Cressida Wall / Chief Executive Officer / Office of Projects Victoria  / 
Slightly Rare

story / Interview / August 29, 2021

I am one of those, slightly rare, not unique, people who has worked half my life in the government and half in the private sector so I do see myself as a bit of a translator between those two sides. Both sides don’t understand each other very well; they don’t always speak the same language. The key issue for me in doing that translation and getting good outcomes, is that you must have empathy for each side and try to deliver a result that meets their needs.

I think it’s important to acknowledge your own privilege. I’m a white, middle-class woman and come from a long line of people who are tertiary educated, so I had a lot of advantages growing up. I’ve faced a bunch of different challenges as a person and as a woman but I had a lot to meet those challenges.

I am a Commercial litigator originally; I studied as a lawyer then I worked in politics for a long time. I am originally from South Australia, I grew up in the Barossa Valley. How far back are we going? I found changing States a challenge – that’s long behind me now but Melbourne is a formidable place when you first come here. I got the West Gate and the Bolte Bridges confused once! So embarrassing.

I worked in politics and then came across to Victoria; then I worked for Steve Bracks and Tim Pallas when he was the Minister for Roads and Ports; then for Premier Brumby. I then went into the private sector and worked in private equity and infrastructure. At the Property Council, I was the Executive Director, which means I had responsibility for advocating on behalf of the industry to government and to the public with my (amazing) team.

Now I work at the Office of Projects Victoria. OPV has responsibility for project efficiency within the Victorian Government and that means we try and make projects ‘go better’ by monitoring the projects and working out where there are systemic issues that the government could be doing better. We focus on projects where we can have the most impact, where we can make the most difference.

Coming into Government again from the Property Council: when you’re in the property world, your deliverables are quite clear – although of course there are always hurdles! But in government, the issues that you have to manage are 10 times that number – i.e. What do Victorians want? What is a good use of money relative to other priorities Victorians have? What is the right environmental, social and whole-of-economy outcome? There are so many factors at play. I think that is a fascinating difference between the private sector and the public sector. We have 25 people in the team but are currently growing quickly so we can have more impact.

The actual change process for growth and getting the culture right is really important. A lot of people talk about culture and I have definitely made mistakes on culture before. This time, I have sat with my team to discuss what sort of people we want to hire and how to keep everyone involved. We have a really happy team and we want to preserve that.

In my experience, diversity doesn’t happen by itself. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. You have to do things to change the room. When you mandate change, it ruffles feathers at the start, but when you change the dynamics of the room (to have a more diverse group in decision making) it becomes easier and natural, and hopefully you never go back to where it was.

I take an attitude that you have to keep working hard. There is no substitute for hard work to overcome challenges. But also, sometimes you must accept that challenges are not about you and no amount of hard work can change other people if they don’t want to change.

What we know about the pandemic, is that it has impacted women worse than it has impacted men – women have been worse hit in redundancies, worse hit in terms of taking on the workload being at home. So how do you support women? There’s a lot going on in Government to address women’s economic inequality. In the property industry, the Property Council has huge momentum in terms of its initiatives, like promoting women’s voices on panels, Girls in Property, and 500 Women in Property, to name a few. There’s always more to do.

The pandemic has been awful in so many ways but it has also had some interesting disruptions for older style family models. For example, the tendency for people to assume women are the primary care giver. It’s an assumption that binds men and women. COVID-19 has allowed some men to have more of a chance to see the day to day childcare, a chance they couldn’t always take before. Previously, there were a lot of bosses who talked the talk on flexibility, but couldn’t imagine how it would work and then suddenly… they had to.  And in some cases, amazingly, we have seen productivity go up, flexibility was not outside our reach. The truth is, there were always dogs wandering into the room and children asking for choc chip biscuits but we didn’t see them on a Zoom or Teams call. Now we do, and it changes the dynamic, which is great.

One thing I miss about being in lock-down… I am always ridiculously busy, always out. It has been nice having a break and having a rest in the evenings. But I simultaneously miss going out, seeing friends, grabbing a drink. I used to think I was in the middle between introvert and extrovert, but I definitely miss people! I feed off the energy of others; I’m an extrovert. I also really miss hugs!

My father who I admired very much, used to quote from a poem:

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

What he was saying was, “Hurry up! You’ve got to get moving; there will come a time where you can’t do anything anymore.” That’s the quote that really sticks with me!

 

 

We caught up with Cressida a while ago and again between lock-downs (I think it was between lock-down four and five but who can track time anymore…) Cressida is a brilliant person. Charismatic. Interesting. Funny. She has also carved a well-earned and extremely important place in the industry, and has become an important role model for both women and men who aspire to leadership roles that span the private and public sector. We feel very lucky to have her on the blog. And we hope she is very much surviving lock-down 6.0! J, N & D. xx

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