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Learnings from the ultimate change-maker

Learnings from the ultimate change-maker

Baroness Valerie Amos CH

Baroness Valerie Amos CH, the first black woman to serve as a cabinet minister in the UK and former High Commissioner to Australia, shared some wisdom from a life in public service during a recent visit to Queensland.

Baroness Valerie Amos CH (pictured) has learnt some valuable lessons in her long and distinguished career. She was appointed as Labour Life Peer in the British Parliament in 1997 and became a member of the UK government in 1998. 

Even before her high-profile career in politics, diplomacy and then later in the United Nations, when she accepted the role of Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator in 2010, public service has been a consistent motivating force in her professional life.

After five years in her UN role, Baroness Amos took on the position of director of SOAS, University of London in 2015.

Speaking with Lawyers Weekly while visiting Queensland last week, Baroness Amos shared what she regarded as the important lessons, career-lessons in leadership and being a change-maker she has learnt.

From her experience working in different advisory capacities, she said that she considers a deep understanding of the organisation engaging her services as being critical.

“I started off initially as an advisor to local government on race relations issues and then moved on to be an advisor on women’s issues,” Baroness Amos said.

“When you are working in an advisory capacity, it is important to understand your organisation and know how you can persuade people to do things differently.

“Because although you have a responsibility in your role, you have no levers to make that happen and it’s all about understanding the organisation,” she said.

Baroness Amos has advised on race relations and women’s issues. She was also an advisor on leadership, change, management and strategy to the government of Nelson Mandela.

Born in Guyana, she is the first black woman to serve as a cabinet minister in the UK.

Nine-year-old Valerie Amos moved to England with her family from South America and would grow up to be Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council.

Commenting on her efforts to make a difference in politics, Baroness Amos said she has been guided by making clear goals. Although the nature of politics means that one cannot be certain about the time they have to achieve things, because people may be suddenly moved to another portfolio, she said leaders must have a clear vision.

“I think that it’s very important to know what it is that you want to achieve, having that sense of a goal, an objective, vision. Being prepared to adapt as you meet difficulties along the way is important,” Baroness Amos said.

Just as important, she added, is having a strong sense of what personal values cannot be compromised or given up. Negotiation in any situation, but especially a political context, means understanding when a line has been crossed.

“You also need to know what your bottom line is in terms of that pragmatism; what are things that you are just not prepared to do.

“When you are in an intensely political environment, it is important to have that fence because people are always negotiating, making deals. Knowing what is your cut-off point is crucial,” she said.

When asked about how she deals with the solitary nature of her many leadership positions, the baroness acknowledged that sometimes being a change-maker can be a lonely path. However, Baroness Amos was also quick to note that effective leaders draw on the passion and beliefs of people in an organisation to build the momentum required to realise change.

“There are complexities and decision-making can be tough.”

“Yes, there are times when the task at hand can be so complex and where, for example, you’re working in a highly volatile environment, when it’s important to know that there are people that you can talk to but also recognising that it is a very lonely place to be,” Baroness Amos said.

“But to make change, you need to you need to understand how the organisation works and the points that you’re going to use to bring that change about. Leaders must understand the importance of building alliances and working with other people because one person can never do it on their own,” she said.

The baroness added because people are generally resistant to change, the perception of many organisations is that change is risky. She takes an entirely opposite view and considers that working through potential risk is not the same as making changes, which can often prevent disaster or decline.

“In some cases the option that you go for may be seen as risk by others when it’s not, where it’s an opportunity to thrive. And I would always say that if you don’t risk, you don’t learn,” she said.

“Being in a position where you can make a difference in some way is an incredibly important place to be. There is a lot of responsibility that goes with it as well, but it is also something that can be very, very positive,” she said.

Baroness Amos was visiting Australia last week, where she was invited to give two keynote addresses in Queensland at Bond University. She said that she hopes her career lessons are helpful to others wanting to make a difference in their own way and encourages people to back themselves.

Be confident. I think part of being confident is to know your stuff, to have the evidence, to feel secure in the arguments that you’re able to make as to the importance of that change, Baroness Amos said.

It is also important to recognise that there are fears that we all have about whether or not we can do a job that is offered to us and that that feeling is natural, she said. 

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