Permission to change?


Anne Skewes was the first DCJ Executive DEN Champion I worked with as DEN Chair. She brought passion and sensitivity, and a willingness to be an activist, to the role. Anne became Executive DEN Champion in late 2017 and continued until the end of the financial year in 2019 when the division of which she was Deputy Secretary was transferred to another department.

We were talking recently about how change happens and Anne touched on a theme, a perspective, unfamiliar to me. It was a culture of permission to drive change. It was interesting talking to somebody who was there but seeing what we were doing from a different angle – adding some fresh insights into that extraordinary period between late 2017 and mid 2019.

Here I want to reflect upon some of the insights Anne triggered.

A culture of permission

Leadership is fundamental here. The then Secretary, Michael Coutts-Trotter, was committed to supporting staff with disability. He was accessible and responsive – to the point of directly intervening to put an end to the repeated bullying of a staff member with disability. 

In early 2019 I sent him a slightly cranky email and was promptly invited to a meeting. I turned up nervous. I had never been invited to a meeting with a Secretary before. Anne was also present, which was a relief to me. He and Anne listened to what I had to say. I walked away with an agreement that members of the DEN could address the Board. I expected that to be some months hence, but it turned out that we had a scant 2 weeks.

Over that time Anne worked with me and 6 members of the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT) to prepare for the presentation. This had to be done well. We had been allocated around 90 minutes and we wanted time for discussion. I allowed around 30 mins for story telling – that gave us around 5 mins to each tell the Board members about our experiences as people with disability in the department. How well we performed would reflect on all of us.

We did well. The atmosphere was open, safe, and caring. The storytellers had a strong sense they had permission to tell their stories frankly. Most of the stories were shockers – serious bullying and discrimination that had, in some cases, persisted for many years. The Board members were clearly moved by what they heard. The GAT members were moved by the Board’s response. 

We walked away knowing we had permission to be daring and demanding – albeit in a strictly professional manner.

The importance of the collective 

Anne reminded me that the members of the GAT who attended that Board meeting were members of a group that had been storming, norming, and performing for 5 months. As they prepared for the presentation, they became a team. Later, the story of the Board presentation became part of the GAT story. The spirit of permission to change became part of the GAT culture – and hence the DEN’s culture.

The old-style DEN organisation was to have the secretariat function provided by HR and a Chair and Deputy Chair. In practice the Deputy Chair role was redundant. I held that position in 2016 and did nothing – because nothing was asked or demanded of me. When I became Chair in November 2016, I became aware of an array of presentative functions that had never been reported back to DEN members.

I created the GAT in September 2018 to identify DEN members keen to get involved in making stuff happen. What I had established was a true collective of passionate individuals. No longer would a DEN Chair be the only available person to represent the DEN. Now there was a queue impatient to push for change.

Preparing for the Board presentation was challenging for some who had never previously told their stories beyond a small group of intimate friends and family. Without the support of fellow participants, it is unlikely they would have been able to tell their stories. Anne’s support before, and in the debrief immediately after, is warmly remembered.

Of courage and storytelling

Story telling is a fundamental human instrument for conveying messages of moral force. It has been this way since our beginnings. This is why storytelling by staff with disability has so much potential to stimulate the will to change.

For a person subjected to bullying over years telling their story to their organisation’s executive Board could be a daunting experience. Creating psychological safety and trust was critical. The mere fact of an invitation was, of itself, a powerful signal.  

Still, it takes courage to be vulnerable in front of people who are, for the most part, powerful strangers. Winning and holding their attention, let alone gaining their sympathy, can be enough to trigger anxiety. Without the support of the collective this would be a lonely and scary experience.

The opening up of a potential for change

Anne helped me see that the Board presentation in February 2019 was a confluence of singular people and circumstances. 

The Board comprised the Secretary and Deputy Secretaries, so these were people at advanced stages in their career. As a group they shared a commitment to principled conduct. But they were also insulated from the realities of being a staff member with disability. The singular exception was Anne, as Executive DEN Champion.

The GAT members, who were, in an important way, the injured party, remained focused on positive change, not grievance. The GAT had been evolving as a group for not even 5 months at that stage. They were still hurting from their own experiences and were not yet convinced of the Board’s willingness to listen to, let alone accept and be respectful of, their stories.

The February 2019 Board presentation brought together two powerful forces – Demand for change (the GAT) and Permission for organisational change (the Board). It took a singular decision to make the event happen and then some essential preparation and planning on both sides to ensure the event was successful.

The GAT and the Board met and talked, and things took off. The people involved were instrumental in triggering a process of powerful change. The event itself was extraordinary in that it was unprecedented (no staff group had presented to the Board before). As it happened, the DEN returned to the Board in November that year to give a progress update and lay out change challenges for the future. The opportunity to present to the Board twice in one year was remarkable. It also affirmed the DEN as a respected change agent in the department.

What injected the quality of the extraordinary into the situation was that a connection which united a passion for shared values and goals between two groups was established. That connection between the DEN and the Board, and the relationships that ensued, is what made the difference. Anne, as a committed and active Executive DEN Champion, played a vital role in establishing and maintaining that connection.

Anne was succeeded by Paul O’Reilly. Paul shared Anne’s approachability, commitment, and activism. The circuit stayed active.


The atmosphere that establishes the permission to drive change fearlessly embraces all altitudes and degrees of power. If any element is disconnected the whole is diminished and the potential for change is lessened.

Times when everything is connected and working together at maximum potential are rare. They do not happen by accident or magic. The people involved recognise the vital importance of connection, commit to it, and then act. If anything makes them remarkable people, it is that they do these things at the same time. But they are not ‘remarkable’ really – singular maybe. Anyone can do this.

The more interesting truth for me is that the people involved were ‘good’ people who understood the value of alliances and partnerships as the bedrock of positive change. They also had the ideals, confidence, and courage to build and sustain the established connections.

Organisations are complex environments. Creating positive change within them requires a deft touch, circumspection, and insight. An alliance that blends the vision of the Board, the lived experience of DEN members, and the insight of D&I will generate powerful energies for change.

There was a shared desire for change. That became ‘Demand’ (the DEN). And ‘Permission’ (the Board and D&I). Demand (which must also be impatient) without Permission produces only tension and misunderstanding. Permission without Demand produces only sentiment. 

Demand and Permission are necessary for a circuit to stay connected and for positive change to happen. This requires sustained commitment, effort, and skill. This is something we can all do.

Anne said she has a “personal passion for equity and justice”. A lot of us have that. She observed that she valued working within an organisation that has strong values – and was “prepared to walk the talk”. That’s a value I am confident most of us share. Anne was a vital part of triggering a process of permission to create positive change that continued to ripple through the department long after she had gone.

What finally makes the Permission to change a powerful impetus is that it begins with oneself. If we are prepared to make ourselves vulnerable to personal change, we are not inclined to impede change in others. In fact, we will celebrate and support it. This is something I have seen in all the people who have been potent permission-givers and change agents.

Why Disability Inclusion Change is So Hard


Early in 2022 I read Melinda Briana Epler’s excellent How to Be an Ally, which has led to an equally excellent podcast –Leading With Empathy & Allyship. Melinda is CEO of a company called Change Catalyst – Empowering Inclusive Innovation.

To be blunt, I do get the sense that Inclusion is something of an industry in the US. This means a lot of folks are jumping on the bandwagon with varying degrees of insight and competence. I have read other books and listened to other podcasts on the same theme. None struck me as good as Melinda’s.

I think there’s a subtle reason for this. Melinda’s work carries a kind of spiritual tone to it – in the sense that what she does seems to arise more from a deep inner sense than an idea of a business as a way of making a living. This is a quality I find in the best in this field – like Kate Nash of PurpleSpace and David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute. They are constantly evolving their understanding and methods.

The literature on inclusion

Beyond the glossy promotional fluff that pushes a starry-eyed vision of inclusion the research provides a sobering truth. It is happening, but it’s like walking through treacle. A lot of energy is expended for the meagre gains earned.

There is, however, a marked disparity between individual acceptance of Inclusion principles and organisational responses. Individuals seem more responsive than organisations. Organisations may be made up of people – but they are more than the sum of their parts – and a huge component of that difference is leadership culture.

Now, for a lot of reasons I have nowhere seen adequately explored, that leadership culture is an entirely different creature that must be seen through different eyes.

Melinda’s response

I emailed Melinda a request to respond to some questions. I wanted to know how she understood the challenges of driving change and how her company might respond. In part I said “I am presently focused on why change is not happening at the speed desired. There is a mismatch between what staff experiencing discrimination and bullying want (a sense of urgency), and what an organisation’s leaders are delivering (no sense of urgency). This seems like a distinction between a ‘right’ and a ‘gift’ at times.” Below are her responses.

Question 1.

Can you sum up what an organisation’s leadership must understand about making DEI a reality – what is needed from an organisational perspective, and what leaders require on an individual level? How do you approach communicating that in your work through Change Catalyst?

This is a big question! Briefly…

  • From an organizational perspective, you need a DEI leader who reports to the CEO and works across every department of the organization to drive change. They need to be well-resourced and have a robust strategy that is built using behavioral science AND organizational change management best practices. Organizations need metrics to establish a baseline and show what interventions are working. They also need to listen to what employees want and where the needs are greatest.
  • From an individual perspective, leadership must make this a top priority of the organization – set and exemplified by the CEO. Leaders need to be held accountable for DEI, and they need to hold their teams accountable for DEI. They need the time and space to learn inclusive leadership skills through group training – it’s essential that leaders learn this together and have common language and expectations, in addition to individual coaching. They need to hold each other accountable for applying their learnings, piloting new programs and pathways on their teams, and sharing their wins and challenges with each other.
  • Change Catalyst solution: We coach and advise leaders on how to drive change across their organizations. Every individual and every company is different, so our communications with our clients are unique to their culture and where they are on their DEI journey.

Question 2.

What do you see as the greatest impediments to an organisation implementing an effective culture of inclusive leadership? How do you tackle such a challenge?

  • The greatest impediments to creating a culture where inclusive leadership is the norm from an organizational perspective: lack of resources (funding & personnel), lack of priority (from the top), lack of – or ineffective – strategy (the strategy has to meet people where they are and drive behavioral change over time).
    • The solutions here are fairly self-explanatory: dedicate robust resources, prioritize and hold people accountable, and hire people who know how to create and implement a strategy that will drive behavioral change.
  • A CEO and the entire C Suite must prioritize inclusive leadership. They often don’t because of:
    • Competing priorities – in a capitalist culture, the driving factor is often short-term financial gain. While over and over, data has shown that diversity and inclusion are better for business, there is often an initial investment that pays off over time.
      • Solution: this one is not easy, because research shows that leadership can know the business case and still ignore it due to short-term priorities. They need an emotional connection to the work so that it becomes a personal priority. Also, as you mentioned, they need to be held accountable for improving DEI. People need intrinsic motivations as well as extrinsic ones.
    • Status quo bias – if it’s working for me, why change it? The majority of CEOs and C Suite executives are White men. Our workplace cultures were created by and for them. They need an “aha” moment, some incident that awakens their understanding and compassionate empathy toward people for whom the workplace culture does NOT work. Again, they need an emotional connection, so it becomes a personal priority.
      • Solution: most people find that personal connection through stories from people they know and respect: family members, close colleagues, leaders, friends. Create a culture where you are building empathy for one another. Create safe spaces on teams for people to learn about each others’ experiences. ERGs need tools and skills for building allies across the organization, and part of their work should be to share stories about their experiences and what individual ERG members need from their leaders. ERGs also should have executive sponsors, which helps executives to get closer to individuals with underrepresented identities where they can learn from them. At the same time, executives should be using their power and influence to support the ERGs, which generally improves their inclusive leadership skills.

Question 3.

What do you see as the greatest impediments to an individual leader developing the skills required to be an effective inclusive leader – in terms of organisational culture as well as personal beliefs and attitudes? Can you discuss how Change Catalyst would address such challenges?

  • What people say their biggest challenges are in being an ally (a foundational component of being an effective inclusive leader): lack of skills, knowledge, and confidence. They don’t know what actions to take. The second most reported challenge is a lack of priority. It’s not that important to them and/or to the organization. This is from our State of Allyship Report.
  • What people don’t say, but I’ve observed to be true, especially for leaders: Fear. A lot of people do nothing because they are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. Shaming and cancel culture do not help here, people believe if they put themselves out there, and they make a mistake, they are more likely to be punished for it.
  • Change Catalyst works to address this in a few different ways:
    • Inclusive leadership coaching – working 1:1 with leaders to help develop their inclusive leadership skills in a safe and confidential environment. This work is customised to meet each leader where they are on their own journey.
    • Inclusive leadership learning and development programming specifically for executives – we work with executive teams to improve their inclusive leadership skills and develop a culture of inclusion through a series of interactive workshops, individual work, resources, and practical implementation.
    • Learning and development programming for people managers – we work with management teams to build their inclusive leadership skills and understand their own role in driving diversity, equity, and inclusion across their teams.
    • We work with DEI and HR teams to develop cultural and structural programming that drives inclusive leadership skills, accountability, individual behavioral change, and company-wide cultural change.


The compelling insight I take from Melinda’s work is the need for an overarching commitment to change to be locked into a framework of accountability that actually works.

In the context of a public sector workforce, my singular focus of interest, that suggests that beyond an agency having a genuine Inclusion strategy, it must be allied to an accountable commitment by the executive leadership team as a resourced aspect of core business.

From a higher perspective, there is a compelling argument for a government to develop policies that require government agencies to develop and implement accountable strategies. In NSW, for instance, all government agencies are required to develop a Disability Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP) in compliance with the Disability Inclusion Act (2014). The intent is good, but there is no effective accountability mechanism. 

What we see here is precisely the problem of leadership culture – a good idea is not embraced and brought into the accountability mechanisms that govern how an agency operates. In a sense, until the protective membrane of a leadership culture is penetrated, and the culture infected with a passion for change, resistance will persist. There is little evidence, shy of exceptional leadership, that leadership cultures are motivated to change on their own account.

In the private sector it is the shareholder who demands change. In the public sector it is the voter. In NSW there is a state election on the horizon. It is a time when the parties are uncommonly sensitive to what voters think and feel. It is therefore an opportunity to make some headway in seeking change for people with disability (as employees of the public sector and service users) and building in accountability.

If there is no accountability, there is no measurement. And if something is not measured, it is not real. That’s axiomatic of business and government. It is an inescapable reality. Success depends on measurement and accountability. So why do leadership cultures duck it? Why expose yourself to another risk of failure in a situation where so many risks exist. This is why the demand for accountable change must be external to the leadership culture. It must come from staff and allies, shareholders and voters.