Interview: Karen Oborn, Chief Executive Officer, Shire of Carnamah

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

This journey has been a long one. I started work at 17 as a bank teller. Then I had a few roles as basically an assistant accountant. As I didn’t have the formal qualification, I wasn’t able to be employed as the accountant, but I was given the work to do anyway. Which was actually good, as these skills and experience, have served me very well over my career as a working mum. Naturally raising 2 wonderful Children and studying externally, was quite demanding, but I had an awesome partner who actually did his share of parenting and domestic chores. So I was also very lucky.   My first role in Local Government was a Gardner. Best job ever I can highly recommend it. Then I went into creditors, debtors, payroll and Rates, as well as assisting with town planning. Then I got into organisational reform, specifically delivering the IP&R framework LG reforms, which covered every bit of the sectors operations from top to bottom. I had developed an ambition about 18 years ago to be a CEO, so I was determined to learn as many roles as possible in the industry.   However, I also had a couple of stints in the resources and tertiary education sectors to gain experience in project management and business improvement. I did this as I had started to hit the glass ceiling in LG, that doesn’t like females getting past ‘coordinator or acting manager’. To get a directors role or Deputy CEO without being an engineer or accountant, I knew I needed some more. So I became very skilled and knowledgeable about LG financial mgt., project management and business improvement. I made it to Deputy CEO for a number of regional Shire, which I loved. I then started going for CEO roles, way way harder. After being told numerous times I was the best candidate but the team, shire, community –wouldn’t like a female CEO, so I was 2nd choice, I decided to change careers.   However, just as I had submitted my forms to enrol in a teaching course, I got my current role as CEO of a regional Shire. I still haven’t managed to crack the metro LG’s yet, and I think I should have kept trying to get a directors role there. But I love my role, as I get to build community and make people’s lives better, and I hate it when the State expects us to do more and more with less and less. In a nutshell, my role is to oversee the governance and day to day operations of the Shire. I work for and with ~800 people in a geographically and demographically diverse region. The region goes from the edge of the outback through prime agriculture areas to the coral coast. Many competing challenges and priorities in the mix, but extremely rewarding when it all comes together!

Can you describe a project you are working on/recently completed, and any key challenges you have faced along the way and how they were overcome?

Currently I am working on an Economic Development Strategy to stem our population decline as well as provide new opportunities for economic and social development in our region. The key challenge is determining how best to allocate very limited resources to get the best return for the community. To address this I have engaged an economic development consultant and am collaborating with other agencies and NGO’s to align our efforts and achieve the best ROI we can. The key major hurdle is the State has said fracking can happen in our Shire, although it’s banned in southern parts of the WA. The issues are 98{802238075386540f56ff51177b29e561e146d6ad749d3ad56f8d94eb00021cb8} of the community are opposed to it and the area being explored is an A class flora and fauna reserve zoned conservation, however the State legally can and has permitted this. Unfortunately, this is also where our greatest natural resources are, that we need to develop the tourism industry in our region, which will bring many more jobs and economic returns for our community. To overcome this, we have started a community reference group and continue to liaise with other agencies.

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

What did I learn- you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Pick your battles. There is little I can do personally to change State policy so I won’t take any ‘failures’ personally, although it’s natural to feel disappointed. I will however focus my efforts into the things I can influence, such as the communities advocacy efforts and implementing the Economic Development Strategy in the best possible way. I am hoping this will achieve the outcomes the community I serve would like, being the delivery of a stable and sustainable local and regional economy.

What excites you most about the future?

Young people! Seriously they support and advocate for gender equality and gay rights. They go on strike at school over climate change! They are anti-war. They value the environment and people’s rights. They are engaged and socially connected locally and globally. It very exciting, I have such high hopes for us when the younger generation become the decision makers.

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

Stay focused on your goals and develop a thick hide! Do not let mountains or other people’s views of you, stand in your way. Go around, over or under. There is always a way. And practice being grateful each day for what you do have, that way ‘luck’ will find you. Oh and beware the mean girl in your head that tells you that, ‘you are not good enough’. She’s a pain try to ignore her!

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

Most of my education has been external through universities, but I also look to industry providers such as WALGA and LG professionals for professional development opportunities. I check the news every day and read the sectors publications, as well as what comes from other agencies. This keeps me informed and on trend.