La Trobe politics alumna Conny Lenneberg (Distinguished Alumni Award, 2014) has devoted her working life to social justice. Throughout her 25-year career, she’s confronted some of the most devastating global humanitarian crises, including conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Along the way, she’s worked in roles ranging from service delivery in the field, to leading large teams and taking on board and senior executive roles – including her current position as Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence. It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that she nearly gave away education altogether.
‘I almost dropped out of high school in year 10. I had a very dysfunctional family life at that stage and I nearly left school,’ she says.
‘But I was very close to my grandmother and she always believed in me. So I decided I needed to stay in school for her.’
Looking back, her grandmother was one of many passionate supporters who helped influence her career. While Conny never expected to see herself in a leadership role, on her journey from La Trobe student to community development sector leader she has been guided by role models and mentors who’ve advised and encouraged her through each challenge.
Being first in family at university
Born in Germany, Conny moved to Australia when she was just two years old. Her father was an electrician, who was employed by Siemens when he arrived, and her mother a factory worker. Growing up during the second World War, both had interrupted schooling and certainly no higher education options.
So when Conny raised the idea of going to university herself, it was met with resistance.
‘My parents did not want me to go! But I discovered that whenever anybody told me I couldn’t do something, I’d give it a shot, even though I wasn’t too sure I could do it myself,’ she says.
For Conny, starting out at La Trobe was both exhilarating and challenging. She quickly became drawn into learning and university life, completing a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) (1981) and a Master of Arts (1989), and later receiving a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) (2017). Yet, alongside the excitement of studying sat feelings of self-doubt.
‘La Trobe opened my horizons to a whole new world I knew nothing about. It was both a wonderful and terrifying place for me to go. I felt totally bewildered when I arrived there. And, as the first in my family to go to university, I always wondered whether I really belonged there,’ she says.
‘I felt like the biggest imposter. At first, I didn’t have the courage to go into the café in the Agora to order a coffee, because I thought people would see that I didn’t belong at university.’
How to beat imposter syndrome: the crucial role of mentors
Conny sought out mentors to boost her confidence and diminish her sense of being a fraud. Professors Ross Martin and Robert Manne were among her first mentors, providing guidance and advice on her undergraduate journey. Another was Professor Robin Jeffrey, a South Asia specialist then working in La Trobe’s politics department.
‘I met Robin in my Honours year and he was a wonderful teacher. He believed in me, he encouraged me and he was always enthusiastic. It was just infectious!’ she says.
‘When you’re feeling uncertain and thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? Does anybody care about this topic that I’m studying? How am I going to get through it?’, then having someone really work alongside you is very important. Robin was extraordinary and very supportive. He taught me to believe in myself. And he’s still a very dear friend today.’
This positive mentoring experience encouraged Conny to keep seeking role models throughout her career. She gives the example of Tim Costello AO, a Baptist minister and current Chief Advocate of World Vision Australia, with whom she worked at World Vision International.
‘He has the capability to communicate with all people – whether that’s in a village in a critical conflict situation, or talking to the Australian Prime Minister, or criticising politician Peter Dutton on the radio in the morning, then later visiting his office and having a very productive and respectful discussion about policy issues,’ she says.
Leading with accountability and gratitude
Conny sought to develop accountability and gratitude in her own leadership approach throughout her career. One of her earliest opportunities to put these qualities into practice was while working as Senior Manager of Asia for Australian Volunteers International (AVI), an organisation that sends Australia’s mid-career professionals and graduates to work overseas.
Conny says this was an important learning role for her, teaching her that ‘you actually lead through the people you’re responsible for’.
‘It’s not about being in charge. It’s about enabling people to do their best – and being accountable for the results,’ she says.
In her role at AVI, Conny was accountable for in-field volunteers in war-torn Afghanistan. She describes the importance of not taking people’s talents for granted, but rather recognising their skills and being accountable for harnessing them in meaningful ways.
‘People volunteer from the goodness of their heart to go into those places. So, you quickly learn that you have a lot of responsibility for them, and to the local organisations they’re working with, to create meaningful opportunities to contribute expertise and build capabilities.’
That sense of accountability has since been prominent throughout Conny’s career. At World Vision International, she was responsible for staff in 14 countries and an annual budget of between $150-180 million. Now, at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, she leads 1400 staff and 1200 volunteers, manages a budget of $180 million and works with some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities.
Caring for staff and communities
Whether working in Australia or overseas, responsibility in the community development sector comes with a significant duty of care. Leaders must not only help staff and volunteers bring their best to their roles, but also make sure each project succeeds for the local community it impacts.
‘Because if we get it wrong, we don’t pay the price. The people who we’re trying to work with and for are the ones who bear that,’ Conny explains.
‘In international development work, if you mess up an agriculture project, people go hungry. If you dig the well in the wrong place and you hit arsenic and you haven’t done the tests, children die. Going into Syria and Iraq, if you don’t have the proper security training for your staff, the right intelligence about what’s going on and the right relationship in terms of neutrality, people die,’ she says.
‘Here in Australia, if you don’t get education and training right, young people miss out on critical opportunities, that can have repercussions throughout their lives. If you don’t get the responses to family violence right, people get hurt, or worse.’
Clearly, the stakes are high. In fact, at one point in Conny’s career, six of her staff in Syria were taken hostage by Isis.
‘They were held at a time when you saw on your television screens Western hostages being executed. It took us six months of sensitive engagement to get them freed,’ she says.
Leading through precarious events like this one has strengthened Conny’s accountability. But more than this, it’s also strengthened her sense of compassion.
‘When you work in a big organisation, your people need a vision and they need rules. But they also need support and care,’ she says.
She gives the example of placing a very experienced professional in-field in Afghanistan under AVI. When the individual arrived in the country, he panicked. She knew she had to get him out – despite their contractual obligation.
‘I could have said, ‘You can’t — this is going to cost you if you leave’, because we had a contract. I also knew that if I could just get him to stay there long enough, he’d calm down and it would be fine. But in the end, you have to look after the person. You have to honour and respect every individual you come in contact with.’
Conny sees leading with compassion as essential for future leaders across all sectors. She says it’s about better understanding ‘the need to not be strong and in charge all the time’, but instead ‘to be vulnerable, to be authentic and to be caring’. She describes this way of connecting as ‘followship’ – a flipside of leadership, and something you have to earn.
‘We all lead in our own way. For me, leadership is from a place of accountability and compassion - doing what you can, to the best you possibly can,’ she says.
Conny leads with compassion in other ways, too. She’s established the Lenneberg Westerdorf Family Scholarship, which enables talented Indigenous students to pursue their education at La Trobe. And by sharing her skills and industry knowledge by giving back as an alumni mentor, she’s helping the next generation of La Trobe students develop that same self-belief she sought as an undergraduate.
And while the imposter syndrome is sometimes still there, these days its voice is much quieter.
‘I still have those moments where I think, ‘Am I really doing this?’. The position I’ve got at the moment, I really can’t believe it.’