Lives with Purpose – Alumni Profile

UNSW Alumna Georgie Smith is a social entrepreneur and thought leader working with the public service, smoothing the path for ambitious young people to become powerful forces for good.

Valuable lessons learned at UNSW

Both UNSW’s Master of Environmental Management (MEM) and the Institute of Environmental Studies (IES) more than lived up to their reputations. The wisdom and conviction imparted by academic staff, particularly professors Mark Diesendorf, Gerry Bates, Daniel Robinson and Jason Smith has been the bedrock of my career.

I came to UNSW not really understanding what the concept of advocacy meant, but thanks to the insightful IES staff who encouraged me to take on opportunities to represent my fellow students, I discovered my true calling. The rest of my career and life really started when those staff helped me see who and what I am - an advocate, through and through. Dr Mehreen Faruqi (former head of the IES, now a Federal Senator for NSW) and Tamara Rouse (former IES office manager, now NSW Parliamentary policy advisor) deserve particular thanks for that.

Loving what you do – a career with purpose

I’m strongly motivated by pursuing the common good. It’s what led me into the public service after I graduated, and it’s what drives me to build my public sector staff training company now. I’ve been privileged to be able to put my energy towards projects, jobs and organisations that align deeply with my values. This means that even on tough days, I still feel pride in my work, and have the resolve to tackle the issues of the day. My current line of work is joyful, so my biggest problem is being too excited by my work to sleep!

Highlights on the career journey

After graduating, I moved to Melbourne and spent a decade in my dream agency - the Victorian Environment Protection Authority (EPA). I led the assessment of major infrastructure projects such as power stations, road tunnels and the Melbourne Metro. I also ran a massive restructure, ensuring that all the affected staff were treated fairly and given maximum support through the change; that was a real highlight.

I then moved into an executive role at the Clean Energy Council. There, I had the enormously challenging and rewarding job of reforming the nation’s rooftop solar regulation scheme, increasing its rigour and authority.

Last year, I decided to take a sabbatical to tackle a problem that had been on my mind for years. I wanted to answer three related questions: Is there a recipe for how to have impact as a public servant? If so, why do so many good public servants end up failing? And finally, is there anything that can be done to turn failure around?

The short answer to those three questions is - YES! I spent 2020 forming those answers into a book (The Formula For Impact: How to do well while doing good in the public sector, due to be published in January). I’ve dedicated 2021 to setting up Upsides Training, which delivers targeted training, coaching and support to public sector staff and their managers.

Problem solving at work

There’s a wonderful mental model I use often, called the Cynefin Framework, developed by Dave Snowden in 1999. It distinguishes between complicated problems (right/wrong answers, replicable - e.g., getting a rocket into orbit) vs complex problems (fluid answers, non-replicable, e.g., getting arguing stakeholders to agree to a compromise).

I tend to tackle complex problems, because my skills and interests lie in the fine dance of constantly learning, adapting and brokering between parties within issues. It’s no surprise that in my downtime, I like to tackle what Cynefin calls simple problems - things like home renovation projects, cooking and gardening. Good mental “palette cleansers”!

Building resilience

The greatest challenge for me in terms of resilience comes when dealing with the issues facing our global society. As the mother of a small child, matters like climate change and global power struggles concern me deeply; I want my son to have at least as good a world to grow up into as I had. A major positive change I’ve made in the last couple of years has been to gradually detach myself from most news and media sources. I don’t keep my head in the sand - after all, I consider it the obligation of every citizen to stay informed - but I do carefully choose how much and when to ingest the news of the day.

I also have found a lot of renewal in focussing locally. I live in the wonderful temperate rainforest of the Dandenong Ranges on the outskirts of Melbourne, and the community spirit here is so strong. That old saying, “think global, act local” really means, for me, leaning into what’s happening in my local community, as most of it is wonderful. That recharges my batteries.

Proudest achievements

Working out the formulas for impact, failure and renewal for public sector staff has been the highlight of my career. It has brought together everything I’ve done so far - advocacy, project delivery, personal and professional development, staff development and behaviour change campaigns. It supports a cohort of people that I have the utmost respect and admiration for - public servants literally keep society running, and they’re the wisest and most noble people I know. It’s my honour to be able to help them do what they do even better.

Another is from my time at UNSW. Thanks to a firm nudge from Tamara Rouse, in 2007 I stood for and was elected the postgraduate officer on UNSW’s Student Representative Council and in 2008-9 I used my platform to champion the creation of the UNSW Postgraduate Council, or PGC. There had been a similar structure, but it collapsed during the Voluntary Student Unionism changes in the early 2000’s. UNSW’s 15,000 postgrads had virtually no representation without a PGC. Not good enough. Today, the PGC is the backbone of Arc, looking out for thousands of students every year and helping keep UNSW one of the best universities in the country.

Advice for current UNSW students?

We all get one life. Live yours like you mean it.

It’s a cliché, but in my experience, it really is true that the world is shaped by those who dare to think and act differently. We overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in a decade.

At work, I successfully argued for changes to major infrastructure legislation, fought down bullying developers, and now I’m launching a successful social enterprise that will help 2 million public servants (and by extension, everyone) and so much more. I’ve done all of this NOT because I’m special, but because I dared to. The world moves when those brave enough decide that it needs to move.

You can actually do so much more than you realise! And honestly, what have you got to lose?

Georgie Smith

Georgie Smith is the Founder and CEO of Upsides Training.

Degree and year of graduation: Master of Environmental Management, 2009.