Real Life. Real Leadership.
We live in a turbulent world. More than ever before, people are looking to their leaders to provide clarity and purpose. Put aside the theory and read on for an insight into the story of an outstanding leader – Liane (Li) Unewisse, General Manager HR and Communications, Wesfarmers Chemicals, Energy and Fertilisers (WesCEF)
We live in a turbulent world. More than ever before, people are looking to their leaders to provide clarity and purpose. In this series of interviews, we pose 5 questions to respected leaders. These leaders lead anywhere from the front line to the corner office, but they have one thing in common – they are highly effective and well regarded. Put aside the theory and read on for an insight into the stories of some outstanding leaders.
Liane (Li) Unewisse is General Manager HR and Communications at Wesfarmers Chemicals, Energy and Fertilisers (WesCEF). After commencing her career as a Weapons Electrical Engineering Officer with the Royal Australian Navy, Li has carved out an impressive track record in the industrials sector. Li spend 9 years with Downer EDI, with most of that time in senior HSEQ roles and has been with Wesfarmers for the last 15 years. Although having led the Health Safety, Environment and Quality Assurance functions as well as HR for most of those 15 years, Li now leads a team of HR, Learning & Development and Communications professionals in the support of the diverse portfolio of WesCEF businesses.
Red Emu: Tell us your leadership story – how has your leadership evolved over the years and what has shaped your approach to leadership?
Li Unewisse: My first exposure to leadership was when I joined the Royal Australian Navy at age 22. I was a degree qualified engineer so was automatically appointed as an officer. The expectation was to behave a certain way, have presence and set an example. I had the odd situation that people many years my senior called me Ma’am because that’s what you did in the Navy! Those years were very formative for me. I was based in various locations across Australia and of course on ships. By 24 I was leading a maintenance facility at Garden Island in Sydney which had around 200 sailors across a range of trades working there. It is easy to feel inadequate to the task in front of you but the task doesn’t go away so I had to rise to it as best I could. I ended up staying in the Navy for 11 years in a range of roles and locations. The other aspect of leadership in the military was that the expectation was that you look after all aspects of the welfare of those that report into you irrespective of whether that was at work or in their personal life.
From there I joined the construction industry, initially in Quality Assurance and Safety, but after a couple of years broadening out into contracts management and construction management at remote sites. I enjoyed testing myself in new environments. One of the remote sites I worked at was Roxby Downs in South Australia. I was a FIFO worker and at that time it was six weeks on and 1 week off so it was 42 days of 13 hour shifts living in a camp. I found that the environment built relationships very quickly because of the intensity. From a leadership perspective, I’m not sure I thought about it consciously – it was about delivering the project and I focused on filling the gaps that helped my team progress the work. There was a strong gender imbalance at that time but I don’t think that necessarily made it harder – at least I was remembered! I worked in construction for around 10 years which included a move to Perth but I had a national role and the travel took its toll and led me to seek other opportunities.
I joined CSBP in 2004 as a Safety Superintendent. Once again, a new industry (manufacturing) which I found exciting and challenging. A year later I was offered a broader role which included HR and Safety and I joined the Executive Team. My role continued to evolve over the years adding Environment and Technical Services. In 2009 CSBP merged with Wesfarmers Energy which resulted in an altered remit supporting additional businesses.
The journey from Superintendent to Executive has been interesting. One of the big differences is visibility. The way you speak and the way you behave is important. Understanding the diversity of a modern workforce is important and as an Executive there is a responsibility to behave appropriately. It is fundamentally unacceptable to me to have a negative impact on anyone in the business.
The other thing about leadership is that the nature of work changes as you progress. The work we used to do and measure ourselves by was well defined and measurable. Leadership is a more ambiguous concept where you hope you are doing it well but it is hard to measure on a day to day basis.
Red Emu: You have responsibility for a significant, complex organisation – how do you create clarity for your team and the broader organisation?
Li Unewisse: I believe it is really important to declare what the organisation stands for, its purpose and what it is there to do. Getting the language around that clear helps people to understand how their role links to business success. I think that’s vital because if people don’t know why they’re working hard and why what they do matters, it is hard to maintain motivation and enthusiasm.
The organisational purpose can be broken down to a department level and then a role level so that everyone knows where they fit in and how they add value.
Red Emu: What is the biggest sacrifice or trade-off you have had to make in your leadership journey?
Li Unewisse: I don’t think I had leadership ambitions earlier in my career. It was all about doing a good job.
However, I am of the view that sacrifice is not a good way to think about life. We all make small decisions every day and big decisions from time to time as our lives develop. I think every working person makes decisions that shape their life and their career but these are decisions rather than sacrifices. Modern couples and families find ways to make careers work and are far more agile than we were a generation ago.
Red Emu: As you reflect on your career to date, what advice would have been helpful to you when you started out?
Li Unewisse: I think I had a level of arrogance in my early 20’s which probably wasn’t helpful. I should have posed the question to myself “why should anyone be led by you?” I think considering that question would have prompted me to invest the time in connecting with people more quickly and ultimately be a better leader.
Red Emu: How do you continue to develop your leadership and the leadership capability within your business?
Li Unewisse: The concept of leadership continues to evolve rapidly and there is so much reading you can do in the space. So that is a constant learning for me. But for me the biggest input into my leadership development is the feedback from my team and my peers. They continue to challenge me to think in new ways – call me out if I have a fixed mindset about something.
In terms of the organisation, we have three levels of structured leadership development internally. However, as Executives, we need to encourage people to pull out of their normal work and dedicate time to development regularly if you want to challenge mindsets and grow as leaders. We also have individual development plans for a range of people at various levels.
One of my passions is supporting mental health in our organisation so I am doing a lot of learning in that space and leaning into leading the conversation in our business on this important topic. If you are a compassionate leader, it exponentially increases your ability to be influential and you do some good along the way.