The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Emerging Indigenous executive leaders programme

AGSM Emerging Indigenous Executive Leadership Programme
The Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at the UNSW Business School was selected by the Elevate RAP Working Group as a partner that would design and deliver a programme that would facilitate career and leadership development for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees aspiring to executive leadership roles.


The AGSM Emerging Indigenous Executive Leadership Programme was launched in 2017 and this year welcomes its fourth cohort.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 3% of Australia’s population and continue to experience high levels of disadvantage. Indigenous men die on average eight years younger than non-Indigenous men. Youth suicide rates are four times higher than in non-Indigenous communities, and employment and literacy rates continue to remain lower than those of non-Indigenous Australians.

The annual Closing the Gap Report, tracks targets set in 2008 that are aimed at reducing inequality. With only three of seven key areas meeting last year, there continues to be a need for a different approach to address disadvantage and breach the disparity.

Establishing the programme

In 2016, nine organisations that had been recognised by Reconciliation Australia with Elevate RAP status for progress on their reconciliation plans, met to identify how their respective organisations could work together to progress outcomes for their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees.

The consensus among the group was that while organisations were achieving employment targets set out in their Reconciliation Action Plans, their Indigenous employees were not progressing through management levels; an important factor to achieve greater self-determination and equality.

A Working Group was formed with all agreeing that collaboration was necessary to achieve a breakthrough outcome and approval to develop a pilot leadership programme involving the Elevate RAP members was given. The concept of the Emerging Indigenous Executive Leaders Programme (EIELP) was then developed.

The agreed programme goal established by the Elevate RAP Working Group was:

  • To cultivate the next generation of Indigenous leaders with a strong focus on developing them to become Executive Level ready in the future.
  • The agreed learning objectives were to be:
  • To support the advancement of high-potential Indigenous leaders from all sectors and industries
  • To develop and deepen the key strategic
  • and interpersonal skills required of Indigenous executive leaders in the workplace and community
  • To create powerful role models for future Indigenous leaders
  • To further develop executive mentors’ Indigenous cultural awareness and understanding to support them to become role models of change.

Karen Mundine, CEO of Reconciliation Australia, said, “we are proud that the RAP Program has initiated organisations to drive and deliver important projects such as the Emerging Indigenous Executive Leaders Programme. Ensuring that First Australians have the opportunity to engage in career development opportunities is critical and an important step in empowering our people.”

Programme design

EIELP would be designed to provide executive-level leadership development to high-performing Indigenous managers with participants typically in established management roles and identified for senior-level advancement.

“Importantly, we believed that First Australian voices will be amplified around decision-making tables as a result of the programme, which ultimately will strengthen business performance.” Michael Lacy, Head of Community, Richmond Football Club & Chair of the Elevate RAP Working Group

The Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at the UNSW Business School was selected by the Elevate RAP Working Group as a partner who would design and deliver a programme that would facilitate career and leadership development for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees aspiring to executive leadership roles.

It was agreed EIELP would be a nine-month programme and include four face-to-face modules and a blended learning module

Cultural protocols

Consideration was immediately given to how the programme would be delivered in a culturally appropriate way that would resonate for participants.

“The EIELP program is unique in Australia in a multiplicity of ways” says Professor Mark Rose, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous Strategy and Innovation, Deakin University and EIELP Academic Director.

“We have endeavored to deliver with equal probity the best of both western and the best of Indigenous knowledge, never compromising on either. The EIELP has been fashioned in adherence to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational philosophy. The power of the programme lies in the intersection and recognition of the integrity of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Western knowledge systems and is an extreme example of co-design.”

The “Walking in Two Worlds” concept would underpin the programme and be used in tandem with classic Indigenous approaches such as “both ways” and the ground-breaking Coolangatta Statement.

Professor Mark Rose also works with each participant to strengthen the connection to their “Ancestral Mandate” and make the classroom a culturally safe environment for the free and frank exchange of traditional and contemporary knowledge.

“We have designed a programme that is delivered in a way that is aligned to the learning styles of participants particularly through the use of stories, catering for visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles and with a heavy emphasis on social learning.”

Feedback from the pilot programme, told us that the most successful learning module was at Uluru and as we became more effective at using the “Aboriginal Ways of Learning” frameworks, increasing the experiential learning became an obvious part of the pedagogy. New learning design components included embedding part of Module 1 in Fitzroy, which historically has been a focal point of Indigenous Melbourne.

Another new component that produced deep learning was working with a local ranger and an Elder at the module in Uluru. We particularly had success with insights that were drawn from the land, local flora and fauna with Indigenous Leadership which had one participant commenting that “I finally understood leadership”.

At the conclusion of the pilot programme, we established a documented set of Cultural Protocols that would underpin the programme being delivered in a culturally safe and appropriate way. The Cultural Protocols were reinforced by establishing mechanisms for providing regular feedback, co-design and input. We also formalized and integrated into the programme design:

• Yarning Circles, a traditional way of learning and knowledge exchange through storytelling
• Indigenous role models, symbols and artwork used throughout the programme
• Delivering the programme in both metropolitan and remote regions of Australia.

Said one participant about the cultural underpinning of the programme: “I have gained a greater level of confidence, realised my leadership capabilities and expanded my network to realise that I add significant value to my organisation. My ancestral mandate is about helping others to embrace their own vulnerability and to really step outside your comfort zone – because this is where I realized my own value and just what can be possible when you truly believe in yourself”. Natalee George (EIELP 2018)

Creating systemic change for career advancement

A key way of integrating learning across the programme, is through the participants working on a workplace strategic challenge. Eva Freedman, EIELP Program Director said, “what we had originally envisioned as part of the learning architecture for applying and demonstrating individual learning,has now become the key tool that supports required the systemic shifts for moving through leadership levels”. The strategic challenge introduces key senior stakeholders to participants. Along the way, these stakeholders learn about Culture, begin to understand and know the participant and more often than not become advocates of the participant’s career progression.

Says one participant: “My workplace is more culturally aware than it used to be. Staff have a better understanding of local Indigenous culture and history. I see the seed of respect and reconciliation growing”.

One participant, with support on his Strategic Challenge project, was able to influence significant internal and external stakeholders to erect a very moving memorial to the Stolen Generation (children taken away from their families) at the main Sydney train station and other stations around the State.

Another participant has recently been appointed a Director of Diversity a significant promotion at one of Australia’s largest organisations. She is now leveraging her EIELP Strategic Challenge Report to reset the organisation’s diversity agenda.

Programme impact

Since concluding the program, 78% of participants have made a significant career move, 87% have increased their capabilities and 83% have improved their well-being. There are four participants undertaking their PhDs and five participants undertaking MBAs.

Steve Munns (EIELP 2018), 2019 recipient of a Sir Ronald Wilson Pat Turner PhD Scholarship at the Australian National University and now AGSM Adjunct Faculty, says the EIELP shined a light on his ancestors’ achievements. “It awakened me in a way in which I can infuse my Aboriginal learnings and westernised leadership qualities together,” he said. “It has given me a platform where I can mentor and influence up-and-coming Indigenous Leaders both within my community and organisations I work for in the future”.


The EIELP has continued to grow. In 2017, we delivered to a cohort of 16 and this year, our fourth cohort is our largest ever, with 30 participants. Three participants have been appointed as Adjunct Faculty at AGSM, and a number of others are teaching on AGSM courses. An alumni programme has been developed to further embed participant learnings and provide support in building their leadership careers. Early in 2020, an energetic Alumni Conference was held to support this lifelong learning commitment. We will continue to support these talented alumni as they progress to the highest levels of leadership across Australia.

See all 2020 EiP winners.

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