Cath Hayes: If you’re authentic with your people they can be authentic with you

Cath Hayes grew up in Victoria. She joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1992, and over a 30-year career, she has had multiple leadership roles, including the Command of ANZAC Class Frigate HMAS Toowoomba, leading a team on operations in the Middle East. 

Cath considers the highlight of her career as having the opportunity and honour to work with, command and lead some of the most proud, professional and talented young men and women in Australia, both ashore and at sea, on exercises and operations.

Cath is passionate about servant leadership and serving others, whether in her roles in the Royal Australian Navy or as a Director of a psychology company in Perth and Director of a charity offering mindfulness training. Cath is currently building a meditation retreat centre in Perth to extend her service offering and provide a facility from which a range of mindfulness-based quality of life and wellbeing programs can be offered.

What memorable lessons have you learned across your career?

Cath: There have been many memorable lessons; I’m always at my best when I’m authentic, and I need to be self-aware and reflect on being a good leader. 

You’d have to say that time and making lots of mistakes is how you’ll learn a lot of the lessons and when I spoke about the self-awareness component, I guess that’s working these lessons out for yourself. What’s truth in your leadership, and how can you truly best become a good leader. Because it’s not necessarily the same for everybody. In an organisation, you get told what the leadership principles are and what they look like in practice, but then you’ve got to find how they authentically sit with you. And what is your WHY are you leading? Why are you doing what you do? What motivates you to get up in the morning? I want to lead a group of people to flourish.

There’s no shortage of rules, codes of conduct and competency frameworks, but there’s a significant variation in how these are implemented and embodied.

Cath: When you first start, like everything you start with, you start with the overarching frameworks and training. You begin with rote learning. But as you grow, you learn the essence of those rules and how to play within the rules to meet the requirements best while authentically being yourself. It’s an ongoing lesson and an ongoing reflection that involves being self-aware. I’m still working on that.

When did you first come to realise that this was important?

Cath: When I was in command of Toowoomba, towards the end of my command, I looked at what was driving me to want to lead the way I did. I reflected on what made me comfortable, what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I found easy and where I had a natural flow and where I didn’t. It wasn’t until I reflected after the command that I worked out why I loved what I was doing. That took time, space and reflection.

What did you love?

Cath: Undoubtedly, I loved the people part of it. There’s a saying that service is about providing your best offering to the universe and what you get in return is the reward. For me, that reward was seeing our people flourish. I was never the smartest person in the room. I was surrounded by giants regarding the people I worked with, the sailors and officers. I realised that’s what made me happy – when they grew as a team and individuals. For me, that comes from servant leadership. I felt that there was a significant service component for me. And I had to be authentic about that. So I kind of really liked the whole concept of authentic servant leadership as the way I play in the world. And I must say play because it’s not fun if I take it too seriously. And I often take it too seriously.

How did you learn that?

Cath: I was reminded that you have fun. You can make the mistake of rigidly following the rules and ensuring everything’s done right, then you forget to have fun with your people, and it’s not fun for them either. They need to see you have a bit of fun in the process and laugh at yourself. Realise your infallibility in that. Realise and be authentic about when it’s tough sometimes as well. I think that’s where the team bonds as well. But if you’re authentic, they can be authentic with you. If you’re real, they’re real. Know each other’s strengths and weaknesses as well. If you go around hiding those all the time, it’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the team. So authenticity is essential.

When I’ve connected with a person, that is when I have the space to connect with them. I discard my ego and put aside my rank and all the things I may have done in my career, and I sit in this space and connect with them. I come into a conversation completely open to someone’s experience of the world, not bringing my experience into that or my emotion into that. If they’re open to mentoring or advice, I have the space to draw upon whatever I may have learned. I have developed a coaching style where I’m listening to what they are saying and, often more importantly, what they are not saying. In the latter years, mental health, meditation and mindfulness have played a huge role in that, and how I listen to people has changed, and I’ve done a lot of different courses to help me better understand that. This gives me the space to go into a hard or emotive conversation with someone as a completely open human being. 

What do you wish someone had said to you at the beginning of your career?

Cath: It’s okay to be yourself and to bring your authentic self to what you do. It’s okay to have fun because the journey is long, and it becomes quite tiresome if you don’t do that.

I wish someone had told me about mindfulness 25 years ago. I think the grounding element allows you to settle in yourself so that you don’t have all of the external factors around, impacting you emotionally. And for me, in so many situations, that has come with lots and lots of training. That allows me to see the whole situation for what it is, be completely in that moment, and react to it in an impactful way. If you don’t go that way, you’re stressed out and tense, and your aperture is small. And your decision-making is not as clear, and it doesn’t come from a place of knowing or flow. So I guess it’s more of an intuitive place. So you grow intuition as you train someone to be an expert in their field. But if you add mindfulness, that’s where you can take it to the next level. 

So if mindfulness was part of the early training, I think people would become more adept at what they do earlier because they could connect at that moment with the actual activity they are doing and have more meaningful outcomes. A lot of people do that; concert pianists or athletes do this sort of stuff. But even in a boardroom, in business, or when driving a ship, whenever you’re in a complex scenario where lots of stuff is happening, mindfulness helps you pick what’s important at that moment, moment by moment, so that you can deal with it.

When have you overcome fear in your career, and what did you learn?

Cath: I overcame fear a lot. The fears that I overcame were more about the decisions that affected the individuals and my team. Because when I made a decision that affected just myself, it’s a simpler decision. I usually shared those fears with my command team, for example, at sea. We had a situation where we were losing all of our power generation, one generator at a time, and we were in a very precarious predicament. And, you know, I consulted with my team on the way forward. I had an excellent team around me, with excellent engineers, and I used their knowledge to the best of my ability. I sought counsel but realised that the decision was mine from a responsibility standpoint. I sat comfortably in that decision, knowing I had all the advice available then. So get rid of the unknowns, remove some of the fear factors, manage the risks, and then, be confident and step forward.

Define and achieve your own leadership vision

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