The following captures the thoughts of Paul Mastronardi, Executive Director of Dunlea Centre (Australia’s Original Boys’ Town) on a range of career and professional development topics, as recorded during a question and answer session with Trak Search. It is targeted for leaders and aspiring leaders with the information best used in conjunction with discussions with a person’s manager/supervisor. Paul’s biography is shown at the end of this interview.
How has your career developed Paul – in a planned or unplanned way?
It has been totally unplanned. I never said to myself ‘I’m going to do this in five years; or I’m going to do that in 10 years’. Rather I just followed my instincts as opportunities presented.
I developed my ground skills working at St Joseph’s Enfield for a number of years as a generalist teacher and an ESL teacher. With ten years’ experience as a platform, I gravitated more towards areas that I was becoming particularly interested in. The first job I took outside of the Catholic system was as a liaison officer with the Department of Education and this dealt mainly with truancy / welfare work, in which I struggled with a little at first, but I intuitively felt this was an area I was becoming very interested in, connecting with troubled kids.
So no, it was not planned. I just felt I had been at Enfield for a while; I’d finished my BA, and completed a Grad Diploma in Education Studies as well as ESL training. I was at a stage when I thought ‘I need to be take charge of my direction’ and was looking for something more. I very much enjoyed working with young people, and when I had the experience in the welfare role I knew this was the area for me – something ignited inside of me, some connection was made.
Within that welfare role I met people who could see me connect readily with the more challenging type of students. An AP librarian / teacher – Judith – saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself. She encouraged me to work for a school term at a pilot programme for disengaged adolescents who weren’t attending school for a complexity of reasons. I thought at the time, ‘it’s just one school term away from my current role’ and so I agreed and the move was approved. I considered it would be a good experience in the short-term. As soon as I commenced in the role it was like I’d come home. I felt so at ease with this type of work and so the move was the beginning of how my career developed –working away from mainstream and working with disengaged and often marginalised young people.
Most people I speak to have not planned out their career. Instead they have their antenna open to opportunities; they always do their best; and then other opportunities become open up to them. It seems this has been your experience as well?
Yes. But I’ve also relied on good people. I’ve mentioned Judith because she could see something in me that I couldn’t see. Another was a swim coach, Warwick, at Ashfield Pool. Back in about 1986 he saw me working with a group of young children at a pool and he came over and offered me a part-time job. I was stunned and said “Why would you come pick me out of all the people?” He just replied “What you’re doing with the kids, that’s what I want, that’s the sort of person I want working with me”. So I went over to the Ashfield pool and worked with him and I could see what he wanted: a hands-on person, someone connecting with the kids, someone who gets involved.
You need people like that – older, wiser people, to be able to see that in you, because you can’t necessarily see it in yourself. I think I’ve been very fortunate in that regard, with a few people who’ve come along and observed something in me. I’ve tried to adopt this approach myself with other people. I recall an approach a Director took many years ago. She said that whenever she met someone within the system, she would try to picture them in a leadership role. She would look for their potential and ask herself “what would they be like as a leader?” It’s a really positive, proactive approach to have, casting a person into that role. You’re looking at their skills and talents and the unique mixture they would bring to a leadership position. In a sense, it is succession planning.
Going back to what I said about Judith, she thought I’d be effective working with those young people and it was very insightful of her because I was actually quite apprehensive to do that type of work at that time. These days I meet so many people who are so similar to the way I had been and they’ll say to me “Well, I couldn’t do that”. They are nervous, exactly the way I had been when Judith approached me. I’d go to her and say “What I’m doing, I’m not sure I’m helping all that much. I’m just out there at the cricket net throwing the arm over for the boys. I’m not really doing anything significant” She’d reply, “You’re engaging with them. You’ve have them talking to you about the weekend. These kids don’t talk to their parents; they don’t talk to anyone. You’ve opened them up. Once they’ve opened up Paul, you can help them because you’re connecting with them”. That was quite true. She called it corridor counselling and I understood it from that explanation; I connected with what she was saying and could see what was happening. I was naturally doing this, but couldn’t actually link cognitively with what was happening until she brought this to my attention. We worked together for some time and she’d frequently highlight to me these type of insights, and I came to realise I had a natural way of interacting with these young people.
So Judith presented me with the opportunity to expand my skill level. I can’t say I have ever been obsessed looking for a promotion. For example, the role here [as CEO of Dunlea Centre]. I was more than happy in my previous role at the CEC and wasn’t looking to go elsewhere but this role emerged, a role I envisaged as a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ and decided to give it a shot.
Is one of the messages in this story that an aspiring leader needs to be open to a wide range of possibilities, often unexpected, which might be presented to them?
Yes, you need to be open to the opportunities. I suppose Judith was able to present me with the possibility by positively engaging me. What she was doing was building my self-belief, not in a manipulative manner to convince me to take the role, but genuinely in her desire to get the best person for a particular role in that specific setting.
If I go back to where I started, I distinctly remember one of the senior teachers, Kathleen, saying after about five years of me working there “I can really see Paul starting to mature in his role. He’s doing very well and I like what I’m seeing”…or something to that effect. I remember that and it still gives me a positive warm kind of feeling because that was the first time I had real positive feedback in my work place. I always thought I was OK in what I was doing but to suddenly have an experienced person make such a comment about my growth & change…..it was like BOOM. Suddenly you go from operating at one level now going up 50, 60 decibels and you are operating with a much higher level of enthusiasm. It was a really rejuvenating feeling.
I found that’s been really important and I’ve tried to replicate that with people, I’ve tried to help them to see possibilities. Just recently I’ve been working with someone who wanted to study and would benefit greatly from the study, but they’ve had all these obstacles in front of them. Slowly, over the time, after several discussions and chats, we’ve removed those hurdles. Now this person is ready to study and this in turn will open up so many more opportunities for them. So I suppose what I’m saying is I’ve tried to replicate what was shown to me – that positive “You can do this” self-belief to help people realise that they’re capable of much more. A positive injection from an older, more experienced person can really bring people on to achieve to their potential.
If you had your time over again Paul, is there anything major that you would do differently?
That wonderful 20/20 hindsight! I try to live my life in a positive mindset and not look back negatively on events. I try to practice forgiveness and I do talk about this from time to time with Fr Peter Carroll [Chair of Dunlea Centre]. Forgiveness – it’s easy to say, it’s not necessarily that easy to implement in reality. It is an essential quality as an effective leader. You must work at it.
Much earlier in my career I was offered a position at another school and I declined it because I felt that the school community I was in – and this could sound somewhat narcissistic – really needed somebody with my leadership style. I felt I couldn’t leave the role as the kids & parents and the community needed someone like me – my open door policy; parents who had disliked bureaucrats previously, could see me informally and regularly, come in, sit down and have my time; the kids needed a male figure with openness, friendliness and able to make a connection.
So I didn’t take the move to the other school, although the other school had a significantly less intense workplace environment. Colleagues thought I had “rocks” in my head, but I was determined to raise the level of that school’s performance and especially the morale. Unfortunately, a new Director was appointed to the region; someone who was the total antithesis to my way of thinking and operating. It wasn’t a good experience from that time onwards. I was already quite fatigued from the job and now I had this micro managing bureaucrat who had a conflicting view on what was important in the management of a school. When you’re a free thinker and you have had to be innovative, taking on tough roles and developing new ways of approaching ongoing challenges, this type of contrasting style can cause havoc and it did. Well it was not a good mix. It made a job that was really quite challenging on many levels, almost impossible.
At times I regretted having stayed, because I think it took a lot out of me, which meant I had less to give to other people within the school community. Plus you actually need a good period of time to recover and recuperate from these types of difficult situations. I felt deflated for some time after this particular experience but you have to take what you can from the experience and keep moving onwards and upwards hopefully.
But how do you get that through this at the time? How did you overcome what appeared, back then, to be such significant adversity?
A skill that I really think you need to develop is to be able to detach from the problem. That doesn’t mean the problem goes away or you ignore the problem, it’s just this personal extraction of oneself from the problem. We do that with the YP here when we say “We’re looking at the problem /behaviour and not looking at the person”. This is a really good way, I think, to cope with adversity. It helps you to realise that maybe you can’t see your way out because you are too personally immersed in the problem, you need to separate and deal with the actual issue. It is a step-by-step process, one thing at a time so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
But how do you do that Paul? How do you ‘separate’ in the circumstances such as you’ve explained?
From practices such as mindfulness and meditation, CBT and just taking your time. You need to be at peace in here [points to his head] and people, bureaucrats or whoever, can come in and stir all this up, they can make a mess of you up here [points to his head again] and how you have operated quite successfully for years. I think it takes practice, I think it takes…self-discipline, but that sounds like a simplistic explanation. It’s a rehearsed way of remaining calm. I like to be composed and in a natural relaxed state rather than feel an edgy, uncomfortableness with a person. This way I tend to be at my best rather than in a guarded and slightly reticent manner. But that’s okay to survive. There are all different types of people in the world and we’re all different, so to endure, at times, you’ll need to learn some of these skills to deal with them.
This is not easy and I’ve seen many, many good people undone because they have personalised issues. They haven’t learned the skill to detach from the issue. Sometimes the simplest thing to do is cut your losses and run, and that’s okay too. Sometimes it is the best thing to do. You leave and you survive to fight another day, somewhere else. But you don’t actually learn anything deeper from that strategy or give yourself the opportunity to do so. So sometimes these people who present you with the worst-case scenario can also provide you with the greatest lesson(s), in a way, they could be your greatest teachers. It certainly doesn’t ever seem like that at the time, but upon reflection, when you look back, if you have really gone through the process of assimilating, synthesising and moving to the next phase, then you will look back and say, “Yes, I have learnt something from that situation”. These situations have the potential to be some of most valuable lessons in life.
What about the pressures of leadership? What actions or activities do you engage in to release yourself from some of the pressures of leadership?
I neglected self-care for a long time, very unwisely, only because work always seemed so much more important & it was so busy. Several of the places I worked in were just so frenetic and in need of much work and development. I remember the Deputy at one school saying to me “Paul, I’ll go home and turn on the TV and just sit there for two hours, and not hear a word”. She was just coming down. I still think back to those days where we didn’t have enough skill and knowledge about looking after ourselves and to realise the importance of it. We just worked ourselves into the ground.
Compare that to my current workplace, for example, we’ve have a little gym area set up and it has a really good rower and other equipment. You can go in there and go hard on the rower for 15 minutes and you’ll expel a lot of stress and nervous energy. Exercise is really important. It needs to be woven into the workday. A brisk walk can have the same effect. Whatever suits people’s styles.
In the past I’ve used swimming. I’m not a great swimmer but I can swim for a long time and found I could solve so many problems whilst in the water. Sounds absurd doesn’t it? I’m not sure whether it’s the oxygen pumping through my head as I’m swimming, but it’s a meditative sort of process and that’s vital, that’s really important. These days though I’m lean more towards meditation and breath work, focusing on being calm and centred and relaxed.
I used to play the guitar. I taught myself acoustic guitar, which was a release, and then at one alternative school setting I actually introduced a music program across the curriculum. I ended up being with the kids, playing music and so what I did as a bit of an escape & release from work initially, ended up becoming part of work for a while, which was very enjoyable and satisfying.
But you need to have strategies in place. Over recent years I decided that a really good approach was a total spiritual body cleanse once or twice a year. I started with a one-week retreat a few years ago and found it so rejuvenating. I did meditation; juice fasts for a couple of days before being reintroduced back to vegetarian type food; some biblical & health studies presented in lectures, – not too intense, but interwoven into leading a good quality life, a good Christian life. I just find these types of approaches, for me, to be really rejuvenating. I come back feeling like a different person.
This could almost become part of a work contract, as it’s so important. Twice a year, if you had a week in the middle and a week at the end of the year, ah magic!
What would name as the three or four key attributes of an excellent leader?
I think you have to have a genuine desire to work with people, to see the best in people. You will have difficulty in leading people if you don’t see the positive attributes that exist within them. I suppose it’s a genuine concern for human beings. The Salesians embrace the Don Bosco philosophy – ‘loving kindness’ – “amorevolezza” is the most important approach/quality. Carl Rogers spoke of ‘unconditional positive regard’. My view is you need a mixture of these aspects, the desire to really connect with people, to have a genuine concern for people.
I don’t whether I’m biased, but I think being patient and calm is a must in any leadership role. It gets so busy and hectic that you need a calm, patient, and ‘we’ll get there’ type of approach. In some places where I’ve worked, you wouldn’t last five minutes if you didn’t possess this quality. It is really important to help people around you to stay grounded. If you’re calm and able to assess situations in a considered, thought-out manner, it tends to have that flow-on effect on people.
I think honesty is another essential quality of leadership. To be able to say “I’ve messed up”. I just think that’s really crucial; people need to know you’re a human being and real and not a “I never make mistakes” type of person. One of the first things I said to the staff this year was “I think I messed up presenting the strategic plan last year. I think I did it too quickly because of my eagerness to get in and do things”. I said “I really feel as though I should have gone through it in more detail and highlighted the different parts.” I believe people appreciate this honesty. I felt relaxed being honest with the staff.
Another quality I think is quite important and is a big difference between leading and managing, is the ability to inspire. Leaders can inspire and enthuse people around them to try different ventures or roles. Leaders are able to guide people in developing self-belief.
Can a person develop these attributes or are the ingrained?
Yes, they can be developed. Look at the work we do here – if I didn’t think our young people could develop skills, well I’m in the wrong role. I know people naturally gravitate to a certain style.
Look at my earlier comments about the need for a leader to be patient and calm. How do you develop this if the person doesn’t have it come naturally? You can help people develop these qualities by coaching them through situations. It’s similar to what I mentioned about Judith, I couldn’t see that I had these qualities and skills. She would highlight them when they occurred and then I’d keep it in mind, it would stick in my head and I’d say, “Right, I’m going to try to recreate that”. The same thing, for example, if a person flies off the handle, you say to them later, “What could have been done differently?” and you talk to them about it. They might respond “Oh, well okay. Well I can’t do that”. You then help them to understand that how they responded was a choice they made and they can act in a calmer manner if they choose to, you can take them through the moment.
Myers-Briggs highlight our personality traits. They say we lean towards one dimension but we’re a mixture. As we get older, if we’re self-aware enough, we innately start developing the areas that we’re not so good at, because we want to improve the not-so-developed qualities. It’s just a natural part of…..what’s the word Maslow used – actualising. You try to improve. When I reflect back, things that I was not too good at 20 years ago, like say certain types of administration or some types of organisational skills, I developed and worked upon. I am now very different. I frequently have people say to me how organised I am with certain aspects of my role, which is quite the opposite of what I was like 20 years back.
So I have actually developed in a range of areas so I would disagree with the notion that leadership skills are innate and cannot be developed. You can make the weak link the strongest link. As I mentioned, if I didn’t think we could help people develop new attributes, new skills then I’m probably in the wrong line of work.
But people sometimes limit their ability to develop by saying “I’m not good in X, Y and Z” and so they don’t any steps to change, they just accept it.
It’s a bit of a cop out. You can help a person realise they’re copping out when they say, “I’m crappy at that” by asking “Well, why are you crappy at it? Where is the proof?” You challenge them and help then to understand that possibly, they haven’t actually tried to do anything to change that particular skill or ability.
People often look towards professional development courses to help themselves learn new skills. But when I think back, and I’ve been to a lot of PD presentations over the years, often you don’t really get all that much out of these days. So what is the best professional development to help people learn leadership skills? I think that it really is by working with people who have the skills you want to develop. It isn’t easy to find the right person, the right mentor. Over the years I’ve asked a few bosses how to do things and I realised they didn’t know, or at least they didn’t know how to explain how they did things. Working with them was the best way to learn. You actually need to find people that have skills you wish to develop and then work alongside them; I think that’s how you learn.
So your advice for professional development is to identify areas you want to work on, then find the right mentor?
Yes, find people that you can see are good at something you wish to develop. A basic example, Warwick the swim coach I mentioned earlier. I became a decent swim coach for learners and junior squads because I hopped in a pool and worked in tandem / alongside him. I absorbed what he did and he did it in such a funny -humorous way with the kids, I absorbed it all. That was an effective way of learning for me. If I attended a course and was instructed with a DVD of Warwick in the pool doing this and doing that, I might have taken a little bit in, but it would have just become another PD course. I learned from doing, that’s the best way for a person like me. It’s a kinaesthetic style of learning I suppose –tactile. Of course I’m just giving you my opinion.
So in terms of recommendations to an aspiring leader about the best professional development, you’re saying to identify where you need to develop and look for someone to work closely with?
Yes, we need to be open to learning and developing ourselves, not shut away and protected. You might be able to develop the skills by working within your executive or a team environment, but if not, then go and look for people with those skills you wish to develop. A healthy executive team, which can disagree with one another respectfully, is probably a good place to receive constructive critical feedback. From that point a person should be able to work out where they can start to develop.
Are you a reader Paul?
I was given a novel at Christmas and it is still sitting on my bedside table as I have all these other books for university, for work and for my other interests. The novel will probably still not be read by the end of the year. But yes, I am a reader. There are two books in particular I’m reading now: I’m reading John Morrison’s book on the Educational Philosophy of St John Bosco. I’m more and more amazed, that 200 years ago this Priest had such an in-tune approach to working with young people. It never ceases to amaze me. I’m also reading a book by Peter Todd called The Individuation of God & Science which is a wonderful contemporary approach to trying to understand the intertwinement of Science and God. So I suppose that between my university readings, which are on ethics and counselling this semester, I tend to be reading a fair bit, most to do with work and with spiritual and personal development.
Coming back to the aspiring leader, if you were giving some generic advice Paul, are there particular books you would recommend or does really need to be tailored for the person?
Over the years there’s been a lot of “pop psych” type of books out there, books that came in and out of fashion: Who Moved My Cheese is one and this was about dealing with change management. Another was Covey’s, Seven Habits. They have good messages.
There are a range of books such as those two, which you can read, but when you’re looking at it, it’s all management psychology. As you’re finding your style and your way of operating, if you have the desire or the stimulation to learn more about yourself or how you work or how you lead people, you’ll just naturally start searching for books or information and you’ll gravitate towards them. It sounds sort of open-ended I know, but if you said to me “Well, why are you reading this book? Why are you reading that book?” I would say, “I’ve evolved towards them.” For example, the educational philosophy of St John Bosco is the underpinning of our program and it’s a unique program that has been set up at Dunlea Centre and I want to know all there is to know about him and his approach. I want to know how his approach developed into this particular type of program we currently operate. So my reading has been directed to learning more about him. I’m absorbing the knowledge about him as I currently work within a system that has his educational philosophy as the foundation.
Are there websites that you often visit Paul, websites that you would see as valuable?
Yes I do. The APS & AHPRA sites I access regularly. These are both psychology websites for members, which I mainly use for information to do with working with our clients. There are also quite a few good sites like the goodcounsellorguide.com, psychology.com, where you get useful information as well as being able to access associated leadership material.
You’ve already touched on mentors and finding someone where you can immerse yourself in their work. But if I can just go back a step: could you speak further on why a person should seek a mentor and what should they look for?
I actually think it should work the other way. I think good leaders should be looking for people who could benefit from having the right type of mentor attached to them. I think back and I was a lone ship for quite a while. I’ve already spoken about Judith. Even before Judith there was this particular Principal who drove me to an important interview and on the way over he said “You’ll get this job”. When I asked why he felt this, he explained that I had the right makeup for it. I believe I was successful because he said I would be. He instilled it in my head that I was equipped for this role. He was a good mentor in the sense that he was on the lookout for the qualities in his people and he encouraged and supported me. I think it should work that way – a younger person doesn’t really know all their strengths or their limitations. An older person can often see these and they should be able to comment or guide or direct a person towards this development. It’s like coaching I suppose.
But if somebody hasn’t taken you under their wing in this manner, should you take action or should you wait? What should you do if you were aspiring to leadership?
Well, you’d go looking. You wouldn’t sit around and wait because it might not happen. But how would you do it? Well, people tend to think you go to the top, go to the boss and talk to her or him, but this isn’t necessarily the best thing to do. You can get some wise owls that are sitting right beside you for instance, people who can help direct you. People who have experience gleaned over the years.
I think you should probably go looking, but I’m trying to put myself into the position of the younger person as they’re starting off. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea where to go. In my case I knew there was something more; I knew I needed to be doing something different and I took the risk and from there it has been this stepping stone sort of thing. Many of my colleagues didn’t see the need to make a change or take the risk like I did.
So do you think they were concerned about taking a risk?
Yes, I think risk taking and fear of change are factors that prevent people from doing things. The fear of the unknown is possibly a reason. Many people don’t feel the need for a change and are happy to continue in a similar role. By not taking a risk or not making a change you’re actually leaving yourself less open to opportunities when they arise. I think it’s difficult to stay fresh when you remain in role for a long period of time. It does happen in many work places though. Some people are perfectly fine with doing this and they reinvent themselves regularly to stay motivated. Or you can say “I’ve got to have a go at something else. I’ve must try something different. I don’t want to leave my colleagues, I don’t want to leave this familiarity that we have, everything’s predictable and comfortable, but I need to try”. I suppose it’s a desire, a self-desire to want to take the risk, take the challenge.
Which skill have you found most useful in your career?
I think a current colleague picked it up straight away. We had an incident here, which could have become quite volatile and he said afterwards; “Paul, one of your outstanding features is your ability to stay calm in very tense situations”. That’s not because I’m not feeling agitated, not at all. It’s probably what made me good in behavioural settings when kids were smashing windows and out of control. I think staying calm under fire and not making a decision there and then, but instead, sleeping on things, giving a little bit of time and space before making a decision. I think that’s a really good quality of mine that’s seen me through some tough times.
And the skill that you wish you had?
That is hard to answer because there’s probably lots of other skills I wish I had. One thing I’ve worked on is thinking that I have to fix the lot, improve all and please everyone. I mentioned earlier about the job that I stayed on because I felt like the whole community needed me to stay on. I worked myself so hard that I developed pneumonia, through sheer exhaustion. Not everyone can see the level of effort that you put into things and how hard you work for them or the organisation. Everyone’s perception is different and I have been quite disappointed when I’ve realised that some people wouldn’t have cared less if you fell off the perch on the job or they might even have celebrated if you had left the workplace. In the meantime you have been using every ounce of your physical and emotional strength to help improve the organisation. That can be the straw that breaks your back!
Even though it might only be a couple of disgruntled people, with the majority right behind you and supporting you, these disgruntled detractors and their comments would stick with me – sort of like being the bomb that blows a hole in the ship. I’ve really had to work on that part of my thinking. Again I can refer to a very good supervisor who had a few poignant insights that stuck with me. “You’ve must remember that you will not be able keep everyone happy and satisfied. Every person’s perception is slightly different. You just have to focus on where you are taking the majority of people and accept there will always be detractor and cynics.”
I’m much better at doing this these days. I think sometimes a leader can use so much energy on all these really positive, creative, moving forward type of things that they are left exposed with nothing in reserve. You need to develop resilience and be able to put those negatives aside and keep something in psychological reserve as well as physical, for those challenging periods.
A key aspect of any leadership role is around communications. What sort of practices, what sort of approach do you use to connect with the various groups of people that you need to liaise with?
I’ve always believed in an open door policy. I’ve never been in a role where the door is closed. I’ve had many people over the years make comments like “Your door is always open, people can just come in and see you whenever they want. That’s not good.” Or “You’re on call all the time. You’ll get worn out”. But I think that it is really important for people to know that they can come to you and that you don’t see yourself as being at a different level and remote from them. Instead you give out the message “we might have different roles, but I’m here and I’m working with you, amongst you”.
I think it is crucial for people to feel a sense of working together, not the ‘us & them’ so to speak. It doesn’t mean us and them won’t develop. Sometimes this will develop because of the mindset of people themselves, it wouldn’t matter what you did. But I think an open door policy and an attitude that conveys it doesn’t matter what I’m doing now, I will put it aside because connecting with people and having time for a person when they need it, that’s number one priority.
That really is the essence of communication. It’s being able to give your time to people, to listen to them, being available for them. They’re not getting the impression that you’ve only 60 seconds available because you’re so busy and you just want to get this over and done with. You really are there for them. That’s the Salesian approach of presence when working with young people. It’s a beautiful way of working with all people.
You can also look at the way our executive works here at Dunlea. We all like to work on achieving a consensus on certain contentious issues. I’d prefer consensus but sometimes you just cannot achieve this and yet a decision must be reached. So if we’re divided on something it falls back to me and I have to make the decision. I dislike it feeling totalitarian in nature, that’s certainly not my ideal, but the team needs to be comfortable to know that the leader must make the call, I’ve been selected for this role and what that involves. So, if we’re split on an issue, I make the final call and trust they will stick with me on the decision.
I’m pretty sure everyone is quite respectful of this approach. I do listen to people and, again, that’s the open door approach. I try to hear what the team is saying – sometimes it’s not what you want to hear either, but I think that’s important. It is important you do hear things that you might not want to hear and you listen to people and try and act on things if possible or if that is required.
I don’t think there’s anything formal about me in terms of communication. I try to keep things as informal as much as I can. I feel as though people are more comfortable and realistic to this approach. I try to make the communication real. I believe I am open and pragmatic in this regard.
Can I ask about the office arrangement? I notice that your office is now different and not removed from others in the team. Why did this change?
From my perspective I just felt there was a division, with me isolated over here and remote from the team who were over there. I asked myself whether or not we were all working together. I certainly could see the benefits of being separated at times. But I also consider I’m part of the team, I’m part of the hub and I need to be in there with all of us together. The first couple of weeks after the move I felt everyone felt awkward with me being in with them. Some might have thought I was checking up on them & looking over their shoulder.
But I do regard myself as part of the team, that’s who we are. Now I have people come in and talk to me much more regularly – teachers, staff, whomever, they come in and talk and I’m part of that everyday buzz. I compare that to the earlier set-up where I could go a whole day and not have a person come near my office unless called for, that’s not good at all.
The outline you’ve just given will certainly build team morale and team spirit. But is there anything else you want to share with us?
I try to follow the Salesian philosophy of erring on the side generosity. For example, when we have staff days or anything along these lines, I think it’s really important that you show people you value their work and provide good food and sustenance. On the days when we have our training, I don’t want them to worry about these primary needs. On occasions we go out and have lunch it’s taken care of to show them that we value what they do. This sits well within the Salesian philosophy to err on the side of generosity. I think if you say to people “We’re doing this, we’re doing that, you don’t have to worry about lunches or going up the road, it’s all provided” then they really appreciate it and they know that you’re making an effort for them.
That’s the way I see it, people need to know you care. You’re never going to make everyone happy but, again, I think you show people you care when you take the time to talk to them, when you really listen, when you provide for them on special days. These might seem like such simple things, but they have a significant impact I feel.
You also get a lot of positive flow-on effects from taking the time with people. I remember another inner city Principal named Lyn who had a great philosophy. “Paul, I never take notes when I go to meetings. I’d rather give people my full attention; I can write any notes I might need later.” I’ll always remember that comment – we’re all accustomed to take notes during lectures or meetings or interviews, whatever. There is a lot of merit in her approach. She was wonderful Principal. There you are, another person I have learnt something from!
What would you name as the areas of priority for a newly appointed leader in their first 12 months?
Over the years there have been many mistakes that I’ve made when I’ve started in a new role. I’ve tried not to repeat them. I’ve endeavoured to be a wiser person coming into this role.
In the first 12 months: absorb everything you can. Don’t try to change the organisation. I understand how people take on a new role and bring about some remarkable differences in a short space of time. I’ve been in roles where there has been a need to have an immediate impact. But I think it is an effective approach to take the first 12 months, to absorb the way the place operates; the way relationships have developed; why it operates in the manner it does; the philosophy of the place; you need to take it all in. I think it’s significantly important to do this in a new role.
My advice is to write all your observations into your diary, because you have fresh eyes. After 12 months in the role your eyes will not be as unsullied and there will be aspects of your initial observations that you’ll now accept or you will have forgotten. After the 12 months, go back and review your notes and if there was an observation that was relevant back then and is still relevant now, then you know it should become an action item. Whereas there will be other notes you’ll read and think ‘Now I know all the ins and outs of why this happens in this manner – and I’m pleased I didn’t act on that at the time as it’s important it operates this particular way”. So from mistakes I’ve made in the past I’d encourage this strategy to circumvent some.
I’d also like to add to this advice that you don’t have to do everything in your first 12 months, especially if a person is newly appointed to a more senior position. Often a person thinks they have to do it all. Again I’d say to them, step back, observe, take it all in, there’ll be time to bring about the changes you foresee.
Just recently I received some indirect feedback where a person commented that they liked the way I had settled in to the new role. They mentioned I was not trying to do everything all at once. One by one things are getting done. That’s a reasonable approach, one step at a time.
So if someone enters into a leadership role I’d say to them “Make sure you have your notebook or your diary and write things down as you go around. You don’t have to talk to anyone about it, just write down notes for yourself. This will become a fantastic blueprint for you”. Later you can have them go through the strategic plan and see how their thoughts align.
You’ve mentioned on a number occasions the wise advice you’ve received over the years. The last question of you Paul is what’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received that you could share with others?
The best advice I’ve been given? Listen to people, (people need to be heard), and take time to think things through before acting. Often, just being heard can be validating enough for people who need to vent. If you give your time authentically then I think that will get you further in developing your relationships on a positive platform than anything else. Giving your time to people should be a priority, listen to them and make decisions in a timely manner. In a previous role we had a funny saying that developed over time – ‘radical non‑intervention’. Occasionally we faced acutely complex problems that baffled us: how will we solve this problem? What strategies will we adopt? What steps will we put in place? We would leave it for a few days and the problem was then revisited and often we would find it had resolved itself without any intervention at all! Amazing.
However, it’s an effective approach, to listen to people, take the time to validate them and their issues, think the concerns through calmly, give yourself thinking space, and then act in a timely and transparent manner. It has taken a long time to fully appreciate the depth and value of this advice.
An introduction to Paul Mastronardi
Paul Mastronardi has a career which spans both the education and community sectors. He was appointed as the Executive Director of the Dunlea Centre (Australia’s original Boys’ Town) in January 2012. Dunlea Centre, based in Engadine NSW, is a mission of the Salesian Society of Priests and Brothers which supports families in crisis.
Prior to this appointment Paul was State Coordinator Student Wellbeing with the NSW Catholic Education Commission. Paul worked for many years as a Principal in a number of Schools for Specific Purpose with the NSW Department of Education.
Currently Paul is representing the Catholic sector on the Board of Studies Endorsement Panel for Alternative Programs. He is also working to complete a second masters (Masters of Counselling) which he aims to complete in early 2014.