The power of lifelong learning

Alice Evans doesn’t just talk about the importance of life-long learning – she lives it.  Over the course of more than a decade, she has built a relationship with The University of Queensland Business School, as a client, a student and a lecturer. As a CEO, Alice embodies why a commitment to learning is critical; not only for individuals but for the organisations they lead. 

My career story started in the remote town of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia in the eighties, working as a physiotherapist treating injured underground miners – this was before open-cut mining even existed. I gained a great deal of experience from my time in rural WA, giving me the confidence to open my own private physiotherapy practice partnership, travelling the world in Sweden and London in senior roles.

I was working as a consultant at the Wesley Hospital Hydrotherapy clinic in 2004, when an unexpected opportunity came my way. I was treating a seriously injured patient, and over the course of two years during his rehabilitation, we often talked about the technology startup called GroundProbe he was building for underground and open cut-mines. With my background in Kalgoorlie, I found his business really exciting and was constantly asking questions about it – and then one day, he asked me if I would like to join the team.

I was excited about the opportunity, but also recognised the significant challenges that lay ahead. I had developed management experience in the healthcare industry, but joining the company as the Global HR Manager, there was more to learn from a business leadership perspective.

It was important for me to identify an organisation-wide approach for the development the startup needed, not just my own leadership requirements, so I set out to find a partner that could help us grow our leadership from within. What I didn’t realise, was that this would become a life-long partnership that would ultimately change the course of my career.

As for GroundProbe, they are now a global leader in mining technology and a part of the Orica Group, which purchased it for $205M in 2017.

Alice with some of the GroundProbe team onsite

Alice with some of the GroundProbe team onsite

Customised training helps GroundProbe develop leaders from within

I looked at all the big universities around the country, but in the end, we chose The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School because they brought together the right mix of academic and industry experts that would enable us to build a program that would truly respond to our challenges. The customised course even integrated our own case studies into the curriculum, making it really unique and relevant to our team.

The program delivered on our goals and I developed huge respect for the team delivering the content. The customised training was designed to align with the UQ Master of Business Administration (MBA), giving our staff enough credit to achieve their Graduate Certificate in Business Administration – a qualification that leads into the UQ MBA.

The idea was always that staff could choose to go on and complete their MBA studies, but I knew I couldn’t encourage others unless I was prepared to do it myself; I needed to walk the talk.

UQ MBA a game-changer for Alice

In 2010, I commenced my MBA.  I'll admit, I was incredibly nervous about embarking on academic studies after such a long time, but it was exceptionally engaging – I actually went on to do more subjects than I needed to graduate .

It was a real game-changer for me working on an industry project that brought together students from UQ Business School and Wharton Business School, to develop a strategy for retail brand Lorna Jane, to enter the US market.

It was an incredible six months. The whole team had intense jobs outside the program, so we had to work around those time constraints and the time difference to figure out a live business opportunity for Lorna Jane.

The team ultimately presented Lorna Jane with not only the requested market entry strategy but also an operational entry plan, with an immense amount of detail, such as suggested store locations that were vacant. Lorna Jane took on some of these locations and remain in many of them today.  Lorna Jane is a great Australian success story in the US market, and we definitely had an impact on that.

I found the experience so rewarding and could see the enormous value Lorna Jane derived from the project, so I decided to bring GroundProbe on as a UQ Industry Partner, engaging a team from another UQ MBA cohort to find solutions for my own organisation's challenges. I was so sure that this was the right move for GroundProbe, and it was proven when the UQ team once again brought us significant value.

I graduated in 2012 and was awarded a UQ Academic Excellence Award and the Leadership Award . At the ceremony, I got chatting to many high-calibre guests about job opportunities, including the CEO of a major Australian bank. It was great to see these types of organisations attending and networking – it was clear they saw value in the skill sets UQ MBA graduates bring.

When it came to the next step in my career, I ultimately chose to return to the industry where I started – healthcare.  I could now bring a combination of my healthcare background and experience, combined with the executive leadership skills I had developed through my MBA to the role of CEO, at Family Planning QLD.

Reinventing a forty year-old brand

At Family Planning Queensland, I was faced with a significant challenge, it no longer resonated with younger people and it was losing relevance, but changing an organisation with a forty-year history isn’t an easy thing to do.

The skills I developed during my MBA, would come to play a critical role in this mammoth project. I developed in a range of ways while studying the UQ MBA, but one of the big takeaways for me was how to analyse data, use it to design solutions, and then present ideas – this really equipped me when it came to leading large scale change.

From the structure of Family Planning Queensland, True Relationships & Reproductive Health was born. This organisation continues to provide expert reproductive and sexual health advice to women and educate medical staff, teachers and communities. The new division has also built much stronger connections and established relevance to younger generations.

I’m incredibly proud of what the organisation achieves. A restructure and a renewed focus on the community has enabled the organisation to realise incredible outcomes, including reducing the wait time for vital colposcopy services from 12 months to 14 days in some regions, increasing reach in at-risk communities and the redesigned school's program that delivers vital health resources to teenagers.

Alice with the team from True Relationships & Reproductive Health

Alice with the team from True Relationships & Reproductive Health

Lifelong learning critical for individuals and organisations

I have a strong commitment to lifelong learning, but as a CEO, it’s more critical than ever to live this value.

Attitudes to learning often flow down from the top, so if a CEO has a good attitude towards education and encourages the executive team in their studies, this can impact the whole organisation. Constant curiosity and interest in learning is important for individuals and organisations.

Lifelong learning is also an important curiosity that I try to ignite in my children as they continue to grow. I think they've seen the value that it's brought to me as their mum, who they've seen studying throughout their lives and the rewards and purpose it brings.

The world's changing so fast, that if leaders don’t continue to learn and keep up with contemporary thinking and best practice, as well as what's going on the ground, they risk getting left behind and taking their organisations with them.

My favourite quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson says;

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”