Leadership Insights: a conversation with Natalie McNamara, a leader in Catholic Education
The following is an attempt to capture the thoughts and wisdom of Natalie McNamara, with the responses recorded during a question and answer session with Trak Search. Given some repetition in the questions, there are some recurring themes in Natalie’s responses. Natalie’s biographical overview is shown at the end of this article.
Natalie, could you please describe how you came to be a senior leader in Catholic Education and some of the key stepping stones along the way?
“Nothing was planned in the sense of starting my career with the view of seeking a senior role in Catholic education. I didn’t begin with any ambition or a deliberate hope of becoming a Director of Human Resources. My final appointment was a function of longevity. ‘Things happen’ at different stages of a career when you do your very best at every stage. Others noted that I was a good teacher and I had a passion for teaching; people notice when you have a passion. I was also highly organised and ensured the ‘i’ was dotted and the ‘t’ crossed. This also appealed to people in supervisory positions. It was my natural personality.
Way back in the 1960’s and when a problem needed to be addressed, people thought “maybe Natalie could help with this”. I’m not speaking about formal roles, but issues and problems where people needed help. I was then nominated to be deputy in my second school: why? I was regarded as a good teacher, I did my very best, I was thorough, efficient, organised and dependable, so was given the job and then went on to become principal.
In 1979 I came to the CEO as a Regional Consultant even though I had no idea of what a Consultant did! This was in the early days of the System and others had said to me “don’t do it”. But I was asked to consider the role and was prepared to take a leap of faith. Joining the CEO in 1979 was to culminate in the best role that anyone could have, when much later I was appointed as the Founding Director of Human Resources with the Sydney System of Catholic Schools.
I believe the key to building a career is not necessarily to start with a long term plan, but to do the best job you can in each role that you hold. That’s how people move. Most don’t set out to be noticed: you do your job to the best of your ability, you go the extra mile, and people notice you.
Could you draw a pen-picture of how you see effective leadership?
“A leader needs to be absolutely people-centred. It’s people first, last and always. It’s about the people you work with & the people you serve. All else is secondary. Everything else you do is designed to support, enhance and facilitate the wellbeing, happiness and fulfillment of these two groups of people.
It is all about teamwork – absolutely about teamwork. It is very, very rare that I’d use the word ‘I’, because my belief is that leadership needs to be very inclusive. Leaders are only as good as the team they are working with and so a leader needs to work at team development; to help team members to be the best they can be. To help others to shine has always been a specific goal of mine.
So number one for leaders is to be people-centred. Number two is team work. Three is to raise others up and the fourth is to facilitate the wellbeing of others, which is a natural outcome of the first three. Of course all this is underpinned by having a vision of how to achieve this and the vision must be sustainable and backed by action. The alignment and integration of a vision into action and outcomes is key for a leader. The leader’s actions need to be consistent, coherent & practical in delivering the vision.
Could you please comment on the way(s) you have been mentored throughout your career?
“There was nothing formal about my mentoring. I learned best from people I observed. In my early days there were two Religious Sisters who stood out. Both were ‘leaders’: they listened; looked out for people; had plans; and they got things done. They got the job done but people weren’t left by the wayside. They had credibility of the highest order. They were both interested in me and both influenced my development. One would often ask my opinion, and in those days people typically didn’t ask a 23 year old, early-career teacher for an opinion. I was shy but this Sister would ask my opinion and I remember how she would wait for me to answer and not hurry me up. She helped me to form opinions and to become articulate.
Then there was a Principal who appreciated my attention to detail and follow up. She’d ask me, for example, to take minutes at meetings. This might seem just a little thing, but I was in my early 20’s and appreciated her confidence in me.
While I never had a formal mentor, I was keen to learn so I observed and imitated them. I saw what they did that worked and imitated that. I remember how they were consistent and predictable, not moody and changeable. One key is to be an observer of what leaders do! You can learn as much from good leadership as from poor leadership. You can learn what works and doesn’t work; what to do and what not to do.
As well as observation I began to study the theory of leadership and obtained a Graduate Diploma of Leadership. I love reading books on Leadership and find the theory of Leadership exciting. The phrase ‘there is nothing so practical as good theory’ became a mantra for me. By putting good theory into practice I practiced a form of self-mentoring.
The next significant impact was in the person of Br Kelvin Canavan. He didn’t appear to set out to mentor me but he would be THE standout leader par-excellence. Again it was about observation, as I observed so much of his practice. I had natural skills in administration but I was able to learn so much more from what he did: working with teams; putting systems in place; working with his secretary; through to records management. He is widely known for his big picture thinking, but he also had an eye for detail. One small aspect of this was, for example, the way he’d number and reference all meetings. I imitated this in my own role and when we reached HR Team meeting number 100 we had a celebration. My last HR meeting was meeting number 135 and it was wonderful. People enjoy celebrating milestones. It gives a sense of history and collective achievement. That is another aspect of leadership I observed from Br Kelvin: he would celebrate history; he’d celebrate occasions; he’d celebrate milestones. Organisational life is not static, it’s a living organism and can be fragile, so it needs to be nourished and deliberately sustained.
What do you see as the value of feedback to enhance performance? How should it be delivered?
“I firmly believe this is absolutely essential and not just at times of formal Performance Reviews. The feedback must be in context and with the person’s wellbeing in mind. I always asked for feedback for myself and this made it easier to give constructive feedback to others.
Will Naicker had a saying that became a mantra within our team: ‘there’s no failure, only feedback’. Our HR team had a shared understanding that any time we gave each other feedback – on any matter whatsoever – we did this because we wanted to be the best team we could be. It was given on the shared understanding that we did so for the wellbeing of each person and for those we were serving. We developed a culture of ‘no failure/only feedback’ and promoted this understanding in our leadership programs.
Feedback therefore needs to be continuous and in context. You also need to work at making so-called ‘negative feedback’ a positive experience. My experience has shown that in giving feedback to another person, particularly in more serious matters, it is best started by asking open-ended questions, such as: ‘how do you think that went?’ or ‘how do you think you’re going?’
It is important for leaders to model expected behavior for the team. So feedback is always given with a genuine care for the people you are working with and a philosophy such as ‘there is no hierarchy of people; but we do have a hierarchy of roles.’ I formally met with each team member three times a year to discuss how personal and work life was going and check on progress in meeting agreed outcomes. These dialogues were much appreciated. Leaders are often concerned about the way feedback is received, but I can only recall three people who took badly the feedback I had given and I discovered that the issue was not the feedback, it was really their personal issues that got in the way of being open to it.
When you establish a culture of wanting to be the best possible team you can be; when you share the bigger picture with the team; help them to understand their role within this bigger picture; and provide regular thanks and affirmation; then feedback in the manner I explained is a natural part of work-life and really appreciated.
Given the number of interview panels you have led over many years, what was your approach in providing feedback to people interviewed but unsuccessful with their application?
“Yes I did chair hundreds of panels and would speak to people afterwards when they didn’t ‘get the job’. You need to understand how disappointed the person will be and empathise with their situation. The first thing I’d say is “I’m really sorry and I regret to have to give you the news that you were not the panel’s preferred applicant”. You know they’ll be disappointed because in any application a person really puts himself/herself on the line and opens themselves up to wide scrutiny.
Typically I would then explain that the very fact they were invited by the panel to be interviewed meant they were successful. I never regarded a person who was invited to an interview as being unsuccessful. I would then explain that the panel had preferred another person: “at this time, for this school, the panel, after discernment, decided that another person is preferred.”
As a person of Faith I sincerely believed it when I would say to people who had applied for a Principal role “you were not meant to get this role, and as a person of faith, I know you will accept this. We only interviewed people who had genuine potential to be a Principal and the panel perceives you will be a Principal in due course.” I would then remind them of their skills and gifts that led to them being invited to meet the panel and encourage them to “hang in there”. Many people, so many people, would say to me at a later time “I’m really pleased I never got that particular school …..” so we need to accept what can seem a disappointment in the light of our Faith.
People would often seek career advice from me after a panel interview and ask “what do I need to do?” My view was that I would provide feedback on the panel interview but not provide career advice. The person that knows them best and is best able to provide career advice is their own immediate leader, or others in their role set. I regarded panel feedback and career advice as two separate discussions.
All these discussions occur within the context of giving a person the benefit of proper feedback and advice, and in a manner that keeps their esteem intact.
How has the study of leadership and organisational theory assisted in your leadership development?
“I’ve touched on this already but there are some other points I’d like to add.
- If you study, you really need to take it seriously and absorb as much as possible. You learn and then decide what to try and what to put into practice. I know of people who study, for example, a Masters of Educational Leadership, to simply acquire the qualification but don’t absorb the content and their practice doesn’t change. There are people unable to articulate what they have learnt.
- I gained as much from reading journals, short articles and excerpts from books as I did from formal study. We receive lots of journals and articles in a style that appeals – short, pithy articles that you can copy and pass around the team. We had a system for sharing articles within our team. Geni Hunt was outstanding with this sharing of valuable information and insights on leadership.
- We also had regular discussions within the team where information would be shared, not necessarily in a formal sense, but we did discuss and share. I was blessed with the HR team I worked with and we were able to feed off each other. For example, I learned so much from Peter Ford. Brother Kelvin had taught me not to make snap judgments and it was Peter Ford who would often say “Natalie, first, let’s gather the facts”. He helped me to understand deeply the value and necessity of ensuring procedural fairness and due process.
Leadership has been described as “a package”….what would you say should be in “the package”?
“All the above! All we’ve discussed!
The ‘package’ can be viewed in 3 parts: personal attributes; professional persona; and our skills and practice.
- Leaders need to believe in people; they need to go the extra mile; they need bucket loads of patience, compassion and forgiveness; they need to be inclusive. We could continue on with a list of twenty, thirty or forty characteristics or attributes, but I’d like to stress the need for a leader to exhibit a sense of wellbeing, no matter how you feel. You need to be consistent, courteous and cheerful regardless of the circumstances. That starts each morning from the first greeting and being cheerful and welcoming to all who come to work. I’d go out of my way each day to greet people.
- Next is the professional persona. This refers to dress; the way we speak; the language we use; our mannerisms. Some people can be overly folksy in their style; others are tedious and boring. Leaders need to be professional and have a repertoire of language to engage with others. Good leaders don’t have a style which is smart, flippant or sarcastic. There’s no place for these styles. Leaders need to use their judgement for various occasions and circumstances and use this judgement daily, even hourly! Principals need to “be the Principal” each hour of every day, regardless of the circumstances or venue. We often do aspiring leaders a disservice by downplaying or trivialising our advice around appearance, presentation & image. It’s a part of the full package and others are making judgements of us all the time, based in part on what they see and hear. It’s the same reason we refurbish our schools – the classroom learning might be excellent but we cannot simply dismiss the image/impression of the school that a visitor will take away. Image is a part of the package and people expect people in public leadership roles to present in a certain way. We have uniform rules for students to convey an image; teachers and principals should be aware of image as well.
- The third is around the skills of our profession; our teaching practice, our faith and authentic living of the values we profess. This relates back to our earlier discussion concerning study, learning, observation and being able to recognise and articulate the issues facing educators.
My advice to aspiring leaders, to people wanting to be a principal, is that your potential will be noticed and enhanced by exhibiting all aspects of leadership within the context of your current role. You build these aspects all along the way. You develop the characteristics of this ‘full package’ from day one within the context of your role. This is what happened for me and is how my career unfolded.
How have you sustained your energy and enthusiasm for the demanding leadership roles you have had over a long period of time?
“I believed in the vision and mission. My faith has been a critical factor in my life. The vision and mission of Catholic education….it goes beyond the grave! It’s education for the here and hereafter. We want children and young people to develop fully and to develop their Faith. That’s the long term goal and we need to take the longer view.
This was reinforced to me 10 years ago when I attended a conference in the US and heard Father Donald Senior CP, who is a Scripture Scholar. I went to his talk titled ‘The Long Obedience, the Call to Administrative Leadership ‘. He became President of the Chicago Theological College and in taking on that role he said his life was changed. He found that a leadership role meant that he needed to have a greater interest in all of his people. He also explained how he needed to take a longer term view; he needed to believe there was a point, an end point and a bigger picture to his administrative work. This aligned with my own story and my belief that you must have a vision beyond yourself; a vision that cannot be fully achieved by one person. It’s a seed you sow. Some seeds take root and flourish. Who knows what good in people is released when you sow that seed. You need this longer term view and you never know the extent of your influence. It’s timeless.
Secondly, I was privileged for 18 years to work for an organisation led by one of the best ever leaders in Catholic education. We all knew what a privilege we had. The people we employed; our community; our teams; it was all incredibly exciting! The adrenaline was flowing. I’d keep some paper and a pen next to my bed at night to take notes if I woke. I’d add items to my daily ‘To Do’ list. Whether some aspects of the role were seen as insignificant and some seemed to be huge, as a ‘whole’ it was wonderful. Obviously it was not always easy but I loved it.
The third aspect for leaders to sustain their energy and enthusiasm is the people: you can never invest too much in your people. Whatever you invest in your people, in your team, (and in those we serve) comes back to you a thousand times.
What part has your Faith and Spiritualty played in your leadership practices and your daily routines?
“Everything! This has been central to my life. It’s grown with me and matured as I’ve had time and opportunities to reflect. It is like the conversation we had earlier around leadership theory. I read; I devour articles and then try to integrate, naturally and not artificially integrate, the spiritual insights and understandings as part of me. It is similar to the vision and mission for an organisation: this is not just something that is done, then put out to the side. It is lived. My mother understood the centrality of the Scriptures and she taught me a love of Scripture and how to live it. She’d quote it to me and demonstrate how it was lived every day. That was part of my growing up. How fortunate I have been.
For someone that has either not grown up with this Natalie, or for someone wanting a fresh start: what would you suggest they do?
“Read; reflect; observe; practice! Observe people for whom this is natural; go to short, relevant seminars, listen to relevant speakers; take the opportunities that are available and then put into practice the best of all you’ve learnt.
Most importantly, be aware that the Holy Spirit offers us all the same opportunities, BUT you have to be alive to them. I believe God speaks to us through each other. We need to be alive to this spiritual influence and to respond to the opportunities presented.
You have spoken a number of times about team work. But how important is it for effectiveness as a leader?
“Yes, we’ve talked about teams. Leaders need to:
- Establish the team;
- Build a sense of team;
- Respect each member of the team; and
- Celebrate teamwork
Important decisions that impact the team should involve the team. You sometimes hear about announcements being made that impact on an individual without the leader taking time to talk to that person first.
It is often said, and very true: a leader should not ask or expect others to do what s/he is not prepared to do. Leaders need to model good practice. They need to do what might seem menial, to get their hands dirty. They need to help “stuff the envelopes” if needed!
I’ll give you an example that related to WYD in July 2008. There was a ticketing problem and Br Kelvin offered the help of the CEO to assist in sorting it out. He asked for people within the CEO to help with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of envelopes. Who was first there to help and there till the last: Br Kelvin. Who kept us all going? Who organized and encouraged us? Who also worked beside us? Who made it fun? Br Kelvin. He was involved, he joked and talked to us all – it was wonderful! We had 50 to 60 people all in the one room and he made it fulfilling and worthwhile. People commented, then and afterwards. He would do this sort of thing when needed and didn’t see anything as being beneath him, no matter what was on his plate.
Another example, again WYD, was the setting up the Homebush facility. We had an African contingent arrive with no warm clothes! Who was there at 5am? Who did shifts like the rest of us? Br Kelvin would arrive early and the signal to us was that he was part of it too; people knew he was part of it. This approach buoys people up. Rolling up the sleeves and being involved. As a leader you cannot do this all the time, but opportunities can be found and embraced at significant organisational moments.
Natalie I’m going to ask for any additional comments on an aspect you’ve already spoken about: communication for effective leadership
“Leaders need to buoy people up. It’s not often seen as a big thing, but it’s important for leaders to smile; to communicate with people in a cheerful manner. Greet people – use their names.
At times it is a hard slog and I’d get distressed like anyone else. It is ‘not all sweetness and light’ but a positive approach is the best course for all of us.
Empathy with people is really important, very important. Take the time to learn about people; remember what they share with you and follow up later with empathetic questions and interest. When you do this with genuine care for the person it builds up trust. We don’t just have a job – we have a life. We cannot divorce work life from home life. One has an impact on the other and we need to understand this, we need to understand the human condition.
Leaders need to help, if possible, to make people feel good about themselves. Let them know they’re important and be prepared to pick them up if they fall by the wayside.
Thank you for sharing these insights with us Natalie. Can we finish by asking what you believe is the absolute focus of Catholic School Leadership at all levels…..from Teacher to Executive Director?
“First, last and always, it is what is best for the students. We are here for no other reason than to educate our students in Faith and for their life. We exist for no other reason and so the students need to be the absolute focus for what we do. In setting up any work system, this is done not for staff, but always with the student in mind.
In my role as Director of HR, no process was designed for the sake of process. The process was designed ultimately to benefit the students by enhancing the well-being and workplace satisfaction of staff. Principals need to develop themselves as better leaders to benefit the students. Teachers need to be better teachers, for the students.
Commencing her teaching career in 1963 at St Mary’s Girls High in Liverpool NSW, Natalie was appointed as Deputy Principal of Mount St Mary’s Boarding School in Katoomba in 1969, then Principal in 1973. When this school was closed at the end of 1974, Natalie returned to St Mary’s in Liverpool, then worked at Santa Maria Del Monte in Strathfield, before joining the Catholic Education Office (CEO), Sydney, in 1979 as a Primary Regional Consultant.
Natalie’s career in Human Resources was launched in 1982 with her appointment as Head of Personnel with the CEO. From 1987 to 1991 she was an Assistant Director with the newly established CEO Parramatta before returning to the CEO Sydney in May 1991 as Head of Human Resources. In 1992 Natalie was appointed as the Foundation Director of Human Resources with the CEO Sydney, the position she held until her retirement at the end of 2009.
Natalie’s skills and experience meant she was constantly in demand, with the following a sample of her appointments:
- Member of the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations of NSW from 1992 until 2009, including a period as an Executive Member (1993 – 2003) and Deputy Chair (1998 – 2001)
- Foundation Chair of the Board of St Vincent’s College, Potts Point (1993 – 1995)
- Member of Council of St Aloysius’ College Milsons Point (1997 – 2005)
- Foundation member of the Board of Loyola Institute (2001 – 2003)
Amongst the many acknowledgements of Natalie McNamara’s outstanding contribution to Catholic education in Australia, two well-recognised awards have been:
- Appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for ‘Contribution to Catholic Education through Leadership in Human Resources’ in 2005
- KPMG Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Human Resources’ at the 2003 Australian HR Awards.