At its most basic level, a council exists to look after its residents – to form a diverse yet consolidated community built on a foundation of trust, communication and support. It isn’t surprising then that when Carl Cowie joined Nillumbik Shire Council as CEO in 2018, the first thing he did was ensure the cultivation of a strong culture that reflected the core values at the heart of the organisation.
“For me, culture is everything,” Carl tells The CEO Magazine. “It’s the single most important element in any organisation. It says, ‘This is how we behave. This is what we stand for. This is how we treat people in all our dealings at all levels.’”
This emphasis has proved particularly critical during the pandemic – a period rife with uncertainty and instability. But even before COVID-19, Carl had taken to writing a weekly message to staff, to check in and ensure all employees felt part of a unified team.
“We don’t do ‘R U OK? Day’ once a year, we do it every week without fail,” he says. “I’ve never been afraid to write, ‘I really struggled this week’ in those messages either, because I don’t want staff to think their CEO is bulletproof, or isn’t struggling as much as they are with the problems this past year has caused. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness when you say, ‘I need help’. Authenticity and good communication are so important.”
A Scotland native, Carl boasts more than three decades’ experience across a diverse range of industries, holding CEO and General Manager roles within the healthcare, finance and construction sectors among others, before transitioning to local government, joining the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council as CEO in 2014 and then Nillumbik Shire Council in 2018.
Carl admits that despite the many obstacles he has faced in leadership roles over the years, he believes they ultimately serve as invaluable learning experiences. “My strength as a leader comes from a career that’s had plenty of knocks along the way,” he smiles.
“The difficult management challenges you face lead you to be a better manager than when things are going well. I’ve always been grounded in hard work and have some very good mentors. I’m always learning, always listening and I always encourage new ideas.”
Almost as integral to the organisation as its own team are the partners who work together with Nillumbik Shire Council to achieve mutually beneficial results. “In the private sector, you’re always looking for strong, long-term collaborations,” Carl shares.
“One such example is Belgravia Leisure, which runs our golf course for us. We’re constantly looking at what we can do to prioritise the health and wellbeing of our citizens, and Belgravia will continue helping us develop those ideas for a long time to come.”
Now as Nillumbik Shire Council looks to the future, preventive steps are being taken to safeguard the area; namely, by investing in renewable energy. “We are approaching it with a localised focus on what we can do,” Carl says.
“We can’t just wait for the federal or state governments to change their policies.” Carl explains that a formative trip to Sweden a few years prior made him realise that nothing would be achieved if Nillumbik didn’t just take the plunge and devise a climate action strategy.
It’s a case of being as self-sufficient as possible and making sure you’ve set up generations to come.
“One of the things that struck me when I was there was that companies said, ‘We just started to do it ourselves’,” he reveals. “They made their own environmental plans and as a result, the government and banking sector got on board with green finance and better deals. So that’s why sustainability for our council size is really important. It’s a case of being as self-sufficient as possible and making sure you’ve set up generations to come.”
Nillumbik has also partnered with LMS Energy, a company that “has been in the sector for a long time and brings a wealth of knowledge to the table”, for the construction of a solar farm, which has presented both parties with the potential for enormous growth.
“We’re working on getting additional partners so that we can develop a five-megawatt farm,” Carl says. “Nillumbik only needs a portion of it to make our owned and operated facilities carbon neutral, so I’m talking to other councils and businesses that could take advantage of clean energy. We’re really leading the way for other councils to follow suit and create a greener tomorrow.”
It’s a job that isn’t without its challenges, but Carl readily concedes that the reason he gets up smiling every day to go to work comes back to Nillumbik Shire Council’s core philosophy: that he’s able to “really make a positive difference in people’s lives”.
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