Developing and celebrating First Nations leaders

Shaping a future where First Nations leadership thrives

Written by Emma Mason AIMM
6 minute read

While there have been significant improvements in First Nations leadership development in recent years, there is still cause for concern – and an opportunity to shape a more positive future.

According to the Australian Indigenous Employment Index 2022, within the 3.3 per cent of the First Nations Australian population, only 0.4 per cent hold senior leadership roles.

For the many organisations that have committed to reducing the gap – challenges persist in the attraction, retention and progression of First Nations employees while creating culturally safe and inclusive environments.

Although leadership opportunities and career pathways are accessible to First Nations, culturally responsive executive leadership development remains rare.

Walking forward together

To address these challenges, AIM WA has launched BEEDIYAR (the Noongar word for ‘leader’), an executive leadership development program designed to fast-track the career progression of Indigenous managers and leaders into senior executive and C-suite level roles across the corporate, public, not-for-profit and charitable sectors.

Spread over 12 months, the culturally responsive program includes eight plenary sessions that delve into the essential skills needed for to succeed as a senior executive.

Participants will also engage in site visits, attend presentations by accomplished leaders, engage in one-on-one coaching and embark on an international study tour to gain a global perspective.

AIM WA Chief Learning and Development Officer Drew Mayhills FAIM explained the significance of this program.

“BEEDIYAR aims to strengthen leadership capability among First Nations individuals by providing culturally relevant support while preparing them for the current and future challenges that leaders of organisations will encounter," he said.

As part of the program, participants develop an Individual Development Plan and participate in designing and implementing an Action Learning Project focused on supporting First Nations voices in the workplace and community. They also receive a 12-month Gold Pass which can be used to engage in any AIM WA training course.

Cultural learning

In paving the way for this innovative program, a vital step involves fostering collaboration with First Nations leaders.

Common challenges such as low cultural competence in organisations and cultural load (the amount of cultural knowledge required to understand a given concept, content, or context), can result in low workplace retention rates.

Cultural learning is widely considered a fundamental aspect of fostering a positive work environment for First Nations employees; however, it is rarely perceived as addressing the full scope of challenges faced.

BEEDIYAR Advisory Committee member, Managing Director of Christine Ross Consultancy and proud Arrernte, Eastern Arrernte, Kaytetye woman Christine Ross FAIM discussed the importance a program like BEEDIYAR brings toward improving cultural learning within organisations.

“This is a great opportunity to apply the knowledge we have from a lived experience as Aboriginal people with Western knowledge and create a powerful combination,” she said.

“… The BEEDIYAR program is about supporting our mob to invest in their careers and develop their workplace leadership and management skills.”

Valued voice in partnership

Mr Mayhills underscored the importance of ongoing engagement with a diverse and supportive group of First Nations leaders to ensure that BEEDIYAR is culturally responsive in both its design and implementation.

“The program has been developed in close partnership with a committed group of First Nations leaders, the BEEDIYAR Advisory Committee,” he said.

“... We've been working with [the BEEDIYAR Advisory Committee] from the outset to ensure that BEEDIYAR has been co-designed with First Nations people and not simply presented to First Nations people without their considerable input, guidance, and consultation.

“It is important to recognise the learning journey we are on together as we collaborate on the BEEDIYAR program. We are in regular conversation with our First Nations advisors, asking, ‘Are we on the right track here? Is this element of the program going to meet the needs of participants? What have we missed?’ We listen closely to that feedback, and use it to shape the program so it can have the greatest possible impact for those involved.”

Ms Ross agreed, sharing that the BEEDIYAR Advisory Committee had helped to shape a culturally safe environment, that values the input, participation and knowledge shared by First Nations participants.

“We recognise we are on a continuous learning curve and to remain competitive in our respective fields, it’s of value for Aboriginal people to undertake leadership programs such as this,” she said.

Working in collaboration with the First Nations voice is imperative to ensuring an open dialogue to help improve cultural understanding as a whole.

Participant impact

For participants, Mr Mayhills detailed the support that will be provided to enhance their leadership capability while being uniquely positioned to lead from a First Nations perspective.

“A key point of difference in BEEDIYAR is the personalisation that is offered throughout the program,” he said.

“From day one, participants will be introduced to an experienced group of First Nations and non-Indigenous coaches and, at their discretion, select a coach that they feel is an appropriate match to guide them through the coaching element of the program. Participants have the option to reach out to another coach at a later stage, should they feel a different perspective would be helpful.

“Between access to any of our courses through an AIM WA Gold Pass, exposure to the Institute’s highest-profile offerings like our Senior Executive Forum with professors from Harvard Business School alongside opportunities to shadow CEOs in other organisations – participants have a unique opportunity to co-design an incredible raft of support.”

The alumni program, the BEEDIYAR Network WA, will also emerge as the program progresses, a space where participants can share their program experiences and build a support network.

Community impact

As more First Nations leaders who are ready to assume a senior leadership role progress within the workforce, the impact on the wider community is also beneficial.

“The purpose and goal of BEEDIYAR is to create a lasting influence that extends across multiple generations and continues into the future,” said Mr Mayhills. He explained the ‘ripple effect’ a program like BEEDIYAR can lead to, with the representation of First Nations leaders in the workforce positively influencing younger generations.

“We often hear the phrase, ‘If you can see it, you can be it’,” he said. “Through BEEDIYAR, we can play a role in helping to elevate the visibility of these terrific leaders and role models across the WA community, who will in turn inspire others.”

“… We need to invest in Aboriginal Leadership in Australia as for too long decisions have been made about us and for us, without us.” 

“Having a seat at the table is vital, whether it’s in Government, Corporate or our Aboriginal organisations and this program builds on the knowledge and experience we already have,” Ms Ross said.

Organisational impact

The BEEDIYAR program represents a crucial step towards advancing First Nations leadership, addressing employment gaps, fostering cultural competence and contributing to positive social change.

As organisations become involved in this program, they play an active role in developing a more inclusive and diverse landscape, helping to shape a future where First Nations leadership thrives.

Yet the benefits extend beyond just participants and the broader community.

Organisations will gain First Nations leaders with an enhanced ability to succeed in senior roles, contributing to the diversity of leadership teams across Western Australia.

“BEEDIYAR is completely aligned to AIM WA’s mission of developing leaders across all spheres … When we elevate diversity and diverse voices, specifically in our leadership teams, we accelerate innovation and organisational performance,” Mr Mayhills said.

“... This sponsorship component of this program is an important aspect of the program’s design. In sharing a commitment to developing First Nations executive leadership capability, AIM WA will co-contribute $12,000 for every place on the BEEDIYAR program.

"Sponsorship is an opportunity for organisations to demonstrate their social responsibility and share in the host of benefits that First Nations people bring to the workplace.”

Mr. Mayhills also highlighted the broader social benefits of the program's Action Learning Projects, where participants will engage in addressing organisational challenges. The anticipated outcomes are expected to provide strategies for better supporting First Nations employees in the workplace and enhance cultural competence.

“A diverse range of Action Learning Projects will elevate First Nations executive leadership development and drive change across the WA community. The focus is on ‘action’ - putting theory into practice,” he added.

Ms Ross shared how BEEDIYAR will improve organisations' cultural competence by successfully implementing their Reconciliation Action Plan.

“For many organisations, it should be more than a moral responsibility … It’s about giving back and supporting Aboriginal leaders in gaining and understanding how your business is operating,” she said.

Where to from here?

AIM WA is currently accepting applications for First Nations individuals for the first intake of the BEEDIYAR program.

To find out how you and your organisation can be a part of this unique program, contact Program Director Dr Shaun Ridley FAIM at or 08 9383 8070.