Telstra WA Business Woman of the Year Sonja Cox

Destiny is not a matter of chance

This quote probably best sums up my interview with Sonja Cox, the 2013 winner of the Telstra Business Woman of the Year (WA).

At 39, Sonja has already achieved some significant milestones in her career.  And, all this in the tough corrective services industry and with some personal circumstances that could have made her give up before she even started.

As an example of just one of those career milestones – she successfully negotiated $6 million funding to implement GPS tracking of dangerous sex offenders through the preparation of a carefully researched and succinct business case, including being the Advisor to the Minister for Corrective Services in the parliamentary process of seeking legislative change.

Perhaps it’s best that we start with some brief biographical background; some context if you like, for what is to come.

Sonja has experienced tragedy and hardship in her life. Her boyfriend was murdered when he was just 18 and her beloved Mother died from a heart attack just weeks after retiring.  She has three boys – 10, 7 and 3 – and has coped as a single mother for a number of years.

For many of us, that would be enough to make us crawl into bed and never get out again. So, I always find it humbling when I meet people who make experiences, particularly hard experiences, mean something.

I have written before on the crucibles of leadership – where I shared the attributes of leaders who’ve had a crucible experience: “a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity”:

They didn’t suffer failure – but made it mean something.

They jumped into something that was beyond what they thought they were capable of doing.

They had both meaning and purpose (or “deep smarts”).

They had views such as:

  • Plan but don’t be constrained (don’t be precious about your plan).
  • There’s always time (respond, don’t react).
  • Keep an eye on the big picture – make what you do matter.
  • Communicate with intent.

Embracing the challenge and challenging others to do the same.

Have courage – of your convictions and against the crowd.

  • Learn from failure (fast).

Emphasis on people, relationships and trust.

  • People matter.

I’ve reproduced all of the above because it echoes, so closely, the sentiments that Sonja shared with me at our meeting.

Early beginnings:

Sonja credits her early beginnings with forming the person that she has become.   She says that it was her early experiences that provided her with role models – both good and bad – and that put the “fire in her belly” to achieve.

Sonja talked often and with love about her mother, and what her mother taught her.   Some of these lessons were:

  • Always find the good
  • Never give up
  • Don’t save it for good – don’t save your good knickers!
  • Life is for living – live in the moment
  • People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones!

The juggle of motherhood and work:

On juggling motherhood and work, Sonja said that for a long time she tried to attain a “work-life balance”, until she realized that there is no such thing as a perfect balance and that what she now seeks is an even keel, and that there are ebbs and flows in both from time to time.

She strongly believes that you can have it all – just not all now.

Sonja said that being able to ask for help has been essential to being able to balance it all.  She talked about the help that she has with her kids and how she would not be able to manage without asking and receiving that help.  And that it is critical to plan for the unforeseen. What’s your fallback if something goes wrong? Who is going to pick up the kids? What’s plan B?

One of the keys to being able to manage all that is Sonja’s view that work should be about achieving outcomes – and not just sitting at her desk for 7½ hours a day.   She says that if people see outcomes, they are more likely to take a proposal for flexibility on board.

She is transparent with her work colleagues about when she is available, and when she is taking time for other important aspects of her life like the once a week school pick up. But she emphasizes, this flexibility only works because she delivers.  She commits to getting things done that are within her control zone.  She recognises the importance of communication with colleagues, managers and other key stakeholders.

She also believes in being a role model for her staff; she doesn’t expect them to work crazy hours – but she does expect them to deliver results.

She believes that there is too much pressure on individuals to be “perfect” and that instead we should aim to be more real. If this means asking for help, buying in help (like a cleaner etc), then so be it. In all this, she tries to keep the real happening on a personal level by taking care of herself  – going to the gym, playing netball, boxing.

On diversity:

We had an interesting conversation about flexibility and diversity.  We started talking about women in the workforce, but ended up talking much more broadly about diversity and truly embracing that diversity.

Sonja was the first team leader within the corrective services to job share. That this became the success it did, she said, was due to the personalities of those who shared and in the way they communicated.

On leadership:

Sonja talked about how critical it was that her team understood what the strategic intention of the service is. And then, where do they fit into this? Why do they do the things they do?

When she develops policy, she asks herself: “What’s this going to look like for the end user? Is it going to make life easier?”

She emphasizes that the key to good leadership is genuine communication and consultation with her staff and with key stakeholders.

On success:

To succeed at anything, she says, it’s important to work out what the big picture is, to have an idea of what it is going to look like, and then work out the small steps to achieving it.

“Anything is doable – you just need to know what you want, know where you want to see yourself – then map the journey to get there…”

One of the tools in her kitbag is that of reflection, a positive power she practices to help her on her way.  This journey towards understanding “who am I?” has helped her develop empathy and acceptance – and an appreciation of the impact she can have on others.

Sonja talked about how she takes advantage of every possible learning opportunity that resonates with her. And asks “what does this mean for me? Or what can I take away from that? How can I use it?”

On changing behaviour:

Sonja was adamant that human beings are capable of changing their behaviour. But that it takes time and patience to unlearn behaviour.  She talked about how she has worked with offenders to consider the decisional balance of their lifestyles using the analogy of the 4 L’s (liver, lover, law and livelihood) – and whether this is working for them or whether a change in behavior would help them achieve what they want out of life.

She sees education, training, apprenticeships as the keys to enabling some of those changes in behaviour. A job means pay which means income which leads to being able to pay for housing and a reciprocal rise in self-esteem. On the flip side, a lack of stable accommodation leads to a loss of power, a feeling of failure.

And if there is one key message that she wants everyone to take away from her win at the Awards, it is that of the current situation of social inequity and dysfunction.

We talked about “there but for the Grace of God go I” – how it only takes one or two rash decisions and a person’s life can be changed forever. She spoke about “John”, the Big Issue seller on the corner of her street. How, in his mid 20s he was in a major motorbike accident: just like that, his life changed.  And how, despite the difficulties he has faced, he works harder and more tenaciously than many people with a more traditional approach to work. “If I had 50 Johns in my workplace, I would be pretty happy,” she says.

We talked about why it is that people walk past Big Issue sellers. About why humans have an inherent fear of those that look different, that sound different to us. How we immediately apply our stereotypes, even if there is no reasonable or rational reason for those stereotypes.

On discipline:

Sonja’s view is that discipline needs to be immediate and responsive, consistent and appropriate.

“Locking people up – punishment alone –never works.  We need to be addressing the factors that contribute to offending, otherwise the offending will continue.  It is about stopping the cycle.”

On tough conversations:

Sonja says it is important to be clear on why you are having the conversation. What is the purpose of the conversation? Be prepared. What do you want and need to get out of it? And be clear on what you want to be different. Have a clear structure prepared. But be respectful.

In her view, there are almost always far greater consequences of not having the conversation than from having it and that part of being a great leader is being able to give and receive feedback.

She talked about how important it is to know your staff, and to know what motivates them. This helps you target your conversations to what is important to them.

On the future:

Sonja talked passionately about what she believes is the future of the justice system, and her role in that.

She talked about how critical it is to build relationships with other agencies, to operate outside the silo.   How she has realized that she can’t do everything by herself – so it’s about getting other people on board, championing the change.

How, everyone needs to take responsibility – it is not just one person’s responsibility, not just one agency’s accountability. That we all can start to make a difference – whether that is stopping to talk to our “John” the Big Issue seller, or a more systemic difference.

She talked passionately about the need to have early prevention and diversion programs, and the benefits that are reaped from such programs. And how, the difficulty, always, is that governments operate in the short term but these programs are by their very nature long term.  And how short term outcomes need to be balanced with long term outcomes, irrespective of political persuasion; how governments need to see beyond their one term.

She talked about how she would target 13 to 15 year old girls and have conversations with them before they became pregnant, before the cycle began.  How breakfast clubs alone are the not the answer – it’s about educating mothers on healthy eating, about ensuring that they have a license to drive their kids to school, ensuring that there is access to money for driving lessons to get that license.

I could have talked for hours more. I felt as though we only just scratched the surface on what makes this thoughtful and compelling woman tick.  And hopefully, over time, I will get to talk again and hear more and understand more about how you can choose to have the life you want, irrespective of the difficulties thrown at you.

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