Friendly, personable and studious, it once seemed everyone wanted to be St John WA Chief Executive Officer Michelle Fyfe’s APM FAIM friend. But in 1987, over the space of four weeks, the truth came to light.
Then a young police officer and a self-described ‘dolly copper helping out the big, tough detectives’, Ms Fyfe learned a valuable lesson when she decided to she wanted to become a detective in her own right.
One of few women in the Western Australian Police Force during the 1980s, Ms Fyfe, then in her early 20s and known by her maiden name Michelle Langley, was the only woman in her detective training school and found out quickly what people really thought.
“I learned a very powerful lesson – I had never actually felt the weight of discrimination or gender bias until those four weeks,” Ms Fyfe told the audience at a recent Inspirational Leader Series breakfast.
“These people were my friends – people I joined the force with, people I knew, people whose families were friends with my family.
“Everyone wanted to be Michelle Langley’s friend because she organised study groups and wrote notes and made sure everyone got together and we all passed – that was great. Until I duxed the school. Then it wasn’t so great.
“I was actually ostracised for a while because they couldn’t believe that I might actually beat them at something. That was hard to take – I was in my early 20s and really disheartened, but you suck it up and move along; there wasn’t a lot you could do about it in the 80s.”
When I was promoted to Senior Sergeant I was made their boss.
I’ve never been more satisfied in my life – it was fantastic.
As it turned out, Ms Fyfe’s career moved along at a rate of knots, though the doubters didn’t go away. Eleven years a detective across suburban offices, detective squads and the Child Abuse unit, she was promoted a number of times, investigating a range of crimes along the way.
As a Detective Sergeant, Ms Fyfe’s move to the Major Incident Group, the first woman to work there because “the chicks couldn’t do that stuff”, proved equally careerdefining.
“I went to the Major Incident Group and joined a team of 55 men,” she said.
“That first day there was probably the hardest day of my career. Some wanted me there, some didn’t. Some were polite just because, some were downright rude.
“When I was promoted to Senior Sergeant I was made their boss. I’ve never been more satisfied in my life – it was fantastic.”
A steep promotional path followed. In six months Michelle Fyfe was an Inspector. She ran recruiting for WA Police. In another 12 months, following a promotion to Superintendent, she was in charge of all professional development within the organisation across the state.
From here she was promoted to Commander of State Traffic Operations, “otherwise known as the ‘Evil Queen of Speed Cameras’” – an intended insult she actually quite enjoyed.
It all culminated in her appointment as Assistant Commissioner in charge of State Crime. On Ms Fyfe’s watch in 2016, landmark charges were laid over the Claremont serial killings – an achievement she counts as her proudest moment as a police officer.
Having climbed the ranks, Ms Fyfe was a candidate for the top job when longserving former Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan stood down from the role the following year.
It wasn’t to be.
“Everyone knows I applied for the job as Commissioner of Police because it was a confidential application process, and like all confidential application processes it was on the front page of the newspaper,” she said wryly.
“I didn’t get the job and I’m pretty cool with that. It made me re-evaluate, take a step back and think about things.
“After reflection and reevaluation it turned out my future was not as a police officer – what I had thought was my life’s work. I took a leap of faith and I left the police – that was my home where I was moulded and shaped – and I stepped into the unknown.”
After 34 years, last year Michelle Fyfe walked away from policing to take on a new challenge as CEO of St John WA, the organisation’s first female leader across its esteemed 125-year history in the state.
“I took the job as CEO of St John WA,” she said. “That leap was exhilarating, terrifying, uplifting and empowering all at the same time. I’ve done some pretty cool things, but nothing compares to this.”
Established leader meets new challenge
There are similarities and differences in the work of WA Police and St John WA, but the cultural change in leading a not-for-profit is one which Ms Fyfe said took some getting used to.
Fortunately, the support of her predecessor Tony Ahern through the four-month leadership transition meant support and advice was nearby when needed.
“He was incredibly generous to me – in those four months I had an opportunity to share with him and learn so much about what is a really diverse and complex organisation,” she said.
“He gave me the opportunity to go out and be part of it while he kept the lights on and the wheels turning and the bills paid – it was a chance to learn and understand this amazing organisation.
“The other thing Tony did in his handover was discuss every decision with me. He said, ‘I’ll make this decision but you’re going to have to live with it, so I’d like your view.’ He changed a couple of decisions because of my feedback. It was a real partnership in the handover.”
My humble beginnings led me to a 34-year career in policing.
The challenges faced by the organisation are true of many industries adapting to a digital world. Ms Fyfe recalled how the world of policing changed between September 10 and 12 of 2001 as evidence of just how unexpected and sudden disruption can be.
“We can think about what the next thing might be, we can hypothesise, but we don’t know,” she said.
“One thing I’ve said to people in our organisation is that before something disrupts us, before someone changes our business, we’ve got to disrupt ourselves. That’s something we need to think about”
My vision for St John is we look after our people from the moment they walk through the door.
Staff wellbeing is another area of focus for Ms Fyfe. Having been exposed to wellbeing and support programs across Australia during her time leading health and wellbeing at WA Police, she said St John’s was already among the best in Australia.
However, the reality of the line of work is such that people will be exposed to “yucky stuff”.
“My vision for St John is we look after our people from the moment they walk through the door, physically, emotionally and mentally, and we look after as many aspects of their life as we can so when they leave they’re more resilient and have greater skills than they did when they walked through the door.
“I think we do a pretty good job of that, but it’s never perfect and it can always be better.”
Regrets, mistakes and support networks
Quizzed on her favourite quotes, there was one which stood out to Ms Fyfe.
“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself,” she said.
“That’s often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, among others, and I don’t really care who said it first, but I think it’s one of the best pieces of advice anyone will ever receive. I’m happy to repeat it.”
There was no shortage of mistakes to learn from through childhood. Ms Fyfe credits her mother as the hardest working woman she’s ever known, but labelled her father a criminal and said she left school at 15 and started working in a shoe shop to forge her own path separate of his.
“My mother worked every day of her life,” she said. “I never saw her take a sick day or a day off, and she’d done that to feed, clothe and care for two children all on her own with no assistance.
“That was probably the first lesson I was ever taught. She taught me the value of hard work and determination, but I also learned some mistakes haunt us for a lifetime. I don’t think my sister and I are mistakes, but marrying my dad forever changed my mum’s life.
“My humble beginnings and the view from the wrong side of the tracks also set me on the path that led me to a 34-year career in policing. Not the family business – I went the other way.”
In self-deprecating style Ms Fyfe opened up on a number of her own personal and professional mistakes which she’d learned from over the years.
These included a young and short-lived marriage to a ‘narcissistic misogynist’ which was over before her 23rd birthday, her battles to find a work-life balance on becoming a full-time step-mother of two and a mother of her own within months in 1992, overworking to the point of burnout during her time as Assistant Commissioner of State Crime and a moment in 2010 when she missed her first chance at promotion to Assistant Commissioner because in her own words, she’d bought into her own hype and “didn’t prepare how she’d normally prepare” – an experience she regularly relives to this day.
While for some, mistakes like these can derail a career, Ms Fyfe said among the many lessons she’d learned was the importance of remaining dignified and professional in the face of adversity.
“I always remind my girls and I tell anyone who’s willing to listen that no matter what happens in life there are certain ways of dealing with it,” she said.
“People will judge you more for how you behave when you fail than they ever will when you’re successful. You should be brave, dignified, classy and professional.”