Since establishing the Aboriginal Employment unit at Sydney Trains in 2017, Angela Webb has more than doubled the number of Indigenous employees working at the organisation. It has now become known as an employer of choice within the Aboriginal community.

Webb is a proud Aboriginal woman from the Gumbaynggirr nation of North Coast NSW. Her family ties span from the Nambucca Valley to the Clarence Valley in Grafton.

And as an Aboriginal woman working in a relatively ‘white male’-dominated industry, Webb wanted to build her confidence and skills – and find new ways to empower her team at Sydney Trains. After participating in the AGSM @ UNSW Business School Custom Program course: Transport for NSW, designed specifically for Sydney Trains employees to focus on career development and mentorship, Webb decided to enrol in AGSM’s Emerging Indigenous Executive Leaders Program (EIELP).

“After seeing how professional the AGSM facilitators were, I really wanted to enrol in their Indigenous Leaders program,” Webb explains.

“As a leader, I've been able to influence and collaborate at my level and be a voice for other Aboriginal people. But in order to put myself on a more even playing field and influence senior leaders, I needed to develop my confidence and build on my skills.”

The EIELP is designed for high performing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander managers who want to develop their strategic leadership capabilities and deepen cultural awareness in the context of business leadership. The five modules are delivered over a nine-month period and focus on equipping Indigenous leaders with skills to be future-ready, providing a supportive network of like-minded leaders.

Shifting formats

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic AGSM moved EIELP’s sessions online to keep the program running. While Webb was excited to start her course, she had reservations about the virtual format.

“As a social person, I really value those face-to-face conversations, and I get a lot out of in-person interactions. So for me, making the move online has been difficult,” she says. “You’re in back-to-back virtual meetings all day, which gets challenging, so the idea of getting back in front of the screen for the program was a little daunting.”

But with such a high calibre of inspiring speakers, different formats, interactive sessions and a national cohort of like-minded people, Webb found she looked forward to her EIELP sessions.

“I’ve really enjoyed the speakers and the variety of the program. From a lunch and learn with Aaron Clark, Indigenous programs manager at AFL Victoria, to strategy sessions facilitated by amazing people like Professor Mark Rose, who is the Indigenous programs Academic Director and is an AGSM Adjunct Lecturer in Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship – it has all been really engaging.”

The online program brings together Indigenous managers from across the country, and delivers its course content through interactive Zoom sessions, facilitated by highly experienced and engaging practitioners.

“We might break out into one group for one session, then mix it up with a different group for another session. It’s a good way to get to know everyone within our cohort.”

Webb also likes being able to go back and revisit certain areas or listen to something she missed, as the sessions are recorded and accessible via a student online learning portal.

“There’s a real variety in how you learn, which I love. And spending more time in online sessions has also taught me to be more efficient and open in virtual meetings, which is great.”

Elevating employee potential

The EIELP program helps students develop a strategic challenge to implement change in their organisation. For Webb, this challenge was around accelerating Aboriginal talent within the organisation.

“We’re looking at certain band levels within Sydney Trains and how we can help move people in operational and corporate roles and into the next level of their career. We want to get more Aboriginal staff into the senior service level roles.”

Creating a framework for this has been on the agenda for a while, but Webb felt she lacked the tools and resources to pull it together.

“The EIELP has really helped me navigate that process and take that first step,” she says. “Learning about strategy and different frameworks is how I’ve been able to put things into place – dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s. The Minto Framework gave me a pathway to working through a situation or problem and finding a solution that will get the outcome we want.”

Exploring design thinking through the program has also helped Webb think differently about problem-solving.

“We were always quick to jump to a solution, rather than look at all the broader elements that led to the problem. But it’s actually more about empathising with different people involved, and really getting down to the nitty gritty of the challenge. Figuring out what the problems are and working our way around that. It helped create a more robust framework.”

Webb has been able to put her EIELP learnings into practice straight away and has now presented this talent acceleration framework to executive leaders at Sydney Trains.

“I've been really thankful to actually have some of these techniques to use in my own work.”

The intersection of Western and Indigenous philosophies

The EIELP works at the intersection of Indigenous philosophies of relationship building, and more transactional-based Western business. It provides participants the opportunity to be at ease with their ancestral mandate within a contemporary setting.

“The program creates a place where everyone shares the same history and we speak our own language. This allows us to be more authentic and our true selves. And the facilitators’ passion and understanding of the culture, their openness and willingness to give is just amazing. They really get the challenges of walking in two worlds.”

Bringing together people with similar backgrounds and values is a great way to learn for Webb. “I hear other people’s stories and they have exactly the same challenges. It makes you feel like you’re not alone. It has really given me the assurance to bring my whole self to work.”

And this is already having a professional impact; Webb has been approached by senior leaders about the next steps in her career at Sydney Trains and how she can continue to make an impact across the organisation.

“That’s been a real eye opener for me. Now that they know what I’ve achieved and gained through this course, leaders in my organisation want to support me and help me grow.”

Overall, Webb says, the program has really helped her have a more strategic focus on her work, both as an individual and as a team leader. The passion she saw in her facilitators has also inspired her to share her own enthusiasm in her presentations and daily communication.

A large part of Webb’s role involves helping executives and senior leaders understand Aboriginal culture – and how they can better support Aboriginal people in the business world.

“The EIELP has not only given me vital skills and tools, but also an important network of connections that will stay with me for my entire career.”

To learn more about AGSM’s Emerging Indigenous Executive Leaders Program, click here.

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School’s globally-ranked Executive Education programs, click here.