Karen Mundine on How Mistakes Can Lead to Valuable Lessons

Karen Mundine, CEO of Reconciliation Australia

The proud Bundjalung woman and CEO of Reconciliation Australia has been tested by the likes of Rio Tinto but says mistakes can lead to valuable lessons.

Current role: CEO, Reconciliation Australia
Tenure: Five years
Age: 50
Previous roles: Deputy CEO, general manager, communications and engagement, and strategic communications adviser, Reconciliation Australia; senior consultant, CPR Communications.

How do you define good leadership?

Good leadership is leading by example. You have to be strong for your people and help them navigate things, even when you don’t really know what’s around the corner. It’s also about having trust in them – trust in their abilities and capabilities and that they’re going to do a good job for you.

Putting COVID aside, what’s the biggest challenge you’re facing?

Reconciliation is a really big job. It’s about nation-building – or rebuilding in many ways – and it’s culture change at a national level. We’re a small not-for-profit organisation. We rely on our allies, our partners and the relationships we build to create the kind of change we think is needed to get to a tipping point. The scope of work that’s ahead of us is always going to be a challenge and it can be daunting at times. But as exhausting as it is, it gives me a bit of a buzz when I see positive outcomes that people never thought possible.

I’d imagine your work is both rewarding and frustrating.

In equal measures and sometimes both at the same time.

Your organisation helps companies form Reconciliation Action Plans and there are now about 2000 formal RAPs across Australia. There’s clearly momentum but there’s an enormous way to go, isn’t there?

There certainly is. If you think about that cohort of 2000-odd organisations, that’s close to four million Australians who either work or study in an organisation that has a RAP. Then when you look at sporting clubs, that reaches about seven million Australians. They’re fantastic numbers but when you consider the population of the country, there’s still a way to go. A lot of people would say it’s not changing fast enough – and there are many days when I absolutely agree – but I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. I think about the life that my grandparents led, living in tents on the outskirts of town and raising a large family with really oppressive policies and restrictions on their lives. So I definitely see progress.

Your 2021 State of Reconciliation Report stated that First Nations leaders and other stakeholders expressed frustration at the rate of progress. How do you motivate people to keep fighting?

It’s about pointing out where those green shoots are coming through. It’s also seeing the change in non-Indigenous Australians. We know more Australians are starting to understand the history of colonisation and the history of First Peoples and, most importantly, how that past continues to play out today. With that kind of understanding, they’re starting to think, “Well, what do we need to change now?”

What makes a good RAP?

It has to be about integrity. I know businesses like KPIs and targets but it’s the things that sit behind it. One of the really important parts of a RAP is a vision for reconciliation. Why is this business committing to these actions or outcomes? When an organisation truly understands what that is, it guides the way it goes about undertaking action. And for me that’s where the success or failure comes in. These are learning environments and we accept that there’ll be a whole heap of reasons why organisations may not actually hit that KPI or that target. What we’re most interested in is that they understand what went wrong and what they need to change. That’s what we’re here for – to help organisations create those learning opportunities to get better in each iteration.

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Do you feel you have enough of a seat at the table to really affect change within those big organisations?

I think we do to a certain degree. The RAP program has created momentum and there’s absolutely good will at the C-suite and executive levels. We have been tested in the past couple of years and obviously Rio Tinto was the most public of those [when the mining company destroyed a 46,000-yearold Aboriginal heritage site]. I was gutted when I heard the news and frustrated by all that had happened but we met several times with their executives and senior leadership to try and understand it and have them think through what it means for them as a company and what it means for Reconciliation more broadly… That’s what led us to exclude them from both Elevate RAP [the highest level a company can achieve] and the program, at least for now.

And can they claw their way back?

Look, everything is possible and we maintain engagement with Rio but we – and they – recognise that there’s a lot more work they need to do. The ball is in their court. We had another issue with Telstra [which was fined $50 million for unconscionable sales to First Nations people]. They took steps to remediate that, not only with First Nations customers but also with their systems and processes, so there was a demonstration that they were trying to fix it and get it right. We’ve allowed them to remain in the program but they were removed from Elevate and asked to develop a new RAP that better reflects those changes and learnings. It’s really about giving an organisation a time of space, without a much higher expectation on them to get things right.

Beyond these big issues, what do businesses often get wrong?

This idea of set and forget. There’s a big focus and a big push and there might be a win or two that happens and everyone is like, “Great, we’ve got it,” and then they move onto the next thing. Like anything in business, you can’t just set and forget. Environments change, business priorities change and people change so all of these things need to be constantly monitored.

How do you avoid elements of reconciliation becoming token?

I’ve seen so many acknowledgments of country that are just rattled off. I think that’s an ongoing challenge. I’ve heard really awful acknowledgments of country and I’ve heard some really heartfelt ones. There are places for these kinds of symbols. Sometimes that comes across in the early days as tokenistic but if people don’t have the chance to do it and don’t have the chance to get more comfortable with the idea of it, it’s never going to grow into something that is more meaningful and has a deeper resonance. We point our RAP partners back to their vision and intent. Why are we doing this? Why would I care about that? Why is that important? Until you can answer those questions in ways that make sense to your business and your people, it will always verge on tokenistic.

Everybody is just so scared of getting it wrong, aren’t they?

If you’ve never done this before, why would you expect to get it perfectly right every single time? The one thing with Telstra was the humility that they showed in accepting – rather than arguing with us – and saying, “Yes, we got it wrong and all we can do is say sorry and look into this and try and fix it.” We wanted to talk to our community first because it’s really important that our community hears directly from us and [Telstra CEO] Andy Penn said, “I’d really like to come if I can. Would you mind if I spoke directly to the community?” A number of organisations reached out to us afterwards, saying it really made an impact on them in thinking about what good leaders do – how you own those mistakes and demonstrate from the very top what change looks like.

You’re an optimist. Do you think that you’ll see parity in your lifetime?

If we’re talking about stats, I think we may well get close. If we’re talking about First Nations people having a real voice and a real say to influence the way we live our lives and the way that we engage in policy and decision-making – whether that’s government or corporates – there are opportunities on the runway for that to become real in the next five to 10 years. It’s not a simplistic answer but I think we’re definitely getting there and if I didn’t, I don’t know that I’d be able to get up in the morning and do the work that I do.

What advice would you give a brand-new CEO?

Being a CEO can be a lonely job but there’s a whole team of people willing to help and support you, whether it’s your board, other CEOs or your own cheer squad. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.

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Illustration by Marc Némorin

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