Leading by example

If the City of Victor Harbor had the same population density as an inner-city council like Unley where Victoria MacKirdy once worked there would be more than one million people living here.

Actually, it seemed like there were during Schoolies Week and the Christmas holidays, and as our new chief executive officer and a mother and step mother to five she is excused for believing every day is mayhem.

Victoria smiles at the notion, and sees her new challenges as no greater than at any other regional council, and her role as a parent no more demanding than any other. But she is a special person, even if she doesn’t see it that way either.

Victoria’s appointment means she is one of only nine women among 69 CEOs currently in local government in South Australia. With the region lacking major corporations, she undeniably performs the most significant and demanding role held by a woman across the Fleurieu Peninsula.

With International Women’s Day being celebrated on Thursday, March 8 it is fitting that we recognise her inspirational achievements, especially given that in recent weeks she was inducted to the Chiefs for Gender Equity – a group of prominent South Australians – to champion equality in SA.

The Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency tells us the ratio of women in the role as CEO in SA local government is 2.4 per cent lower than the 15.4% of female CEO appointments nationally across all sectors.

Also, with Victor Harbor having a population of 15,075 according to Census 2016, with a density of 0.39 people per km2 representing far fewer ratepayers than Unley to share the cost of fixing or maintaining services, it seems an understatement suggesting Victoria is confronting a huge challenge.

The thing is, when you see her journey so far, the trails of success and sadness, incredible joy and the amazing ability to organise five kids before work every morning it becomes obvious her life is purely driven by one simple rule: just get on with it. Believe it; she will succeed.

Victoria was born in Leicester in England’s Midlands, and because of her father’s engineering/pipeline background her family lived in Kuwait in the Middle East until she was four. The family later moved to Australia, and she spent much of her youth in scorching outback places like Tibooburra and Cobar.

The move to Adelaide came in 1981, and soon after Victoria experienced profound grief at just 12 when her mother died. Even this did not prepare her in later life, through her first marriage with the challenges of a family primary production business, a divorce and then in 2013 when her ex-husband, Alex, died of cancer. They had three children – Paige, now 18, Jordan, 14, and Arie, 12. It was during these chapters that her admirable steely character, her resilience first emerged.

Obviously, there is still a sense of pain, but of course Victoria got on with life, she is now happily married to Hamish – a father to Archie, 14 – and together they have a son, Levi, five. “Levi is the glue that holds us all together – we are all related to Levi,” she explaimed.

This beautiful couple lives in Victor Harbor, and have been reminded countless times of the like-family situation in that American sitcom The Brady Bunch (1969-74). It offers amusement. However, making the hot dogs early Saturday mornings at the kids’ local footy games and traipesing kids around to basketball over the years, and in Victoria’s words feeling like the wheels have fallen off while getting ready for school before another crucial meeting in 30 minutes, makes her seem like almost any other family down the road.

Personally, Victoria likes to see herself as a caring, nurturing mum. “I love my kids unconditionally,” she says.

“I feel guilty lots of times (because of work commitments), but I also know they are loved, cared for and I give them quality time. They say they are proud of me, and that gives me strength and energy to do what I do.”

The CEO role, appointment to Chiefs for Gender Equity, plus a host of extending lines in her curriculum vitae is inspirational to all. She hopes it will help young girls to believe they can be anything they want to be in life.

“I say it to my own daughters, in fact I say it to all our children” she said. “If they want to be a carpenter there should be avenues for them as there is for a male or female. If they want to be a CEO for a big corporation they can. There should not be any limitations.

“But importantly, if they don’t want to take on any particular role they should not be criticised for that either. Some of my closest girlfriends have only ever wanted to settle down have children, stay at home and raise a family, and I love them dearly and admire them for what they do. They look at me and say I’m nuts, but that’s what I chose to do. We are all different.

“I like the fact that I am a woman, I am different, I think differently. As long as that is included in the mix and adds value that is important.”

Victoria admits to having difficulty sometimes balancing work with private time. “I am very lucky in that I have a very supportive husband, and the kids are great,” she said. “I treasure my family life, but I do find it hard to tune out.

“When you are the CEO of a community you are living, breathing, sleeping it every minute of the day – I cannot go to the shops without seeing something and thinking, oh, we need to fix that. I feel that I am on alert 24 x 7.

“Working for a council brings its comments from people outside of work, but I don’t really mind as long as they are genuine questions and concerns. I want to be able to talk to them and about what I do… that I am approachable.

“It’s when people get riled up and angry that it becomes a concern, but I understand that as well – I am considerate of the fact that something has obviously impacted on them. If they are calm, I can see reason to what they are trying to achieve, and I want to be able to help.

“I want to achieve so much, but I cannot do everything alone; no one person can. Everything in local government requires the involvement of a lot of people. I rely on community input, and that of the elected members and staff. It’s like being the conductor of an orchestra; I am seeing where the bits are coming from and trying to get them to work together.

“I am passionate about how important local government is, a level of government that is not recognised for what it actually does. We are very quick to do the rates, roads and rubbish line and question what we get for our rates, but how often do we stop and look around to see all the great things council does?”

Victoria has no doubt that people look at her from the outside and say, oh, everything is so picture perfect; she has her children, her husband, a great job, she lives at Victor and everything is so fantastic.

But she knows she is just like so many others; she has endured a share of tough times in life, she works hard, goes home at night and makes the dinner. The groceries are packed in the cupboard and the kids are ready for school the next morning. There is no Alice the housekeeper like that television Brady Bunch.

Then it is a new day. Her role of a CEO sees her doing seemingly everything and anything from working on major planning and development to barking dogs, construction of roads, arts & culture, tourism events, making sure our finances are correct and helping the community with issues and concerns.

The role is different to any other, but setting her apart is her resilience and ability to adapt that stems from losing her mother at just 12 and moving from school-to-school. If nothing else, her experiences enable her to look back and no matter what make the best of everything. It’s called leadership. Her mum would be proud.

Significant appointment: International Women’s Day commemorates the movement for women’s rights, and has been celebrated on March 8 every year since 1910 following an International Women’s Conference in New York.

The day was adopted by the United Nations in 1975, and South Australia became a national leader in equal rights by passing the Equal Opportunity Act (SA) 1984.

The induction of Victor Harbor CEO Victoria MacKirdy to the Chiefs for Gender Equity (CGE) is another positive step in the progression of equal opportunity in this state over the past 35 years.

CGE is a group of prominent South Australian CEOs brought together to ensure gender equity is at the top of the agenda – both in business and in society.

Leading from the top, the Chiefs have pledged their support to increasing the participation of women at the highest levels of industry and to build workplace cultures that support this aim. This means looking at how we lead our organisations, the diversity of our people, flexible work options, hiring and promotion policies, and how SA businesses can be more accountable for change. Visit: http://www.eoc.sa.gov.au/eo-business/chiefs-gender-equity