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.