melinda cilento

In 2017, economist Melinda Cilento GAICD mulled over the idea of launching into full-time professional director mode. It had been seven years since her last executive role, as deputy CEO of the Business Council of Australia, and she already had two directorships, at Woodside Petroleum and Australian Unity.

“I’d been on the Woodside board for nearly 10 years and was at a point where I was wondering what the next chapter would look like. Would I pursue more board roles?” says Cilento, who was also a part-time commissioner at the Productivity Commission. “I’d stepped away from full-time work for family reasons (she has three daughters), so found myself questioning whether I still had the appetite for an executive role.”

Instead, she took on her first chief executive role, at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), last October.

“Board work is really important, but obviously one of the challenges is you’re not directly responsible for particular outcomes,” she says.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m not sure I’ve finished with that’. Policy is something that’s been a thread through my whole working life. It’s incredibly important, especially at the moment, in terms of sparking robust conversations that resonate with a wider audience. CEDA seemed like the perfect place to do that.”

New focus

After seven months in the role, familiarising herself with the issues, Cilento has firm ideas about taking CEDA in a new direction. In July, she will present the results of the organisation’s first national survey of community attitudes to economic growth and development. A second substantial research project will look at the purpose of economic growth and priorities to support broader economic development.

“It’s a year of resetting our research focus, to set the tone for some of the policy conversations we want to have,” Cilento says. “By doing these two pieces of work, we’re hoping to connect the community to a broader agenda and map out important priorities.” Underlying this new focus is Cilento’s belief that economic growth is only one part of the broader concept of economic development, which encompasses factors such as living standards and quality of life.

“We’ve had this narrative that growth equals prosperity,” she says. “But people’s lived experiences of what economic growth has delivered is probably different to how some of us with a policy hat on think about it.

“The real issue is how do we best understand why there seems to be that disconnect, on the back of 26-plus years of economic growth? Because if we can’t find a way to reconnect the wider community to the benefits of economic growth and a broader economic development agenda, then we’re definitely going to struggle to get a robust policy debate happening and a policy agenda that will provide the foundations for our future socio-economic and social prosperity and resilience.”

New technologies

Another focus for CEDA will be the implications of new technologies, sparked by Cilento’s overseas study tour to North America and Europe last year with the Australian Unity board, looking at how technology such as robots and voice activation is reshaping hospital and aged care.

Cilento hopes to create a CEDA forum for people to share information and ideas about the policy implications of technologies that are five-plus years away, including ethical issues. “How we advance a public conversation around those complex issues and how we equip policymakers and politicians to make really good decisions around the right policy and regulatory settings is a real challenge. We need time and space to consider these issues as a society before we start to think about what’s allowed and what isn’t.”

Perhaps her biggest challenge in her new role will be to increase the organisation’s impact. Founded in 1960, CEDA has about 750 members across business, government, academia and the community — and a strong reputation for excellent independent research and high-profile events. But, as Cilento acknowledges, the research needs to connect better and ideas must be disseminated in new ways to reach the widest possible audience.

“There’s an opportunity for us to focus our agenda on a narrower range of topics, where we will have a presence in those conversations through our research and our events, so that we can start becoming a more consistent policy voice,” she says.

“Australia has some important policy challenges, we’ve got some tremendous opportunities as a country, but it’s very difficult to get a broad reform agenda up because so many of these issues have become so contested. So there is a great opportunity for some high-quality, inclusive conversations and for an organisation like CEDA to play an important role in advancing public debate and sharing around ideas about what policy changes are possible and what they might mean for the wider community.”

Career breaks

Cilento’s resume suggests she is well equipped to steer CEDA along a new path. After an early hiccup, when she was kicked out of the economics faculty at Flinders University because of poor grades, she returned to university to complete an honours degree in economics. That led to the Federal Treasury’s graduate program and a Master’s in Economics at ANU.

Then followed a coveted two-year appointment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as technical assistant to the Australian executive director in Washington, DC.

The IMF role, she says, was one of her two big career breaks. She learned plenty, especially as her stint coincided with the Asian financial crisis, and it was also a point of difference on her CV. “Having something that allows you to stand out from the crowd sets you up for a conversation in a job interview that is completely different from the sort of conversations they’re likely to be having with other candidates.”

Her other big career break was working as deputy to then Business Council of Australia CEO, Katie Lahey AM FAICD.

A Harsh Reality

13% of Australians live below the poverty line

“The BCA was an absolute game changer for me — and a door opener. I got access to people, to be part of conversations and insights,” Cilento says.

“All those things set me up to have opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have had — including joining the networks that enabled me to get board roles. That wouldn’t have happened without a CEO who opened the door for me and backed me to do what she hired me to do. Katie is one of the few people I’ve ever worked for who genuinely and honestly looks for people who complement their skills — and lets them do it. She wanted me to be the nerdy chief economist and she trusted me to do that.”

The BCA role also opened Cilento’s eyes to the opportunities for greater connections between business and Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, after she set up an Indigenous engagement task force.

“That’s the achievement I’m most proud of,” she says. “It’s probably the thing that has made the most difference — bringing together leading Australian companies and creating a space for them to collaborate with one another and share their learnings.”

Poverty Trap

In April CEDA released a piece of research, How unequal? Insights on inequality. It showed that measures of income inequality in Australia have not risen since the global financial crisis — this despite increasing community concern.

However, several decades of economic growth have not made inroads on entrenched disadvantage or the number of people living below the poverty line, which sits at around 13 per cent. The report highlighted the persistence of postcode inequality across Australia. “There are entrenched geographical pockets of disadvantage across all states and territories,” said Cilento in the report.

“For example, in NSW, 37 — or just six per cent of postcodes — account for almost 50 per cent of the greatest disadvantage in the state. The other states and territories have similar findings. After 26 years of continuous economic growth, the persistence of this kind of geographical disadvantage is deeply concerning.”

Cilento says the report is “meant to be a bit of a conversation starter and put some facts on the table... We think inequality does matter, but it’s a complex issue to measure and analyse.”

Board Lessons

Melinda Cilento’s first board role came at the urging of her then boss, Business Council of Australia CEO Katie Lahey. Cilento was contemplating doing an executive MBA, but Lahey persuaded her to develop new skills in the real world. In late 2008, Cilento joined the board of Woodside Petroleum.

Initially, the switch from an operational to an oversight focus was challenging. “So much of the material you get in the board papers seems so important, particularly if you’re joining the board of an industry you’ve not worked in,” says Cilento. “Getting up that base knowledge so you can focus on what is important — the strategy, the things you’re supposed to be adding value on — rather than getting caught up in that minutiae, is difficult when you first join.”

Now, in her first CEO role at CEDA, she says her board experience has been invaluable. “It’s sharpened my focus in terms of what I present to the board and how I present it… [the board needs] pretty sharp and succinct papers and arguments. With the benefit of hindsight, when I was at the BCA, I’m sure those were far too long and detailed. Now I’m probably better at crafting an argument and focusing on the things that really matter.”