Mental Health Elearning

#45 World’s top 30 ‘Thinkers to Watch’ – Dr Kirstin Ferguson AM, Author, Columnist and Company Director (s03ep01)

Jan 30, 2023

Dr Kirstin Ferguson AM has just been nominated as one of world’s top 30 Thinkers to Watch by the UK based Thinkers50. She has had a remarkable and varied career including stints as the Deputy Chair of the ABC – and a number of Non-Executive Director roles over the last 10 years. Before this she was the CEO of a safety culture consulting firm – and a Director of Corporate Affairs for a large law firm. She started her career in the Royal Australian Air Force and in 10 years where she rose to an Officer.
"Every moment is a leadership moment. Every single moment that all of us have, is a chance to leave a positive legacy."
- Dr.Kirstin Ferguson AM


  • What it is to be nominated as one the world’s top 30 Thinkers to watch.
  • Kirstin’s varied and remarkable career starting in the Royal Australian Air Force.
  • The background of practice and theory for her newly released book – ‘HEAD & HEART: The Art of Modern Leadership’
  • Why it is essential for today’s leaders to combine IQ – the head and EQ – the heart to be successful.


Want to learn more about what you can do in workplace mental health training?

Want to to reach out, share a great leader we should interview or learn more about The WeCARE Way, click here to contact us. 

Purchase Kirstin’s new book “Head & Heart, The Art of Modern Leadership”.

Transcript from the interview

The following transcript was generated using a specific tool. It serves as a convenient method for converting our podcasts into text and allows for easy text searches. However, we kindly ask for your understanding if any typos have inadvertently occurred as a result of the tool’s usage.


Graeme Cowan, Dr. Kirstin Ferguson

Graeme Cowan 0:02 

It’s a real pleasure to welcome Dr. Kirstin Ferguson to The Caring CEO. Welcome, Kirstin.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 0:08 

Hello, Graeme. It’s great to be here.

Graeme Cowan 0:11 

Kirstin, what does care in the workplace mean to you?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 0:15 

Do you know it’s pretty simple, it really means and following through on putting people at the center. You know, it’s really genuinely having every decision you make, thinking about the impact it’s going to have on people. And that’s all we are to people. And so, I don’t even want to think of it as stakeholders, this is just putting people at the center.

Graeme Cowan 0:37 

But is it too slow and cumbersome to involve everyone in decision making?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 0:42 

Well, I don’t think it means you need to consult with every single person you’re going to put at the center. But it does mean if you’re a leader, you’re really thinking about, well, what is the impact of the decision I’m about to make? Who is it most going to impact, and have I thought about what that will mean to them. And if you care, that’s something that you’ll spend time on. And I don’t think it needs to slow down decisions. And in fact, during the pandemic, we saw leaders needing to put care at the forefront with very little information. And they certainly couldn’t consult with everyone they were going to impact. But by caring about the outcomes and about the people they were going to impact and effect. They were showing how you could care in action.

Graeme Cowan 1:25 

Yeah, and you’ve had a very broad and varied career. And I say that in a really positive way. You’ve experienced lots of different circumstances environment. And earlier on you were for 10 years and officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. What did you learn about leadership in that environment?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 1:45 

Oh, it was like a petri dish. Learning about leadership, I went to the Australian Defense Force Academy when I was stunning 17, straight out of a private girl’s school in Sydney into an environment where it was certainly male dominated, and I had no preparation for what that was going to be like. And I was an ad for all through the early 1990s, which has now you know, been fairly widely condemned by the military themselves as well for their treatment of cadets. And it was a period where it was very hierarchical, that it was a bit like the movie ‘Platoon’, lots of yelling and screaming. And you know, and I certainly became a third year and became one of those people yelling and screaming. And so, what I remember learning about that is that it’s totally ineffective. It’s completely exhausting. Besides being at times, I’m sure from some of the, you know, incidents there, you know, it was an unsafe place for many. And this culture of silence and not speaking up and being quite misguided in what you thought leading was about. Once I came out to serve in the air force, it was quite different. But I was young and 21, as a young officer posted to RAF base Amberley, and I was leading sergeants and flight sergeants who had been in the Air Force longer than I’d been alive. So, you know, that’s a very humbling experience. And you might be an officer, but really, it’s their experience and worldliness that you need to rely on. And so, you know, being a humble leader and understanding you’re there to serve others, including those who lead was really ingrained in me from that early time. So, I think the military is often misunderstood for their approach to leadership, and for was a strange example, but for the rest of the military, and certainly the modern military. It’s very much an idea of serving others. And, you know, eating last, there’s a book by Simon Sinek, called ‘Leaders Eat Last’ which comes out of the US military, that kind of idea is very much ingrained in you when you come through the military. So, I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the leadership approach that we learned as officers.

Graeme Cowan 4:01 

In your latest book, ‘Head and Hearts’, the art of modern leadership. You– have a, you start with a story about a US Army Captain, Will Swenson. Why was that so important to you? And why did you lead your whole book with that, with that background?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 4:19 

Yeah. And for anyone listening, they may or may not have heard this story, but there’s– the only reason anyone knows about this story is because there happened to be a head cam on a helicopter crew in Afghanistan. And this is during the Afghanistan war and Captain Will Swenson was a US Army Marine Captain. And there was a, the ‘Battle of Gangel’, which is a very significant battle and there’s head cam footage of him and how he conducts himself. Now normally, we don’t get a bird’s eye view into that kind of thing. But there’s a particular scene and he wouldn’t have known any of this was going on. I’m sure he had far more All things he was dealing with. And you can Google on YouTube and see Captain Swenson’s video. But there’s a moment in it, where he puts his sergeant onto a helicopter. The sergeant later goes on to tragically passed away. But you see Captain Swenson lean in and give him a kiss, just a really tender kiss on the cheek, and it is a split second. But that humanity in the middle of war is striking. It’s not what you expect to see. But then, of course, you think I will, maybe I would do the same, but I don’t think we necessarily would. And what it really got me thinking about is this idea of how every moment is a leadership moment. Every single moment that all of us have, is a chance to leave a positive legacy and are weak, or, you know, to cause a mess. And that moment really started me thinking about this need to have head and heart in every one of those moments. And so, it sort of started me on a big, long journey. And I read everything I could about Swenson who, you know, has a remarkable story in and of himself. But it’s led me to write a book and do research with QT and really understand well, what are those attributes of leading with the head and the heart? And how do we measure those? And then what’s that look like for a modern leader?

Graeme Cowan 6:20 

Yeah. And before that, you you’ve been a very strong advocate for women, advancing leadership and women playing a role in society. And you started a movement that was called hashtag Celebrating Women. And what was behind that? And how did it– how did it grow? How did it evolve? Did it surprise you how much it took off?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 6:42 

All of the above. I know this is a podcast, but I’m just gonna do a mild swear word. But at the start of 2017, I was really pissed off. Donald Trump had just been elected president, women were taking to the streets around the world and in their pink pussy hats, if you remember the knitted ones. And, you know, there was just this sense of outrage among many women, that it was not okay, we needed to do things differently. Me too, hadn’t even come about yet. And I remember I’m online, I do a lot on social media. And there was just a particular thread of tweets aimed at an Australian journalist, Patricia Cabela’s. And I was just as pissed off, I remember thinking, if I’d been standing next to someone, and they said these things to another woman, I would have said something and in some cases, you’d call the police. But online, it’s very hard. You’re a bystander, almost, you know, you can’t really do anything. So, I live on the beach, took myself off for a walk or annoyed. And I never do things by halves, Graeme, I came up with this idea that I would see if I could make my newsfeed a little bit more positive rang my mom, asked her 4 random questions that I made up then and there and posted her story online. I didn’t tell anyone; she was my mom. She’s no one, in particular, a retired nurse and things. But you know, everyone was interested in this story. So then in there, I made a commitment I was going to celebrate two women from all walks of life anywhere in the world every day for a year. I gotta tell you had I thought through how big it would get, I might not have done it. Or I would have probably over thought it. You know, there’s something to be said for just leaping in. So, I didn’t strategize. I didn’t have any resources. It was just me and my laptop. But it took off and it became viral. And by the end of the year, I celebrated 757 women from 37 countries around the world. And it sparked and still sparks spin off campaigns, you’ll see lots of celebrating women in different industries, different organizations. There’s a celebrating veteran that’s just come out. And so, it was the most enormously rewarding year of my life. But the women I celebrated, were not the normal women we hear about and that’s why it was so exciting. It was– there was no barriers to entry. All you have to do is identify as a woman, I certainly celebrated transwomen as well. And it was anyone and so I ended up celebrating women who all got in touch. I didn’t seek anyone out. They sort of heard about the campaign. But there were cleaners’ grandmothers pet whispers from California and not surprising. I speak ice rig truckers from the Arctic. There’s a teacher from Kabul, a lady who runs a flat bottom, you know those glass bottom boats in Vanuatu, lots of mums and grandmothers and teachers and there were big names as well. But they were celebrated equally alongside women, you know, we would never otherwise have heard of and the whole idea was every woman is a role model. And the campaign should that day after day.

Graeme Cowan 10:02 

And that’s got to be a real belief of you that everyone is a leader as well. And how can everyone lead on a day-to-day basis? What can I do to make a positive difference?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 10:16 

Well, I think, you know, I’m obviously a big believer that, you know, you can lead with your head and your heart everywhere. And the best, most effective leaders integrate the kind of person they are at home with how they are at work. Because, you know, I often do a lot of work as an executive coach with particularly men, but not always that are technically brilliant. They’ve reached the top of their industry, they’re incredibly skilled, but at work, they have a persona, it’s, you know, success is about being very professional, not showing heart, not showing too much empathy, just let’s, you know, hit the KPIs and move on, and that has seen them succeed. But they realize you do get to a certain point where you need a lot more than that to be obviously a successful leader. And when I talked to them in their home life, they might have a horde of kids, they might be active in their church or their local community, and they’re a completely different person when they’re talking about that. So, I think for anyone, it’s integrating all those best parts of yourselves and realizing you don’t need to be one person at home and one person at work. But in fact, the more you can bring those together, they make you the modern leader, we really need around us in the world today.

Graeme Cowan 11:34 

It was a real privilege, my first interview for the caring CEO was with Mike Schneider, the CEO of Bunnings. And he lives his life by the four H’s. And so, the four H’s are honest, humble, helpful, and happy. And that’s how he measures his life. And there’s no differentiation between home life or work life. And I really love that approach. Have you heard of others that use something that’s really important to them in terms of the way they lead?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 12:06 

Yeah, I think yeah, in this book that I’ve just got coming out. Now, I interview 25 different Australian leaders, and they’re as diverse as Mike Henry, that CEO of BHP, and Sally McManus, an ICTU. Secretary, but through the teachers, activists are a playwright. And all of them have, you know, I think the unique characteristic, they all bring his humility, because they’re willing to talk about, you know, what doesn’t work so well and think again, you know, think that perhaps they don’t have all the answers. But in terms of the four h is that what I love about that is, that it’s seamless, and you know, some of the qualities that I see of modern leaders like, cuteless use curiosity. I think if you can be curious, in all aspects of your life, that’s going to make you a better leader, and just practicing that curiosity, the research that I did, to develop these attributes, shows you are naturally a more self-aware and more humble leader. So, there’s lots of ways that just being yourself, and it sounds trite, but so many people aren’t, Graeme. And they feel you know, and I remember in my exact career, I’d put the suit on, you know, this is 10 years ago, not even 10. Put on the beach on the weekend, and there’s no need for that.

So, I think, for example, Curiosity is a fabulous quality for leaders. And it’s one of the eight that you know, my research identified as being so critical. And it’s something that you can demonstrate in every aspect of your life. I mean, just doing a Google search, when you’re watching a TV show about who is that person and what movie do I remember seeing them in? You’re curious. But it’s also emotional curiosity, and that you can demonstrate at work, you know, if someone’s obviously not themselves, or there’s something going on, without peppering questions, clearly, because you’ve got to have that self-awareness to know how to deal with it. Going and finding out you know, how are they traveling? It’s curiosity for me is an essential part of leadership.

Graeme Cowan 14:30 

Yeah, and when I looked at, you know, your new book, which is coming out, ‘Head and Heart’, you’re talking about leading with the head that involve curiosity, wisdom, perspective, and capability. How do you– how do you engender that each day? Should you just concentrate on one each week? Or how do you think you approach it?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 14:51 

Not at all. In fact, the Art of Modern Leadership is knowing what is needed when and so in any given conversation or crisis or project you have to do, you’re going to need elements of all eight attributes. And you know, there’s some conversations we go into where let’s use, for example, it might be just setting budgets for the year. And you think, well, I’ve just got to use all my capability and have a growth mindset, you know, you obviously want to continue to do well. But in fact, you also need a huge amount of humility. How am I got it right? What have I forgotten? A bit of self-awareness if you’re the CFO about, you know, have I got everyone else’s view? How do they feel about this, and, you know, maybe some courage to stand up to people. So, I just think in every single moment, you’re gonna need different elements of each attribute of being a modern leader, but the art is really knowing what’s needed when.

Graeme Cowan 15:51 

Yeah, and then it’s combined with leading with the heart, which was humilities, awareness, courage, and empathy all, you know, fantastic qualities for anyone to want to nurture.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 16:04 

Yeah, well, and you need both though. So, think about the people, you know, that are really good on those. They’re not very capable. They don’t make decisions very quickly. And while they’ve got all the good intent in the world, everything collapses. And I think that’s one of the challenges and why I wrote this book, to have ‘Head and Heart’ equally balanced. Because there’s a lot of books where you might go and read about vulnerability, for example, fabulous quality again, but you can’t be a leader that’s just permanently vulnerable, and not also really capable and wise and able to read the room and do all of that. And I think that for leaders is something I think we must never forget; we can’t throw out the baby for the bathwater. And so yes, you must be self-aware and humble, but you also need to really be able to do your job to be able to succeed.

Graeme Cowan 16:55 

Which is very congruent with, you know, the approach of the caring CEO, we talk about leaders having leading with a culture of high performance and a culture of care. So, if you think about that is pretty much ‘Hidden Hart’–,

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 17:09 

Very much. I mean, you can’t, yes, you absolutely be have to be focused on performance, not just your own either, obviously, that of the whole organization, and the people within it. And I do feel in other books I’ve read sometimes that gets forgotten. And particularly those kinds of leaders I was talking to about before are highly technical, they’ve really succeeded in their industry through their ability to perform, it’s not immediately obvious to them, how they are vulnerable in that situation, you know, what does that look like every day? And so, I’m trying to make that a bit more accessible for people.

Graeme Cowan 17:46 

You expressed earlier about your disappointment, significantly disappointed in the election of Donald Trump as, as President. How do you explain that 46% of the country voted for him and including, that was a huge number of women. And, and this was just after the story came out about, you know, grabbing the policy and this sort of stuff. How do you– how was that possible?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 18:15 

Yeah, you tell me. I mean, I think it’s hard. I’m never want to make a joke. I mean, we’re not American. You and I are not American, I think, trying to make observations or reflections on a country and a culture that’s not our own. And I think their history is very long and different to ours. And I feel for the state of where things are at the moment. And that looks like he may run again. I think interestingly, though, closer to home, we look at our own government, and you know, the former government, there were a lot of issues they faced around their treatment of women. And, you know, voters in Australia made their choice loud and clear. And I think it shows the kinds of modern leaders that people want to see. And you know whether in the US they find one that fits for them. I hope they do. I certainly hope they do. But yeah, it’s hard to explain that phenomenon. I think you and I’d be here for days, trying to explain that.

Graeme Cowan 19:20 

And another thing, which was very significant in the last election, and that was the surge of these Teals these women who were passionate about doing something about climate change and progressing women. Was that just– how– what was the momentum behind that? Do you think like it was a significant result. Never have done anything like this before. Is it just, was just frustration and people wanting to do something? What are your thoughts?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 19:48 

I think so, I mean, there’s always been incredibly talented women, that other incredibly talented women want to elect but rarely do they get a spot in a safe seat or in a seat even by the major parties and so I think what we saw with the Teals is incredibly talented, capable women, who other women were finally able to elect and you know, all power to them, I think we’ll probably see more of that unless the major parties actually start to rethink the kinds of candidates that they’re pre selecting. And if they don’t sort of modernize and find these modern leaders that we need, then I can I suspect independence will continue to, to surge forward.

Graeme Cowan 20:35 

And it was also significant wasn’t at that Simon Holmes a Court, you know, was behind the scenes and help to support a lot of these initiatives and gave them momentum and funding that they may not have had, if you know, if he hadn’t been there.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 20:51 

Yes, I mean, I don’t know much about Simon Holmes a Court’s background and things. But I think for anyone who wants to run for any office, and you know, good for them, because so many of us don’t see what happens and don’t want to be involved. I think having any kind of support you can to help fund those campaigns is important. And, you know, it makes it much more possible to compete against the major parties.

Graeme Cowan 21:18 

Yeah. You’ve been a lifelong learner. After your military career, you did a law degree, why did you choose to do that? And then also then to go into law?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 21:30 

Yeah, well, I have been a lot, I’ve done three completely different degrees, my first degree was in History. And I, that’s still my first love. If I’m really honest and did an honours degree looking at Wartime Leadership. Then I did a Law degree and thought I’d practice law was working in a large corporate firm, but in a leadership role, and really stayed there loved, loved leading others, so never practiced. And then I’ve done a PhD in leadership, and I am a believer in lifelong learning, I’m not sure that I’ll go back into another formal degree, I think I’ve done my fair share. But I’m certainly every day, my habits involve a huge amount of reading. I subscribe to pretty much everything around the world, all sorts of things. And, you know, I’ll spend an hour laying in bed reading all the headlines and reading the news articles and new thinking, and I really encourage anyone listening to just go really broad, you know, I subscribe to science magazines, I am not a scientist by any stretch. But you end up reading about studies and things that are all really applicable actually to people. And, and just to learn about what’s going on in the world. But there’s some incredible ways you can learn without needing to do formal education. And I think that’s really important for all this.

Graeme Cowan 22:55 

Yeah, very much. So, what was the things you learned about leadership and culture? Through doing a PhD, which you didn’t know, before you started?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 23:04 

Well, I must admit doing a PhD for anyone who’s probably done one or they’re doing one, it there’s a lot of jumping through hoops, writing academic language, using academic language. To come to findings, I went into it naively thinking it was all about, you know, solving a new issue. But really, it’s about building on an existing Leadership Theory, just a smidge. And going very deep. So, my research or my thesis was all around safety, governance and the role of leadership in the boardroom, around health and safety, and, you know, that kind of space. So, I did case studies and interviews and then I reviewed, can you– the feel for me on this, Graeme, at 10 years of annual reports of ASX 200 companies, there were hundreds of them and do this thematic analysis. So doing a PhD is very different to real world practice. It’s very much in a theoretical framework. But what it really showed me is, firstly, I think we need to do better at bridging the gap between academia and practice, and I never wanted to be an academic, but I am very grateful I have the research skills. And that’s what I’ve sort of brought to heading my next book, because it’s kind of just make stuff up. So, I’m not a believer that I can just go and make up eight attributes of leadership. I tested it, validated it, we had sample groups, did the literature reviews, you know, this is real research, but it’s written in a way that’s designed to be entertaining and layman’s terms and, you know, really easy to read. And I think that’s what I learned a lot about doing deep academic research is how you can make it something that everyone can learn from.

Graeme Cowan 24:55 

Yeah. And you’ve also had a very successful career as a non-Executive Director, and probably notably, you know, with the ABC and not work, you then progress to Deputy Chairman and your acting Chairman of the ABC. What was it like being on a board, which is so high profile has so many stakeholders, often with different opinions. How do you keep the, I guess, perspective on what’s significant, what isn’t significant when there is so much noise?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 25:30 

Yeah. And I was acting chair during a very tumultuous time at the ABC, it– it’s amazing how much I think my military background came into the fore in staying calm under pressure. And you know, you never, it’s one of those things, you never really know until you’re in the moment. And I think being self-aware enough to know how you’re reacting to pressure is really important. So, you actually, if you’re not calm, you know it. And you can find a way to sort of manage that or get people around you that can help manage it. But I also found in that situation where there’s so many people wanting to give you advice, it was just endless, that that is the noise. Just having a small group of trusted advisors, and being conscious of that was really critically important, as was, you know, firefighting, for one of a better word, there was sort of, you know, issues that just come up. And they’re big issues that issues that in a normal sense would be, you know, an emergency meeting, whereas it was happening on a half daily basis. You really have to get good at compartmentalizing and going, okay, what is critical right now, in the next hour for me to deal with his ex, I realized, why is it totally also really critical, but it’s not going to, you know, blow up in the next hour. So, let’s come back to that in three hours. And just having that sort of sense of being able to prioritize without losing focus of what was really important. And, you know, I think it was a time where you learn a lot about yourself, you learn what kind of pressure you can and can’t deal with, and, and how you express that. And, you know, I was fortunate that publicly, I’m very good at, you know, just being able to stay calm and focused, and very much on wanting to, you know, manage things really effectively. Privately, you’re like anyone else where you’re, you know, it’s, it takes its toll, and you have to have a safe place at home with family and friends that you know, love you that you can just be yourself and relax.

Graeme Cowan 27:47 

How do you practice self-care?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 27:50 

Yeah, it’s a really good question. Because I’ve had times in my life, I haven’t particularly well, and then I’m probably in a good place now in terms of being aware of what I need, and when I need it. I live at the beach. So, like, as I speak to you, now I’m looking at the sand. And it’s, it’s very easy to go and find a quiet moment and just stare at the waves and realize we’re pretty small in the world. I also volunteers so I do a shift each week on the phones at Lifeline. And a strange at this is that is self-care for me. Because it’s a few hours, where you are caring for someone else, obviously, and leading through empathy, as listening and providing support, but by giving to others that actually, you know, it’s a way of me getting out of my own head. Those, you know, few hours that I do, you don’t think about anything else other than the person on the end of the phone. And it’s remarkable even though the stories are often terribly difficult for the person who’s experiencing crisis, it still is a way you can make a difference. And for me that feels really good and very far removed from my normal day to day life. And it really reminds you of the privilege, anyone like us has to have a safe environment to live in, you know, food on the table, at job, all of those kinds of things. When you talk to others where that is not something they can take for granted.

Graeme Cowan 29:27 

And a friend of mine, Brendan Maher used to work with Lifeline Australia, and he said there was a large percentage of people who call in who were lonely. That was really one of the really primary motivations. Did you experience that as well?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 29:44 

Absolutely. I think there’s certain time shifts if you get them, and you get a lot of elderly ladies who are lonely and men. And you know, it’s always made me think imagine I wonder what their family would think if they knew that these People were having to call Lifeline to just have a conversation and company. For many of them, there is family, but they don’t hear from them, or they don’t see them very often. And it’s so humbling to be able to talk to some of these people whose life experiences are incredible. And, you know, they’re obviously just wanting someone to talk to, and that’s Lifeline is a really wonderful service. And you can get all extremes of calls. But for that person, that’s the crisis they’re experiencing. And I think loneliness is a crisis for so many.

Graeme Cowan 30:37 

You have two daughters, 19, and 21, what’s your hope for them? What’s your message or how they live their lives?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 30:46 

You know, obviously, like every parent, you just want them to be happy. And I know that they are happy. So, beyond that, I want them to feel safe and secure and who they are, and to forge their own paths. They’re both very different. They’re doing very different things to their father and I. And, you know, they’ve got their own opinions on the world. And I think as a parent, you know, you can ask for much more than that. And I think what we’ve been able to develop now is, is beautiful adult relationship, which is very different to obviously, when you’re parenting them at home and as children. And for me, it’s, you know, just bigger joy now, as you know, when there are newborns, and that was the most exciting time. So, I’m just incredibly proud of my daughters, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Graeme Cowan 31:38 

It’s interesting isn’t the young people because there is a huge variety of careers or options they can pursue, in fact, it’s changing every day, new positions are being created every day. How does a young person stay relevant?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 31:54 

Yeah, I think it’s tough for young people now, because there’s this I mean, I don’t remember ever being asked that, do you when you were young, you know, how are you going to stay relevant? I wouldn’t know, I would have had no idea how to answer that. So, you know, I think each of them are following what they want to do, but it’s gonna look very different to how we might have done it. I only worked for sort of, I think, three major employers really in my career, whereas younger people we know from the stats, have a lot of different employers, or they’ll do this portfolio type gig career. And all of that’s totally okay. You know, I’m very much of the view that this old, outdated notion of leaving to work is well and truly gone and so good for them. I have no idea how they’ll stay relevant. But what I can guarantee Graeme, is they’re going to be relevant a lot longer than you and I.

Graeme Cowan 32:54 

But it is, you know, I think it was Barry Schwartz that talked about the ‘Paradox of Choice’, you know, the more options there are, the harder it is to choose. And it was really brought home to me when I took my son Adam, along to an open data science at the University of New South Wales. And at that point, there were 40. Going on to a science opened aid, there are 44 subspecialties of science. I wish that I could probably name about four.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 33:23 

Yeah, it’ll mean, it’s phenomenal, isn’t it? And again, when I went to ADFA, there were three degrees on offer. That was the Art, Science or Engineering, and he just had to pick one. Whereas now, you know, there’s a lot more choice. And I mean, how fabulous would that have been, though, if we could have had that kind of exposure to different options. My eldest daughter has just finished her master’s in Biomedical Engineering. So, she’s gone down a really niche, sort of career path, and the others doing Psychology. And she’s, you know, doing neuroscience subjects and, and looking at all of that. So, I think STEM for women, young girls is now something I hope we see more and more doing.

Graeme Cowan 34:06 

Yeah, definitely. And just knowing that that potential is out there for people. And I think when there is such rapid change, and there are so many options out there, I think a really, really important thing is for individuals to know what their strengths are. And you may be familiar with the Gallup Strengths Finder Approach where you identify what your top five strengths are out of the possible 32. And when people use their top five strengths every day, they’re shown to be 600% more likely to be engaged and 300% more likely to report highlight satisfaction. And I think for young people or at any stage of your career, if you know what those top five are. And when you look at an option, you say will that, will that allow me to use those five strengths or not, can be quite a good filtering out process to work out what’s right or not right for you.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 35:00 

Yeah, I think that’s right. Although some things that, you know, I, we’ve all done those Strength Finders, and none of them have ever surprised me, I remember being shocked. I wrote about it in my first book called, ‘Women Kind, did one of those strengths’ tests and to me, I saw them all as quite masculine strengths. So, I wrote about the ingrained stereotype. So, you have obviously they’re not masculine or feminine. But I think it could preclude you from doing some things. So, if I had done a Strengths Finder, before I joined and for, I’m not sure that I don’t know what it would have shown. But whether or not it would have said, go and join the Air Force, I have no idea. But I’m really glad I went and did it anyway, because it was such a great experience. And, you know, young people that talk to me about career paths now, I like mine has gone in so many different directions. And I could never have predicted where I would have gone. And while I’ve always had short term goals, and really made conscious and unconscious choices to go in that direction, I’ve never had a long-term vision of what it could look like, because I think it’s too limiting ever. I’ve already achieved everything, you know, at 20, when I was imagining what it could look like at 20, I probably achieved it all at 25. And so, you need to constantly, you know, keep going and I have no idea what my future will look like either.

Graeme Cowan 36:27 

Just segwaying to team leadership. And you’ve had the opportunity to lead many teams to observe other leaders leading teams. What do you think is the foundation of really great teams in today’s environment where there’s a lot of change a lot of–

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 36:49 

I think mutual respect is incredibly important. So that’s something that leaders need to foster in their teams. And that means starting with them obviously, they need to respect the people that they’re leading. But this idea of humility, and creating, you would have everyone would have heard the term psychologically safe teams. I think, having an environment where a leader is humble enough to serve and to encourage people to speak up. And so, creating an environment or a team environment where courage is a really valued component, if you’ve got someone who gives feedback, thanking them for you know, making sure you act on it, I really think there’s some of the key. I mean, there’s lots, lots of aspects to making a good team, but respect and encourage and creating places where people can speak up is critical.

Graeme Cowan 37:45 

Yeah. In my keynotes and workshops, I talk about helping even like in the start, ‘Are You Okay’, and just how much that’s grown and sort of reach and impact. And then as people reflect on a great team they’ve been in, you know, could be when they were at McDonald’s, or this role, previous role, when they were, you know, nipple team or pretty, pretty team. What was it? And how was it different from other teams you work in? And, like people about 10 options via Minty, you know, like an online poll situation, you can organize either remotely or not. And, always, I wouldn’t say always, in 95% of cases, the top three, top three qualities are we had each other’s back, we care for each other, and we enjoyed working together. And, you know, that really does talk to psychological safety, those three things, although it’s not those exact terms. How does, how does a leader who has just joined an organization where that approach is unusual? How do they get people conditioned, that it is safe to speak up, it is safe to take moderate risks, it is safe to try new things. How do you bridge that gap?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 39:02 

Yeah, I think if you– I mean, often, the reverse is the case. So, the leader doesn’t want to create that. But the team members all do. And that’s a lot harder. But if you’re the leader, I do think it’s much easier to be able to, you know, I’ve worked with leaders where they’ll say I, we go into meetings, and no one else says anything, you know, I ask them for their opinion, but they don’t I, you know, it’s not my problem. They’re not speaking up so of course, I have to speak well, it is your problem. And you have caused that. And you know that one of the things that I would do in that situation is going to have a meeting about why no one’s speaking out. What is it that you’re not understanding? And this is where vulnerability comes into it and saying, clearly, there’s something at my end that I need to do differently. I genuinely want to hear it now. Then, if there aren’t, if it’s been a really unsafe culture, this is gonna take a while. The second someone opens the door and says, well, when I said this three months ago, you said that was a stupid idea. Thank them for that. Thank them. And then of course, you’ve got feedback you need to act on. And then I would go back to that person a few days later. And again, say, look, I really appreciated that. I’d love to hear more about what we can be doing differently. And it’s gonna be, these are the moments, these are those leadership moments that every moment you get feedback, it’s thanking, doing that publicly if it’s in a public forum. But the next time if you were to jump on someone, you will undo all your good work. So, you have to be consistent in genuinely wanting to hear feedback, and then being grateful for it.

Graeme Cowan 40:38 

Yeah, because psychological safety is very fragile. Isn’t that, you know, very just one sharp look, one dismissive. We’ve tried that, you know, has the capacity to really destroy it sort of thing. And leaders to, I guess, be aware of that look at, you know, how they can keep tabs on that, to keep progressing as an organization?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 41:04 

I think so because people’s bullshit meter is very sharp, like we’ve all got really good ones. So, you can have been really cranky at people for years, and then come in on a Monday and go, okay, well, now, it’s all fine. You know, I just want to hear what you have to say, you’re going to have to earn a hell of a lot of trust. But for leaders that have a lot of credit in the bank and have always been good. And then they do have a day where they snap at someone, I do think you can rectify that by doing that quickly. And publicly. And the next meeting going, look, I, I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. I’ve, it’s, I’ve been kicking myself ever since the meeting, my commitment to you is that that won’t happen again. And if it does, I really want you to, you know, come and call me out on it. I think there’s ways you can continue to mean, we’re human. And not everyone has great days, but you need to have a huge amount of credit in the bank to be able to get away with that more than once. That’s for sure.

Graeme Cowan 42:02 

And you call them each week in the Sydney Morning Herald in the age called ‘Got a Minute’. And one of the questions posed here, which I just like to see on the spur of the moment, is how do I deal with a micromanaging boss?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 42:17 

Is it your question, you could send it into the column anytime.

Graeme Cowan 42:24 

It is one of your questions, but just I’d appreciate you talking to it.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 42:27 

Can I just tell you, I get so many questions, obviously. And 90% are about bad bosses, the poor behavior of bosses out there. I mean, if you’re working for a micromanaging boss, it’s really– it is difficult to change unless there’s someone who’s willing to hear feedback. I think there’s probably a way you can go and have a conversation about the list of priorities they keep giving you as the because it tends to be that you can’t get them all done. So, you can put it back onto them and say, look, you’ve given me all of these, you keep asking me about this detail. What is it you want done by the end of this week? Because, you know, I need to go away and actually be able to do that. But it’s difficult. I mean, Graeme, we’ve all worked from micromanaging bosses. And if they’re like that, they’re probably not a good leader generally. I mean, it’s a red flag for the kind of person they’re going to be on a whole range of different leadership fronts. Have it– it is possible, though, to have a thing, I’m just thinking about the advice if I was in that position, micromanaging bosses are generally hugely insecure. So, they don’t feel secure in their own jobs. So, then they feel they have to control everyone else. If you’re able to try and understand what’s going on for them and have that kind of conversation with them that can help but it’s going to require a huge amount of EQ on your part. And then you’re probably going to get little of that back. But it’s really, you know, one of the directions you can go in.

Graeme Cowan 43:57 

Thank you. And another one that I saw, which I thought was quite interesting. How can I trust HR, where managers with complaints against them get promoted?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 44:07 

Yeah, HR. They caught up bad stick in my column, not from me, but from readers who have had a really bad experience. I think HR generally needs a branding overall. Look, there’s really brilliant HR people out there. I know because I’ve worked with them. But there’s obviously a lot who are and they’re not skilled in their role and because they’re not skilled in their role, they impact huge numbers of other people that they’re leading. I think this comes down to the leadership of the business. the CEOs, whoever HR reports to really making sure they’re not hiring people who are poorly equipped to deal with the real intricacies of leading people because the brilliant HR people I know are all strategic level thinkers, they understand the role they play of balancing you know, representing the organization, but really caring for people. And I’m a champion of HR, because I think they’re incredibly important when they are brilliant, brilliant HR people, but there’s a lot that probably need to consider a different career.

Graeme Cowan 45:21 

With your– sorry, I just– just move into, I guess a final few questions, Kirstin, your book is to have when ‘Head and Heart’ when is it due out?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 45:36 

31 January. So, you can pre order now. And I’d encourage everyone to visit Because you can do a free Head and Heart leadership assessment, you’ll get a personalized report on your own Head and Heart leadership. And I’d be fascinated to hear from people and what you think.

Graeme Cowan 45:54 

Yes, so that and it was developed with an academic acuity. Is that right?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 45:59 

Yeah, yeah, my– In fact, my PhD supervisor acuity who’s a quantitative researcher, and because it’s a survey, lots of numbers, Graeme, I’m not good with numbers. You know, we wanted to make sure that it had all the validity of any kind of scale. So, it’s definitely a reliable tool. But it’s really interesting as well. And it’ll tell you if you’re more of a head based or heart-based leader, and then rank those eight attributes of your strengths.

Graeme Cowan 46:25 

I’m gonna certainly do that. I think it sounds really fascinating those insights,

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 46:30 

Take a couple of minutes head and heart

Graeme Cowan 46:33 

Fantastic. So just a final question, Kirstin. And this really is one, I always ask people, if you could go back to your 18-year-old self. So even before that you know, when you’re still at school, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 46:56 

Say yes to opportunities. Um, which I’m pretty much done. But I, you know, I say that to other 18-year-olds now you, even if you think you can’t do them, someone else obviously, thinks that you can. So believe and trust in them and take that opportunity, because you just never know where it’ll lead you.

Graeme Cowan 47:15 

Yeah, I once had a really great boss, who really always treated me like one level above what it was. And I think that can be tremendously empowering. And you know, for bosses, when you see that potential to encourage people to take that step.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 47:32 

Absolutely. And that’s this growth mindset, really believing in others. And I think that’s incredibly important.

Graeme Cowan 47:39 

Thanks so much, Kirstin, for being part of the CEO, The Caring CEO podcast. It’s been a really great, interesting conversation. And they may even be a part two down the track, because I think there’s lots of other areas to cover.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson 47:53 

Fantastic. Thank you very much for having me.

Graeme Cowan 47:58 

Thanks for joining us today. I hope you’ve learned something new and heard some practical tips you can try with your team. If you enjoyed this interview today. Please rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. When you rate us It helps other people to find us. We also welcome any comments. If you’re interested in seeing details about our scalable WeCARE Mental Health Training Programs, please visit us at Our goal for these programs is to make them accessible, practical, and ongoing.

If you’ve been impressed by a CEO that you would like us to interview please email details to Please subscribe by clicking the button below. We really would love to have you as part of the care movement. Thanks for joining us.

chat icon

Oh, you are inquisitive… getting all the way to the bottom of the page!

Thanks for listening 🙂


From all of us at The Caring CEO, and the WeCARE team, keep listening, keep caring and lead with your heart.


P.S. If you want to reach out, share a great leader we should interview or learn more about The WeCARE Way, click here to contact us. 


0/5 (0 Reviews)