Her journey to CEO at the City has seen her take a variety of roles. Returning to the workforce after having her two daughters, she took up the position of Finance Controller with the Lady Gowrie Child Centre, and then moved on to senior roles with the WA Institute of Sport, ECU, City of Joondalup and the EMRC before moving to the City.
Rhonda was born in Perth and grew up in Byford. She has a business degree from Edith Cowan University, majoring in Human Resources Management, as well as studying accounting and economics.
She is a members and graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), director of several not for profits, and was recognised for her leadership achievements as a finalist in the 2017 Telstra Women’s Business Awards. In 2018 Rhonda was awarded the Meritorious Award for her service to Local Government from Local Government Professionals WA.
Local Matters talks to Rhonda about leadership, COVID-19 and how the City is delivering for the community.
Tell us a bit about yourself
My working life has been diverse and extremely interesting, working across so many different industries and professions. I have seen so much change in the workplace since the 1980s it astounds me.
My leadership guru is Edward De Bono [British creative thought leader]. I have studied his work and use his thinking tools all the time. When I met him, he touched my head and said I was of southern European descent. He was right and I was amazed.
I often describe myself as ‘a strong Croatian woman’. My family, the Botica’s, originated from the island of Korcula in Croatia. My grandfather at age 15 came to Australia in 1915 to work clearing land in the Wheatbelt.
My hobbies are surfing, travelling, gardening and learning about leadership and what motivates people toward high performance in their work.
What was it that attracted you to the role of CEO at the City of Kalamunda and what are your key achievements?
I held leadership aspirations since I was teenager. It came naturally and people tended to follow my lead. I recall my mother was always worried about me being out and about and my brother would say: “Don’t worry about Rhonda she is just busy organising everyone!”
My big opportunity came at the City. After acting in the role of CEO for a year I noticed how my diplomacy and strategic thinking skills suited the role. The greatest attractor was being able to shape the culture of an entire organisation.
I have applied my knowledge to build a high performance and caring culture. I designed the Kalamunda GROW cultural program in 2014 and that became the driving force to building a resilient and an empowered culture.
The City’s recent staff satisfaction survey showed 97% of staff were ‘satisfied to highly satisfied’ working at the City. I am very proud of the result and of my staff.
Aside from the work I have done with the culture, my other achievements include restoring the financial health of the City, guiding the City through local government reform and the change of status from shire to city.
I have been successful in developing our approach to advocacy, attracting millions of dollars in grants. I have led the creation of significant strategies and masterplans, now guiding the City’s development. I have facilitated land development projects for aged care facilities and new subdivisions like the very exciting new Forrestfield train station precinct.
The City is now recognised by industry as a local government that is helpful and progressive.
What are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I hope to see the City start to deliver the amazing facilities it has planned over the past decade. The council and I are working closely to lobby and advocate State and Federal Government, as well as exploring partnership opportunities to help get as many of these shovel-ready projects off paper and into construction.
I want to continue to develop people’s creativity and innovation mindsets in the way they work and think and then take my teaching skills further afield once I have finished the job in Kalamunda.
I want to help to ensure that as a community we are agile and resilient.
Currently, our social fabric is being tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a wide number of social issues and environmental considerations. I know there will be significant challenges ahead as we continue to navigate the local economic and social recovery. I remain focused on supporting our society for as long as the recovery takes.
Australia-wide the economic forecasts look grim. So far in Western Australia it could be argued we have pulled together and done quite well. I look forward to working to continue to create economic growth in the City.
In my future, when I retire from fulltime work, I wish to lend my skills and knowledge to the not-for-profit sector taking up board positions and using my qualification from the AICD. I see that sector will become significantly important in this century as social issues and inclusion become new frontiers for human betterment.
What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities of being a woman in a local government leadership role?
I am proud of the sector’s progression regarding diversity. I believe we have demonstrated an understanding of the importance of women in leadership.
The opportunities that come by having more women leaders in local government is obviously greater diversity and a less homogenous industry. In my experience being a female CEO I see myself as having a high-risk appetite for innovation. I believe holding the ship steady keeps it safe, but it does not drive it forward.
Women will delegate, empower and trust staff to innovate which sometimes comes with risk, but the benefits, in my view, outweigh the risks. Take, for example, the Managed Aquifer Recharge system invented by City of Kalamunda staff. That project carried risk. It was not tried and tested but the benefits were worth the pursuit and the staff needed to be backed. It’s now an award-winning exemplar.
Women need to be given the chance to demonstrate their capability. They are excellent leaders. In my view I think women have an innate ability to show empathy and lead without fear or favour.
Women leaders strive for equity and inclusion for all which I believe are inherent qualities that women have and are now required in this new changing world. Women are very social beings and social inclusion will be ever more important in a world that is showing signs of stress.
The biggest challenge that women leaders face is acceptance. I still think there is a stereotypical male leader that goes with the conservative nature of local government leadership, largely because it has always been traditionally run by men.
While there are so many amazing women in local government they are overlooked because they haven’t been a CEO or they don’t fit the traditional mould. The only way that will change is with changing attitudes of those involved in selecting CEOs.
I also think women need to think differently about themselves and assert themselves. Women need to self-affirm themselves as leaders, believe they can do the job and drive those beliefs into existence.
How do we get more women into local government leadership roles?
They need to be given opportunities and mentors. When judging a woman for a potential CEO role the recruitment panel should look at what she has done, along with her potential.
Many women are overlooked because they are competing with men who have been CEOs. Just because you have been a CEO does not mean you are better than a woman who has been a successful director or has worked in smaller local governments or organisations. Gender should not determine opportunity. Recruiters have a role to ensure female candidates have the same opportunity.
Women need to keep putting themselves forward for these roles and believe in their capabilities. I say, if you want a leadership position, have courage, apply, use interviews as a practice ground, continue to develop your skills and expertise and we will continue to see more women in leadership roles in Western Australia, and the World!
What are the key community challenges and opportunities at the City and how are you approaching these?
For 2020 COVID-19 has been the big deal. It has consumed the City and required an entire rethink of how we will do business from here on; fiscal restraint and safety being front of mind along with recharging the local economy.
Local economies have been devastated by COVID-19, however there will be opportunities that will emerge. Local government needs to identify its role in this recovery, assist and support small business to re-emerge, reinvent themselves and identify what the new demands of society will be. This will enable them to position their businesses in the post COVID world. Using and understanding technology will be key in their success and local government can play a big role in supporting smart cities and smart business.
The City sees significant opportunities through increased stimulus funding from government which will assist with rebuilding ageing community facilities, improving community health and wellbeing and protecting our culture, heritage, and natural spaces.
The other opportunity is to embrace localism and make sure the City is ready to meet and greet increasing local visitors. The City will need to rethink its parks and trails strategies as they become more popular in the post COVID world.
The other area the City will be working on is social inclusion. We saw how resilient our community was during COVID and we want to do more in the future to make it even more resilient and inclusive as new 21st century challenges continue to bear down.
Tell us about something great the City is working on
The City was recognised for giving local youth a voice in planning the Stirk Park Playground Upgrade at the 10th Annual Local Government Policy Awards last month. The City won the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA’s ‘Children’s Consultation’ category for its innovative work with local students and received a commendation in the ‘Environments Promoting Physical Activity’ category for the High Wycombe Shared Path Decorative Project.
The City had a strong commitment to involving children and youth in the planning and design of community assets. Last year, the City ran two workshops with local students to understand what types of play experiences they would like to see at the new Stirk Park along with capturing ideas for shared path art treatments.
It was an amazing process bringing together City staff, councillors and members from our youth community. We got a 360-view of not only what a diverse group needs and wants today but also into the future.
Similarly, the City’s High Wycombe Shared Path Decorative Project was recognised for its consultation with local children to inform the planning and final design.
Both projects were praised for aligning with the City’s overarching strategic community objectives to improve health and wellbeing for younger residents, with good support from stakeholders and relevant partners.
These are just two examples of the many ways the City encourages young people to share their ideas and opinions so they feel connected and can get excited about being involved.
The City has had significant success with customer service. Traditionally customer service approaches in local government have been reactive with little choice or innovation in processes and service delivery models, leaving a general perception that local government is difficult to deal with.
The City understands that in order to create a welcoming, responsive local government, we need to work with internal teams and customers in a more proactive manner, with the aim of making interactions easier, friendlier and faster.
The City formed a new business unit, ‘Customer and Public Relations’ in July 2016 and started a journey toward consolidating customer service operations, putting in place a team to lead and monitor customer satisfaction and deliver better outcomes.
The Customer Service Strategy 2017 – 2021 is the catalyst for bringing together an ongoing program of initiatives to focus the City on continually improving the customer service experience in all spaces.
The City is guided by several principles set out in the strategy with the overarching theme being to listen, respect what’s being shared and respond openly and responsibly.
In 2019-2020 the City Customer Service Team received 65,874 calls of which 53% were answered within 60 seconds. Over the same time, the City received 20,121 customer service requests with 99.41% cent completed in seven days or less.
The strategy supports the City’s commitment to being recognised as a customer focussed organisation and delivering experiences that are simple, solution-oriented, and time-bound.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
I recognise the long-term value of the visitor economy and I am committed to supporting tourism locally to assist with improvements in liveability and amenity to benefit the whole community.
A thriving tourism sector boosts the local economy, employs hundreds of local people and enriches local business opportunities and improves the overall viability of the region.
The Experience Perth Hills initiative has grown over the past five years to become a compelling standalone brand promoting the Perth Hills as a unique tourism destination right on Perth’s doorstep. The brand has won the Gold Award in the Local Government category for the past two years running at the Perth Airport Tourism Awards.
The area is traditionally known for its stunning bush landscapes and heritage trails but the Experience Perth Hills brand is evolving this view by showcasing the area’s amazing artists and retailers and many world-class attractions.
Through the Experience Perth Hills initiative, the City has been able to leverage the region’s distinct characteristics to promote local experiences that no other destination can offer.
Finally, I will end by saying while my time at the City of Kalamunda has had tumultuous moments, I have also had some of the best experiences of my life. It’s a wonderful City, with a beautiful environment and amazing people.
I thank them all for supporting me