What’s the secret?

Leadership Lunch Series, Women Lawyers NSW, Newcastle Chapter, 4 August 2016, Professor Rosalind Croucher AM* President, Australian Law Reform Commission



Reflecting our commitment in our Reconciliation Action Plan, as the head of a government agency—and personally, I acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Awabakal and Worimi peoples, who must have sat in a place like this and looked over the harbor and out to sea. On behalf of the ALRC I do so this morning, and pay my respect to elders past and present and welcome any Indigenous attendees today.

I would also like to thank NSW Women Lawyers: remarkable women doing remarkable things for women lawyers.

Kathryn McKenzie asked me to address the WLA theme of the year, ‘Leadership’, so I thought I would ask the question:

What’s the secret?

There isn’t one; or rather, there isn’t one. There are many elements and it’s certainly not magic. It’s really basic common sense, application, and lots of practice! So many of the women lawyers I have met over the years — senior and junior — have something in common.  Most of them have been, essentially, ‘dux of their schools since kindergarten’ as I like to say. Many have held positions of responsibility, from class captain, to head of choir at school and analogous roles throughout life, like being officer-bearers for the Women Lawyers. There are leaders everywhere; many women leaders everywhere. And, essentially, they are like you.

This is all about leadership. So being asked to speak to such an impressive bunch today is a real privilege. And it was lovely coming up the M1. I’ve always loved roads and ever since my very first entrée into practice as a baby solicitor, when the firm I was involved with in my ‘one brief shining moment’ – my one year of holding a practising certificate – was involved in litigation with the Department of Main Roads and the blasting for the Warringah Expressway. So every time I go up a road like the M1 and see the little core drill holes in the stone, I go, ‘Ah – buffer blasting!’

I probably will not be telling you anything new today, but rather give you some reassurance. And that’s a probably a good thing at lunchtime.

I have addressed a number of thoughts, many of which merge into each other, on a kind of development curve. I’ll start with: preparation.


I thank my mother for sending me to voice and drama lessons as a child. I have built on that early training with singing and performance of other kinds over the years, but I think certainly knowing how to use your voice, to project, is crucial: for women and for men. To have a commanding vocal presence, without sounding shrill or shrewish is essential — pitch control and diaphragm support. As my singing teacher used to say, ‘Your vowels are in your bowels!’ If you feel unsure ‘on your feet’, or with your voice then get assistance. Knowing how to present to the whole room can be trained.

And so too is another of my dear mother’s messages: ‘Rozzie, don’t flap!’. She has an intense dislike of speakers who flap. As her hearing has declined over the years (she is now 94) she is more attentive to other things that distract from the message — and flapping is one.

I remember, indeed, Bob Hawke, who obviously had excellent coaching in terms of presentation. Bob Hawke came into parliament from the union movement and he was a thumper: lots of fists and punching. And someone had clearly said to him, ‘Bob, don’t punch!’ There was a moment I remember in one of his speeches where he went, like that [indicating a punch opening into an open-hand gesture]. It’s a bit like the ‘Rozzie, don’t flap!’, it was the ‘Bob, don’t punch!’ moment, where the fist turned into the open-hand gesture.

In my first year of teaching, at Macquarie University in my late 20s, I participated in a teacher improvement program that involved videoing one of my classes. It was most enlightening; and it was very confronting. I still cringe a little when I watch videos of myself but you have to become your sternest critic. If you have the opportunity to participate in some voice and presentation coaching then I urge you to embrace it. The Bar Association, for instance, is often advertising voice and presentation workshops. They are a really good thing. It also helps to improve your confidence, apart from anything else, which is my next theme.


Confidence is, first and foremost, trusting in your ability. Women (as a broad generalisation), and notwithstanding being ‘dux of your school since kindergarten’ tend not to ‘blow their own trumpet’, and this sometimes gets reflected in pay differentials, but  also in a lack of willingness to say ‘no’. ‘Back yourself’, says a book I picked up at the airport en route to the Australian Women Lawyers’ conference in Perth earlier this year, called Women who Seize the Moment: 11 lessons from those who create their own success.[1] It’s a familiar sort of literature that you find repackaged in various forms, with common themes — sometimes with accompanying television shows.

Confidence is based upon being purposeful. If you ask ‘am I good enough?’ (or ‘Lord am I worthy?’); or, ‘if I were good enough, someone else would suggest that I apply for promotion, apply for silk’ etc, then you will be unlikely to succeed.You have to have te confidence in your own abilities and achievements before anyone else will.

What about mentors? Certainly — but mentoring is not a passive process. Seek advice; find your mentors for yourself. You cannot wait till it happens to you. What I did in my early days as an academic when planning for study leave, I thought, who would I like to speak to? I looked along all the textbooks, the leading Succession books, as I was a Succession lawyer, and I picked out the names and I thought, ‘I’d like to see that person; I’d like to see that person’ – that one’s in England; that one’s in America, and I wrote to them. And I got nice letters back. The fellow in America set up a whole seminar for me to present at Yale and gave me two nights in the special guest flat they have for visiting academics. It was amazing. What that taught me is that you have got to aim high in this mentoring idea. You need to think, what’s the worst thing that can happen? They could say ‘no’, or ‘not right now’, but for the most part, people like to be asked that question because it is deeply flattering, and no matter how senior or junior you are you like to think that your opinion carries weight. It has been a very useful strategy to remember. Be a little bit brazen on the seeking out mentoring front and it may be just to ask for a bit of a sounding board over one little thing. It’s not like ‘you have to be my mentor’ and it’s a kind of stripe on your shoulder and you swap cards and are bonded. It’s nothing like that. It’s ‘what do you think about this?’, ‘can I ask you about this idea I have?’ and, no matter how little it is, it can establish that kind of relationship which is the essence of good mentoring. It is essentially a dialogue — an open conversation.

And another thing on the confidence theme: confidence does not require perfectionism. If you are a perfectionist, you have a problem. Perfectionism, in my view, is a pain. Your 90% is usually someone else’s 200% (particularly if most of you have been ‘dux of your school since kindergarten’). 90% is usually good enough. As long as you have done three drafts of anything you are writing. That’s this secret: the three draft rule.

Confidence is also about finding your own style.

In a speech that Justice Roslyn Atkinson AO of the Queensland Supreme Court delivered in February last year, she spoke of a lesson of leadership that she learned ‘very early on’, and that was ‘you are quintessentially yourself’.[2] She became ‘acutely aware’ of her own personal attributes, including her weaknesses and strengths. She seized upon this in giving this advice:

If you are an extrovert, you will be an extrovert as a leader. If you are by nature co-operative or collegial, you will be that as a leader. If you are a quiet achiever, then you will lead by example through your quiet achievements.[3]

It was as much a message about knowing yourself, as don’t doubt yourself. That’s why to me this is a message about confidence. And this takes me to my next theme which I have framed as ‘constancy’.


Constancy is very like parenting. People, including children, need to know what to expect of you; and even before that, you need to know what to expect of yourself. I describe this as developing an inner gyroscope, it’s a point of moral equilibrium where you know that a decision is correct: your set of principles against which you can defend your judgments even to yourself.

Roslyn Atkinson reflected a similar sense when she said later in that same speech that ‘you can only succeed in life by being true to yourself and to your own beliefs, principles and manner of dealing with the world’.[4] That’s what I call the inner gyroscope. It drives constancy in your approach to all manner of things. I put that into practice in a personal mantra of ‘doing each day well’. It is part of your resilience strategies, applied daily.

At the AWL conference in Perth, WA lawyer Elizabeth Heenan and I did a joint presentation on the theme of resilience, which we called ‘Resilience Recipes’.[5] ‘Resilience’ is a marvellous word. It comes from French and Latin roots, both of which mean to leap back and recoil. The modern meanings are pretty much the same. ‘Pollyanna’ is often used for resilient women. The other image I have in mind is one of those smiling blow-up clowns with sand to weight their base — if you hit them they bounce right back up, still with the smile fixed on their faces. But above all, I think resilience is something you do, not something you have.It is crucial to constancy.

And the more your gyroscope is tested, the more confident you will grow in your own judgment; and others will see that constancy in you, which is crucial to good leadership. It also generates respect. People may not like your decisions all the time — but so long as you know and feel confident in the ‘rightness’ of what you are doing, it helps the doing each day well to continue over a lifetime.

I will add a bit of supplementary advice, or a PS, here. Really tough decisions are usually accompanied by what I call the ‘foetal 48 hours’. Any hard decision requires a moment of agony. But from long experience I can say that that agony is good; it is a formative part of the decision-making process. The foetal part of it only lasts about 48 hours. Suddenly, a moment of clarity — and it’s behind you. If you build that into your thinking: it’s only going to last 48 hours and then it’ll be fine, it’s a good way of building your resilience strategies.

And there will be times when you have to make toughdecisions; where it is utterly ‘your call’ as a senior person. With all the management training in the world, and lessons in dealing with difficult people, at times empathy runs out and hierarchy, frankly, just kicks in. This is where you will need both your inner gyroscopic and faith in the foetal 48 hours!

Related to constancy is patience.


Patience may be a virtue, but patience, quite frankly, is a challenge. It’s also an essential element in time management. And time management involves managing expectations.

We can punish ourselves with a sense of the weight of expectations and, in its wake, a sense of failure or at least disappointment for not meeting them can be profound. In my experience, a great deal of expectation is self-inflicted (certainly in the academic world). Managing the expectations you put on yourself and those of others is essentially about prioritising, and understanding what the bounds of ‘normal’ are in the particular area of concern. Here, seeking advice can help: clearly understanding where the priorities of, say, the firm and the clients lie, so you can deliver the best value. Asking such questions also shows an intellectual maturity and sensitivity to practice needs.

When you are an ambitious person, you may feel that everyone else is doing so much more than you are and you are being left behind. My advice? Get over it. This is normal. These feelings don’t go away; they only get managed. Doing lists and prioritising have worked for me. But of course my experience is not necessarily transposable to your lives. After only one year of holding a practising certificate, my career path shifted into the academic world, with a different set of priorities from those set by clients. The shift for me was after my first child was born.

For many women their stories, as was mine, are intertwined with a very simple fact: someone has to look after the kids. In July 2012 my attention was drawn to the article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All’, in The Atlantic monthly.[6] I would reframe that: the issue is not so much the idea of women ‘not having it all’, but both a consideration of what the ‘it’ is; and a timeline for what ‘having it all’ means — but not all at once.

Patience over the long-term is applied in the ‘doing each day well’, particularly where children are concerned. So many things come up all the time. Children get sick constantly till they are five years of age. Later in life you might have elderly parents who need a lot of attention. Your partner may get sick. You may get sick. All sorts of things happen in life, which is part of the normal part of just being human. All you can manage is one day at a time, and so long as you do each day well, then a lifetime of days is constructed and careers are made of doing each day on that basis.

However, I should add that women’s careers, in the main, are never linear; they are never straightforward. I’m not speaking about everyone’s careers but, as a generalisation, about many of the women I have known, and many who are in extraordinary places in their lives. Their careers, their pathways in life have not been straightline, ‘traintrack’ ones, more a series of zig-zag lines all over the place. They only makes sense backwards. Looking forwards, women’s careers are rarely straightforward.

So bringing that down to the personal level. You may have a sense of where you would like to be in five years as an aspirational goal — indeed it is good if you are thinking ahead like this as part of setting your mid-term priorities. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t get there, so long as you get to a somewhere which is a position where you wake up everyday feeling happy to do what you are doing. You don’t want to be in a position where you wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to go to school mummy!’; and if you are in that place you are in the wrong place and you need to change it.

Like Anne-Marie Slaughter, women like me owe our freedoms to women who broke the ice for us — and here I count people like the wonderful Patron of the NSW WLA, the Hon Jane Matthews AC; the Hon Elizabeth Evatt AC, first Chief Justice of the Family Court; and the Hon Mary Gaudron AC, the first woman on the High Court, to name but a few — and then, gradually, made it ‘normal’ to expect to be successful professionals and to expect to go as far as we want to in our professional, and personal, lives. Having ‘it’ all, however, is very personal.

Anne-Marie Slaughter found the academic path suited her best. So did I — for much of my professional life before I took up my ALRC Commission, now nine and half years ago. It gave us both a semblance of control over own schedules that enabled us to manage what we felt were our ‘pulls’ of family and, at the same time, to manage to engage with our careers and to maintain the relationships, professional and personal, that were sustaining. Her message resonated with me and my own experiences — the issue as we each lived it in our lives. I accidentally fell into a career that worked around my children as well as providing me with fulfilment (and fun). The big change was when I went into my government role and I continue to love each day.

And the kids do grow up (although then they create a whole other set of issues of their own to deal with — including having your grandchildren, and that involves another kind of patience altogether).

Before I leave the ‘patience’ theme I will add a ‘PS’, actually two. The first is learning how to listen. The second, patience is especially important in responding to certain emails. If an email fires you up, makes you angry, gets under your skin, wait. Write the reply you feel at the first rush, but do not send it. Write it to yourself, in case you accidentally hit the send button accidentally. Everything you write has to be testable against that inner set of principles and also defensible to others — another example of constancy. The angriest emails are the ones that are in the bin; and writing them has a remarkable way of getting them out of your system. If you are not sure how to respond, quietly consult your mentors (that by now you have established) and add in a dash of the 48 hour rule.

Having got that one out of my system, let me return to the positive, and the secret of encouragement.


Encouragement starts with a greeting. I start everyday with walking around and greeting everyone in my office. I am fortunate that I can do this, I have a small office. But greetings can happen in lots of ways: it’s about knowing people; valuing them. (I also eat my lunch in the tearoom, not hidden away in my office).

One thing I am particularly proud of is how I have sought to encourage others in their careers through active mentoring. I see performance reviews as opportunities for performance development, not management. I am so proud to see the progress of people who I have had the privilege to supervise — even if, and probably especially if, it means they get terrific appointments elsewhere.

While encouragement is respectful, there are times when you have to deliver bad news. I consider that the character of a leader is demonstrated in the way they convey bad news to a person who has ‘failed’ or missed out on something. Good leaders take personal responsibility for conveying the message and turning it into a message of encouragement. Conversely, I consider that the character of a person is demonstrated in how they take the message of missing out. ‘Spitting the dummy’ tells you a lot about a person, rather than seeking to understand the message and to learn from it.

A word about conveying messages in the performance review context: always start with an affirmation of the good. And give the person the opportunity to self-assess — what do they think about the year or period under review, where do they think they could have done things better? It’s amazing how much that opens up the discussion about improvement. Then it is a shared conversation — a respectful dialogue that they have opened up — about performance development.

In management roles a key part of encouragement is to set up and nurture opportunities for colleagues to engage with each other, where conversations start and relationships build, and best where they don’t even notice it. Which brings me to: morning tea and chocolate.

I am a huge fan of morning tea. People come because they know they don’t have to stay long, they will get something to eat (the low blood sugar elevenses), children are at school or childcare, and people only have to say a few words to each other. And they don’t even notice. It is the power of the kitchen — and it is very engaging.[7] It certainly became part of my own style about twenty years ago.

I confess I have added another aspect to this: the lolly jar. It began as a secret drawer with a stash of things in it, mainly chocolate, that anyone in the office could visit if the ‘need’ arose — particularly around 3 or 4pm. And it grew from there. It is now a re-purposed biscuit jar, in the shape of a fish, donated by a former staff member on her retirement. Each time I do a biggish shop at the supermarket I add in bags of things, mainly small wrapped things, like Milky Bars and Cherry Ripes, Smarties, basically grazing across the whole chocolate range (and liquorice allsorts for me). And I keep the jar stocked. Overzealous users feel pangs of guilt from time to time and add contributions of their own, but mostly it is just me. It is powerfully galvanizing.

And so, too, is lunch — and laughing, which is my final message.


Laugh a lot—it’s infectious, healing and wonderfully engaging!

Humour can also be used, at times with caution. I commend to you Roslyn Atkinson’s speech where she gives an extraordinary account of a moment where she used humour and she was a bit nervous as she used humour in a cross-cultural context. She was part of a group of international lawyers making presentations to a group of Iraqi Judges, Prosecutors and Judicial Investigators on international human rights law and its relevance to the conduct of criminal cases in Iraq — a situation where caution about using humour particularly where it also involved translators was appropriate.

One of the younger male judges was very confrontational in the question he asked of me about the differences between men and women. He asserted that in his culture and tradition, men and women were regarded as quite different and that, as men were bigger and stronger than women, they could never be regarded as equals. I answered his question by saying that it was true that some men are bigger and stronger than some women – indeed it may be thought that many men are bigger and physically stronger than many women – but if that was the case, we could leave the construction of roads, bridges and buildings to the men and they could leave the thinking, judging and ruling to us. There was a pause while it was translated into Arabic. I must admit I had time to regret using humour across languages, cultures and religions. However I need not have worried. The response was one of delight and amusement and then an open, less inhibited discussion about the rights of women.[8]

I tend to fall into humourous moments accidentally and have to warn people of my tendency ‘to metaphor’. I take down the funny things people say at team meetings and recap on them at appropriate moments.

Don’t take yourself too seriously — when asked by Richard Ackland in his ‘On the Couch’ series in Justinian, ‘If you were a foodstuff, what would you be?’, Jane Matthews said she would be a sweet potato; Anna Katzmann, a passionfruit; and Fiona McLeod SC, the President-elect of the Law Council of Australia, said ‘A nectarine, or one of those alien life forms in my fridge.’[9] When he put me ‘on the couch’, my reply to the same question was: Iodised salt. Salt because it is the great preserver and improves taste; iodine because our brains need it and my mother keeps telling me we don’t have enough in Australia.[10]

Love lunch, love your mum!

*      My Professorial title belongs to Macquarie University. Previously on leave from the University I am now an Adjunct Professor.

[1]   By Angela Priestly. 2nded 2016.

[2]   Women’s Speaker Series, Department of Defence, http://archive.sclqld.org.au/judgepub/2015/
_medium=email&utm_campaign=20150223_QLU accessed 3 August 2016, 6.

[3]   Ibid, 7.

[4]   Ibid, 9. Justice Atkinson is one that expresses engaging as including being ‘generous’—by active mentoring, but also by looking out for colleagues and caring about their welfare, particularly in times of crisis or stress: 12.

[5]   My presentation is included on the ALRC website: ‘Resilience recipes’.

[6]   http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/.

[7]   The idea of the ‘kitchen’ became the focus of a presentation that turned into an article: ‘The Academy as Kitchen: ‘Mrs Beeton comes to Law School’ (2005) 39(3) The Law Teacher 243–258.

[8]   Atkinson speech, 10.

[9]   http://www.justinian.com.au/featurettes/fiona-mcleod.html accessed 3 August 2016.