Everything I have done throughout my career has some kind of purpose. My professional background has been relatively varied but always with the theme of improvement and reform. I started my career straight out of school at a law firm called Maddocks. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life at that point in time. I studied my Arts degree whilst completing an administrative traineeship in property and construction. I then went into the Victorian public service to do graduate program. After it finished I swore I would never go back into the bureaucracy, as its limitations challenged everything in me about getting things done.
I took the role at the Property Council of Australia as Policy and Public Affairs Manager in the Victorian office. It was a big step up for me and a few people actually said to me, ‘I don’t know whether you are ready for this.’ But my boss, Jennifer Cunich who is still the Victorian Executive Director, saw something in me. She was a fantastic guide and teacher through that role.
The then planning minister, Matthew Guy, asked me to work for him on a number of specific policy reform issues particularly around development contributions and Plan Melbourne. I wasn’t in it for the politics, I was in it to learn from him. To be in the room where the decisions were being made. To see the difference between influencing the decisions and making them. I realised at that point, I actually enjoyed being the influencer. Policy reform from my perspective became the goal.
I started as the Victorian CEO for the Urban Development Institute of Australia in January 2015. It has been both challenging and really rewarding at the same time. I believe when they recruited me, key Board members saw someone who would, in a professional and respectful way, challenge the status quo of both the political decision makers and the industry itself. It was a huge responsibility and still is. It’s not just the fact that I personally epitomised a difference from those who had gone before me but also that I don’t shy away from having difficult conversations – they are where the real gems of reform are found.
One of the key challenges to growing the Institute has been to redefine the organisation, whilst still maintaining the respect for where it has come from. Our membership is strong, but it could be stronger. Our activities are good, but they could be better. This year has all been about doing what we do better and getting ready for growth over the next five years. The challenge for all membership groups is that people have different expectations of what you are there to do. If you are not serving exactly what they would like you to be serving, they can be very vocal about it. But the key to success is true representation of the industry, not the individual.
There are a couple of things that guide me and my team. One of them is currency. We always have to be on top of the issues that are hot, as well as driving issues where we want to be setting the agenda. In addition to that, it’s making sure the organisation is nimble enough to be able to respond, move and flex as the issues change around us. It is one thing that I have seen in other industry organisations, which can be to their detriment; that the size and scale of their organisations prevent them from being nimble. That is something that I say to my staff. We want to be first. We want to be the best and we want to be the most responsive. We want to do it with consistency, integrity, respect and honesty. I don’t see us growing the organisation to the point of making us slow. It’s an entrepreneurial kind of principle. You have just got to be able to stay responsive.
The biggest problems facing the Victorian property and construction industry are both pipeline and investor sentiment. We saw the Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, introduce interim planning controls over the entire CBD earlier this year. The Government did so without any industry consultation or knowledge both from our organisation and others. That’s the kind of activity or action that says ‘Melbourne’s not open right now, we are looking to make it hard for you.’
There is growing investor nervousness about Victoria’s long term economic fundamentals and that’s a real worry. It’s not anything to do with what political party is in power, it’s the fact that investment and capital is mobile. Melbourne is competing on a global scale and right now we are giving very little reason to come here and invest in the longer term. Population growth and making sure the housing sector remains strong will be vital to our economy’s strength in the coming decades.
There is a mindset that needs to be challenged when you are having conversations about female participation. No one is going to fix it for you. No one is going to make you succeed for you. You have to get out there and give that a run yourself. Women do need to make the best of what they have at their disposal and not be afraid to do so. A part of that is empowering women to do so within organisational structures. If you don’t ask you don’t get. If you don’t chase something you’re still further away from it. I think there is a little bit of an onus on us to not shy away from doing that.
As the CEO, I don’t influence board director nominations. The membership is in charge of voting for that. When we are in a position to say that there are a greater amount of women on our board, I think we can say we are better representative of the industry we work in.
Always remain in control of your work life balance. Don’t give that control up to work. You might think that work is taking over, but you let it take over. You have got to be ruthless. Work the way it works for you. I know that not possible in every role, but for me personally; I value health, fitness, family and I really really value my work. If it’s not working for you, do your best to change it because you will only be a better employee, or a better employer, if your life and your work are in balance.
I have had the benefit of being very well mentored over my career. Without a doubt my dad probably been the biggest influence throughout my life. He trains people to be leaders in what they do. His view of the world, the value that he places on relationships and understanding people as individuals, is invaluable. How do you inspire people to sign up to what you are talking about? How do you influence an outcome through relationships and by activating the network you have around you? It is something that I have held pretty closely, the importance of relationships and how they will see you through over time.
I would tell my child to be brave, respect other people and don’t be afraid to challenge what you think needs changing.
We met Danni for the first time at a cafe near her home in Richmond. We walked away in awe thinking ‘What were we doing with our lives!’. Here was this woman, our age. Already a CEO. Wise beyond her years both professionally and emotionally. An expecting mother to be. And absolutely amazing to be around. But this is when it hits us the most….this is why we started Gazella. Why we had to bring you Danni’s story. She left school a little lost and unsure on her direction in life. Yet she finds her path through sheer hard work, a pinch of tenacity and a dash of positive influences. She’s an overwhelming success. But it’s also a drive to help others find value in what they do that sets Danni apart. We photographed Danni five weeks after her little son Jackson was born. He is the most scrumptious little fellow! Already off back to work the following week, she blew us away again with her positive outlook and her generosity of time and spirit. We wish her all the best in her endeavors during 2016.