President of Paralympics Australia Alison Creagh Has Paris in Her Sights

Alison Creagh

The president of Paralympics Australia has Paris in her sights... and a changing Australia on her mind.

Current role: President, Paralympics Australia
Tenure: Nine months
Other roles: Director, Rowing Australia; chair, Veteran Community Business Chamber; strategic defence adviser – land, Queensland Govermment; army officer, Australian Department of Defence.

How do you define good leadership?

Leadership is complex but leadership is human. You’ve got to be true to yourself. At the centre of it all are your values and what’s important to you as a person – then trying to be consistent in the application of those values. Leaders are fallible – we make mistakes – but the hallmark of a good leader is how you respond to an error or a misstep.

Have there been any missteps in your career that stand out?

I make errors of judgement not infrequently. At the end of the day you can only work with the information you have in front of you at any point in time. I probably couldn’t isolate anything in particular but the consistent theme is where I’ve jumped to a conclusion and haven’t listened and observed enough. I haven’t given people the time to express themselves and talk through the issue. I admire those who don’t just listen but hear.

You were appointed president of Paralympics Australia last year. It’s a pivotal time with Paris next month and Brisbane 2032 on the horizon. What’s your greatest challenge?

Australia has a real opportunity to become more inclusive. I’m an able-bodied person but when I talk to people who live with a disability, I see the world they live in and I think Australia could do better. Paralympics Australia is taking the opportunity to use the 2032 Brisbane Games to remind the country about how we can become more inclusive. One of the significant challenges we face in the para sport community is around equity. Three out of four people who live with a disability don’t know how to access sport – that’s pretty stark. If you’re in a wheelchair, can you get to where you need to go from a venue perspective? Do you have access to a tandem cycle so you can try para-cycling? Do you even know where to find out how to access para-sport and participate? Sport is such a conduit to feeling included. At its most basic, how do we use the opportunities that Paris 2024 presents us to showcase what para-sport can do and how do we use the Games in Brisbane to gear Australia’s systems, thinking, infrastructure and investment to change us into a more inclusive society so everyone gets a go?

Can you extend your influence to the wider sporting arena?

Being the president of Paralympics Australia does allow me – and all of the Paralympics Australia team – to tell people more about where the inequities and the possibilities are. The best voices, of course, are the athletes’. They talk about their journey and what it’s like, as well as the barriers to success. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t hear an athlete’s story that resonates with me and reminds me of the importance of supporting them.

Paris has committed to hosting the Olympics and Paralympics on an equal footing. What are your hopes for Brisbane, which you’ve described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity?

We want it to be the best Games ever. Number one would be to have a fantastic sports team that makes Australia proud and delivers amazing performances. It takes a long time to “grow” athletes – they’ve got to participate in sport, be identified as having talent, brought into a pathway to develop their talent then become a high-performance athlete. That takes time and investment. The other side of the coin is the Games themselves, which we hope will showcase the importance of social inclusion and accessibility – everything from accessible venues to ensuring that the spectator experience is rewarding. Rather than just talk about the Olympics, we hope people will talk about the Olympics and the Paralympics and that they’ll feel equally proud.

We’ve made headway on inclusion and accessibility but there’s such a long way to go, isn’t there?

When para-athletes finish their athletic career, they don’t always win work easily and aren’t always given the same opportunities as able-bodied people. There’s still a barrier to their entry into society. But para-athletes have a huge amount to offer Australia and business – they have an amazing capacity and resilience. I’d like society to leverage that and I think we’d be better if we did.

You’ve just appointed three para-athletes as directors, which means that half of your board is living with a disability. How do you hope that’s going to change the conversations around the table or the decisions you make?

Our business is about inclusion so I’m hoping that we’ll hear different voices and perspectives and through that, we’ll learn, allowing us to make more informed decisions in the interest of Paralympics Australia, para-sport and our country more broadly. There’s no doubt that when I hear their views, my perspective can change. I’m hoping it’ll allow us to understand better some of the challenges and gear the organisation to be even more successful at what we’re doing.

When you retired as a brigadier in 2015, after a 30-year career, you were one of the most senior female officers in the Australian Defence Force. How did you prepare for the transition?

I was fortunate. Before I transitioned, I had the opportunity to do something unique, which was a partnership with the Sydney Theatre Company. We used theatre as a vehicle for rehabilitation and recovery for some of our injured personnel. It took me back to the basics of putting people first and I had the chance to do something that was connected with what I’ll loosely call “the civilian world”. It was different from my military experiences but had touch points. So I was already experiencing a bit of what it might be like to take off my uniform and be the civilian version of Alison.

When you’re wearing the uniform, it becomes who you are. As an officer, I’d be called “ma’am” by my subordinates, not Alison. So when you make that change, you reclaim a bit of your identity. Some people find it confronting because they feel they’re losing a part of themselves. But I quite like being called Alison and I found the process rewarding because it gave me a whole series of opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in the military. I’m still an Army reservist, I do some mentoring and work with veteran organisations but now I do it in the way I want.

What do you think corporate Australia – and boards, in particular – can learn from the Defence Force and its way of working?

The thing that military people bring to the table is we understand risk and that people are at the heart of everything we do. We always work with other organisations and always as part of a team. So the benefits that the military provides to business and the corporate world is a strong understanding of the importance of building a team, respecting the individual who is building a team and then trying to gear an organisation to achieve high performance. I have a feeling that a lot of the time, business and the corporate sector are anxious about military people being too busy and wanting to take charge. Well, there’s a time and a place in our military career to do that but most people in the Defence Force have spent time learning how to get the best out of their team by taking them on a journey and making every member of the team comfortable with what can be very tricky environments. That’s partly the way we’re trained but it’s also the culture.

How has your own leadership evolved?

I came through in an era where you tried to look the same as your male colleagues because you didn’t want to stand out due to your gender. So I probably adopted some quite alpha characteristics. I’ve always been quite forceful in my delivery style because I grew up in a family that debated so I’m very happy to have and hold an argument. That stood me in good stead – and I wasn’t afraid of taking on a challenge – but over time, I found that I needed to do more stepping back and listening and not pressing my point. Now I think I need to do even more of that. Leadership is about the collective so by necessity that forces me to be considerate, value the opinions of the people around me and chart a course for consensus if there are different or divergent views.

You’ve had a very successful non-executive director career. What does a well-functioning board look like?

If I was building a board tomorrow and I had a clean sheet of paper, a diversity of views and of experiences would be important to me. The next part of it would be a balance of skills because organisations and their governance are complex. No-one is ever going to be a subject matter expert across the whole business so if you can’t get an absolute skills balance within your board, you need independent advisors who can round it out and give it more depth. Having the right committee structures that support the board so it can get the right inputs also becomes critical.

At the Australian Institute of Company Directors Governance Summit in March, Catherine Livingstone suggested that six-year terms, instead of the typical nine years, would refresh boardrooms. What’s your view?

In part she’s right but the flipside is that some organisations take a while to understand the imperatives behind them so what you might lose with six-year terms is corporate memory and experience. If I look at the path to the 2032 Brisbane Games, I finish my tenure at Paralympics Australia in 2031 so I won’t be on its board in 2032 – the constitution doesn’t allow it. We’ll need to build systems and processes so we capture and keep the corporate memory and set the organisation up for success. I think that succession planning is key.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a CEO?

CEOs are leaders but they’re also the meat in the sandwich a little bit – they’re the middle person because, generally, they report to the board. So you need to engage with the board and understand its imperatives. You need to spend enough time in the business but also understand the balance and actively engage with the stakeholders and be capable of working outside of the organisation. You’re there for the stakeholders.


Personal motto: Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss.

Email approach: You can get swallowed up by it. Understand its limitations and that it’s not the best means of communication.

Motivation tactic: Spend time understanding what makes the individual tick.

Productivity hack: Realise that there are many inputs and make sure you’re doing what must be done.

Favourite books: A Fortunate Life by Albert Facey is a very grounding book. You can have what, on face value, looks like a terrible life but actually consider yourself to be fortunate. And because I’m a lover of rowing, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. It shows what you can achieve by being part of a team.

Rule you don’t break: I like to think that I live by the rule of being true to myself. 

Favourite piece of advice: Have confidence in yourself. And know that the way you see yourself is different from the way others see you so take the time to think about how you’re perceived.

SEE ALSO: Danielle Wood Explains the Importance of Good Leadership 

Image credit: Marc Némorin

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