Interview: Dr Marija Maher, Chief Operating Officer, Victorian Ombudsman

Tell us about the journey to your current role and what it this role entails?

I started my career in the market and social research sector where I was responsible for training of all new field staff and the delivery of multiple research projects across different time zones. After 5 years, I moved to the Higher Education sector where I spent 15plus years before moving to the public sector more recently. Most of my career has been in newly created roles, borne through a restructure or organisational needs for a change (sometimes self-initiated by the organisation, other times by the market forces).  For example, I spent 13 years at the University of Melbourne in 8 different change-driven roles across strategy, operations, front-end client focused service delivery and back-end, support and enabling services. I started in my current role as the Chief Operating Officer for the Victorian Ombudsman 18 months ago. I am responsible for governance, risk and the corporate service delivery. One of the things that attracted me to this role are the Legislative changes to the core functions of the Victorian Ombudsman and the budget independence that the Victorian Parliament has recently passed. I play a key role in ensuring organisational readiness in embracing the new Legislation next year. Looking at my career to date, improving performance through effective leadership and cultural change is the common thread. I hope to have shown that it is possible to challenge the status quo in an organisational context and bring about change, while at the same time increasing staff engagement, diversity, productivity and organisational efficiency. I am a passionate believer that individuals and organisations that don’t change go backwards: individuals who don’t change go backwards in their development and careers and organisations that don’t change or stay still go backwards in their bottom line and their societal relevance.

Can you describe a project you are working on or recently completed? What challenges did you face along the way and how were they overcome?

Since I have started in my current role 18 months ago, I have been building a resilient and adaptable team capable of embracing change and uncertainty. This started with some of the foundational elements of team dynamics, such as: – regular team meetings, – team building workshops, – identification of working styles and communication preferences. While the outcome was the creation of a ‘social contract’ of how we will work together, combined with our team vision and goals, more importantly this resulted in: – building of trust among team members and with me as the new leader and also between different teams, – gradual breaking down of silos, – pivoting towards quality and value-add work (and away from reactive and busy work with not much to show for), and – simplification and automation of processes. This has led to a clear service orientation, lines of accountability at the team, leader and individual levels. More importantly, we are creating a team culture that constantly emphasises learning and innovation over fear of making mistakes.

What did you learn from this project? What did it achieve?

While the leader’s work of earning trust and then retaining it can never be finished, I am a firm believer that a culture of accountability and transparency is what builds trust. The environment that has high trust, innovation flourishes and that is how individuals grow and develop and how organisations evolve and thrive. While this belief and a drive to shape such a culture in my team has driven me, I have learnt that trust is hard to gain but easy to lose. I have also learnt that even when an organisation is going through a positive change of growth, that is still a change to the current environment. A key organisational challenge for us is how to evolve the organisation and embrace the new Legislative mandate in an efficient way that addresses the community and public sector’s needs, without adversely impacting on the good elements of our culture.

What excites you most about the future?

It is the opportunity to contribute towards the realisation of our purpose to ensure fairness for Victorians in their dealings with the public sector and improve public administration. That is a weighty purpose and one we are not approaching lightly.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to further their career in government, what would it be?

The advice I would give to someone looking to further their career, in government or elsewhere, is to get their 3 Cs right:
  1. Credibility
Are you an expert in your line of work? Do you need further education and training? Are you respected for what you do and your advice? Take control of your own professional development; it is not your manager’s job to drive this, it is their job to support it.  
  1. Capacity
Are you a curious person? Can you work smarter, not just harder? Are you completing your work not only on time but at a high level of quality? Are you reliable? If you are not working to your full capacity in your current organisation and you are not challenges, are you in the right job?  
  1. Connectivity
Do you have at least two mentors who are the right ones for you at this stage of your career? Sre you investing in developing trusting relationship with your mentors? Do you have a good working relationship with your manager? Take charge of what what you can control!

Where do you look to for further education? E.g. articles, podcasts, news sources, online courses, university etc.?

I am a strong proponent of the importance of being curious and encourage that in my teams by regularly sending articles from the Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan, McKinsey, LinkedIn, etc. Earlier in my career, I made significant investments in my formal education by completing a professional Doctorate in leadership and talent management. I also did technically relevant accreditations such as the Train the Trainer and the Lead Quality Auditor in systems and processes. In the last 6 years or so, I have completed a directorship course through the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

What are you most looking forward to at the event?

This is my first public sector network event, so I do not have firm expectations. Having said that, I am pretty certain that there will a room full of curious people who want to further themselves and learn something new. Therefore, I think that we will have a lot in common!