Kelly was born in 1970 in Geelong, Victoria, the middle child of 3. Her family was Catholic – her parents attended church regularly, and her grandmother was particularly religious. Kelly attended Catholic school all the way through her education but says she rebelled against Catholicism when she was about 12 (she’s an atheist now).
Kelly describes her parents as being generous in an understated way and that this helped determine her values (rather than anything from the Church). Her father was a policeman and her mother was a teacher, and they were committed to giving back to society. “Even on their days off, everyone would come around and ask my dad for help”.
When Kelly was about 12, her family moved to the country, and the impacts of drought on the natural and human environment made a big impression on her. Her mother’s side of the family are all farmers, and the young Kelly wanted to be a vet, or an advocate in the environment sector – “but only in a way that would let me help negotiate an outcome – I never wanted to be the person tying themselves to a tree’.
Kelly was the first in her family to go to University, completing a BSc Hons, focusing on river environmental processes. Her career started out in the State Water Laboratories, which was privatised shortly after she began work and became Water Ecoscience which was essentially a consultancy business. Kelly talks in the extract below about her early positions and about how she has always worked for the environment
In 1998, Kelly joined the EPA in Victoria, where she quickly became a Manager in a policy development area, and also became more involved in overall organisational management.
At EPA, Kelly was invited to be part of a 6 month leadership and management training course (run by Fabian Dattner) – which she describes as a huge turning point in her life.
I was working in an organisation of scientists and engineers who were skilled at making highly structured decisions. But I would get to the same answers to problems much more intuitively . [Through the training] I came to realise that the way that I make decisions isn’t highly structured. ButI also learned that my style is no better or worse than other people’s styles. I also realised that people wanted me in their teams because I was different.
The course gave me information about how I and others like to work, and helps me to manage other people. These days, [the information from the course] allows me to notice when I’m falling back into behaviours that aren’t positive.
Kelly is now talking to her current staff about whether similar training might be useful for them. “They’re highly passionate – which is wonderful – but they need to know how to manage that as well.”
In 2004 Kelly was seconded over to the Department of Sustainability and the Environment, working on Victoria’s Environmental Sustainability framework. This work lasted for 18 months, and Kelly found it a difficult period. During this time she sought advice from a coach at times to get through some of the management problems she was facing. The coach gave her some good skills in understanding how other team members were feeling, and tools for managing the problems.
Kelly went on to manage a joint venture for the water industry in Melbourne, developing and running a 50 year water management strategy. In this position, Kelly was working with 4 different Managing Directors and 4 different Boards, each of which was very different. She really enjoyed the experience – although saying that a short term panic over a period of drought led to many of the initiatives she had worked on being overshadowed in favour of new pipelines and a desalination plant.
In 2007, Kelly became CEO of Environment Victoria (EV)– the leading environment group in Victoria. There are currently 20 staff working in the organisation. In the interview, Kelly described the changes that she helped bring about, including ensuring that EV’s funding became more independent of government, developing more long term programs and strategies for staff, and building team work, and re-focusing campaigns to become more solution based.
Kelly found it quite a challenge when she first came into the environment movement – at times she felt quite judged by others in the movement (not in EV), for coming from government, and for some of the solutions she was supporting in the water area. Kelly also felt surprised by some of the environment movement’s beliefs about people working in the corporate sector being inherently destructive. Kelly says thay she has worked hard within EV to encourage a culture where people are seen to be positioned somewhere along an environmental awareness continuum, and encouraged to take the next step rather than criticised for where they are, and who they work for.
In the extract below Kelly talks about some of the differences between women and men leaders in the environment movement. Kelly is currently the only female CEO of a state conservation council.
I asked Kelly why women might not want to become leaders in the environment movement
I think a lot of what we do as an environment movement is political – we have to influence politicians, and there’s still an old style of working – tactics haven’t come as far as they could – a lot of the time it is the bravado that gets you there.
Maybe more women aren’t doing so much leadership because the toll is high – you’re always thinking about the impact you’re having on other people.
Kelly also thinks women get held back in leadership when they have children. She has been in a long term relationship for 8 years and is not planning to have children. She says she’s never had an overwhelming desire to have children and she doesn’t want to bring children into a world which she sees as having a potentially devastating environmental future. “I do think that having kids is giving back to the world –but we’ll have to give back in another way” she says.
Kelly has informed her Board that she will leaving her position at Environment Victoria next year. I asked her what sort of jobs she could see in her future. Kelly says she likes the CEO role in large part because of the rewards of seeing a change in attitude or behaviour that she has helped bring about. She says “I can’t see myself as doing something in the future that doesn’t involve advocacy.”
When I started this job, I didn’t want to foist my opinion on other people, because I respect other people’s views, and I was apprehensive of advocacy. I didn’t like upsetting people. What I’ve realised is that you can’t make everyone happy. The environment movement’s policies and positions are correct, most people in the community are in agreement with them, and we have evidence to back everything up. I now have no problem being an advocate for an environmental position.
I don’t want to be adversarial though – the big leadership challenge is having solutions, and putting the information forward in a way that people who don’t already agree with us can understand. I see myself as “mainstream-ish”, but I like it when people call me an advocate now.
Kelly’s profile shows her commitment to working for the environment in a range of different settings – moving between consultancy, government and the NGO sectors. I also found Kelly’s willingness to look for help when she needs it, and her ability to see the way her own attitudes have changed over time, to be refreshing in a world where we seem more frequently to expect people remain unchanging in the face of new information or new experiences.