they still haven’t yet said that that will be postponed or cancelled even though most people observing can see that that’s, you know, 99.9% likely outcome and what that shows and what’s the surprise is there’s … your brain’s almost slow to catch up to the speed of decision making that needs to happen and some leaders are excellent at it and they can see that I would normally, you know, move through the stages of change with many of any decisions, I’d get everyone prepared and then I’d get buy-in [9.18] and then we’d talk through this. None of that applies in the current situation. There is just no time and so you need leaders who are able and willing to make a decision that then and there seems almost incomprehensible that, you know, something now might not happen yet it absolutely has to happen and so I’m interested in watching those leaders that can move really nimbly and agilely as a leader. We talk about it, their words, we’ve said a lot but you know, this is what all of those leadership sort of discussions have been about. You actually need to do it now and for some, it’s quite challenging.

Jenelle: I mean you’re right. There are so much of the way that we need to be responding right now that is counter intuitive to the stuff that we sort of talk about in textbooks, you know, the level of consultation and governance and decision making, you know, how much information you share, don’t spread panic etc. So there’s a lot of that and I think when we think about the different paces with which organisations are responding and bodies are responding, there is some element … you know I’m a person who helps organisations manage change and inevitably in some organisations there will some parts of that where you’ll hear a response of “this too shall pass, you know. Let’s not buy into all of this, this too shall pass” and I think we can see a lit bit of that mentality, at least in past weeks, where people … really it was a bit too much to get their heads around and I think now there’s much more of a recognition that this isn’t passing and we have to lean right in.

Kirstin: Yeah and so it just takes people different amounts of time to get there but a leader’s role right now is to be really self-aware, that if they’re one of those people that takes time, they need to really shift gears because more so than ever, the people they lead are watching everything they say and do, the speed with which they do it, their inability to perhaps check in on their people. I was asked a question last week in a webinar. There was a woman who was listening, she was 32 weeks pregnant, she was still being required to come into work because of the company’s work from home policy hadn’t changed at that point and she was feeling unsafe and she didn’t know how to broach that and would she be showing, you know, a lack of loyalty to the company by not coming in. That question, not only is it so tragic for that woman that she should actually have to ask but it reflects a culture that the leaders of that organisation, which I have no idea what it was, but they’re not thinking quickly enough, they’re not already thinking that some of their people are actually a new way of working and I would hope that whatever business that was has now moved quickly and that that person is now at home but it just shows you must be ahead of the curve. You should … as leaders we need to already thinking of that before you have someone at home, you know, suffering in that way or struggling with how to work.

Jenelle: It’s a striking example and I think you know, not that’s its far too easy to be declaring any kind of upside on anything here but certainly if there’s one thing that I think will come out of this is, you know, things that we’ve been talking about for a very long time, the need to work in much more agile ways, the need to think flexibly about work and work design, the need to think about digital businesses, how to lead virtually. If ever there was a platform, an impetus for making that happen, it’s absolutely now.

Kirstin: Oh I couldn’t agree more and I frankly hope we never go back to the way we were. You know, I’m someone who has travelled every week, you know, for years on end to meetings and I’ve done so happily and willingly, yet I’m now still attending all my board meetings, they’re much more efficient because we’re all dialling in, finishing and then going on to something else and there isn’t all that lost time and I think that the businesses that are able to adapt to this immediately, again not in six months but tomorrow, will really come through this even more strongly and I’m with you, I don’t think the way we work will ever return to how it was and its been exposed as being, you know, not ideal and especially when we’ve got the technology available to do things differently.

Jenelle: I think it really has highlighted 20th century structures and processes and systems that are in place for 21st century needs and beyond so it certainly is something that is going to force everybody to rethink how they work and those who moved ahead with this are faring far better. I know that we’ve certainly found, you know, incredible unity in working remotely and you know, we’re creating memes of our screens with various homes with some sort of facial position and expression that ordinarily you’d be cringing at but now you just laugh and go “these are the times we find ourselves in”.

Kirstin: Absolutely and I’m actually connecting, you know all the people who we have coffee and things, well I’ve actually got more time to do that now ironically and we’re doing by Zoom or wherever and I’ve to say, the connection is just the same as in we’re sitting there listening to each other talking. I’m a real believer in authenticity so we’re doing so in our tee-shirts or whatever you wear at home and the work isn’t suffering. Obviously, you know, productivity over the entire world at the moment is not where it would normally be but in terms of being focussed and you know, achieving things that we’re setting out to achieve right now, the technology allows us to do that. Not for all roles though and I think that’s important to remember and I know we’ll talk a bit later about you know, how some of my boards are dealing with it but not all roles can do this but for those who can, its working very well.

Jenelle: That’s exactly right and I think, you know, for those that can, this is also framed in a situation of shared crisis so no one is spared of this, we’re all in this together, clients, providers, partners etc, so there is something … that can be incredibly unifying about do we keep this all afloat and all going and that we’re doubling down on.

Kirstin: Agree, agree.

Jenelle: Kirstin, you wrote, I mean you’re a prolific writer and user of social media. You wrote a recent LinkedIn article and you’re quoting a US admiral. He said “you must never confuse faith that you’ll prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be”. What was it about that quote that resonates so strongly for you.

Kirstin: Well, look I love that quote. The story is there was this guy called Admiral Jim Stockdale and he was the most senior US prisoner of war in the famous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War and in his sort of memoirs he would write about how he was trying to keep his men, that were in the Hanoi Hilton as prisoners of war, motivated by not believing, you know, we’re going to be released by Christmas or anything like that but by accepting that they could be there for a very long time but believing that they will endure, that they will survive and Jim Collins in his … obviously very famous leadership book “Good to Great” really bought that to the fore and he called it the Stockdale paradox and I have always led, I hope, believing in this which is that you retain the faith that you are going to prevail. So you have a real sureness of succeed, but you actually have to balance that at exactly the same time with confronting the brutal facts of your current situation and I think that is exactly what every leader needs to be doing right now and it doesn’t matter if you’re leading and ASX company or if you’re just leading a team of three people or if you’re just leading your family, we all need to accept that the brutal facts right now, the world is absolutely in the midst of a major health crisis, many lives are going to be lost and the way we work and operate and socialise may never by the same again. So they’re the brutal facts but I also believe you have to equally communicate authentically and genuinely that we will succeed, we will get through this. We will come out the other side and its that period in the middle where we’re balancing those two factors, which we will be remembered for, as leaders. It is how you act right now that is the legacy you’re going to leave as you lead and I guess that’s the quote that really resonates for me. It did particularly at the time that I wrote that piece because I think there was from some leaders, just wanting to focus on the success. You know, we’ll come through this, everything is going to be okay and I think that’s selling people. We also need to really confront the brutal facts and I am noticing many more leaders are definitely doing that at the moment.

Jenelle: Yeah, it’s a really powerful quote and its an incredibly important message. You know, you’re quoting an admiral, obviously the defence force is something that’s very strong part of your psyche or background. I know you’re grandparents, your parents, your father was certainly in the military, you joined the same. What are some key leadership lessons you took away from your time in the military that you think, you know, there’s a time and place where a more directive style of leadership is required. Is that some of the takeaways that you have from your time in the military or are there other things.

Kirstin: Yeah there’s a range and I think one of the misconceptions is that military leadership is all command and control because its actually not. There is a time and a place obviously for command and control leadership but its very much more around building and earning the respect of the people you lead and trusting them with your life and so that comes back to a lot of what we were talking about before. I remember even as a young cadet being, you know, taught about World War I history and being told that if you were a young lieutenant or something going over the trenches and your men didn’t trust you, the last thing you wanted was to go over the top as they said and you look behind and your men have not followed you into battle and they won’t if they don’t trust you and so I think this whole idea about being a leader that earns respects and builds trust is what I bought from the military and this idea of being, you know, self-aware, being very conscious that everything you do, think feel and say, is being observed by those that you lead and even more so when they’re frightening. I think, you know, the military really reinforces that for you. The other thing I think that you learn is a military leader is about change and rapid change and being in a scenario that’s you know, one thing one moment and then suddenly its not that at all and I think being able to have that agility of thinking is something that we were certainly taught and has stayed with me and being able to shift, you know, the speed with which you need to deliver something because a life might depend on it is something that I think in more traditional business environments were perhaps not taught. We might scenario plan for it but the reality is it rarely happens that there’s a decision that needs … a critical decision, you know a business ending decisions, that has to be made, you know, in less than 24 hours. That’s quite unheard of whereas they’re quite common in the military. So I think there’s a few things that come out of that experience that have really stood by me well for the last 30 years, or I certainly hope so.

Jenelle: It sounds like and I mean this genuinely is a time where we are asking our families, our teams, our organisations to follow us into battle, where lives really are depending on the decisions that we make. So whilst we tend to separate the kind of criticality of that sort of situation and decision making for civilians to, you know, defence personnel in wartime situations, this is very much a shared reality for us all right now.

Kirstin: Absolutely yeah.

Jenelle: Kirstin, one of the many things that you’ve done in your career, when you were in the military you had a second duty which I find fascinating, when you’re in RAF as a base burials officer, which is a role I’ve never heard of. I’ll get you to explain what that was but it strikes me there would have been some incredibly relevant insights from that role that you would have learnt about emotional intelligence around organisational response to grief, around leading through a time of loss and as you reflect on that time and I know you know, your experiences led you ultimately to the Pentagon to deliver a set of recommendations to Sir Peter Cosgrove and Sir Angus Houston who, I think they were the chiefs of the Defence Force and the Air Force respectively. What was, I mean I think you had 37 recommendations that came out at that particular time. What are some of those lessons that we might be able to learn from or that would be relevant for us in our organisational sense now.

Kirstin: Look and how that duty came about is rather humorous because I was a young 21 year old that was posted … my very first posting from the defence force academy was to RAF base Amberley and I was what’s called an Administration Officer so like a personnel or HR officer and I was sent to a squadron but as well as your main role, you took on secondary duties and it might be running the base football club or whatever it was, you know, all these sort of different part time jobs. Anyway, I turn up on day one and my very first job because no one wanted it was “here you are, you’re the base burials officer and someone has died and you need to get in the car and go with the chaplain and go and see his parents”.

Jenelle: You definitely drew the short straw on that one.

Kirstin: I did, I did. So here I am, I’ve never been to a funeral in my life and I find myself on my very first day as an officer in the Air Force, you know, in the living room of a parent who’s lost their son and I mean, it was a pretty confronting experience and I remember just sitting there very quietly just thinking “oh my god, I haven’t been trained for this” and …

Jenelle: I don’t think anyone is.

Kirstin: … no I wasn’t and you know, I really watched the chaplain and I’m not particularly … well I’m not religious at all but I just watched their empathy and how they helped this particular family and the military does an amazing job of funerals. They’re very good, sadly in the funeral business, in terms of highly respectful events where you know, the full military honours and guns salute. Its quite a lot of pageantry to it so my job would then be I had to organise all of that and work with the families and I ended up organising about fifteen different funerals over a couple of years, often very young, generally men who might have lost their lives in a range of tragic different ways and okay, what it taught me and what I’ve then never let go of is the importance leaders have in critical moments. So you know, that first case is not a good example of my leadership but I learnt very quickly the weight with which everything I said carried for a family. The importance of every decision that I made, the need to demonstrate emotional intelligence, not just turn up and say here’s the funeral, this is what time and you know, this is what you need to do. That was the least important of my roles at that particular period, it was much more about being present, helping his fellow Air Force mates who you know, who have lost someone, helping them work it through. So I ended up then winning a Churchill fellowship to write about those experiences and to recommend so the Military … how the military can do a better job of supporting the loved ones of those who are left behind because too often we do a really good job in those initial weeks of the funeral and then everyone goes back to their normal lives and the military, at that time, had had a lot of well-known cases of widows and other family members, you know, very distressed and sort of feeling forgotten and I had lost close friends through the last [26.43] crash and I watched their widows sort of follow that same path and so it was an incredibly humbling experience. I ended up interviewing about fifty bereaved families. Those who had suicided, those who had lost their lives through all different means, workplace accidents, and it cannot help but as a leader remind you of the importance of empathy and self-awareness and just being a leader who really listens and isn’t just focussed on an outcome and I, you know again, I hope that has stayed with me and I think for many leaders who are now leading through this particular crisis, sadly there are going to be cases where you may lose people who are in your teams or organisations or they might most certainly lose loved ones and the role you have is to support them through this in a way that goes well beyond making sure they’ve got leave, you know, to attend a funeral, bereavement leave. Its truly listening and hearing them and supporting them and being ahead of asking them what they might need. I think that’s something that’s going to be a new experience for many.

Jenelle: Absolutely and what an incredible foundation to be building your whole leadership experiences on. I mean I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but it sounds incredibly informative. Just turning to your role away from the military, obviously been in some incredible leadership positions, in [28.22] situations over the course of your career. One of the many roles you hold is on the deputy chair of the ABC, the national’s emergency broadcaster. I can’t imagine how the vibe is at the ABC having to have the incredible demands and responses expected around the clock. Coming off the bushfires, straight into the virus. As a leader in that business and sitting on the board there and working with management, what are some of the things you have in place and what measures and ethics does ABC have in place for situations like this to protect staff and to protect … and to honour the kind of expectations and the reliance of the nation during this time.

Kirstin: Yeah I think the ABC, you know, is absolutely recognised as the go to source of trusted news or I would hope that it is. That’s certainly everyone’s goal at the ABC and I think when there are moments of crisis like this or the bushfires which everyone at the ABC worked incredibly hard through, it is very clear and understood, the responsibility to make sure that everything that’s being broadcast and shared is factual and correct and I think everyone at the ABC understands that responsibility and how immense it is and you know, I’ve got nothing but admiration for the context in which they’re all having to work under, you know, extreme conditions and they’ve just done so on the back of the bushfires which was already you know, an incredible period of time with the number of emergency broadcasts that we did. Yet, this is exactly what the ABC is able to do and is set up to do and you know, I’m just so proud of everything that they’re achieving and the way that they’re conducting themselves and carrying the load in providing us all with information that we need to make such critical decisions, while themselves, you know, they’re all parents or many parents themselves or having to make family decisions and work through those issues on a personal level as well.

Jenelle: I think, I mean its an incredible demand and incredible responsibility but even in our own organisation, as we’ve sort of been supporting around bushfires and virus, I feel like you can see the buoyance that people have when they know that they are truly living and breathing their purpose, to really do something that is aligned, in our case, building a better working world. In your case at the ABC, is to provide the nation with the most up to date news and information but it does take its toll. Whilst there is something very galvanising and energising about being able to do that, we mustn’t forget the toll that it does take on individuals and have measures in place to support people through that.

Kirstin: Absolutely and that applies in every organisation, it really … whatever your purpose is I think, there’s so many businesses that are struggling now to know what their purpose is, I mean with the number of business closures that are happening or if the way you deliver your services, you know, is now compromised, what do you then and I think for so many this will be a real period, almost an extrastenual [31/48} sort of period of reflection on what do we do, how can we do it better or can we even do it at all.

Jenelle: And you know, you sit on a range of boards Kirstin, public/private sector, industry, manufacturing. You’ve been with the sporting bodies. What are you seeing across those boards, are you seeing differences. What are some of the common themes and points of difference.

Kirstin: Yeah look I think it is important to remember that every business, particularly, will have a different response. There is definitely commonality in terms of who can be at home, how can we support them, how can we make sure they’ve got all the infrastructure they need, you know, the really practical things, have they got a printer, whatever it might be that they need to do their job but then once you sort of get beyond that, it becomes very particular and you know, some of the boards I’m on, ones in the manufacturing industry and they can only … so a lot of the workers, about 75%, cos to do their job they actually need to be in the environment, at work, and so that requires a whole new creative way of thinking and planning for how we support them, how we can make sure they’re safe at work in terms of the virus and so I’m finding that the common threads of every one of my boards is concern for our people and that is first and foremost and then after that, concern for keeping the business operating through such an uncertain period because that in turn, obviously is caring for the jobs about people and beyond that, it’s just very specific to each business but I haven’t experienced anyone who isn’t utterly committed to helping see everyone through this and getting through the other side as best we can but acknowledging it’s a pretty hairy ride and as you said, the VUCA environment, I mean it is as uncertain as it gets and I think we’ll all do very well in terms of resilience training after this and in terms of any scenario planning. You know, I’ve laughed with a few people so much for all those risk matrices, I don’t recall any of them actually having this on it.

Jenelle: Pandemic was number one on the risk register.

Kirstin: [laugh], no so you know, we’ve got quite a foundation to start from after all of this in terms of how we handle things but …

Jenelle: No, it definitely does flush out the weak points in processes and systems and risk registers and all that sort of stuff, doesn’t it.

Kirstin: It does, yeah.

Jenelle: Speaking of hairy rides, that’s one way to describe the situation. I guess the psychology of what we’re going through is very much, you know, the seven stages of grieving, shock and denial, pain and fear, anger, depression, resentment, then we have that upward turn but that fourth stage which will begin to occur around anger, I’m expecting that to kick in on a global scale, pretty much anything could happen. What are your thoughts when you think about it, you know, you used to be a CEO of a psychology organisation, what are your thoughts around the psychology of that and how we prepare for it.

Kirstin: Yeah look you are so right and I think in any one day at the moment, I’m sort of cycling through some of those …

Jenelle: All seven stages!

Kirstin: Yeah, anger and resentment isn’t a natural one for me though and you know, it’s harder I think for people when there’s no one to aim your anger at. I think you’re right. In time people are going to feel angry at being restricted or you know, feeling locked up but it would be interesting to know in the Italian experience whether that’s actually come up at all or whether there’s … its bigger than that. You know, whether people understand but I think you’re spot on. What we can do as leaders is just talk about. You know, I’d be upfront. If you’re got a small team, make sure you’re checking in both one on one but also as a group. I think you know, some really sane ways of staying in touch would be … I had drinks organised, you know, with a group that I would normally catch up with and we did in on a Friday afternoon, just like we would normally but we did it virtually and everyone, it was BYO drink obviously and nibbles but it was incredibly powerful for just keeping in touch and checking in with people on how they’re doing. Mental health I think is going to be a major issue particularly if this drags on so those stages are just ones that as leaders, we need to be ahead of. Again, be really self-aware of what stage you’re at, so if you’re in shock and denials, this is … I spoke about this earlier, you need to move on out of that pretty quickly because everyone needs you to be able to sort of acting as quickly as you can. So just be aware of where you’re at yourself and then go and check in with everyone else on how they’re doing and find really creative ways to keep morale high which is difficult but absolutely necessary.

Jenelle: I’m with you on the virtual catchups. I did virtual drinks with folks on Friday night. It was … you know, there was some real novelty to that as well and I said creating funny memes. We’ve been doing a wine online and dine online. We’ve been doing that as well. We’ve had coffee meetings with clients, literally the clients and you will pick up a coffee and connect that way so there’s no need to slow down our meetings and our work and I think more people have been getting some light relief from a number of you know, jokes and things online which I think does help gives a bit of levity in times that is so incredibly taxing.

Kirstin: It does.

Jenelle: So I’m looking forward to seeing some very very creative ideas coming our way.

Kirstin: Yeah and it also keeps people occupied so you know, what we don’t want is everybody just at home with no sort of where to focus their energies. So I think for leaders, the more you can schedule those in, the better.

Jenelle: Okay, with such a scary time, sort of looking ahead, five years time, what do you think we’ll be saying about Covid-19, what are your predications for society and business over these next few years. Are you looking into your crystal ball.

Kirstin: [laugh], at the moment I can’t even tell you, six weeks from now.

Jenelle: Exactly.

Kirstin: Look my hope then in five years time is that absolutely we’ve come through this and we have a vaccine and we are back to our new “new normal”, post the virus. I hope we never forget what this period has been like. I hope that people who are leading, the people they led look back on them with a really fierce respect for how they helped their teams get through this crisis. I really hope that there’s more empathy for our leaders and I mean that about government as well, government and community, everyone I believe is doing their best. Now whether that means they’re the right person to be in the role doesn’t matter. Its just they are doing as best they can and having some empathy for that. I hope we see more of, having some lenience when things aren’t done perfectly is a good way for us to operate in the future and I also think that the way we work will forever change and I hope I can continue … my panic buy was a puppy, a puppy last week …

Jenelle: I saw that.

Kirstin: … forget the toilet paper …

Jenelle: Absolutely gorgeous.

Kirstin: … I went and bought the tiniest little cutest puppy and he came to his first board meeting today and I sincerely hope he was perfect, very well behaved but you know, I hope in five years time, he will be a dog but it might be that I attend some of my board meetings or many of the board meetings, along with all the other directors and we are doing it virtually and you know, we’re meeting in person less because we’re developing the ways to connect and have that rapport that is so important but we’re finding different ways to do that. So look, I think the world will be completely different in five years but I don’t think we should be scared of that.

Jenelle: No I agree with you. Now I’m just finishing up on a slightly lighter note. You know, when I’ve done these podcasts with others, I typically start the interview with a fast three set of questions, more to get to know the lighter side of you but like we missed that whole piece in the beginning just because we launched into the situation that we’re in, but if I was to hit you up with a fast three. First one. What is a misconception that most people have about you.

Kirstin: That I live in [cuts out here]

Ben: That just cut out, that answer.

Kirstin: … one point and they reported that I was in Sydney and I’m not in Sydney, I did grow up in Sydney …

Ben: Can you guys hear me.

Kirstin: Yes.

Ben: Sorry, that answer cut out from the very beginning. So I got the question, what is the misconception but your answer flicked out.

Kirsten: Okay, that’s weird. All right, should we just ask that again.

Ben: Yeah, go for it.

Jenelle: Okay, so first question. What is a misconception that most people have about you.

Kirstin: Well, that I live in Sydney. I don’t live in Sydney.

Jenelle: I certainly thought that.

Kirstin: I know, everyone seems to think that. I do do a lot of work in Sydney and I grew up in Sydney so I went to Skeggs Darlinghurst but I haven’t lived in Sydney since I was 17 and I live on the Sunshine Coast so that’s a misconception that many people have.

Jenelle: The beautiful Sunshine Coast. Actually I saw a post of you the other day and someone was commenting on the screenshot background that you had behind you and you’re like “that’s literally my front yard”.

Kirstin: They say “oh you must have a theme on your Zoom thing” because it was the beach and I was like “well no, its my front yard” so anyway I’m very lucky to live here. I love Sydney, it’s certainly where I grew up but I don’t live there.

Jenelle: And what is one guilty pleasure, I will ask you to keep it PG.

Kirstin: Oh my goodness, well this is embarrassing so I’m just going to share it, cos you know, we’re at end of days and all of that.

Jenelle: We are.

Kirstin: I love … I love watching really crappy reality TV shows.

Jenelle: Oh my god, no judgement, same thing [laugh].

Kirstin: [laugh] and I must admit, for a while I’ve stopped watching but I was watching MAFS, Married at First Sight and …

Jenelle: I can’t say I stopped watching it sadly.

Kirstin: … well I must admit in the last few weeks I’ve been watching [42.25] but I haven’t been watching it but I also watch Love is Blind on Netflix and it’s a really interesting concept. We could do a whole podcast on that so my guilty pleasure, is yeah, pretty crappy reality TV.

Jenelle: Well I saw your writeup on Love is Blind on your LinkedIn leading content newsletter which is just a quick shout out for that. I think its fantastic. I know you’re changing the focus of it but for those who follow you or who don’t, it’s really well worth following your LinkedIn, your leading content.

Kirstin: Oh thank you. Actually that’s a great reminder just for me to mention. Yeah please find it, cos its now got … I think I’m up to almost 4,000 subscribers and while it has been on fun stuff of podcasts and books and TV shows to watch. Yeah for the moment, it seems more important for me to write about these issues so please subscribe and I’m taking lots of questions from people as well so if anyone listening has questions, please send them through.

Jenelle: I’m sure they are listening and they will send them through and finally what’s one and I can’t … I mean you are amazing in every way possibly or almost every … there’s got to be something that you’re hopeless at Kirstin, what is it.

Kirstin: Oh god, the list is endless and my husband is also working from home. I’m so glad he can’t hear this question cos he would offer you about ten things. I’m pretty hopeless at maths, there you go, that’s a true admission.

Jenelle: Maths! I thought you said mass.

Kirstin: Maths, no maths, I definitely have … like I need a calculator and I need to sit there and really think it through and when some people I know, who I am in awe of, can look at a balance sheet and you know, in a second can tell you the whole story about an organisation. I’m competent but I have not got that skill, you know, that’s something that I’ll sit and understand. It will take me a bit longer so that’s not my natural.

Jenelle: Fair enough. Well thank you for feeling safe enough to share that with us.

Kirstin: I know, I might regret that [laugh].

Jenelle: We won’t hold that against you, I promise. Thank you so much Kirstin for sharing your insights. You know, time that I think most of us are really struggling to get our heads around. There’s been so much that I’ve taken away from our conversation. A few of the things that really really resonated for me was the need to retain the faith, we will prevail but be prepared to face into the real facts. The need for us to communicate authentically and genuinely. As you said, that the importance of how we lead now is what we will look back on as our legacy. This is a critical moment and kind of regardless. As leaders regardless of how we are feeling, we need to be digging deep and leading our organisations through this … this is our critical time and I think the other one that I would say is just awareness of our own response and how we’re dealing with this and the need for us to shift gears. So thank you so much for your time today and no doubt, we’ll be seeing plenty more from you online as you share your views and perspectives and all the best to you as you continue to lead through this as well.

Kirstin: Thank you and stay well.

Jenelle: Thanks Kirsten.

Ben: Thank you.

Kirstin: Can we just re-record what am I hopeless at. I don’t want to do that one, that was ridiculous. That’s the truth. Just so everyone knows, that is the deadest truth but I really don’t need to say that publicly so I’ll be kicked off all my boards. So can we just do another one.

Jenelle: Well it’s funny cos I was going to go “same, I’m really struggling with same”.

Ben: I am too, I’m so bad at maths.

Kirstin: I know, so everyone will get it, but then I thought I’d better not say that out loud, so can we do a different one.

Ben: Sure and is there … while we do that is there anything else that we feel we missed or that we want to do more on. Are you there Emma.

Emma: Yes, I’m back.

Ben: My only thought was I know we wanted to avoid certain things about from the ABC, it did feel like there wasn’t a lot around the ABC.

Kirstin: I loved that.

Ben: I know.

Kirstin: I thought it was perfect [laugh].

Ben: Maybe something along the lines of how is the ABC set up to take us through the next phases of this and what …

Emma: Or just more on social media as well, I was wondering … just the role of social media.

Kirstin: If you wanted to ask me about the ABC, the best way I think you should ask it is, look you have lead through a really public crisis, what do you sort of learn as a leader, leading through that and we didn’t cover that sort of stuff about bit sized chunks and you know, getting advice from smaller numbers of people. So I could answer that …

Ben: That would be great.

Emma: So can I link it specifically to the ABC, you’ve led through a public crisis at the ABC.

Kirstin: I mean that’s public but look, it’s a very well-known that you were asked by the Prime Minister overnight, to step up and become acting chair in the midst of a very public crisis. I know you can’t talk to us about that however what did you learn as a leader. That kind of question I can answer.

Emma: Okay.

Kirstin: You know what I mean.

Emma: Yep.

Ben: So let’s do the “what you’re hopeless at” and then go into that.

Kirstin: Oh shit, what am I going to say. I’ve got literally …

Emma: Well apparently you’ve got massive [47.37] on the phone [laughter].

Ben: And is there … I mean, you kind of covered it within the way you spoke about business but maybe just a nice how are you personally coping or dealing with the current situation.

Kirstin: Yeah that’s a good one.

Emma: Yeah.

Ben: Cool.

Kirstin: and I just thought of my hopeless one and it’s a bit …

Jenelle: Oh I’m just so attentive to detail and

Kirstin: No, no …

Ben: I’m too organised.

Jenelle: I just care too much.

Kirstin: Yeah that kind of thing.

Jenelle: I’m doing all the interviews with people like that, partner interviews.

Kirstin: Yeah no no, I’ll be going … I’ll do an honest but it will be humorous.

Ben: All right I’m turning myself down. Emma if you can turn your mike back off and …

Jenelle: I’ll create pauses between each one of those things.

Ben: Sure sure. All right, you’re ready to go.

Jenelle: Okay so final of the fast three questions. What is one thing and I know you might struggle with this because you’re amazing at everything but what’s one thing that you’re hopeless at.

Kirstin: Oh Jenelle, there are so many different things that I could answer. All right one thing that is top of mind right now, is that here I am at home, so the foreseeable future, and I keep thinking “right, now is the time to get healthy and fit and eat well and I could, you know, find a way to exercise” and I’m not … so I’m hopeless at that. I keep making cakes. I think I’m doing panic baking, foods that we would never normally eat, I am now eating. So right now, I’m absolutely hopeless at looking after my health and fitness.

Jenelle: Okay, you’re going to have to work hard at that. I keep telling myself every year that summer bodies are made in winter but I keep remembering that in summer, so …

Kirstin: I know, I know.

Jenelle: Time to be disciplined.

Kirstin: Well anyway, so I’m pretty hopeless at that.

Jenelle: Well I’m attracted to the baking but maybe some healthy recipes.

Kirstin: Thanks.

Jenelle: So just focussing on ABC, quite a public tumultuous situation that you faced there. We know that you were asked by the Prime Minister at the time to overnight, assume the role of acting chair. So clearly you’ve led through quite a public crisis then and I know you can’t talk about the specifics of that, but I’m interested in what you learnt as a leader through that time, leading in that crisis.

Kirstin: Yeah and so this is sort of … I guess now eighteen months on, what I reflect on having led through that, I think it was breaking the crisis into bite sized chunks and a bit of that applies now. When there’s so much information coming at you and so many new fires to put out, or new issues to deal with, it can feel utterly overwhelming as a leader and I think, you know, some of my military experience came through as well in that you were taught to, you know, what’s important right now and even though those other things are really important, I can’t deal with them in this next hour or three, I’ll park them until the afternoon. Actually having the discipline to do that was something that I was fortunate came a little laterally I hope and I think for the current period, its helping as well. Then the other one was about taking advice and getting you know, in the current crisis, is thinking about your trusted sources of where you’re getting information. So in a crisis, there is no shortage of people who want to tell you how you should do you job or how things should happen and I’m sure every leader is feeling that right now. It can be so noisy that its hard to think and ultimately the buck stops with you as the leader and I, you know, I think what I learnt and have learnt since is having actually fewer people giving advice rather than more is helpful and really knowing who you can trust and taking that advice when you need it or you might go to different people at different times for different advice and during this coronavirus crisis, it’s really knowing which sources you can trust for your information, when you’re making decisions. As you we said early, can impact people’s lives.

Jenelle: Absolutely. So we all know that you know, you’re going to be called upon heavily, there have been lots of expectations of you as a … as a senior leader, as a public spokesperson, but how are you taking care of yourself through this. How are you personally coping through this situation Kirstin.

Kirstin: Yeah that’s a really good question and I think its good for leaders to talk about what’s going on. You know my initial thoughts when I realised I was going to be working from home for the foreseeable future. I remember thinking “oh that’s fantastic, I like working from home and I travel so much, that will be a nice break.” That didn’t last all that long before the reality then kicks in of actually the world is really suffering and I’m … you know, there’s been periods when I’m really quite sad about what’s going on and the thought of what’s to come but they don’t last too long because we talked about the Stockdale paradox, you know, and they’re the brutal facts. It is a pretty bad situation for many many people but I know we’ll get through this and so my self-care, other than buying a puppy last week, which was totally unexpected but absolutely glorious, has been to really think about, well what do I want to get from this period at home. So how do I want to conduct myself as a leader, as a mother, you know as a wife, as part of the community and then how do I want to prepare for the other side. So is there something different I want to be doing or is there opportunities that you know, I just have never had time to even think about doing but now I’ve got some time so how should I do those and that’s helping me mentally sort of stay focussed on going through to the other side and some of the those opportunities I think are exciting and so that gives me an area of focus. Certainly working has helped a lot so the fact that we’ve still got board meetings, they’re all happening far more regularly than they would anyway and staying in touch with people but I think overall my advice to anyone is to be really self-aware of what’s going on for you and to really be listening to yourself and hearing whether you’re in a place that helpful right now or other people or whether in fact, you’re struggling and there’s nothing wrong with that but just be really mindful about the impact that that will have on others.

Jenelle: I think that’s incredibly important. I certainly know one of the things that I fall into working from home is the inability to draw the line between home and work, because you roll out of bed and you start working and then keep working, keep working, never probably step away from the computer. So trying to force some discipline that sort of suggests that this is the start of the day, this is where I’ll take my break, this is where … even if they come in different ways, going for a walk or getting some food, because I know what I’m like when I’m working from home, I just don’t see the boundaries. So I think that kind of awareness of the traps that you might fall into and then having systems and processes in place to allow yourself to maintain that balance is so important.

Kirstin: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more and everyone’s situation will be completely different. So I think we’re sort of captured it all about really listening to yourself and knowing what’s going on for you.

Jenelle: Spot on.

Ben: Nice, thank you. Everyone happy with everything that’s been put in.

Emma: Yeah, that was really good.

Jenelle: Yeah thank you Kirstin.

Ben: the only … my only point from an outsider and I’ll just bring it up to just get your reactions on it, just to see … cos I might be coming from a different point of view but the only thing I would flag is, and only coming from an out of context possibility, so if someone’s listening half way through or someone takes a grab out of this which is likely, is just the … and I get the humour around it but the laughing around the burials bit at the beginning, kind of went on a little bit and I’m the last person, you know, not probably my stand-up comedy career …

Kirstin: No no, I had that thought as well.

Jenelle: Sorry, Ben, what was that.

Ben: Just around the burials bit, it was a natural conversation because you both know each other. It’s completely natural and like I support and admire humour to dumb it down but it could be …

Kirstin: This is aware, the fact that I turned up on day one and [overtalking]

Ben: Yeah, so what I might do is I’ll just take a little bit out of that. I’ll still allow the story to sit there.

Kirstin: No, please do.

Ben: But I’ll just take a bit of that kind of, between the two of you, cos you both know each other and you both worked in the military, there’s a common kind of ground there to laugh at but yeah.

Kirstin: Well I think I’d prefer it if you took out that whole sort of setup of you know, what the secondary duty is and all of that and just say that on my first day, you know, as an officer in the air force, I found myself …I think from then on, it’s okay.

Ben: And I think where there’s context, it makes sense, so it’s here I found myself in, you know, a situation I was completely unprepared for but … I’ll just …

Jenelle: Just cut out my question then and then maybe it’s the first sentence …

Kirstin: Yeah it was the te-ta-te you and I had about going “they saw you coming” or “you’re a sucker” or …

Jenelle: You drew the short straw.

Ben: Yeah you took it to a really nice place where you talked about being incredibly humbled in you know, the fact that you later on had to deal with a whole bunch of burials. So you took it … I’ll just get there quicker, if that makes sense.

Kirstin: That would be … thank you for saying that, I really appreciate it. The rest of it … I don’t think I said anything that will in any way

Share this aticle

International keynote speaker

Kirstin is a highly sought after keynote speaker who has opened dozens of conferences and events across Australia and NZ, as well as around the world.

Are you a head & heart leader?

Take the quick Head & Heart Leader Scale™ to understand your own head and heart leadership and receive a free, personalised report.

Latest From Kirstin’s Desk

Stay in touch

Join many thousands around the world who have subscribed to Dr Kirstin Ferguson’s free weekly newsletter, Impact Loop.

As a bonus, you will receive the introduction to her award-winning and bestselling book, Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership, to download for free.
©2023 Kirstin Ferguson Pty Ltd
Privacy Policy