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Tales from the Trenches with Darren Keenan

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am an engagement practitioner, trainer, facilitator and management consultant. I have recently returned to my consultancy practice, after approximately 2.5 years working with IAP2 Australasia, where I managed the practice and professional development portfolios. My experience base is very broad, including commercial, government, health, education, training, agriculture and information technology. I pride myself on being a strategic thinker, who can deliver very practical outcomes.

Privately, I am the luckiest man in the world, I have a fantastic wife, Kathy and three great children, Joshua, Chloe and Charles.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.
Practical Consulting Group is a practice that specialises in delivering bespoke engagement solutions, training solutions, strategic organisational change programs, and provides management consultancy services across Australasia.
We like to form strong partnerships with our clients, working with them and supporting them in delivering very practical outcomes. Our practice collaborates with skilled professionals across Australasia, each bringing their own unique expertise, providing us with the capability of providing holistic solutions for our clients.

We love working with regional clients, they have unique challenges and opportunities, and generally limited resources, which just heightens the challenge.

What does your role involve?
My role is very diverse, I work many parts of Practical Consulting Group, from managing the operations, to delivering engagement projects, facilitating strategic planning sessions, delivering training programs and managing organisational change projects.
Partnering with our clients involves forming strong personal bonds with organisations and their people. My role spends a lot of time forming relationships with our clients, ensuring that their needs are well understood, and importantly are delivered on.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
One of my favourite things of our practice is that there is never a “typical” day. Every day we work with different clients, with equally different projects. Every day brings new opportunities and challenges, something that ensures that our work is always very interesting and diverse.

Can you share some of the good and bad experiences you have encountered over your career and how they have helped you grow as an engagement professional and person?
Some of my best experiences in community engagement came from my time with IAP2 Australasia. The opportunity to work with the best engagement minds, see the most interesting projects in Australia and New Zealand, and to work with very passionate people has greatly broadened my skills, knowledge and understanding of engagement practice.

Perhaps an opportunity that I have observed is to better define the term engagement (in our context). Engagement is currently a fast-expanding field of practise. Some of the activities that are deemed to be “engagement” unfortunately do not pass either legitimacy or ethical filters. By continuing to develop ourselves and our associates, we can grow the practice of quality engagement.

One of the most positive and rewarding things in life, is hearing from somebody that you trained, that your time with them positively influenced their engagement practices.

If you are working on a project at the moment would you like to share the journey to date?
What principles did you find most useful in carrying out this project?
Did you come across any surprises on this project?
In my community I am the Presiding Member of our Health Advisory Council (aka chair of the hospital board). This has provided me with a unique opportunity, in collaboration with others, to develop a Partnership Framework between the state’s health department and Health Advisory Councils (HACs), from across country South Australia. I now chair the working group, whose responsibility is to implement the framework that we developed, something that I am finding very rewarding.
Working on this project, predominately with people who have not had exposure to community engagement, I have found that the IAP2 Core Values have provided valuable foundations for them to appreciate the opportunities. Furthermore, I am continually surprised by the commitment of the group, mostly volunteers, to the longer-term cultural change process that we have entered.

We have an opportunity to positively change how the health department and the HACs work together. This opportunity is huge, as is the amount of work that we will need to do, to realise the best outcomes for health and wellbeing in our communities.

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
Leading a project, where the outcomes of that project make a huge difference for the stakeholders involved is very rewarding. Even more so if the outcome impacts a group of stakeholders that does not normally have a voice or is marginalised.
Another huge side-benefit of working in engagement is that you get exposed to a lot of different situations and environments. Every day is a learning day for me.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
The most challenging part of working in engagement is working with organisations who are still yet to fully appreciate the benefits of good engagement. They tend to want fast processes, they under-resource them, and always want to have a high-level of control of the outcomes.

I remember being told by a mayor once, “We can’t ask that question”, when I asked why, they explained to me that they did not know how the stakeholders would respond. “Isn’t that why we should ask?” was my response.
People’s belief in the value of good engagement still is a work in progress for some organisations, something that I continue to work hard on changing the perception of.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
I was starting to investigate new career opportunities when I saw a job title “Community Engagement Manager”, which I had never heard of before. I investigated further information and found the practice of community engagement was very consistent with my professional interests and personal values. The role was one of the very early to use the term “community engagement” in the title, especially in local government, I saw an opportunity to be the one to put the footprints in the sand, metaphorically speaking.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
1. Giving every stakeholder a voice is very rewarding, even if you don’t personally agree with what they have to say.
2. Every stakeholder has something in common, something that they can agree on, or something that they can live with. Work hard to find that commonality, and then use it as a foundation stone for further growth or development.
3. Engaging in “peace time” is the most powerful engagement that you can do. This is engagement that is done where there is no matter at hand – especially a contentious one, no decision to be made, or no change to implement. The effort to build the capacity of a stakeholder and their ability to engage, will repay itself many times over.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
I would have two pieces of advice:
1. Always remember that as an engagement professional, it is your role to oversee the process, not determine, or lead stakeholders towards a specific outcome. If you run a great process, in many cases there will be great outcomes.
2. Engagement professionals are very sharing, take every opportunity to be in their company, talk with them, share with them and learn from them. IAP2 Australasia membership is a great opportunity to assist with this.