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[RMIT Chief Marketing Officer Chaminda Ranasinghe and RMIT Manager, Organisational Development Noeleen Carey are shown on a split-screen video call.]
Welcome, Chaminda Ranasinghe, to the RMIT leadership series. Thank you for joining us and fitting this interview into your very precious time.
Thanks Noeleen, it's great to connect with you. I'm really glad that we can do these sorts of things so that we can share our experiences with the rest of the leadership team.
So let's get started and I'm going to open with our first question. And that is, what principles have guided you as a leader during the last few months?
That's a great question and to be fair, all of us have had, I think some interesting times personally though from my experience, having been through a global financial crisis while I was living in the UK and working for a bank for example during difficult times like Royal Commission, you think you're prepared for tough times.
But I must admit the last few months have been unlike any other I've experienced; they have been remarkably challenging. And the interesting thing for me is the leadership principles I've really brought up and connected with are going back to the basics, to the things that you know are the core principles that that we all have as leaders. For me, it's almost thinking about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. And those basics really start with safety, and in the current climate, I know that all of us have thought about our own personal safety. Because if you think about the pandemic and the way that came about, I know that we've all thought about our own families and loved ones.
And in that context, our teams have been absolutely on all of our minds, so psychological as well as physical safety, simple things like that. And the physical safety is often overtaken with the psychological impacts, but psychological safety is equally, if not more, important in times like this, because the reality is your fear of your physical safety sometimes overtakes everything else. So psychological safety, for example, has been one of the most simple and and basic principles that I’ve gone back to - making sure our teams feel safe, that we as leaders are there for them, providing a solid base, and good cover for them.
And that's as simple as making sure you're available to them, and you're reaching out and always being available for a conversation. Because if you think about a circumstance where we start to work from home, we lost that physical connection of the corridor conversation, or the ability to just walk past and see how someone's doing. So the ability to make yourself available through digital means was really important, so I think that's probably one of the principles.
And then if I keep going down theory of the Hierarchy of Needs, I think the second piece got me was making sure that I was connecting with empathy, making sure I was putting myself in in the other person's shoes with, whether I was referring to a peer, a colleague, a leader of mine, or whether it were my team members, making sure that we're speaking about this circumstance, and I think that's really important because, again, you put a glass in between two people, you think it's a small, small piece, a small barrier, butI think you start to miss certain cues. The physical cues that you might pick up when you're when you're with someone, I think you often miss meaning when you're behind the screen.
So for, me connecting with empathy is probably listening more and talking less and hearing what they what they have to say. And then putting yourself - again, a simple example is one of my colleagues was going through a difficult time personally. And being able to relate to that and remembering circumstances I had been through, and then trying to support them the way I would have wanted to have been treated at the time was the way that I connected. I think I connect better with that individual now than I have while we were on campus, working face-to-face. So it can be done.
So connecting with empathy is probably one of the most important principles that I've gone back to. And then the final one I'll talk to is very much about trusting your teams. You know when we started to think about working from home and moving away from our normal ways of working and structures that we had in place, I know all of us had doubts. I certainly had fears around productivity, would we be able to deliver on the things that we promised? How will we manage all the extra work that we had? Deep inside I know it'd be okay but you had moments where you were wondering whether the teams and individuals will be able to deliver on the promises that we had made A to the students and B to the university. And I think one of the things that have worked well for me is trusting the team, the individuals my leaders, my colleagues, and starting with that position of trust. And I must admit that to this day, you know that's been the best three basic principles those three things that really worked for me.
And I know that it's not clearly over - we've got now the next phase of where we are - as we start to think about coming back to some form of normality and coming back into campus and then potentially having this sort of blended world. I don't think we'll ever go back to the old world in the same sort of way.
I think these principles still absolutely resonate. And that’s starting with making sure your teams feel safe and secure, and you connect with them and understand where they're coming from, and trust them as much as possible. I think you'll get the best out of your teams and certainly you'll get the best out of yourself.
There are three very wise principals that I'm sure have supported you in the last 12 weeks that we've been I've been in isolation, but I'm sure they'll set you up for success as we transition into our whole new way of working, which is just saying we'll never be the same again, our teams will not be present at one time, we're already dispersed across campus but it is going to be a whole new way of leading and a whole new way of operating, so your advice around trust, trusting yourself and trusting others is very sage advice. So tell me, what did you learn as a leader - personally, about yourself as a leader?
I’m amazed, Noeleen, about just how resilient we all are. And I think we forget and I think we've been tested, often, but when you’re tested the way we have been tested in the last few months, what's pleasantly surprising, is how resilient all of our leaders, our teams, our people, humans in general are.
And that's been something that I really start to appreciate: harnessing people's resilience, harnessing your own resilience has been something I've learned a lot about. I've always known of the importance of resilience - I know that we speak of our, our IQ, our smarts, and our EQ, our emotional intelligence. But there's a lot there's a principle of adversity, the adversity question. And that principle of harnessing the resilience within you, to make sure you come out better than you were before adversity strikes if that makes sense, has been again a fantastic lesson for me.
Particularly with my teams that often in the past when we were on campus would struggle with simple things. Like working behind a virtual screen, you know, being a telepresence would have been an issue, they would have complained about technology or it would have been a difficult thing if one of their colleagues was late for a meeting! Or simple things like, you know, being tolerant and being respectful to your needs.
Just that capacity to be respectful, tolerant and resilient is amazing. I've had very few people complain about their technology: I think it our organisation’s done a wonderful job there. Very few of my staff have complained. And it's tough - everyone knows that there are challenges, but they realise that their own personal circumstances are not as bad as some of the others that are out there and therefore, that's brought out this sense of belief in self and the ability to deal with the tough times and resilience. Clearly it's something that we've all got in spades. I know we all have moments, you know there are times when it's hard, but in the scheme of things, resilience has been fantastic.
And I’m always surprised – and pleasantly surprised - at how remarkable, our people, our staff are, we as RMIT leaders are, it's fantastic to see that. I think we've done well, as Australia we've done well, as a university. And I think we'll be better for going through - we will be tougher for it and I think we'll be ready for the long haul as a result of it.
An impromptu question for you. How do you harness your own resilience in those moments of doubt, and frustration?
I think we all have moments where we do, we doubt ourselves. I have these sort of scenarios where it's a crisis of confidence, you sort of know you think you can do it, and you know you've done it before, but you doubt yourself – “I wonder if I can”.
I think in moments like this it's really important to trust yourself, trust in your ability, go back to things that you've done in the past where you've had moments where you've doubted yourself. And I'm pretty sure most 9 out of 10 times you've come out successful. And that's the reality of it, you know its in the bigger picture that you judge success. In that moment certainly there might have been things that you could have improved on. But if you think of the overall circumstance – you got to think to yourself, you know what, it might not go perfectly but I know I can do this. I'm going to get on with it and have a go if nothing else. And the reality is in a place like RMIT, I'm very grateful to work for an organisation where people do support each other.
And, you know, we're in this together, and that context and in that sense of belonging means that if you believe in yourself and trust in yourself and trust others, there's this sort of sense of collective can-do mentality, which I think we often forget about, we often doubt that we've got it: A, individually and B as a collective. I think that's something that we should be very confident in, in itself, not just yourself, the fact that we do work for an organisation that we do have that sort of culture is I think really great.
So yeah, I think, you know, you do have moments where you doubt yourself. As I said, having a crisis of competencies is perfectly normal. I mean I've had plenty of those in the last few months I can tell you that much. But the worst thing you can do is to stay sort of timid, or reserved and not taking something on properly. going head on and dealing with it, and almost sort of facing into that adversity or the challenge that you see as a negative as the thing that you are doubting almost finding a way to harness that negativity or that concern and overcoming it and as best as you can and thinking about using it to come out better for that challenge.
I think is a great way to think, to overcome that concern or the negativity. So I think it’s perfectly normal to doubt yourself, to doubt your team, and feel nervous about certain circumstances. But I think you need to trust in times like this. You've got to trust yourself, and trust your team, and you got to trust your colleagues and your peer group as leaders, because as a group, we've got this.
Thank you. That's very wise advice for myself and for all of the leaders that are going to be watching this video because we are all going to have moments of self doubt, considering the environment that we're working in now.
Thank you for your time and for your very wise advice we really appreciate you joining us and being able to share your experience, your advice, and your insights. So thank you, Chaminda, for joining the
A pleasure Noeleen, and thanks for having me.