Tales from the Trenches with Jan Talyor
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I arrived at engagement and consultation along a very circuitous pathway. I was a senior bureaucrat who resigned to become a management consultant, ABC presenter, company director and part-time national Ombudsman for credit unions and building societies) (I have always found personal and professional goals extremely difficult hence the variety).
I loved being an ABC presenter and company director but hated being a management consultant (had no idea that it would involve downsizing organisations!). A Queensland Minister offered me a part-time gig heading up an Inquiry into Queensland’s Future Needs. I fell in love with the challenge, the diversity of people I met across the State, the need to obtain information without raising expectations and the capacity to achieve outcomes and outputs which would add to the debate.
As soon as the six month Inquiry was finished, I closed up my business as a management consultant and established myself as a community consultant…and have never looked back, nor regretted the decision in any way.
Tell us a bit about your organisation.
We have never been large; 24 was the largest number of consultants we ever had. We primarily employ women…not deliberately, they just seem to have the skill sets we want. We don’t recruit formally, we usually respond to (potential consultant) emails with an invitation to coffee, and that sometimes becomes three meetings before the die is cast! Empathy and warmth are probably the most important criteria for us, along with intelligence, common sense, capacity to listen and communicate, strategic capacity, and a non-judgemental approach to life and issues.
None of our graduate consultants have PR or communication qualifications and have come to us with degrees in social work, psychology, economics, law, urban planning, business administration (i.e. MBAs), and environmental management.
We usually work in small teams and are generous in sharing information with each other as well as with client teams so skills transfer is important to us. We never accept a project unless the whole team is on board with its objectives which often means collectively we do not optimise income…but we love what we do and regard each day as a new learning experience and challenge.
What does your role involve?
JTA has a very flat structure so although I might be the ‘Principal’ my roles on various projects have varied from being the manager and operator of a freecall service, to a facilitator (groups from 3 to 3000, across the Australian mainland, working with communities on the same project for up to three years), project manager, being on a project team with someone else managing it, researcher, report author, and many other roles. However, client interface is always a constant.
What would be a typical day in your working life?
The great thing about being in engagement and consultation is that there is no such thing as a typical day but to take a slice from one of our biggest projects:
• On the road at 6am heading west with other members of the team (one of JTA’s ground rules is that consultants are discouraged from travelling by themselves).
• Arriving in a country town and setting up a drop-in centre, organising last minute details for the public meeting later that day, catching up over coffee with stakeholders who have requested a meeting or targeting a stakeholder with a different viewpoint; coffees in a neutral venue are the preferred option
• Meeting with the client team at lunch to ensure that last minute changes have been made to the presentation, catching up on local issues or hotspots, ensuring that any new members in the client team understand JTA’s modus operandi and that they will be picked up for non-responsive or confusing answers, essentially spelling out that while the client may be paying for the exercise this will not take away from JTA’s independence.
• Checking on last minute freecalls or emails to the office so that we are not caught short on the latest incident/crisis/issue prior to the public meetings
• Hold the public meeting. JTA staff will circulate beforehand introducing themselves to the community and explaining our role; all attendees will be asked to provide personal information (rejection to be accepted pleasantly, explaining that we will not be able to supply them with details of the meeting result). Nametags are provided and only Christian names used. Some meetings have an absolute cut off after two or three hours, others are allowed to continue if JTA thinks it appropriate.
• After the public meeting, attendees are given an opportunity to talk to JTA or client team members.
• We all head off to a hotel for a great meal and de-briefing. With a bit of luck we will finish by midnight, with a 6am start the next day as we drive to the next location.
• These exercises vary in length between five and ten days.
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?
The worst experiences would include:
• a client who refused to accept the advice for which we were being paid so that subsequent public meetings were a nightmare (accompanied by effigies being burnt outside the meeting venues).
• a client who failed to advise JTA that security guards would be in attendance (so that as one attendee exited the meeting afterwards he said ‘was that really what you expected of us…the need to have security guards.
The best experiences run into the hundreds and would include:
• a farmer in a public meeting tackling a protester (if you don’t live here I don’t want to hear your view).
• returning to a country location three years after a contentious project and being stopped in the main street to say how good it was to see us back.
• developing relationships with protest groups and establishing acceptable ways in which they can they have a presence.
• running community consultation meetings and over time seeing the questions and concerns change as communities acquire more information courtesy of our efforts (a long running project should always have an element of education).
• the amazing people you meet in country towns and long lasting relationships developed.
• the phenomenal members of the JTA team who bring different skills and personality traits to each project, and work like dogs when the need is there.
What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
Communities and their willingness to trust and respect us enough to continue attending meetings.
What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
The willingness to stand up to clients who are disrespectful of impacted communities and offer advice and debate on matters where we are clearly diametrically opposed.
The need to have the capacity to understand that not everyone will be a winner and that not all community members will be happy with the outcome. What is vital is that while they may opposed to the project, they understand they have been treated respectfully and now know more than they did at the beginning.
What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
It was the accidental outcome of having been thrust into a state-wide consultation exercise, running countless meetings and yet enjoying the cut and thrust of an angry public meeting at 8am on a Sunday where hundreds of people were waiting to take a piece of me, and the cattle dogs sat with their masters in the front row having the same thought.
And yet at the end receiving thanks and hugs from people who disagreed with me but appreciated my willingness to stand up in front of them.
What is the biggest professional or personal lesson that you have learnt from working on this field?
Never lie, make it impossible for the client to lie to the community, and understand the importance of knowing people’s names (male colleagues I worked with ten years ago at a community meeting in Windorah still tell the story of how I knew the names of all sixty people within fifteen minutes (it is not easy, women do it better usually than men, there are tricks to it, and the benefits are incalculable).
What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
Always give yourself the option of declining a job. The capacity to look at yourself in the mirror each morning is more important than any item on your bucket list (mine was the weekender at Stradbroke…to this day I have no regrets re all the money I turned my back on). If you don’t trust what the client says don’t proceed.