Program connects scholars to know-how

Grains industry leaders develop skills in once-in-a-lifetime training opportunity

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Wade Dabinett and Emma Thomas share learnings from Australian Rural Leadership Program.

With drought persisting in many grain growing areas, community leadership becomes increasingly critical to support networks and nurture resilience. This is part of the reason why GRDC invests in helping people acquire and develop rural leadership skills.

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Wade Dabinett, Parilla, South Australia, and Emma Thomas, Forbes, New South Wales, visited Tasmania earlier this year for the Australian Rural Leadership Program. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Wade Dabinett, Parilla, South Australia, and Emma Thomas, Forbes, New South Wales, visited Tasmania earlier this year for the Australian Rural Leadership Program. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Shifting our behaviour can be a hard-won battle, but two grain growers have been lucky enough to recently share a series of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that have facilitated beneficial changes in skills and outlook.

Wade Dabinett and Emma Thomas have almost completed the Australian Rural Leadership Program's (ARLP) Course 25 with GRDC investment.

The 15-month program gives 30 scholarship winners from across rural, regional and remote Australia the chance to participate in challenging experiences to hone their leadership skills.

Wade and Emma were each awarded $50,000 from GRDC to complete the ARLP over five sessions across Australia and Asia.

Wade Dabinett is a financial controller and partner in his family's 8000-hectare mixed farm near Parilla in South Australia's south-eastern Mallee. Emma Thomas operates a 4000ha mixed farm near Forbes, NSW, with her husband Murray.

Practical

Wade Dabinett. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Wade Dabinett. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Wade, who also chairs Grain Producers SA (GPSA), a not-for-profit organisation representing South Australia's 3000 grain growers, says he applied for the ARLP to benefit from the skills offered.

"I was drawn to the program because it enabled me to experience real-life scenarios with my peers and practice how to work through challenging situations," he says.

Commitment

Wade says no timing is perfect for professional development when trying to balance work and study, but commitment is needed.

"The Kimberley session was sensational and was about putting people outside their comfort zones to see how they perform under pressure," he says.

"It allowed me to consider my impact on others."

South Australian grower and director Wade Dabinett, third from right, with his team during the Kimberley session. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

South Australian grower and director Wade Dabinett, third from right, with his team during the Kimberley session. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Wade says the program is aimed at improving personal productivity.

"We're all busy and just crack on to achieve results," he says.

"Very rarely do you have the opportunity to analyse how you operate with a view to improving your performance."

Results

While Wade knew he was results-driven, he was reminded that effective governance and an in-depth understanding of process is critical as a leader.

"It's okay to be results-driven when under pressure, but I realised I must appreciate the people around me who are process-driven," he says.

What this means, he says, is that people who need more detail or information on the way to achieving results also need to be supported and valued.

"I need a variety of people around me and if some require more detail, I need to take them on the path with me because everybody operates differently," he says.

"I'm transparent, open, honest, think out aloud and hope that others know that, with me, what you see is what you get."

Insight

Wade Dabinett reflects on what he discovered during the Kimberley experience. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Wade Dabinett reflects on what he discovered during the Kimberley experience. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Through the program, Wade says completing the Myers-Briggs test added some further insight into his personality style.

"I'm a fact-driven extrovert, which is why I need to be aware that emotion-driven introverts make decisions differently, and that's okay," he says.

Although Wade says he became GPSA chair when he was relatively young, he credits those on his board for their wisdom and mentoring.

"I'm lucky to have a supportive board and the ARLP has enabled me to hone my skills and grow my industry networks," he says.

Challenge

Wade Dabinett, left, with his peers on the Australian Rural Leadership Program. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Wade Dabinett, left, with his peers on the Australian Rural Leadership Program. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

For Wade, the most challenging aspect of the program was being away from work and family in the Kimberley without contact.

"It was painful but good because rarely do you switch off for two weeks and immerse yourself in something like that," he says.

"The entire course involves stepping out of your life for about six weeks, but hopefully my family and those around me see an improvement."

Another skill learned was how to elicit input from others.

"As GPSA chair I'm tasked with encouraging others to express their opinions, before giving my own," he says.

"My natural instinct is to speak first, but holding back will benefit everybody."

Clarity

Sustainable farming enthusiast Emma Thomas says completing the ARLP was the fulfilment of a 10-year goal.

Emma Thomas. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Emma Thomas. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

"I wanted to improve myself and make use of the ARLP network to clarify my direction on how best to leave a positive legacy, whether that's by managing the land better, helping others or becoming a politician," she says.

"Through the course I've discovered I don't want to be a politician, but I do want to work with organisations and people to help them become more sustainable for future generations."

Emma says the Kimberley experience was a life-changing adventure.

"We had to take on a different role every day to learn what it takes to be a leader and what it takes to be led," she says.

"It was a real adventure and a great way to understand how we feel, the impact we have on others and how we perform in a team under pressure."

Confidence

Forbes, NSW, grower Emma Thomas, pictured right, takes a break with her team during the Kimberley session. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Forbes, NSW, grower Emma Thomas, pictured right, takes a break with her team during the Kimberley session. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Emma says the Kimberley experience was pivotal in helping her gain more self-belief.

"I realised I am capable, even if that means learning new skills and processes on the run," she says.

"The Kimberley experience and the ongoing dry seasonal conditions gave me the confidence to take a job as the national drought program manager with Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, a philanthropic agency that provides community groups with access to grants for infrastructure and skills development."

Other aspects of the course involved media training, two weeks in Indonesia to explore international trade and a week in Tasmania to learn from those running successful agribusinesses.

While in Tasmania, Emma and the other program participants met some of the people who lived through the 2013 bushfires. She says the experience gave her more clarity about her life's purpose.

"I now see myself as a leader who strives to build leadership skills in others and pass on what I know," she says.

Wisdom

Wade Dabinett and Emma Thomas with Tasmanian Wesley Hazell (centre) who graduated from Course 1 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Wade Dabinett and Emma Thomas with Tasmanian Wesley Hazell (centre) who graduated from Course 1 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program. PHOTO Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

Some of the wisdom Emma gleaned from those who lived through the 2013 bushfires was to:

1. look forward at what others are going through and back at what others have endured. There's always somebody who is in a more difficult situation than you. Perspective matters;

2. know the people you are leading and their specific needs if you really want to facilitate change in their lives and in the lives of your business partners; and

3. realise that leadership is about letting people have a go and make mistakes. Leadership is the support you give team members to help them learn from their mistakes and thrive when next they try.

Applications for Course 27 of the ARLP open at the end of July. Wade and Emma encourage everybody to apply.

"Anybody who wants to improve their leadership skills for the benefit of their own business, community group or industry, must prioritise applying to participate in the program," Wade says.

Emma agrees: "I would encourage more growers and people from across the value chain to apply."

GRDC Research Code ARL1508-001SAX

More information: Wade Dabinett, 0408 686 092, wade@longtrailfarms.com.au; Emma Thomas, 0458 593 535, kaloola.t@gmail.com

Email info@rural-leaders.org.au or visit rural-leaders.org.au for details about how to apply for the ARLP.

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