Maria Atkinson Director Maria Atkinson Consultancy  / 
Live a Big Life

story / Interview / October 20, 2015

I love learning. I want to be contemporary and remain relevant. My work is broken up into three parts; running my consultancy company, investing in start-up businesses that are designed to have a positive impact and the third part involves sitting on boards or advisory councils -the majority of which are non-profit organisations. It is this part of my ‘portfolio of interests’ that feeds my soul. I meet amazing people. It’s my injection of great thinkers, complex problems and learning.

I started in the industry as the Environmental Manager on the Olympic Village with Lend Lease Civil and Civic. It was a project with international environmental obligations. Basically, I inherited a list of environmental commitments that had to be translated for the construction industry and communicated to lots of stakeholders -because the world was watching that we delivered on our environmental promises! At this time in my career, I had some great mentoring around communications from a group of woman who taught me how to present and also to speak with the media. I also had beautiful male mentors who allowed me to fail and learn. They gave me lots of support and feedback. I was exposed to an academy culture; full of inspirational learning. The Sydney Olympic Village was an amazing project and team. But it was also brutal at times. There were people on site that I really clashed with and I had to learn the art and practice of diplomatic negotiations. I learnt how to ‘win-win’, and how to give people a door to exit by in any tough negotiation or interaction. After the Green Olympics  I co-founded  the Green Building Council of Australia. Back then, there was no real roadmap in our  industry on what was ‘green’. We saw it as an opportunity and it seemed like a natural progression for me.

As a  consultancy firm, you wake up with this daunting responsibility of generating income. The firm is still client focused, it’s still global. Having understood a complicated enterprise like Lend Lease, I can advise clients, governments and businesses as well as not-for-profits on how to increase revenue and grow markets, but I try to work on projects that result in a positive environmental or social impact.

What is changing is there is a new economic model. Business models that have been in place for a long time are changing. For-profit businesses are tackling social and environmental issues, charities are developing sustainable business models, and governments are forging market-based solutions for the delivery of services. In all of this change, a different model of enterprise is emerging. The ‘for-benefit’ organisation is evolving, and it is reshaping the future of capitalism – in particular the competitive building sector.

I’m a true believer in the dynamic of diversity. Take the typical Australia Day barbeque, where there are men on one side and women on the other. The male conversation is very different to the female conversation. The wonderful conversation, the one that I am interested in, is the transitional space, where men and women blend and something special comes from the effort to talk with a diverse group that’s trying to find common ground. We urgently need our boards to be reflective of sustainability and have 50-50 women in leadership. We need multiple perspectives that challenge the common assumptions that influence our decision-making. We need to get future-fit. To be future-fit, boards and management teams require a new set of competencies that extend beyond the traditional financial and legal acumen, compliance and management skills that currently dominate Australian businesses. There are skills like having empathy, being a systems thinker who can join the dots on key trends, being contemporary and comfortable with technology, generating profit from positive social and environmental impacts – these skills should be found on our leading company boards. I think we really have to obtain that dynamic diversity.

The flexibility of the workforce is what your generation is demanding and it’s not just females wanting to change how they work. Can two people do the same job? Why not be open to two candidates presenting for the one role? Each could work three days a week and the employer gets six days of productivity, with a day of overlapping to be seamless. I think this kind of disruption and innovation is required to create interesting flexible work environments. Something this simple could enable women who have families or have care-giving responsibilities, to get back into the workforce.

2015 is the year of Wood and The Goat in Chinese astrology. Sixty years ago when it was the same combination  – fifty counties came together to form the United Nations. It was the first time there was international collaboration. We need to celebrate more of the good, the caring and the sensitivity. It’s time for feminine traits to be celebrated. I have to be optimistic. For women to really participate in business, feminine values have to be reflected in the business.

I actually think that if you want to contribute, you put your hand up. It is not always about you, your learning or doing. You’re putting your hand up to support someone or something. You should never not put your hand up.

In the US, actions on climate change are key national priorities. Cities like Washington, Boston and New York, states like California and Oregon, are all focusing on the opportunities from the built environment to respond to climate change and energy consumption. Despite being a highly litigious society, the US Green Building Council has come out strong; challenging non-competitive legislation to advocate a call for non-toxic products and materials and highlight wellbeing impacts of our industry’s supply chains. They are exposing the unspoken issues of what construction workers and tradies get exposed to and how buildings must support wellness and good health through design, specifications and operations. Sadly I feel like we have globally regressed from where Australia’s clean and green reputation was ten years ago. The US seems to be more progressive. However, with our new national focus on cities we’ve got the opportunity to lead again.

I don’t think we talk a lot about failure. In engineering, you don’t improve something until you break it. It is the basis of design improvement. In science, observing failures in systems is also how we learn. Australia doesn’t have a mature culture of accepting failure and celebrating success, or sharing the learning from risk taking, or from framing problems in new ways to make original solutions. We need to share failure and be transparent about what we know, to invent the new.

I had a coach who used to be an elite athlete himself. He taught me how to manage my time effectively. His important message to me was; no athlete improves their time without rest. If they don’t take time out, there’s no improvement in their performance. Working harder is not smarter. It really takes courage! I generally look at emails morning and afternoon, not in between. I turn off at 8pm at night. The typical cycle is; you’re in meetings a lot of the time, then you’ve got actions out of these meetings, then you work weekends because you think ‘I can clear all my  to-do-list’… but you don’t. I now colour code my diary. If I see green, I don’t get stressed because I know that’s ‘me’ time. I allocate time for strategic thinking and learning. I think managing the stress is really important, because someone is going to be asking something of you twenty-four-seven. There is also stress in entrepreneurial businesses – it’s the stress of working in unknown environments. Recognising this anxiety and using it for creative thinking is the secret to success and wellbeing.

I was taught to communicate differently in a male dominated industry. I was taught simple communication techniques; like if I was to speak when around a board room table, then the first thing is I would do is lean in, or place my arm on the table… a physical signal, then I’d pause before I’d speak. I’ve been taught to be an effective communicator and I’ve learnt skills to be heard because it’s hard to be heard when you are talking in a large group -especially if they are all men. Learn how to stand out in your environment! Don’t become the male, but recognise that we are different and make the effort to communicate so that you are heard and are successful in your communications. One idea is ask a male friend to help you. Say ‘I want to say this…’ and they’ll go ‘What are you talking about?!’ and get them to say it back to you in the way they would say it, then try it with your own style and panache! Because sometimes in our male dominated industry we make sounds only dogs hear. However, if we had 50-50 gender diversity in our industry you wouldn’t need these tips!

My mother is an inspiring, amazing woman who has always been  interested in what I’d do, and still encourages me to live a big life. She has never given me a frame of reference on what I had to do or be, she’s always enthusiastic and yet there when I falter. I’m lucky to have that kind of a Mum.


Neither of us here at Gazella, know how to express how inspired we are by Maria. As one of the first people we contacted to be part of the project, she jumped on board with complete gusto. Based in Sydney, she kindly made time for us when she was down in Melbourne. Our first lunch meeting at Supernormal, had us both in complete awe. In Maria, you find experience, knowledge, and professionalism, but it’s tethered to a beautiful sweetness, understanding and a passion to make change. It’s so rare to uncover someone so successful, yet so centred. We really hope that we have conveyed the wonderful woman that Maria is. We are positive she will remain an advocate and a beacon for social and environmental change in the years to come.

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