Rewriting her narrative: How the AGSM EIELP helped Karyn Ervin bust through “internal blockers”

In December 2021, Karyn Ervin took on a new role as the Director Diversity, Performance and Leadership Development at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). There she helps create an inclusive workplace that provides an environment for a diverse workforce to succeed and grow.

“It’s important we not only reflect the Australian community, but that we use our diverse lived experiences to support and advance our foreign policy in a positive way,” Karyn says. “It’s my job to be an inclusive leader and establish a culture that can make that happen.”

The new role was a big step for Karyn – one she might not have been ready to take a few years ago. For decades Karyn, a proud Gooreng Gooreng/Punthamara woman, dealt with what she called “internal blockers” that stunted her professional growth.

“I’m from a generation where, throughout school, the narrative in my head was that I wasn’t the same. And when you’re not the same, the expectations are much lower. I was never told I was smart; I didn’t have that supporting environment to push me. I didn’t have that vision of going to university,” Karyn says.

“There were systemic things in school that really influenced my identity as an Aboriginal woman and built up this negative narrative. I took it on board and internalised it. I didn’t think I was smart. And when you don’t think you’re smart, you don’t aspire.”

Before joining DFAT, Karyn worked for the Australian Department of Defence and the Australian Public Service Commission. Despite the fact she’d built an incredible career in the public service, that doubt from school still followed Karyn.

“I second-guessed everything – impostor syndrome was alive and well inside of me, screaming ‘hello, here I am.’”

But all that changed in 2018, when she enrolled in the AGSM @ UNSW Emerging Indigenous Executive Leadership Program (EIELP). Something clicked for Karyn that changed how she thought about herself, her community and her abilities. 

“One day Professor Mark Rose, AGSM Adjunct Faculty member and Indigenous programs Academic Director, told us that, as Aboriginal people, we’re strategic, we’re smart, we’re great connectors, we’re funny – I had never heard anybody say that before. And it was like, wow, he’s right! Back yourself. It was so powerful and so critical to my development – reshaping that internal dialogue of not being quite good enough.”

Helping reshape the public sector

Karyn says she pursued the role at DFAT for two main reasons. One was her love of challenges. The other was her passion for and interest in nurturing diversity and inclusion across Australia, especially in the public sector. 

“I’d never worked for an organisation with such a global outward focus. Representing Australians in such a diverse and inclusive manner for a globally focused organisation is really interesting. It gives me a chance to stretch my thinking and constantly learn and evolve as a public servant,” she says.

Karyn’s mother worked in the public sector and her father was in the army, so Karyn says an element of national pride and service has been present her whole life and continues to inspire her today.

“I love being involved in work that I can see has a tangible impact on Australians from all walks of life – building environments where they can really develop. Because of my lived experience, I can talk from a place of knowing and understanding. When I joined the public sector it wasn’t as inclusive and welcoming of diversity, and I’m proud of the progress we’re making in this space.”

And Karyn says she might not have been part of this progress without the help of the EIELP.

“The program taught me to look at opportunities differently. So when I saw this job at DFAT, I thought about what I could bring to that role. Before the EIELP I probably would’ve never had that perspective or been looking to progress in my career.”

From impostor to impactor

Karyn says the AGSM EIELP not only provided her the confidence and the practical frameworks that she can use in her everyday work at DFAT, but also a view of the bigger picture that helped unlock her potential as a leader.

“I always questioned things – I wanted to know why. And it wasn’t until I went through the EIELP that I realised that’s because I’m a systems thinker. I need to understand how something works, and how that system is going to be impacted by different ideas and changes.”

“And that’s because I was born into a system as an Aboriginal woman. Who are you? Where are you from? What’s your family name? Do you know this person? My whole life has been about knowing where I fit in within that system and the Aboriginal community. And so the EIELP helped me apply that thinking to my professional life.”

With a more conscious understanding of systems thinking, Karyn can now look at scenarios from different angles and apply frameworks to see if and how she can do things differently.

She says another high point of the course was learning how to deliver better presentations and develop public speaking skills.

“We did a whole bunch of activities that helped us get more comfortable giving presentations. It was almost like that Ministry of Silly Walks sketch from Monty Python. And it sounds silly, but it had a huge impact on me. When you have that deficit narrative and feel like a fraud, it’s so hard to present effectively because you feel like you don’t have the skills. You don’t even take yourself seriously, so how will others?

“There’s a difference between being confident and backing myself. I came across as confident, but I never really backed myself to bring something different and unique to whatever I’m doing with the help of my life experiences. The EIELP taught me I could be more authentic in the way I present myself and my ideas. I don’t need to try to play a part. I can just be me.”

Paving the way for more diversity

Another aspect of the EIELP that stood out to Karyn was the diversity within her own cohort.

“It was amazing to meet people from all different industries to understand the similarities and differences between our lives in and outside of work. It was such a privilege to share the EIELP experience with other Indigenous leaders from the mining industry, banking industry, community sector and other organisations – I loved it. And so many of them have gone on to do such great things.”

Karyn says diversity in the workplace is critical, especially in the public sector.

“It's about giving everyone the chance to provide different perspectives – multiple perspectives bring better outcomes. And I know that sounds like diversity 101, but it really is true.

“For the public sector, it comes back to representing the diversity of Australia. We’re working with different backgrounds and communities, so how can we provide the best possible strategic advice without having people who have that lived experience and understanding of those contexts?”

The EIELP can help make sure Indigenous people have the power to make an impact and share their lived experience for the better of all Australians.

“I actively encourage almost every Indigenous person I know to try to do the EIELP if they can,”

Karyn says. “I can see how the program will be able to develop and grow and help even more in my community flourish. It presents such a comfortable environment for people to overcome that deficit narrative – the EIELP lets us explore that safely and turn it around.”

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

To learn more about AGSM’s globally ranked MBA programs, click here.

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School, click here.

Applications for the 6th EIELP cohort close on 1 April, 2022.
Click here to download the information brochure and application form.