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7 Questions with Michelle Connell
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7 Questions with Michelle Connell
Name: Michelle Connell
Current title: President
Current organisation: Teachers Across Borders Australia
Michelle is a senior policy advisor and experienced educator with expertise in the design and evaluation of leadership programs for school-aged students, university students, and executive and corporate staff working in schools, government and the private sector. She is well respected for her ability to influence contested policy in the areas of initial teacher education and the international education sector. Her dynamic leadership has resulted in the successful implementation of high profile state-wide and international projects that seek to positively impact domestic and international partnerships, as well as increase the global learning and engagement of schools.
In addition to her role in Government, Michelle provides strategic direction for the Australian chapter of a not-for-profit organisation founded in 2006, Teachers Across Borders (TAB). Teachers Across Borders works with offshore governments to design and deliver technical leadership programs that train rural-based teachers in best practice educational approaches aligned with existing educational research. Prior to COVID-19, TAB was working in various provinces across Cambodia. Michelle’s mission is to spark deep educational curiosity and create opportunities that empower learners to transform their lives, and in doing so, steadfastly address issues of inequity. This guiding principle has led her to engage with a variety of systems including; Indonesia, Cambodia, India, Mauritius, China and New Zealand, along with research study tours to Germany, Finland, Norway, Singapore and the U.K. She has been a recipient of multiple educational scholarships and a finalist for the prestigious Victorian (Australia) Achievers Award for her work with improving community engagement and wellbeing.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
One challenge when operating offshore, and often in rural provinces that experience high levels of poverty and extreme hardship, is ensuring our volunteers take the time to understand the importance of cultural awareness and safety. This is paramount to our ethos of respecting diversity, tradition and culture when working across borders, especially when operating in countries with a complex and sensitive history. Our work needs to empower local individuals with knowledge and tools so they can embed learnings in a sustainable way for the improvement of their communities. This means our organisation needs to work closely with volunteers to change any preconceived notions of ‘charity work’ being done to an ‘other’ in an ad-hoc way. Challenging this mindset takes effort and consistency.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
In 2015 I undertook a scan of Australian-based organisations working with offshore communities to improve the educational outcomes for students and teachers. After initially approaching Teachers Across Borders I was soon on a flight to Cambodia to teach aspirant college-level students effective learning and teaching pedagogies for the classroom. My love for working alongside educators and undertaking research and development soon placed me on the Committee of Management. In 2020 I was elected to the role of President for the Australian chapter of the organisation. Teachers Across Borders also operate in the United States and Sweden.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
My days vary immensely so structure can often be a challenge. I like to use the term, ‘consistency’. I am consistent with my daily practices but the structure or order they occur in can be upside down at times! Generally, my day involves full-time employment working in the International Education sector for Government. I lead a team of staff responsible for the implementation of offshore school-based leadership programs, as well as the development of Ministerial advice in the space of globalising education. My work hours are varied and often depend on factors such as needs of the Minister(s), offshore partners, or schools. COVID-19 has impacted this dramatically. Throughout the day I exercise for at least one hour (boxing, running, weights), and every other day I am carving out time for self-care activities such as meditation, painting, yoga and spending time with family and friends. On the weekends is where I wholly devote time to TAB. This means I can have uninterrupted time to respond to emails, network, read up on research in this space, schedule Board meetings and brainstorm how the organisation can pivot and/or innovate as we navigate the global pandemic.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
The most recent significant leadership lesson I have learnt is that professional vulnerability is not to be feared, but to be embraced. COVID-19 has had profound impacts on leaders and required a great deal of agility, resilience and innovation. Leadership is not about ‘getting it right all the time’, it is about being curious and responsive to the environment at every moment. Impactful leadership, especially through a crisis, is being able to tune into every moment with presence. If we are fearful of professional vulnerability we cannot be present. We are either stuck in the ‘past’ because we liked the feeling of being safe when we had predictability or we are projecting into the ‘future’ and unable to see past the haze of confusion and anxiety.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
The book ‘Closer’ by Peter Charleston discusses seven principles of connectedness. Whilst this book is insightful it also provides a practical framework for developing and sustaining positive and rewarding relationships. I believe as a leader that relationships are at the core of everything we do. Our desire as leaders to improve society stems from an innate desire for a closer connection to people and nature. I apply the seven principles in my everyday interactions with staff and in-turn I have observed stronger relationships that have led to more productive outcomes and an uplifting culture.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
You build leadership capacity in a large organisation with tenacity! On a practical level, leadership is cultivated by encouraging individuals to be committed to their own self-awareness, self-regulation and self-discovery. It is through this that individuals can experience shifts in personal transformation and be more open to embracing and embodying different leadership traits. The organisation has a responsibility to ensure it has the processes or tools that can provide wrap-around support for the individual, and also frameworks to help identify leadership potential.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
In 2015 I met an aspiring young teacher in Cambodia. She was vibrant and absolutely dedicated to helping her community to overcome hardship through the power of education. She had very few resources but her curiosity to reveal a ‘better way’ and her open-mindedness were the tools she needed to become an excellent educator. She is now a well-respected teacher in her community and coaches other aspiring teachers.