Magazine article

Some directors get a crash course in crises during a takeover or scandal. Lisa Paul AO PSM FAICD, learned about crisis leadership, and herself, during the 2002 Bali bombings. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet asked Paul to lead the Federal Government’s domestic response to the Bali tragedy. One day later, she was coordinating the diverse group of stakeholders that responded to the tragedy, and helping families of the dead and injured.

Paul later received the Public Service Medal for her role as chair of the Commonwealth Bali Interagency Taskforce. “The Bali crisis remains with me,” she says. “It was a great privilege to be able to support the families of those affected during such a difficult time.”

Paul learned that Australians are amazing in a crisis and that governments can function brilliantly when people need them most. “I learned that it is possible to step up in an instant when duty calls and to have faith in the power of making it up as you go along.”

The taskforce had to choose the right step in the crisis, then the next step and next 25 steps in a complex, high-pressure situation, with limited information. “We got money to families within 24 hours and helped them travel to Bali,” she says. “The Government also took steps to support the Balinese during and after the crisis. All Australians should be proud of that work.”

Paul’s Bali experience was one of many highlights in a remarkable public service career. When she stood down as Secretary of the Department of Education and Training in February 2016 and left the public service, Paul was the second-longest serving Commonwealth department secretary and the longest-ever serving Secretary of Education. She worked with five prime ministers: John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. And nine cabinet ministers: Brendan Nelson, Julie Bishop, Julia Gillard, Simon Crean, Chris Evans, Peter Garrett, Bill Shorten, Christopher Pyne and Simon Birmingham.

As a chief executive officer (CEO) in the Australian Public Service for more than 10 years, Paul implemented education reforms, including landmark changes to pre-school education, the introduction of the My School website and the uncapping of higher education places in a demand-driven funding system.

Paul says: “I used to ask my staff: ‘How good is it to come to work each day in a government department that touches the lives of every Australian in a positive way and is so important for our future?’”

She dispels the notion that public service chiefs, for all their government knowledge, connections and skills, lack commercial nous. She ran a department that turned over $46 billion annually, and oversaw the creation of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, which involved the merger of two departments. Had it been a private operation, the merger and subsequent turnaround would have been lauded. “We had to do the merger with no funding or board oversight and it had to be done very quickly,” Paul says. “The information technology and remuneration integration alone cost $80 million. It was challenging, but I learned a lot about how to bring organisations together and create a culture where staff want to give a higher discretionary effort and be more productive.”

A new direction

After 32 years in the public service, Paul wanted a change. “At about 20 years, I realised I was a career public servant,” she quips.

“I loved every day of being a public servant and the honour of working with prime ministers and cabinet ministers. I have great admiration for politicians: every one I’ve ever met entered politics to make a difference.”

All the experiences I had in the public service stay with me and I've taken them into my new roles

Paul joined an elite group of former Commonwealth mandarins when she embarked on a “portfolio career” that includes both Not-for-Profit (NFP) and commercial board roles. This group includes National Australia Bank chairman Dr Ken Henry AC, and AMP non-executive director Professor Peter Shergold AC FAICD.

Paul joined the board of listed education company Navitas in February; is a non-executive director of Programmed Group, a listed provider of labour, maintenance and project services; and is on the board of international human services provider, APM (Advanced Personnel Management).

Her NFP directorships include Social Ventures Australia; Australian Schools Plus; High Resolves and the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. These roles draw on her education knowledge and passion for helping young people. Paul’s experience with government and NFP boards goes back to the late 1990s.

More public service chiefs, says Paul, will make the transition to commercial and NFP governance in coming years. “They are a lot younger than they used to be and are looking for second or third careers outside the public service. Their understanding of government, regulation and the media, as well as digital disruption, is a valuable asset on boards these days.”

She says aspiring directors from the public service must plan their transition carefully. “You have to bring more to a board than an understanding of government. You need demonstrated skills in leadership, strategy and innovation that can create value for shareholders. You need to do the Company Director Course™. That’s a must. You need good advice about planning a governance career, well before you leave the public service.”

An avid supporter of mentorship, in her farewell speech, Paul offered to provide free career advice to anybody who had ever worked for her – a bold offer in a department that has thousands of employees. More than 100 have taken up the offer.

“I see mentorship as a serious commitment when you are a CEO, and after,” says Paul. “I’m very passionate about good leadership, and to be honest, I’ve probably got more from the career-advice sessions with my former staff than they have.”

Diversity is another of Paul’s pursuits. Asked about her achievements in the public service, she quickly points to the high level of indigenous staff in the Department of Education and Training (up to 6 per cent of employees at one point).

On gender diversity, she says emerging female leaders need to say “yes” to opportunity. “You have to be clear about where your core of confidence lies and be confident to embrace change, keep learning and building your career.”

Paul is following her own advice. She intends to launch a tech start-up and has a developing interest in creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. She is an Enterprise Professor at Melbourne University, a member of the advisory board to the Melbourne Accelerator Program and a councillor of Bond University.

Paul is carving out a fascinating second career as an in-demand company director and aspirant tech entrepreneur in quick time. She is crushing the myth that veteran bureaucrats should fade quietly into retirement after a lifetime of public service; their skills are too valuable in an increasingly regulated business sector.

The outgoing, California-born Paul clearly loves her new career. “All the experiences I had in the public service stay with me and I’ve taken them into my new roles,” she says. “I’m deeply grateful for my time in the public service. But I have this burning desire to keep learning and contributing, and boards are a great way to do that.”