It’s no secret that I had a country upbringing, or that I believe that growing up on a family farm and going to a school with less than 30 kids is something shaped me as a person, more so than any other experience in my life.
I talk about that part of my life openly, as well as my return to a rural area as an adult.
What I don’t usually talk about, are those other experiences in between. I usually skip over the boring part in the middle of my story, where I had my corporate career.
I guess I don’t really see it as a point of interest that I worked as a corporate governance auditor. There aren’t a bunch of humorous anecdotes about being a systems and operations specialist in a business advisory special projects team in a public accounting firm. And I can’t really entertain the masses with my transition into economic development or taking on the gig as set up CEO for Regional Development Australia for Far North Queensland and Torres Strait region.
They were all really important life experiences, but they don’t make for a great keynote or feature article, if you catch my drift.
However it hit me just recently, that those less ‘less interesting’ life experiences have actually helped me to develop great clarity around the kind of belief systems and resultant behaviours that shape people and communities.
And that experience is something I draw on every single day.
In a former life
Whilst living in Cairns I had the wonderful opportunity to be involved in an initiative of the Cairns Chamber of Commerce called ‘Young Chamber’, which had been commissioned to support and develop future leaders and business owners across the region.
I chaired that Taskforce for around five years, and became somewhat infatuated with the concept of securing the future of the region through an investment in its people.
Following that role, I naturally gravitated into the role of Mentor to up and coming community leaders and business people alike.
I’d always had a firm belief that there was little point throwing money at projects and infrastructure to develop industry if we didn’t equip the next generation with the skills that would be required to drive them forward, so mentoring seemed like an obvious thing to do.
But as I continued in various mentoring capacities, I found that I actually had a bit of a knack for helping people to recognise their unique attributes and motivating them to discover the potential that they didn’t realise was within themselves.
Mentoring ‘the next generation’ became a filter through which I viewed the world and most things within it.
Seeing through a Next Gen filter
When I returned to my roots in Eyre Peninsula in 2012 after having been away for over a decade, to find that the region had contracted significantly – many communities had reached a tipping point of no return – I saw the problem through my Next Gen filter.
I clearly remember thinking “who will pass the legacy of these regions on to the next generation, now that there is no one left to fight for them?
How will kids ever know how special these communities once were – or that they ever existed at all?”
This realisation ultimately led to me establishing a mentoring framework called Champions Academy in Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
The name Champions Academy came from a philosophy I had developed, that ‘a Champion is a person whose actions motivate and inspire others, and leave a legacy’.
At its very heart, Champions Academy is about teaching people how to become Champions of change, by helping them to recognise their human potential and motivating them to apply it to a cause greater than themselves.
It was an initiative designed to encourage people to step up, lead by example as role models and active contributors to their community.
The program began by teaching people who were already actively engaged in local sporting clubs (which I believed, were one of the last remaining incubators of community leadership in rural areas), how to reinvest in their region through a value system of volunteerism.
I set out to demonstrate the importance of giving back to community, without the expectation of receiving something in return.
The process began with the objective of teaching the vital life skill of setting aside self-serving agendas and personal biases, to effect change for a greater good.
Central to those teachings was the impact of club culture on sustainability; and the significance of the transition of knowledge, stories and values from one generation to the next.
The critical learning objective was understanding the importance of passing information on before the need for it becomes critical, to prevent not just operational club knowledge, but community legacies from being lost.
I will be forever grateful to Ports Football & Netball Club for willingly becoming the ‘guinea pig’ for the Champions Academy pilot program, and to those clubs across Eyre Peninsula who have joined the program since.
Within three years the Champions Academy sporting club program commercialised and has now transitioned into schools.
Graduates of the original Champions Academy program are now heading up the delivery of our new pilot at St Josephs School in Port Lincoln, where we have just spent the year working with 237 Year 3’s, 4’s, 9’s and 10’s.
The transition into schools has added the most interesting layer to our program design, giving us new learned experience and and an evidence base for further design and decision-making.
It has also created an impetus for the next evolution in my mentorship model.
It was a no brainer
It had always been clear to me, that instead of simply developing skills and awareness in the next generation of leaders, we as the current business and community leaders, actually have a lot to learn from them.
I firmly believe that the complex challenges that communities now face are unlikely to be solved by conventional thinking (but unfortunately, conventional thinking is what decisions are based on, much of the time).
What I mean by that is, sadly the boundaries, policies, rules and regulations that govern our business, industry and government leaders, limit individual creativity and independent thought processes.
So often, the side effect is that people’s perspectives are unconsciously framed by a collective negativity bias and pressure to conform – which is really great at helping us to identify all the reasons why something won’t work and shouldn’t be attempted, but not great for identifying solutions to overcome challenges.
We have to consciously choose not to default to that kind of thinking. And believe it or not, that is quite hard work.
In my experience, the younger the subject, the less barriers there are to ideation, innovation, iteration and having a crack at creative approaches to overcoming challenges.
With this in mind, it seems there is much that children can teach us through their perspective of problem solving.
What can we learn from kids?
In 2019 an idea that I had been percolating for some time began to take physical shape.
During my Westpac Social Change Fellowship I began to wonder “what would happen if I could teach kids some design thinking frameworks and guiding principles of entrepreneurship and innovation, and they applied it to local challenges and opportunities”?
So I decided to find out.
With the wonderful support of an inspired, motivated group Champions Academy program graduates, a $10,000 investment by the District Council of Kimba and a bunch of connections, I took a leap.
I invited 25 schools across Eyre Peninsula to send two students from every year level, from Year 3 through to Year 10, to work with a group of 27 guest mentors that I would fly into the region from my own networks, to learn basic human centred design and shared value approaches to problem solving.
These amazing guest mentors (or as I called them, ‘Game Changers’) included Westpac Scholars; Agrifutures Rural Womens Award recipients; Alumni of the Australian Financial Review Women of Influence; Churchill Fellows; Australian of the Year finalists as well as other award winning thought leaders. Among them were UX designers, space-edge computing experts, social entrepreneurs, engineers, leading business minds and trailblazing innovators from an incredible range of industries and professions.
Following a $1,000 investment from each of the Local Government Areas of Eyre Peninsula, Champions Academy’s Next Gen of Eyre was delivered: two intensive days where mixed tables of eight students worked under the guidance of a dedicated mentor, to understand what makes communities function and explore collaborative approaches to overcoming complex challenges that are impacting on Eyre Peninsula.
As a part of this process, students developed a local and global perspective of the impact of the decisions we all make on a daily basis. They found a voice to share what they were excited about; what they were concerned about; and what they wanted for the future of their community.
We quickly realised that the Next Gen of Eyre was only the beginning of an ongoing conversation, which we will continue facilitate between the youth demographic and community leaders of Eyre Peninsula.
We see our role at Champions Academy as acting as a conduit for the transition of the aforementioned critical knowledge and insights, which not only helps local government to engage with the youth demographic and integrate their perspective into strategic planning and decision-making, but also gives the next generation a sense of purpose and license to play an active role in shaping the future of the community that they will grow up in.
Following on from the Next Gen of Eyre we will report back to councils with the qualitative and quantitative data that we have collected. We will also return to schools to foster the connections that we have made and keep the conversation going about what we – as individuals as well as collectively – can do about the challenges and opportunities across Eyre Peninsula.
Where from here?
In 2020 all schools who participated in the Next Gen of Eyre will be invited to take up the opportunity to participate in the second phase of our CA for Schools pilot, which offers programs at Year 3, Year 5 and Year 7 levels, as well as a series of open Workshops for secondary school students, where individuals from any school can opt in.
We are extremely excited about what 2020 will bring, and look forward to learning all we can about how we can use innovative approaches to problem solving, shared value and entrepreneurship to reinvigorate rural communities and make them more adaptive to change.
Could you be a Next Gen mentor?
In the coming 12 months we hope to announce the location of another Next Gen kids conference in a different rural area of Australia. I’d love to hear from any readers about communities that they feel would be well suited.
I’d also love to hear from people who feel that they might have something to offer as a potential mentor at such an event, no matter where you are based. Connect with me on LinkedIn and then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me what you can bring to the table!
I’m on a mission to be enabler of agents of change: by helping children and adults alike to develop their powers of observation of the changes that are going on around them; by developing their problem solving abilities; and showing them how their innovative ideas can become entrepreneurial actions that reinvest in rural regions.
In any way that I am capable, I want to help rural and regional communities to move out of the autopilot holding pattern of survival, and toward prosperity.
And I believe that by being generous with the time and energy we invest in our people, we are in fact shaping the future of our communities.
So that’s me.
I’d love to hear what has shaped you, and your community?