“Own your mistakes and face up to them.”
That’s a key message retiring Department of Veterans’ Affairs Secretary Liz Cosson would like to pass on to aspiring leaders.
Delivering a valedictory address at an Institute of Public Administration Australia event at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday (21 February), Ms Cosson said her career was filled with highs and lows, all of which taught her the value of responsibility.
She wanted to join the military at a young age, but was told by her parents that it wasn’t a career for girls.
“So I followed my parents’ advice and I went to business college and I learned a lot of skills there,” she told her audience of public service leaders and aspirants.
“And yes, I can touch type.
“So I started my first job here in Canberra as a secretary, and now I’m concluding my career as a secretary.”
Laughter all round.
But she subsequently joined the military.
Ms Cosson became a career public servant in 2010 after serving 31 years as an officer in the Australian Army.
Rising to the lofty leadership heights of the Australian Public Service, she became Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in May 2018.
Previously, in 2005, she became the first woman to be promoted to Brigadier in the Australian Army.
By 2007 she was the Army’s first female Major General.
It was as a brigadier in 2006 that she faced her most serious challenge.
“I made a significant mistake. It captured headlines, it brought embarrassment to the Australian Defence Force, to the Chief of Defence Force and to our minister,” Ms Cosson said.
“And for our veterans’ families and to my family.”
She had been assigned to investigate the circumstances surrounding the bungled repatriation of the body of Private Jacob Kovco, who was accidentally killed while deployed to Iraq.
Following a meeting with the Victorian Coroner, she inadvertently left a CD-ROM marked ‘secret’ in a Qantas Club lounge computer.
It was a draft copy of her report and it fell into the hands of the media, with radio journalist Derryn Hinch subsequently broadcasting some of the report’s damning contents.
On Tuesday, Ms Cosson told her audience that as much as she wanted to run away at the time, she knew couldn’t and she knew she had to face up to her mistake and the ramifications of it.
In 2020, Ms Cosson recounted to this reporter what actually happened and how the crisis was dealt with.
“When I realised what had happened and that I had lost the CD-ROM, I felt sick,” she said.
“I had to get on a plane from Melbourne to Canberra, and I was told, ‘when you get to Canberra, the CDF [Angus Houston] wants to see you’.
“So I’m sitting on a plane from Melbourne for an hour and I felt so sick for the [Kovco] family. I knew what this meant.
“I didn’t know where the disc was at this stage, I just knew it had gone.
“And when I landed, I went straight to CDF’s house and his wife, Liz, said, ‘He’s in the study’.
“I walked into the study and he got up from behind his desk and he came and put his arms around me and he said, ‘We’ll get through this’.
“What a leader. Didn’t get angry, just said, ‘OK, we’ve made a mistake. It’s not about the mistake now; it’s about how we’re going to deal with this, and let’s just work out what this all means’.
“I still had to deliver the report, and it was still a job to be done.
“That was an incredible lesson for me, and I say this to staff now: ‘Don’t’ be afraid if you’ve made a mistake, let me know, because then we can deal with it. Because if you try to cover it up or find a way to deal with it, we may not get there and it may become worse.’
“When you’ve made a mistake, well, that’s where your values come into play.”
To her IPAA audience on Tuesday, Ms Cosson said knowing your values and being true to them shapes you as a leader.
“I never tried to be one of the boys,” she smiled.
“We are all responsible for creating our own destinies and for making our own career choices.
“We should not be fearful of our ambitions, but embrace those opportunities and possibilities … Challenges can build your resilience.”