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Ethics and Leadership Conference 2015

Speech by Robert Tickner, CEO Australian Red Cross, delivered at Conference on Ethics and Leadership in the Public Sector 

7 May 2015    


Dear Friends,  

Thank you so very much for the opportunity to join in this very distinguished panel and in this event with such a high profile group of leaders to speak on ethics and leadership in the public sector.  

May I begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and their elders, past and present.   I feel somewhat of an imposter at this event, in that I have never been a public servant and most of my working life has been spent in the not for profit sector, including as the CEO of two significant national organisations and currently as the CEO of Australian Red Cross.  

I have also spent a significant part of my life within Government itself, and the majority of that time in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs portfolio, one of the greatest privileges of my life.  This experience is also a backdrop to my contribution to this panel.  

I will be speaking today in my capacity as the CEO of Red Cross but if anyone cares to raise a question about my former role and the place of ethical decision making, I would be only too pleased to make some bipartisan and neutral observations which may contribute to your deliberations.  

I was asked to give some background about the reform journey which Australian Red Cross has been on over the past decade.   There are no secrets about what we have done, indeed there is a case study of those reforms on the Red Cross web site, and my summary will be necessarily brief.  I do think the reforms have relevance, however, as they have resulted in a huge lift in the capacity of one of Australia's most respected not for profit organisations.  That huge lift in governance and management enables us to ensure ethics and leadership are two hallmarks of the modern Red Cross which has just celebrated our Centenary Year.    

After almost 94 years of state and territory based operations, with eight state and territory CEOs and eight state boards, we now have only one national board with governance authority that delegates management to the CEO, with clear divides in the Red Cross constitution around the respective roles of management and governance.  

We then embarked on a transformation process refocussing our work into eight priority areas which include:     

  • Our international work in partnership with other Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in development work;
  • Our response to disaster and emergencies both within Australia and Internationally;
  • Our work with asylum seekers and refugees;
  • Promotion of international humanitarian law, including a leadership role in promoting a convention to outlaw nuclear weapons;
  • Programs and work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities;
  • Programs promoting social inclusion;    
  • Our work in marginalised communities with a place based approach, and finally
  • Our delivery of the national blood service to the people of Australia.

We stopped trying to be all things to all people and instead took a decision to have an increasing focus of our work on people who are going through times of severe vulnerability while continuing many of our long standing programs.   

I would argue that there are strong ethical issues involved in this decision to focus on people who are going through periods of great vulnerability because, if these values are lived out, they will involve over time a shift in resources within program delivery.  I would argue that there is a capacity for ethical decision making in policy recommendations, not only in the not for profit sector but within Government as well, at least in the advice provided to Ministers of the Crown by public servants.  

Another step in our reform process was to recruit a national leadership team and senior managers who are among some of the most respected people in the not for profit sector in our country. Our Head of Services and International Operations Michael Raper, for example, is a former ACOSS President and has well deserved national recognition for his long standing work in human rights for some of the most marginalised people in our communities. 

I am very proud of the capacity of all the members of our national leadership team.   I have taken on a very hands on role in recruitment of senior positions, not only in our national leadership team but also in other levels of the organisation, in which the ethical track record and "fit" of the applicant with our Red Cross values and culture is an important, but not the only, consideration.  

Some have written retrospectively about the way Abraham Lincoln created a "cabinet of rivals" to describe the way in which he appointed high profile and highly talented people who were not necessarily always ad idem with him, or with each other, but who would not take a backward step in debate on challenging issues.  I tried to make this a hall mark of my appointments in Red Cross as I think it contributes to a culture which drives the best outcomes, where ideas are able to be robustly challenged.  

There is so much more to the reform process but time does not permit me to go into greater detail, however the central point of relevance to today's forum is that our hugely increased governance and management capacity has given us the strength, greatly increased resources, accountability framework and nationally coordinated tools to ensure that our whole organisation proudly stands behind our values and integrity.  

To prove my point, we have now conducted three employee engagement surveys of our entire workforce.  The latest one achieved an 87% participation rate, with 97% of those strongly believing in the goals and objectives of Australian Red Cross, and 90% proud to be a part of Red Cross.  

These things don't happen by accident, I am sure you agree, but they are a good temperature check of the health of our organisation.   I turn now to some further observations on our experience which may be of value to share with you all.  

First some general observations.  

What is ethical behaviour?  

As many authors have proclaimed, ethics is also about integrity - how we discern right from wrong and act accordingly.  When we act with integrity, we are driven to consistently do what is right without concern for personal consequences.  

Acting with integrity requires courage.  As such, a key value of ethical leaders must be courage; the courage to do the right thing in situations which are often complex and difficult, and often requires wisdom and discipline to avoid temptations.    

How do leaders build and maintain organisational cultures that promote ethical behaviour in the workplace?  

Leaders walk their talk

In the first instance, leaders at all levels must be able to model the behaviours they want their people to demonstrate.  Ethical leaders create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow.  Leadership behaviour that models the way, establishes trust within teams and the organisation overall.  Trust is a key ingredient for success.   

My own style is to be very accessible to our 3,000 strong workforce and our 22,000 volunteers, and all of them have my mobile phone number and email address.  This openness and accessibility is rarely abused.  

Collaboration and Innovation

Australian Red Cross strives to foster a culture of collaboration and innovation.  Where this is achieved consultation, communication and collaboration helps to build trust within teams and the organisation as a whole, which in turn encourages involvement, contribution and commitment from all workforce members.  

Recruitment as a first step

Building and maintaining a culture that promotes ethical behaviour must start at the recruitment stage.  We must be clear about the attitudes and behaviours we need to recruit in order for ethics to play a key part in our organisational culture.

Within Australian Red Cross, our behavioural capabilities are included on every position description and these play a key role in how we select the right applicant.  

Organisational Induction

The Australian Red Cross organisational induction provides an opportunity for all new staff and volunteers to be introduced to the vision, mission and principles of Red Cross and to gain an appreciation of what is expected of them as a member of the Red Cross workforce.  The induction process requires staff and volunteers to attend a face to face workshop and complete a series of online modules that introduce them to the specific responsibilities that lead to good ethical practice.   

Having our executive leaders present at induction workshops whenever we can helps to reinforce expected behaviours which provides the foundation for reinforcing and addressing ethical challenges that may be encountered in the future.  

Learning and Development

The training and development opportunities outlined in the Red Cross Learning and Development Plan focus specifically on growing the capability of our workforce to ensure we share the same set of attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterise Red Cross as an organisation.  

Principles, Codes and Policies (mostly available on the Red Cross website)  

Our Fundamental Principles, Code of Conduct, Ways of Working and organisational policies play an important role in guiding the behaviour of the Red Cross workforce. These are communicated throughout the organisation through induction, learning and development programs and through expectations set by managers to their teams.  

Fundamental Principles  

At all times the Red Cross workforce is guided by our seven Fundamental Principles. Specifically they characterise the way we work and as such, apply to our behaviours and how we interact with each other both within the organisation and in the community.  

Code of Conduct  

Our Code of Conduct states who we are and how we conduct ourselves in our work on behalf of Red Cross and it helps shape our culture.  It represents the organisational culture we strive to have and provides a shared understanding and expectation of the way we behave as individuals, towards each other and towards our members, clients, donors, partners and other supporters.  

Ways of Working

How we work as an organisation is as important as what we do.  Our Ways of Working guidelines set out the core values that guide how we work to address disadvantage and vulnerability both in Australia and overseas.      

Capability Framework  

The Australian Red Cross Capability Framework works to enhance our ability to articulate and demonstrate our organisational and behavioural values.  It details the behaviours, attitudes and abilities required by the Red Cross workforce and works to support the achievement of our seven Fundamental Principles, our values and culture as outlined in the Code of Conduct and our strategic vision and goals.  

Organisational Policies  

Our suite of organisational policies that include, but are not limited to, Equal Opportunity, Whistle Blower, Grievance, Child Protection, Privacy, Fraud, and Social Media, specify how the Red Cross workforce is expected to behave.  All Red Cross staff and volunteers are required to adhere to these policies and they are communicated through induction workshops.  

The key indicators of a healthy ethical climate at Red Cross  

Safety in Speaking Out

At Australian Red Cross, we believe that a key indicator of a healthy ethical climate is that all members of our workforce feel safe to speak out and know they are being heard.

To measure how well we are doing, our Staff Engagement Survey specifically asks a question around safety; "most of the time it is safe to speak up in this organisation".

When the first staff engagement survey was launched in 2009, responses highlighted that only 50 percent of our workforce felt safe enough to speak up, however this has been growing steadily with every survey since. These are distributed every 18 months.

Our first volunteer engagement survey launched this year also includes this question. We will be able to review these results in the near future and take action where necessary.  

Cultural Competency

We are very proud of the fact that we have approximately 150 talented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff.

Feeling safe at work is a key feature of our cultural competency curriculum. Two workshops that run regularly in each state and territory on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Competency focus on the responsibilities we all have for fostering and maintaining a culturally safe organisation.

Partnerships created between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Team and Learning and Development have been very successful in promoting and encouraging discussions on culturally safe workplaces.  There is a specific focus on what is working well now, what challenges are being faced and what actions need to be taken to improve cultural safety in the workplace.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural competency curriculum and the action plans that arise from discussions help us to continually improve how we attract, recruit, develop and retain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and volunteers.  

Performance Review

The performance review process has been successful in enabling ongoing communication to take place between managers and team members.  The formalised process allows for managers and team members to provide feedback to each other on behaviour, what's working well, areas for concern and development opportunities.  Review discussions have the opportunity to provide us with a snapshot of our cultural climate - what is working well in the organisation and what areas need improvement.  

Recognising and Acting on Warning Signs

Issues in the workplace arising from incivility, aggression or any form of harassment would be warning signs and areas for concern in any organisation.

Development of Red Cross leaders in effectively managing performance plays a key role in ensuring issues are recognised and addressed as soon as possible.

Ongoing communication to staff and volunteers on recognising and reporting aggressive behaviour, bullying and harassment assists in early identification of issues.

Red Cross contact officers are available across states and territories to provide assistance to anyone who may have a concern or questions around unethical behaviour.    

The client feedback policy enables us to capture information from our clients and communities.  Issues raised through feedback mechanisms can help us to quickly identify areas of possible concern and take action.  


As a humanitarian all my adult life, I am a believer in the inherent goodness of people.  

Sadly there will always be some crooks or scammers and our challenge as leaders is to create cultures with zero tolerance for these people and to ensure we have the systems and processes in place to bring these abuses to light and properly deal with them.   I think this conference contributes wonderfully to that objective.  

Thank you very much.

Robert Tickner
CEO Australian Red Cross