Researchers at the Australian Museum juggle a lot of responsibilities; managing internal staff, working with external communities, and balancing budgets. Not to mention the most important aspect of their work, curating, conserving and producing research from Australia’s largest natural history collection.

Context

Julie Ellmers contacted Polykala having experienced our work previously through her involvement with the Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH). Polykala has a long relationship delivering professional development to members of CABAH during their yearly symposiums. 

The Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) wanted to build a leadership development program that was customised for its researchers, a cohort of staff that are pulled in many directions and only rarely receive professional development opportunities. These folks are experts in a range of natural sciences. They gather, preserve and organise specimens at the service of scientific progress. Their work furthers knowledge and disseminates it via hugely popular public exhibitions. 

AMRI was looking for a program that balanced leadership theory and practice as well as tangible communication skills to equip the team of esteemed scientists in their professional growth. 

Approach

We designed a five-part leadership development program based on our Technical Expert to People Manager training. This training provides emerging or mid-career professionals with the insight and skills to manage staff and approach adaptive challenges and opportunities. The program was bookended by longer, in-person intensives with half-day online sessions in between. We have found this model to be ideal for structuring learning programs that blend the flexibility of online learning without losing the high-impact value of immersive in-person learning. We’ve used this format with the University of Newcastle’s Office of Advancement Programs and the Australasian College of Paramedicine.  

The first 2-day session introduced Adaptive Leadership. Here, we established the key pillars of Adaptive Leadership; distinguishing the practice of leadership (shifting the status quo) from the position of authority (the vital function of providing order, protection and direction), technical and adaptive challenges, navigating change and loss aversion. We facilitated conversations and activities designed to enliven these concepts via contextual application. This wasn’t always easy as AMRI stewards Australia’s largest and oldest natural history collection and is charged with preserving the status quo. But to continue doing so, given the radical changes afoot in Global North museums, requires more than incremental maintenance.

The three online sessions were focussed on workplace challenges that require essential communication skills; contending with diversity and inclusion, negotiating based on underlying interests, and the craft of giving and receiving feedback. These workshops balanced theory and practice to develop greater competency at navigating difficult conversations and enabling their organisation to (even incrementally) culture shift. 

We closed out the program with a one-day intensive centred on Immunity to Change. The key idea from Immunity to Change is to test the competing assumption that is interfering with your stated goal and conduct experiments that will either prove or disprove that assumption. To explore the individual immunities to change, we worked in small groups and ran individual coaching sessions with participants. We then walked the AMRI group through a process to pool their solo immunity maps together to build a larger one that merits collective action.

Outcomes

We were struck by the degree to which the participants from the Australian Museum Research Institute relished the opportunity to challenge themselves, build relationships amongst the cohort, and establish accountability measures to ensure that they continue to develop their skills. We were heartened by the quality of conversation regarding cognitive and demographic diversity and the energy the group brought to the challenging work of Immunity to Change.

Working with Julie Ellmers and the team at the Australian Museum Research Institute is a great source of pride for us at Polykala. We look forward to continuing our partnership with AMRI and love knowing (a little) of what goes on at this iconic Australian Institution.

“The Australian Museum engaged Polykala to work with a group of 25 of our current and aspiring Managers within the Australian Museum Research Institute. We worked on ‘Adaptive Leadership’ over a six-month period, including both face-to-face and remote sessions. Many of my staff described the course as challenging, but also thought provoking and informative, and it has proven to be a great team-building exercise, giving us some common experience and language that I’m hearing popping up throughout the workplace. The feedback we have received shows that everyone who participated would recommend the training to others.”

Julie Ellmers – Associate Director, Australian Museum Research Institute

Client

Australian Museum

Year

2023 – current

Number of participants

30

Number of sessions

5

Location

Sydney (NSW), Online