Susan was born in Toronto in Canada in August 1950, the second of four children. She had a very close relationship with her father, who she describes as a “lovely gentle man – one of the first of the great feminist men despite being born and raised on a subsistence farm in south-western Ontario”. He strongly encouraged her to go to university, (rather than do a more TAFE-like course). His recent death was a great sorrow for Susan.
Susan described her mother as controlling and very difficult. Her parents separated when Susan was 14. Susan had to stay with her mother until she was 16 when she immediately moved out to her father’s place. She didn’t see her mother again until she was 32. Gradually a relationship was re-established between them, particularly after Susan’s daughter was born.
Susan’s family was affiliated with the United Church of Canada, Although her immediate family wasn’t particularly observant, her paternal grandmother was of the “no card playing on Sunday” persuasion, although she said that she knew that “the young people do it”. Susan has no religion these days.
Susan completed a Master of Science (Consumer Science) in Canada, before moving to Australia with her (Australian) husband, Bob. She had her daughter when she was 33 years old – described by the hospital at the time as an “elderly primagravida”!
Susan worked in the Bureau of Consumer Affairs in Western Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s for about 4 years. She says she had expected (perhaps naively) that she would find a whole lot of colleagues who would be as passionate about consumer issues as she was, but she was disappointed. She was not even encouraged to try to make it easier to make complaints to the Bureau because it would generate too much work.
Susan subsequently began work as a lecturer in consumer studies (and clothing and textiles) at the Edith Cowan University in 1982 .
After a few years, she felt that her practical knowledge and skills were getting rusty, and looked for a professional development activity that would help keep her knowledge of consumer protection policy issues current.
In the extract below, Susan describes her first involvement in the consumer movement, with the Consumers Association of WA, which was a very small and not particularly dynamic group. After being elected to the national Committee of the Australian Federation of Consumer Organizations (subsequently Consumers Federation of Australia), Susan stayed active in the Consumers Association of WA, but most of her leadership activities occurred at the national level.
Being involved in AFCO brought Susan into contact with people who were passionate about consumer issues, which was what she had been missing in her work environment. “It was these passionate people that kept me going through the first few years at AFCO.”
There was a lot of politics involved in those years. There had been a fair amount of organisational upheaval, and there was a lot of people trying to pursue their individual agendas, rather than work towards an overall organisational benefit. Although it was difficult, Susan found it exciting because of the potential of the organisation.
There was an increasing disaffection among members about the ways the [AFCO governing] Committee was operating. The Commonwealth government which provided funding was also becoming disaffected. Change was needed. At the next election, some new people – Denis Nelthorpe and Suzanne Russell – were elected to the Committee and we got a critical mass to get some changes happening. Then you [Jane] came in and things really started to change.
(Susan and I worked closely together when she was Chairperson and I was Director of AFCO.)
Susan comments that the consumer movement, particularly at the grass roots level, tends to be dominated by older women, perhaps because younger women are more caught up with family commitments. She also comments that in the consumer movement there are a lot of people who are passionate and emotive about issues, and who may sometimes give the perception of being unreasonable, illogical or even “mad”. But
… if consumer advocates are too over the top, the public servants tend to bunker down and not listen. We had a structure in the consumer movement which allowed us to harness that sort of energy, but link these people up with others who could help with channelling the energy into a more constructive ways of interacting with government.
This sort of goal was in her mind when Susan was elected Chairperson by the AFCO Committee in 1990. The Committee then became the AFCO Council, which Susan continued to chair. Susan says “I never really sought it”. (for more listen below)
Back in those days, there were people who were leading the [consumer] charge – Louise Sylvan, Denis Nelthorpe, Liza Carver – who were really engrossed in the policy, who were living and breathing it, who were strong in taking the fight to government. I was in the background. I would chair a conference, orchestrate their meetings …
Maybe it’s a different form of leadership, not the out front, getting-the-runs-on-the-board sort of leadership that the others were doing.
Susan says that the high profile figures that were then active in AFCO, were happy to work with her as Chairperson, perhaps because they didn’t see her as a threat – “ I was the mild mannered home economist, and they supported me and were respectful of my role as Chairperson. Perhaps that’s the facilitator in me”
Susan and I discussed Suzanne Russell – another strong leader figure in the Victorian and national consumer movement until her death in 2004. Susan said that Suzanne was an “orchestrator”, and that she, Susan is more a ‘facilitator”.
I think you need the orchestrators and the facilitators. Some of the activists could never bring a constituent base with them. You need people to manage behind the scenes, to make things happen and provide some structure.
I asked Susan how she used her facilitative skills at AFCO.
Unlike some of the other leaders we’ve interviewed, Susan’s role of Chair was not to pursue an individual consumer interest, but to bring together the diverse interests of the diverse member groups to work together. Susan said
It’s something to do with the nature of a peak group. I am process focused and that helped a lot. One of the concerns for AFCO’s members, was the lack of process and the lack of transparency, about preparing submissions, or appointing representatives. We were able to get better processes in place to make that happen. It’s about how process can build trust.
Susan doesn’t see her work with AFCO as having any negative impact on her home and family. She had a flexible work place at the University, which allowed her to take long phone calls, and attend meetings. The work would just get done at another time. Her academic role did not give rise to any conflicts of interest. Susan says that the time she was away at weekend meetings allowed her husband and daughter to spend more time together. Her husband was supportive of her work in AFCO, although he didn’t share her interests in consumer issues. The marriage ended soon after her daughter left home, but that was years after her work with the consumer movement had ended.
Susan stood for a second term as Chair, with a new Director Jenni Mack (who will be profiled shortly in this blog) after I left. Susan says that Jenni was particularly skilled at working with people, and it was another successful Chair-Director partnership.
Susan’s second term ended in 1994 and shortly afterwards in 1996 the federal government changed and AFCO (Consumers Federation of Australia as it was then) was substantially de-funded, however CFA continues to function as a peak body for consumer groups across Australia.
I asked Susan what she sees as the difference between women and men leaders
Women are probably better facilitators and men are better dictators. I don’t think it worries men to dictate, but I think it worries women. Women are more focused on people, and on how they are perceived or how their actions impact on people All of that’s a gross generalisation of course..
But if I talk to women about say an HR issue, they tend to be concerned about the impact on people, whereas men are much less concerned. We socialise boys differently, so it stands to reason they’ll behave differently as men.
Susan has done lots of professional development, but nothing that has been labelled leadership training. Moreover, she’s not sure that you can train for leadership – “I think you have some innate abilities, interests and leanings, and experience then adds to it.
If you have someone who has no leaning towards leadership, can you train them? I suspect not. A lot of leadership development depends on self-reflection. If you have experiences and you reflect on them – what worked and didn’t work – it enhances what you do in the future. Talking with others – especially people who have an interest in organisational dynamics – is really helpful.
A female colleague asked Susan to mentor her in an informal way. The woman came to work with her and Susan found it a great experience. “Whether I was mentoring her, I don’t know. With women I’ve worked with, who are receptive and interested in getting ahead, I try to be a mentor, and help them achieve their goals. It’s interesting that it’s usually women. I think there’s a lot of women around with lots of talent, who don’t put themselves forward. They need support and a nudge.”
She sees that there is a generosity needed in leaders who encourage and mentor and it’s hard to write a plan or protocol to institutionalise this generosity. Susan has not found organised women’s leadership groups to be all that useful.
I wonder if it takes confidence in your leadership and your ability, I’m confident in my background, so helping someone to get a leg up isn’t threatening. Someone who is less confident may not be so likely to do this.
Susan’s interest and positive response to change is unusual. She has had a successful career in the WA public service after finishing her time as Chairperson of AFCO and leaving the University, with a particular focus in the organisational change area. Her work in the public service has meant that she has had to resign from her voluntary work in the consumer movement to avoid conflicts of interests (which highlights how useful an academic job is for leaders in the non-government sector). Susan is currently Licensing and Registration Director in the Consumer Protection Division of the WA Department of Commerce.