Teresa was born in California in 1966 to an Australian family. Her father was completing a PhD at the University of California – going on to become an academic plant pathologist. Teresa’s mother was a nurse, eventually becoming a nurse educator – she worked part time when her five children were growing up.
The family moved from the US to New Zealand, and then when her parents separated, Teresa moved with her mother back to Melbourne. This was a difficult time for Teresa (who was 14) and her siblings – they had been top of the class in their New Zealand school, but due to the different curricula, they struggled in some subjects back in Australian schools. Also, the move away from their friends was distressing, particularly for Teresa and her older brother.
Teresa was raised as a Catholic, and her parents are both still practising. Growing, up, Teresa attended mass every week, and the family carried out all the annual religious ceremonies. Teresa also attended Catholic schools throughout her primary and secondary education. Teresa now describes herself as agnostic.
In the year before finishing school, Teresa had saved enough money through her part time work to pay for her own exchange program in Switzerland. She lived with a German speaking family, and learned to speak German. Being away from her family was a positive move for her at the time – Teresa says “it was nice to be able to focus on something intellectual – learning another language and culture – and I felt a certain level of freedom”.
Teresa went to La Trobe University thinking that she would get a linguistic qualification, but the Government introduction of tertiary fees in 1987 (her second year of Uni), politicised her, and she became involved in the anti-fees campaigns. Teresa’s activity led to her becoming the President of the SRC at La Trobe Uni, when she was 21.
Teresa was also involved in the first year of the establishment of the National Union of Students, which she says, gave her a good insight into “sandpit politics” which she found quite “ugly” and disillusioning. However, Teresa’s involvement in student politics and student governance also meant that she quickly gained a range of business and management skills.
Around the same time Teresa also became involved in Community Aid Abroad, and was Chair of the Asia Pacific Student Association meeting in Bangkok in 1989. She was appointed after working with students from across the region especially in the Phillipines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor and Burma. Teresa says “I was very affected by visits to the jungle university set up in refugee camps by the Burmese students who had fled the brutal crack down in 1988”. She was also part of a human rights study tour in the Philippines in 1988 and was involved in the peace movement.
I’d started to see that there was a lot more to the world, and change that needed to happen than the sort of issues that students get caught up into. But I could see that it wasn’t going to be an easy job.
I also had made a decision at that time that my career would be in the community sector. I didn’t want to go into politics, though even now I find the whole political thing attractive and interesting.
After 1.5 years, Teresa stepped down from the SRC President position. She wanted to get back to study, and then decided that she wanted tomade a conscious decision to settle down and have children because she saw it as a small way towards making a positive contribution towards building a better world
Teresa’s marriage to her first husband was, she says, “quite controversial among her peers”- she was seen to be in some way supporting and endorsing “the patriarchal system”.
Teresa had two children close together, the first child being born when she was just 24. But she persisted with her studies as well as working part time at the food co-op at La Trobe University.
Teresa eventually got a scholarship to do an honours year, but as her husband wasn’t able to find work, and the family needed an income, she ended up not finishing the honours year, and taking on a job managing the northern campuses for the RMIT Union.
During the time that Teresa was doing this job, her marriage broke down. In 1995 Teresa and her ex-husband decided together that they wanted to move north. Teresa got a position at the Consumer Telecommunications Network (CTN) as the part time Communications Liaison Officer, and they both moved to Sydney at the same time to provide continuity and easy access for the children.
Teresa enjoyed the CTN job because it seemed to be a move away from management and a lot of responsibility, and it allowed her to spend more time with her children. She was in charge of resourcing regional consumer councils, compiling the newsletter, and other communications activities.
However, right from the beginning, she also took on some management responsibilities, and began to take up opportunities to become involved in some policy work.
By 1998, Teresa was living with her new partner Julian, and he provided good support for Teresa in her work arrangements. The children continued to have access to their dad which gave additional respite.
I asked Teresa how she’d managed to combine her parenting with a successful and demanding job, including some time as a single mum,
I think a lot of it relates to the fact that I stayed in the community sector because I made a conscious decision to do that, and that’s unusual. Most people use the community sector as a way to leap off into a government job, or something else because they get sick of it, or burnt out, and also the pay’s really poor. But for me, staying in the community sector meant that I had flexibility, and family friendly environments – so if I needed to bring my kids to work I could, for example.
And we continue that now [at ACCAN]. From my perspective, we can’t offer a high salary, we can’t be competitive on that level, but we can compete on leave arrangements, time in lieu arrangements for school holidays – you couldn’t do that in the corporate world.
In 2003, Teresa became CEO of CTN. Julian and Teresa made a joint decision that he would take a less high powered job, and he worked from home for a number of years. Teresa says: “Julian does want to have a job and he enjoys working, and he does want to make a difference, but we do have a different view of work.”
Some people say that if I didn’t have kids I might have gone further. I think in some ways, I chose positions that would support my family in the way I wanted to.
You either give up time or money, and I chose the latter. I don’t own a house –I gave up on the idea of owning real estate, and I gave up having as challenging a role as perhaps I’d like. I gave up being remunerated a lot more. But I think you’d find that the community sector is dominated by women, and that’s probably why. For example, I was able to take time to be with my daughter when she did the HSC, and I know that she didn’t feel that the job was more important than her.
But now the kids are grown up, in some ways I feel a sense of freedom – if I have to work long hours I can.
Teresa started a Masters in Information Communications Technology a few years ago, but the workload was too difficult to balance with family and work responsibilities. She is still keen to finish this degree at some stage in the future. She studied a unit of Law recently that “gave her a lot of power in being an advocate”.
A number of colleagues have told me over the years that I’m a better consumer advocate as a non-lawyer, because I don’t hold back, don’t think that’s not possible, so don’t argue for it. But there’s still a loss of power through not having all the information about a particular issue.
Three years ago, the government decided that it wanted to change the way that consumers were represented in the telecommunications areas. Teresa was very involved in the process of creating a new umbrella organisation for consumers of communications services – the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN).
Teresa coordinated the development of the model for ACCAN, including the negotiations between the different consumer groups about representational issues. She applied unsuccessfully for the first CEO position (it went to Allan Asher) and she was offered deputy CEO. Teresa describes herself as being quite burnt out and in a sense relieved to have a break. “I’m quite attracted to the 2IC position – I didn’t know whether I wanted to stick my neck out again.”
But then in 2010, Allan Asher took on a job as the Commonwealth Ombudsman and Teresa applied again – this time successfully – for the CEO position.
In the interview, we talked a lot about Teresa’s approach to managing people. She really enjoys mentoring people – mainly informally through the young people who have worked with her. She has a big focus as a manager on achievement – “in the community sector we don’t value what we’ve done” – and she has been part of instituting regular celebrations of successes. “I like setting a tone and culture around a place, and I like making sure that people feel safe and confident in a work place, and can raise issues as they need to.
Teresa sometimes finds the political aspects of her job difficult – she describes herself as “straight up and down” and says she doesn’t want to be manipulative. “I find it hard to accept less than high standards of integrity, and that’s a challenge every day. I find it hard, but I can’t make any short cuts”.
Nelson Mandela is a role model for Teresa, but closer to home, Phillipa Smith and Deirdre O’Donnell (NSW Information Commissioner) have provided her with mentoring and support – for Teresa these are women who “are happy for me to download, then they make little suggestions”.
I asked Teresa about women and men in leadership roles in the consumer movement.
I have a real thing about ego. For me, it’s important to be humble, and it was pretty important to have that characteristic when I was managing CTN – my role was building a coalition. Now, the CEO of ACCAN is perceived to be the person who is the keeper of the vision for the organisation, and there is much more focus on being high profile.
I’m still disappointed about how few women are out there doing things. Senior positions continue to be male dominated – I’m not convinced that selection processes based on what is seen as merit, are always effective.
Teresa sees her own decisions in work/life balance as providing different strengths for leadership than might be selected for in mainstream recruitment processes. “There’s something about not just valuing the results of a competitive world, but also valuing the results of mutualism and the gains you can have from a different approach.”
One of Teresa’s final comments encapsulates her approach to leadership – which is based in her belief that it is always important to be humble. “I’m not “the one” – I’m the leader of many. I see myself as part of a team, rather than the team being there to support me.”