Start, it’s never too late, says Chloe Munro about life changes as diverse as long distance running, superannuation and marriage.
This ‘serial’ non-executive director, consultant and mentor (whose impressive career at executive and now board level in both the public and private sectors bristles with the sorts of leadership insights and experiences people pay to listen to at white tablecloth lunches), had a superannuation she admits was in need of aggressive attention to get it up to scratch and a lifestyle that required the same.
Couple that workaholic lifestyle with ignored feelings of perpetual exhaustion, which, she explains: “I was just used to, but which were eventually diagnosed as anaemia and solved through an hysterectomy – it changed my life and if I’d paid more attention I could have been fixed up much sooner”, and there’s no wonder the prospect of walking at altitude on a family holiday in Bhutan had Chloe concerned about her physical ability.
Having never in her life been ‘sporty’ – climbing trees as a child growing up in Dundee, Scotland, riding her bike a little bit and pottering in her garden, were as energetic as Chloe got – she has progressed one small step at a time (and beyond Bhutan) to her recent personal best, a half marathon.
“Eighteen months ago I couldn’t have run half a kilometre, let alone a half marathon. The idea that you need to have been super-fit all your life if you’re going to run, or you’re condemned to a job you hate because it’s too late to find and do something you like, is not the way we should think.
“Take my aunt for example, starting a teaching career in her fifties and married for the first time in her sixties,” says Chloe, by way of further explanation. “It’s all about realising it’s never too late and it’s your life in which to make your choices about giving something a go, or not.”
Chloe Munro has long worked in what she terms “network” industries, an arena that includes areas such as water, energy and telecommunications. She loves nothing better than the nexus where commercial expertise meets public policy and is currently Chair of the National Water Commission (NWC), a statutory authority reporting to the Council of Australian Government (COAG). The NWC’s role is to advance water reform under the National Water Initiative and it operates in what Chloe terms “the high policy universe”, covering all aspects of sustainable water management, including the hot topic of the moment: coal seam gas exploration and the potential effect it may have on ground water.
Chloe is also the independent Chairman of AquaSure: the consortium representing the equity investors in the Public Private Partnership building Victoria’s desalination plant.
Explaining the role of this special purpose vehicle brings the economics of water into stark relief. Like the “waist in the hour glass”, AquaSure sits, strategically guiding the outcomes between the giant interests at work in a partnership that is making drinking water for urban dwellers and there’s no getting away from the fact it comes at a cost.
The two roles Chloe views as complementary, and she enjoys them both for their complexity of thought and decisiveness of action.
Outside these roles, Chloe is also a non-executive director of Hydro Tasmania; is leading a review of the capacity of the Bureau of Meteorology to respond to extreme weather events; is a member of the advisory boards of FutureEye, a consultancy specialising in social licence to operate, and Lucy Guerin Inc, a contemporary dance company. And just in case there’s any time left unaccounted for in the schedule, Chloe mentors, consults, contributes to think tanks and workshops on topics such as business sustainability and effective leadership, gardens and, most recently, runs.
“My career has been diverse but there are threads which characterise it: the interface of business and public policy and, for want of a better term, ‘sustainability’. These characterising threads form a pattern, which I’d best describe as ‘how do we, for the long term, arrange things so that we achieve the best social, economic and environmental outcomes’, and that pattern has got me interested in topics like Climate Change; energy and water are relevant to that,” says Chloe, who goes on to explain that she’s always been rather fearless about the new.
Her fearlessness she puts down to a childhood spent “moving around”, so she was not used to being part of the established circle: “I had to find my own way in, something I didn’t find difficult. I was very self-reliant, almost like an only child. I was also a voracious reader – internal but not solitary – and in many ways I formed strong deep-rooted relationships with the characters and situations I was reading about as readily as with real life.”
When it comes to taking opportunities, Chloe believes she has chosen logical but not prescribed paths, and that like most people, her career has not been about saying, ‘this is how and where I am going to end up.’
“I could have easily gone off on a different pathway and that’s something I say a lot when I am speaking to people about career. For some people whose profession – what they do – is very vocational, they will start at A and progress through in a very linear way.
“Most people are not like this. They have very different paths they can take and every decision changes the outcomes dramatically. Getting where you want to be is a combination of inclination and opportunity. That’s my experience.”
Certainly, for Chloe, creating a career also requires value alignment; being very clear about knowing whose interests you serve while mastering the greater good and having basic principles as a guide that sit happily with who you are.
“The dignity of labour, financial independence, the creation of value through effort, and ensuring that the use of resources achieves beneficial outcomes, these are very important things to me,” explains Chloe, acknowledging that expressing your values has the potential to sound highfalutin.
“I’m not saying I want to work for the greater good of all mankind. My horizons are much lower than that, but I like to think that someone or something somewhere else is better off than it would have been because of my action.”
Fearing generalised, motherhood style statements, Chloe is adamant that effective leaders must provide meaning: “The best leaders provide a strong focus by providing a sense of purpose. Where people are disaffected and organisations become ineffective it’s usually because no one can quite see the point of what’s expected of them. Lots of work is boring and tedious – doing it has to be for something worthwhile. Good leaders create meaning and purpose, following on from that there’s a huge array of ways to give effect to that meaning.”
For much of her career Chloe has been the only woman in the room and there’s little sign this will change especially at senior level if her “vanishing middle” theory is correct. It is a mystery to her why Australia looks so poor when it comes to diversity because the number of women coming through from university into the workforce has grown dramatically. But Chloe has a theory for a hiccup that will have long term effects on productivity.
She believes our focus on the top, has meant we’ve failed to see that it is mid-level participation by women that’s disappearing.
“Somewhere along the way,” says Chloe, “women are not staying the course, and it can’t just be because they’re having babies. By the time you reach the succession bench for senior positions, women have already dropped away. We need to focus on why this is happening.”
Perhaps, thinks Chloe, the wider range of responsibilities taking women away from the workplace mean they often don’t get – or want – to participate in the informal networking around workplace that position you better for career progression. Unconscious bias and bullying also discourage rather than encourage women as they can men.
“When I was working in the public service, it was men who were often the most grateful for the ‘people friendly’ policies government has done so much to encourage and develop. Granted the permission and right to have something outside their career and actively encouraged to use policies (which the private sector has done little to develop because it has depended on higher pay structures for compensation), men are happy to take up the option,” says Chloe, intimating that those attitudes in the whole workplace would benefit us all.