Strong leadership, openness, and passion are crucial for career fulfilment, according to Griffith International director Heidi Piper

by Liz Benson

Heidi Piper, international director, Griffith University
Age: 51
Number of kids: 2
Age of kids: Isabella, 18 and Andrew, 15

Heidi Piper is the director of Griffith International. Griffith International is the area of Griffith University that’s responsible for recruiting international students, as well as managing their admittance and pastoral care. Griffith International is also responsible for sending Australian students overseas for global programs.

Heidi has worked in the education sector in Australia since the early 1990s after completing a degree in psychology and history at the University of Notre Dame in the USA. While at Notre Dame, Heidi competed to an international level in fencing, winning the NCAA individual championship in 1991.

We sat down with Heidi to find out more about her passion for mentoring and equity, and positive leadership.

What’s involved in doing your day job as director of Griffith International?

My role is extremely varied. I have a co-director who is responsible for recruitment and marketing, while I look after admissions, compliance, scholarships, student experience, capacity-building programs, global mobility, and generally representing the interests of Griffith International across the entire university. I’m a member of around 30 committees and working groups, so I spend a lot of time in meetings and managing emails.

It’s my job to identify what Griffith International needs to be competitive, then advocate for that across the university, whether it’s lobbying a finance committee or travelling overseas to create and strengthen partnerships with other institutions.

I have also been a member of the equity committee, which focuses on equity matters university-wide. This includes Indigenous, LGBTQI+, and gender equity issues. Mainly staff-focused, this committee helps ensure we’re offering equal opportunities in the truest sense, which can sometimes manifest as affirmative action. Currently, the focus is around affirmative roles for Indigenous people so that Indigenous staff members make up the same proportion in the university as they do in the general population and we are providing role models for our student community.

In a university setting, equity is often about gender balancing and the administrative areas in universities are often female-dominated, so it’s sometimes about attracting more men into these roles.

Does the university run any programs to support women in leadership?

I have been involved in some amazing women in leadership activities. I participated in the Leneen Forde Women in Leadership program, which was set up specifically to address the needs of women in leadership positions across the university. Leneen Forde was Griffith University’s chancellor for many years and an amazing professional woman. The program is run every two years and comprises about two-thirds academic staff and one-third professional staff. Participants get to engage with amazing women and many have moved into senior roles such as heads of department, deans, etc.

There have also been workshops on addressing interesting things like imposter syndrome and personal branding. These types of educational opportunities are invaluable.

What’s important to you in a role?

Leadership is everything; you want to work for good leaders and, in turn, have the opportunity to be a good leader. I’m values-based and need to work in a field that I feel strongly about, which is why education is a great fit. I also want agency, autonomy, and the ability to influence the organisation’s direction and make a difference.

Who or what first inspired you to build a career?

I grew up in a household without much money, so I knew I would always have to take charge of my own income rather than rely on someone else. When I finished school, I worked in a shoe shop and, as lovely as the discounted shoes were, I quickly found retail boring. As a naturally curious person, my intellect was calling out for something more.

I then went to university in the US on a fencing scholarship and found that everyone around me was so intellectual. Everyone at my university was headed for a career; no one was going to waste their education on getting married then not working.

Who has inspired you along the way?

I have had three really important women mentors, all of whom have been very successful in their careers. They were all women that I met at universities, each one has been incredibly clever and self-made, and none came from backgrounds where they would have automatically been successful. They were all bold and unafraid of being successful women. They were role models who modelled self-belief, and, because they believed in me, I was able to believe in myself. I also watched them balance marriage and family with professional careers, which isn’t easy.

How do you inspire people?

I am a very open sharer. I never keep knowledge to myself. I don’t own my knowledge; I don’t believe in that. I am very generous in sharing my knowledge. I have an open-door policy although other people often shut my office door because I’m noisy!

Mostly women but sometimes men come to me for advice both within my organisation and also from other universities. Those who work in the same field as me and identify with my professional life ask me to mentor them.

I formally mentor two women at the moment, and it’s a really nice way to share to your knowledge. It’s also nice to feel competent and to feel like your knowledge is useful.

I’m an honest mentor so I tell them to think carefully and be careful what they wish for in terms of their careers. For example, my kids have had to sacrifice time with me for my success. And, while there are undoubtedly benefits, it’s important to know what you’re signing up for.

I also feel obligated to help the next generation. I could be working for anyone who sits under me at any time in the future. Who knows what they’re capable of? I hope they become my boss in the future because it will mean I’ve done a great job mentoring and managing them.

One of the concrete ways I try to help the next generation is by advocating for more leadership, mentoring, and shadowing programs at the university. I’m asking permission from the committees that I’m on to take younger workers to see how committees work and what’s appropriate to say. It’s about teaching them to be a good committee member early on, rather than throwing them in the deep end. If they’re at these meetings as an observer, they can see senior people in action and understand how it all works before they have the responsibility of really participating in those meetings.

What are your work commitments?

I work all the time. I’m a contact for international SOS for students and staff travelling overseas, so I’m on call 24/7. I often get calls at 2am and I get a huge amount of emails, around 150 per day. With technology keeping us connected all the time, there’s an expectation that you’ll respond straight away. With all the meetings and other work that needs to get done in the working day, this means I often have to deal with emails at night and on the weekends.

Travel-wise, I do three or four overseas trips in most years, along with around six domestic trips ranging from one to five days.

Did you have any personal concerns or worries in relation to family or out-of-work commitments when you started combining working and parenting?

We were fortunate because my husband’s family owned a daycare. My kids went to daycare with their grandmother, aunt, and cousins, so they were very comfortable. Also, I had a nine-to-five job back then and I worked four days a week in a much more manageable job.

For me, the hardest bit is the travelling. For most of my career I’ve had overseas and domestic travel requirements and, although there are benefits, it can be hard, even when you know your kids are OK and well looked after.

What kind of support do you have at work and outside of work?

We’ve had incredible infrastructure in place. As well as the family-owned daycare, my mother has always lived with us and my in-laws are two streets away, so we’ve had extraordinary inbuilt family support all the way through.

My husband worked for his father’s mechanic shop when the children were little, which afforded him a lot of flexibility. He did lots of caregiving when the children were little, and loved changing nappies and bathing them. As they got older, he did most of the logistics in terms of driving them to school, which was a reasonable distance from our house, as well as to their extracurricular activities. When my daughter was nine months old and had chickenpox, he took her to work and carried her around the shop with him.

When the kids were younger and I was away, my husband did all the kid-related logistics like getting them to where they needed to be, my mother would do the laundry and most of the cooking, and my father-in-law would drop in food.

I also have a cleaner, which is the last thing I would ever give up.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced finding a balance between work and parenting commitments?

Guilt. Even though my children are old enough to make their own lunches, I make them gourmet school lunches, which assuages my guilt slightly. None of the other parents at school know me but they know the lunches.

It’s also challenging to feel like I’ve missed out on some significant things. I go to everything I can in the evenings and on weekends, including all the concerts, cheerleading, etc.

Even though I also work on weekends all the time, I do it less than I used to when I was trying to prove myself. However, as my mother is ageing, I can’t do that anymore because I’ve had to take on more of the household responsibility. I still check in occasionally on my phone to make sure nothing urgent requires my attention. Working two or three hours on a Sunday helps make sure Monday mornings aren’t too bad

My biggest work challenge is that I have meetings most days all day. That, combined with trying to find time to manage emails means it’s really hard to find room to be strategic. It’s hard to get out of the transactional and into the transformational space.

How long did you take maternity leave/time out of your career with each of your children?

When I had my daughter, the university sector offered three months’ paid leave so I took six months on half pay. It wasn’t long enough and I went back 80 per cent (four days a week). I had a beautiful direct boss who put a note on my computer that said “I’d take 80% of you over 100% of someone else any day”, which was very empowering.

When I had my son, I knew that six months wasn’t enough so I took nine months, which was much better. If I could have afforded it, I would have taken a year but it wasn’t financially possible.

What advice would you give someone before commencing maternity leave?

Take as long as you can afford to take. Enjoy that time. Be prepared for the possibility that you will either have to or choose to plateau your career. For example, I moved to from a different university in Brisbane to Griffith University on the Gold Coast before my daughter went to school so I could be closer to home. As I’ve moved up in the organisation, I’ve ended up back in Brisbane part of every week.

My ego struggled as I watched other people move up the ladder. And I had to accept that I was deliberately making that choice. I had to live with the implications. It’s important to put your professional ego to one side and make the decisions that are right for you and your children at that point. If you can go back to work 80 per cent or 60 per cent, that’s a great option.

And, sometimes you may have to say no to a perfect opportunity because it’s not right for the family.

What advice would you give someone returning to their career after having kids?

Coming back to work was really satisfying for me because I valued the adult conversation and engagement, as well as productivity beyond homemaking. I really loved the baby stuff but also loved the adult engagement again.

It’s about balance and you have to make decisions about your career that suit you as a parent. We choose to have babies, so they have to be the first priority. Only you can decide what works for you based on what’s important to you as a mum alongside your career.

 Do you find time for yourself? And if so, how and what do you use it for?

I tried yoga but it made me feel like a failure. I couldn’t do all the stretches so it wasn’t relaxing or fun.

A really good friend put me onto podcasts, which has made the world of difference, especially as I make the long commute from the Gold Coast to Brisbane many days. I move between podcasts and music. Some are intellectual and some are non-PC and terrible but incredibly humorous. They give me good head space on my commute. I’m also a voracious reader of fiction.

I don’t watch any TV. Sometimes I go on the treadmill at home.

When I travel for work, time on the plane is quiet, focused Heidi time. I sit by myself and I read and curate my photos, and I sleep.

Do you have a daily routine, and if so, what does it look like?

I’m up at 6am and I check emails quickly, which is just a scan to see if there’s anything urgent. I have my breakfast while making school lunches. As I’m not a morning person, I generally struggle through the morning routine, then get to work.

The work day officially starts at 9am and I arrive at 9am. I work late and I’m usually the last person to leave the office. When I get home, I have dinner with my mum and son and, depending on what she has on, sometimes my daughter. I sometimes do a bit more work after dinner, and often do laundry or other chores. If I had a dollar for every time I put cushions back on the couch, I would be a millionaire.

I go to bed usually around 11:30pm. I don’t get enough sleep because I always want to cram in more. Sunday mornings are my sleep-in times.

If you could do anything differently in relation to developing your career over the years, what would it be (if anything)?  

My career has been really opportunistic. While my personal life has been planned, my career development occurred when amazing leaders in my life have presented opportunities to me. I think that shows that, if you work hard and do whatever people throw at you, and do your best, then your career will develop as it’s meant to.

Everything you do and everything you experience teaches you what you want and what you’re good at, so I wouldn’t change anything. On balance I love my job. I get to engage with students and do things that fill my tank.