The Power of champions


I had a chat with Brendan Roach, Director of Strategy & Networkology with PurpleSpace recently and he followed up with a couple of documents. One was the Purple Champion Leadership Model.

One of the things I love about PurpleSpace is the idea of Networkology – a disciplined, dare one say a ‘scientific’, approach to Disability Inclusion. Enthusiastic amateurs are always welcome, but at some stage it is necessary to transition to a clear strategic approach using the best tools available.

This document is brief, but it lays out key ideas on how to build a solid foundation in an organisation from which to grow efforts at Disability Inclusion successfully – engaging Champions.

I am not going to repeat the contents of the document. I will focus on the two key themes – leadership and essential competences. The document has “Nine steps to success” – 5 of which concern leadership and 4 are about “core competencies”.


The 5 leadership elements are:

  • Champions / executive sponsors don’t just ‘like’ the role. They ‘love’ the role
  • Leadership strength is at the core
  • Trusted leadership
  • Courageous leadership: challenges, restless, vulnerable
  • Authentic leadership: whole self, listens, shares

The critical thing is that executive leaders who are Champions or sponsors must be committed to their roles as champions for staff with disability. But for this to happen the organisation’s executive leadership team must welcome and positively support being challenged to extend its thinking about, and response to Disability Inclusion challenges.

This is often a misunderstood element in an organisation’s expressed commitment to Disability Inclusion. Without the executive leadership team’s unequivocal backing of Champions as necessary change agents two things risk happening:

  • Champions are forced to choose between their career-related standing in the organisation and their commitment to Disability Inclusion.
  • Without the confidence of the executive leadership team the Champion will not be trusted, become less engaged and end up not being trusted by staff with disability as well. There is a fundamental difference between counselling a wiser approach by the ERG/DEN and hosing down efforts at driving change.

Organisational culture at leader/manager level is not necessarily in favour of change. Normal work demands are high, so changes outside those seen as critical and necessary may be resisted. Cultures are generally change resistant in any case. So, any Champion is going to have deal with that resistance. If they are performing their roles well as Champions, they will need their skills of persuasion and diplomacy to be finely honed.


This is where the 4 core competences come into play:

  • Attitudes – the Champion has a clear awareness of the attitudes and values they need to be effective Champions
  • Skills – they have the skills to do perform the role effectively
  • Knowledge – they understand the issues about Disability Inclusion and opportunities to drive essential change
  • They understand the power of networks – DENs or ERGs have great potential – if fostered well.

These competences are the essence of Networkology for me. Though they apply in this context to Champions they apply to key members in ERGs/DENs as well. But the key consideration here is that executives tend to have a more sophisticated understanding of the challenges of driving change. Hence these competencies are not merely ‘nice to have’, they are essential.

The opportunities for change

When I became DEN Chair in late 2016 the then Secretary (Michael Coutts-Trotter) said he expected that the DEN Chair would be a “pain in the arse” at times. He understood that changing attitudes and practices did not come easy. It was critical to have that spirit at the very top of the organisation.

Even great champions will struggle without that. I was lucky in that Anne Skewes was later nominated as Executive DEN Champion. Anne was a Deputy Secretary, so having her presence in the most senior leadership team added a lot to her role as Champion. Her commitment to the Disability Inclusion cause was such that she fitted all 5 of PurpleSpace’s leadership attributes perfectly.

When Kate Nash, PurpleSpace’s CEO and founder, spoke at the Australian Network on Disability’s (AND) 2018 Annual National Conference I was inspired. So, there was a methodology – a network methodology – Networkology.

At that time the key elements for success were being assembled. The department’s executive leadership team was open and responsive. The executive DEN champion was ideal for the role. The Diversity and Inclusion team was actively supportive. The only thing that was lacking was the energy staff with disability were able to devote.

The DEN had been working on an old model of quarterly meetings that lasted most of a day. I quickly saw that Disability Inclusion is not something you do only 4 days a year business. You don’t get change that way.

Having a responsive senior leadership team and a great Champion doesn’t mean much if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Something had to change. The first change came in the form of the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT) – 14 volunteers who generated an ongoing conversation – on a daily basis. The GAT met separately, eventually for a day 4 times a year – the day ahead of the regular DEN meeting – as a consultative body engaging with the department. This was encouraging because the GAT members came from regional centres as well, so the Department had to pay for travel and accommodation – which it did.

The second change came with the setting up of roundtables – where staff with disability spoke to leadership teams about the experience of work with a disability.

The third change was the increase in the number of Champions from just the one executive champion to over 60. This led to the 4th change – communication via newsletters and updates.

The sum total of these changes was a radical increase in the energy invested in the commitment to change. The DEN had to deliver results for the investment – that included travel and accommodation costs and a 2-day facilitated workshop for the GAT. Around 7 months after I stepped down from the DEN Chair role in March 2020 the Board offered the next Chair the opportunity to become a full time DEN Chair. That was a radical commitment to Disability Inclusion.

It is clear to me that benefitting from such a commitment requires 3 things to be in alignment:

  • The Champion meets the criteria set out in the PurpleSpace document
  • The senior executive leadership team of an organisation is fully and actively committed to Disability Inclusion across the organisation
  • The ERG/DEN is energised to take advantage of the support provided in a strategic and dynamic way.


Champions are vital for the success of driving Disability Inclusion, and the PurpleSpace guide is the neatest summation of the attributes a Champion needs. I had the privilege of working with two outstanding Champions. Paul O’Reilly was the other.

But without the senior leadership team’s openness to being challenged to do more, and without staff with disability taking active advantage the opportunities provided by effective Champions their potential can be squandered.

The discovery of Networkology was a critical development for me. There is a skill and a discipline, indeed an art, that can be applied to driving Disability Inclusion. Champions sit within that methodology. Having a great Champion doesn’t mean much if none of the other elements of a coherent method are in place.

You can get your copy of the Purple Champion Leadership Model.

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