The only certainty about professional success is that it cannot be pinned down to one magical combination that will unlock its secret. A former University of Wollongong academic and two alumni – all leaders in their field – spoke to Michele Tydd about their own success and how life’s twists and turns have helped them rise to the upper echelons.
Professor Margaret Sheil AO
Vice-Chancellor, Queensland University of Technology
Expectations were high among the nuns who taught the academically gifted Margaret Sheil that she would go on to study medicine.
“It was so hard to get into medicine back then that some contemporaries were sitting for their HSC three times to make the grade, so they thought I’d be crazy not to go down that track,” she recalls. “But I didn’t really like doing things that were expected of me, so I chose science instead,” says Professor Sheil from her office overlooking Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens.
It was that confidence to make a decision and back it that helped propel her career to the point where she is now Vice-Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology.
“I didn’t set out to be vice-chancellor. I didn’t really know what a vice-chancellor did. I just made considered decisions at crossroad points in life that turned out well,” she says.
Professor Sheil grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs as part of a middle-class family with her mother a nurse, her father an engineer and four older brothers. Her first role model was her mother who was seconded from St Vincent’s Hospital to a research project at University of New South Wales where she was monitoring blood lead levels in children exposed to petroleum.
“My mother loved that experience because it was the first time in her career she’d been treated as an equal,” recalls Professor Sheil.
The young Margaret would eventually attend that same university, where she earned her PhD (chemistry) before taking post-doctoral positions in the United States and then at the Australian National University in Canberra. But it would be her next move in 1990 to University of Wollongong that would see her career take off. Within 10 years she went from lecturer to Australia’s first female Professor of Chemistry. Part of her progression was due to the fact Professor Sheil managed to crack the then tough research funding environment that had implications for the entire university.
“I was individually successful and I was asked to help others,” she says.
Later as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Sheil was able to spread the model she had helped build in chemistry across the university. She says, however, her success should be seen in the wider context.
“Wollongong was a university that took risks on people. Those of us who have moved on look back at that time as a very supportive, energetic and important phase of our lives,” she says.
Professor Sheil pays particular tribute to the then Chemistry Department head, the late Professor Leon Kane-Maguire, whose reputation as a charismatic leader drew her to Wollongong.
“Leon was selfless, supportive and generous. He wanted us all to succeed, and we did.”
Wollongong was a university that took risks on people
When asked about the struggle that still exists to boost female numbers in certain fields of science and engineering, Professor Sheil says it correlates with qualitative and non-qualitative disciplines.
“Within science as you get closer to maths and physics, the numbers are similar to civil, mechanical and electrical engineering,” she says. “The key in my view is to get girls doing maths for longer at school so they have more options when they reach university.”
Her advice to young people today is to view education as a path to choice and opportunity.
“And the other thing is, you must enjoy what you do every day.”
Professor Sheil shares her busy life with husband Chris Nicholson, daughter Lizzie and their pooch, Roxy.
Michael Noonan AO, RAN
Chief of Navy Australia
Michael Noonan joined the Royal Australian Navy at 17 when he finished high school thinking if he lasted until Easter he would be doing well. That Gold Coast teen has matured into a distinguished officer who was recently appointed Chief of Navy Australia.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think I was just a kid when I joined straight from school 35 years ago with no clear ambition,” he says.
It is a cold July afternoon and Vice Admiral Noonan has spent the day on multiple tasks including checking in on the Navy’s 18 Australian ships and 15,000 men and women at sea scattered around the world. He describes his job as “having my hands loosely on the reins of what the Navy is doing daily”.
Vice Admiral Noonan started out as an engineering officer which allowed him to study mechanical engineering through University of New South Wales.
“I did well on the engineering subjects but not so well at maths and physics,” he recalls.
He was then given a chance to change direction into the ship driving stream, which would eventually lead to two years of remote study at University of Wollongong where he earned a Masters in Maritime Policy.
“My study in Wollongong came at a critical time in my professional development because I was then responsible for the conduct of operations in one of our ships so it was a very specialist role,” Vice Admiral Noonan says. “My Masters gave me a deeper insight into being a subject matter expert, which was much broader than anything the Navy could offer in terms of the broader maritime industry and policy aspect of my role. I found it tremendously empowering.”
Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think I was just a kid when I joined straight from school
During his career involving many different roles, the Vice Admiral has been deployed to and commanded in conflict zones that has given him an unshakable admiration for fellow service men and women.
“Like many, I was watching the television when planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Shortly afterwards I was in the Middle East for the next seven months,” he says.
Vice Admiral Noonan stresses combat and security operations are only part of the job.
“We’re often pitching in during global disasters like the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011 and in the same year Japan’s tsunami that caused the Fukushima power plant meltdown.”
For all of those reasons, Vice Admiral Noonan would like to see more people value their defence forces, not only in terms of the protection they offer but as a career choice for men and women.
“Twenty-one per cent of our people in uniform are females, certainly my goal is to increase that participation,” he says.
Vice Admiral Noonan’s wife, Jan, is a Naval captain “and I’m working on our two daughters to follow her lead,” he half jokingly adds.
Amongst lessons he has learned as our Navy’s leader is to take time to think before you act, never lose sight of who you are as a human being and in this time of technological overload communicate individually with each other.
“Ultimately, we are a lucky country and I say that through the lens of places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen, so seize opportunities if and when they arise.”
Dr Geoffrey Shaw
Ambassador For People Smuggling and Human Trafficking
Geoffrey Shaw never dreamed a snap decision on enrolment day at UOW in 1983 would lead to a stellar career in diplomacy and a share in a Nobel Peace Prize.
“It was in the days when you lined up to enrol and I had planned to study commerce but the queue was really long and there was nobody in the science line so I thought I’d give that a go,” he recalls.
It turned out to be a life changer for the Balgownie teen who was the first person in his working-class family to go to university, laying the foundations of a career that would eventually see him appointed in 2017 as Australia’s Ambassador for People Smuggling and Human Trafficking.
After UOW and a PhD (chemistry) from the Australian National University, Dr Shaw worked a short stint as a postdoctoral Fellow at Sussex University in the United Kingdom before joining the Department of Finance as a graduate.
“So I jumped from commerce to science, then into finance before I landed in diplomacy, but I never regretted any of it,” says the affable, glass-half-full ambassador. “Science, in fact, was a great choice because it taught me critical and analytical thinking which can be applied to any field of work. My advice would be to never box yourself in when every experience has value.”
One of Dr Shaw’s career highlights came while representing Australia as the chief of staff at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna where he was supporting its Director General Dr Mohamed ElBaradei in efforts to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation in Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
“In 2005 the IAEA shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with Dr ElBaradei for that work which was a huge honour and led to sitting with kings, presidents, prime ministers and even the Pope,” Dr Shaw recalls.
Now based in Canberra in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, he spends most of his time travelling and meeting with leading officials world-wide, articulating policies on rehoming refugees and strategies to stop widespread human trafficking and slave labour.
Dr Shaw’s wife, Gaynor, also a UOW graduate (commerce), joined the Commonwealth Government as well serving in a number of overseas positions including in New York as Director, UN Women for Peace. The couple have two sons.
Dr Shaw believes his strengths include strong leadership and readiness to listen and weigh up the options for best outcomes.
“And of course, a sense of humour because my work involves some tough issues so without that you would go crazy,” he says.
On the question of dealing with the inevitable slip-up?
“To be honest, I sometimes struggle, and find myself lying awake for a night or two and thinking about it. That’s my way of processing it and moving on.”
Prof Margaret Sheil AO
Former UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor
Vice Admiral Michael Noonan AO
Master of Arts (Maritime Policy), 1999
Dr Geoffrey Shaw
Bachelor of Science (Honours) (Chemistry), 1986
Bachelor of Arts, 1986