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02 June 2011
Position: GHD Manager, Stakeholder Engagement & Social Planning; Chair, Women in GHD
Best financial decision: “Working hard and keeping a good eye on outgoings. I’m currently rebuilding and starting to consolidate. The unpredictability of life and not knowing what is coming next makes me realise you need to be prepared. With four kids you learn to be careful, but we don’t miss out on too much.”
Jill Hannaford describes herself as an open book: a ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get style of person.’
A longtime employee of the engineering, architecture and environmental consulting company GHD, Jill joined the company in 1989, initially in transport, before quickly moving into environmental planning.
GHD is a multidisciplinary company, providing consultancy across five major market segments: water, energy & resources, environment, property & buildings and transportation.
“Doing environmental impact assessment work, which I enjoyed,” says Jill, “I realised my passion was for communication and people and I followed it. No matter how technically brilliant the projects were, if local communities didn’t understand them, and if the project, no matter how technically sophisticated it was, wasn’t going to be a fit with the local communities affected by it, then there was a problem.”
They were problems with the potential to be costly and time consuming and definitely not best for local communities who could get caught up in uncertainty and lack of a decision or direction.
The company’s work, most often done at the design and planning phases, also involves the construction phase, which is when communities feel the ‘actuality’ of a project. Jill’s position as Manager of Stakeholder Engagement (community consultation) requires her and her team to interpret the technical aspects of the projects to enable communities to understand and connect with them as well as pave the way for community input.
“I am a strategic thinker,” says Jill. “I can see where things fit in the big picture, which is why I could see the necessity for setting up the community consultation business within GHD.”
In earlier years, before she was even 30 and when no one was formally practicing much along the community engagement lines in large infrastructure areas in Australia, Jill had pinpointed its worth. She worked hard to influence a then quite traditional approach at GHD, that there were more innovative ways to deeper engage people and communities, and to achieve better project outcomes.
Her hard work did not go unrecognised, leading her to win a young achievers award which she used to go to the US and UK to research what was being done there.
More than a decade later and Jill admits that maintaining this momentum is still an ongoing part of her job – she sees it as a life-long journey and a challenge that she loves. Not because the efficacy of stakeholder engagement hasn’t been proved time and again, but because “you can’t expect technically trained people who have chosen their career because of their own passion to instinctively think like someone who has studied humanities.” That said, Jill enjoys working with technically minded people.
“I appreciate their pragmatic and problem solving approach. They genuinely want to make the places in which we live better,” she believes.
It is also her passion for people that has made her focus on the ‘Women in GHD’ group, and the women-in-technical-careers cause.
Many women won’t consider their chances of promotion until they feel they can do 100 percent of the job. For women who are technically trained, where they are all about getting it right, Jill believes “going in when you are only say 70 percent assured of your competencies” becomes an even greater obstacle to progression.
Many times she has mentored women, asking them: what’s the worst thing that can go wrong (outside of an accident) in stepping up to the plate for a promotion? It’s why her other gig, chairing Women in GHD, an initiative to support, mentor and advocate for women in the business, is very important to her.
“There are many more women in the organisation now and they are expecting and achieving a lot more than women in previous eras would have believed possible. Our numbers are really good in terms of gender balance...yet there is a drop in middle to upper level management,” explains Jill.
“Like many organisations, we lose women around their early 30s for various reasons, including a desire to go off and pursue other careers. By offering as much flexibility as possible and engaging women in the business in many ways, especially if they do leave to have children for example, we have a better chance of retaining them. If they progress to the next level and above mid-management, they tend to stay. It’s something we continue to work on,” says Jill.
Jill’s own career path has served as a role model and an example for others. After each of her four children, she returned to work in some capacity, working in a flexible arrangement and remaining engaged with the firm. In 2005, she resigned to spend time with her children and was approached to facilitate training programs for Diana Ryall’s Xplore for Success, which carries out career resilience training.
“The work suited my new commitments and was fantastic because it gave me exposure to other organizations,” says Jill.
It also provided her with the chance to formalise and structure the way she behaved at work and how she managed and led: “I learnt a lot. Xplore programs are a journey rather than something you do for a couple of days and walk out at the end with a notebook.”
Instrumental in the set up of the Australian Chapter of the American based International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) some years ago; IAP2 Australia now has about 1000 members. Jill believes this and her successful efforts to apply structure and rigour to community consultation, and to clearly communicate its benefits within GHD are what have allowed her to grow the business from what was effectively a unit of 2 to about 20 in NSW.
Working predominantly with engineers (she also works with architects, scientists, project mangers, economists and planners), Jill is quick to point out she is not an engineer herself - she has an Applied Science degree and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning. But after 20 years, the ‘no frills’ nature and approach often associated with the professional stereotype has rubbed off.
Approaching the question of whether life has ever hurled a curve ball, there is a notable pause.
“I have turned out to be a resilient, glass half full person. If you had told me in early 2007 that I would be back working full time at GHD with four children and on my own, I would have thought you were mad,” admits Jill.
“I think there are systemic issues around women and work: child support and child care are in need of reform. Sometimes life makes decisions for you and you have to work with them and make the best of them and that can mean being stuck for a short time in a position that is not entirely suitable.”
But two things happened in that year: the person who took Jill’s role at GHD rang to discuss some challenges she was having with business development… and in that same week, her marriage was suddenly over. With four children including a nine week old baby and “needing to do something for herself and provide for the children”, she returned to GHD to help further strengthen the community consultation business. This she has achieved. There has been a significant increase in the community engagement business at GHD since she returned. Four years on, juggling work, home, finances and four children, Jill pushes the boundaries on the flexible work practices supported by the company. It is a successful balance.
My children; coming through the life changing events of 2007; having the perseverance and foresight to set up a community consultation business at GHD; finding I am a role model at GHD and turning the women’s issue around from being viewed as something we don’t need to being a value-add for the company.