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Career Spotlight: Gönül Serbest, Chief Executive Officer of Global Victoria

In this Career Spotlight, we have the privileged opportunity to gain insight from Gönül Serbest, CEO of Global Victoria, part of the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions in the State Government of Victoria, about her outstanding career in international trade so far.

Gönül Serbest is the inaugural Chief Executive Officer of Global Victoria responsible for leading the Government’s global engagement efforts. As part of this role, she manages the State’s international network of 23 trade and investment offices, leads a team that drives economic growth in Victoria by facilitating exports and promotes the State’s world class industry capabilities and education sector to international audiences.

Over her ten years working in international trade, as both Deputy Secretary and Executive Director, Gönül has been instrumental in the development and execution of the largest trade missions to leave Australia into emerging markets and the largest inbound trade delegations to visit Victoria. These programs have resulted in several significant collaborations and have generated billions of dollars’ worth of additional exports to the economy and put Victoria’s world-class companies on a global stage.

She has a passion for international engagement and supporting platforms and initiatives that empower young leaders and women to actively engage in areas of trade and culture. In recent years, Gönül has been selected to participate as a young leader for the Australia-ASEAN Emerging Leaders Program designed to build long term, productive linkages with each other and with the region's leading thinkers. Gönül was also chosen as one of 15 young leaders to represent Australia in a similar initiative for the Australia India Youth Dialogue.

In March 2018, Gönül made Smart Company’s Honour Roll for the Top 100 Australian female business leaders and in August 2018, was awarded in the Top 50 Victorian Women in the Public Service.

Gönül has a Bachelor of Social Science (Hons) from RMIT University; and has completed the Harvard Business School Executive Education Course on Building Global Enterprise; and the Australian Institute of Company Directors Course.

At the beginning of your career, did you envision it as it is today? And what did you study at university and why?

I joined the Victorian Public Service (VPS) as a graduate after completing my Honours in Social Science at RMIT. Prior to joining the VPS, I spent a lot of time at Radio 3ZZZ, Australia’s largest ethnic community radio station and loved the platform it provided to give voice to so many culturally diverse groups across our community. So, I was always keen to bring together my passions for engaging with people from around the world and public service.

I didn’t set out with a specific role or title in mind, it was more about chasing opportunities that provided personal growth and also created a lasting impact in how Victoria engages and is positioned globally.

I’ve now worked in the trade and international engagement portfolio across different parts of the business for over 10 years and to be in the inaugural CEO of Global Victoria, which is Victoria’s gateway to global economies and communities is extremely rewarding and something I am very grateful for.

As with most people, my career hasn’t been a straight line and has included lots of setbacks and lessons along the way. But it is fair to say that the bumps in the road have generally provided me the biggest opportunities to learn about myself; exercise resilience and develop grit. As a colleague of mine says, ‘on our good days we have happiness, on our bad days we have experiences, and on our worst days we have lessons’. The magic in that mantra is to be grateful and take learnings and grow from the most challenging of situations.

You’ve had an outstanding international career progressing Victoria’s trade relationships. What skills have led to your success in driving international business?

I am constantly learning and developing new skills, but the three skills that have been critical as I have progressed my career include:

  • Curiosity: I am always seeking new information and experiences, and this has really helped me be more creative and work with my team to drive innovative programs and come up with alternative solutions. Importantly, an open mind and genuine curiosity means you are less likely bring bias and stereotyping into decision making.

  • Building trusted and meaningful relationships is everything especially when working cross borders so an ability to empathise, connect and have influence is a pivotal skill.

  • Creativity: All great strategy requires creative thinking. I love it when the spark of a new idea or your intuition converges and connects with different ways of thinking and you take the leap into doing something bold. More than ever Governments, businesses, institutions need to remain relevant and modern and creative thinking needs to be central in achieving this.

With such a demanding career, how do you recharge?

I love my job, so in many parts I do get energy from it. However, 2020 presented moments when even I just needed a digital detox to slow the constant bombardment of message, images, content so I switched off twitter, Instagram and turned off notifications on other platforms like wechat, whatsapp etc and focused on the relationships that matter most and give me positive energy.

As a devoted Melburnian I live in the CBD, so a favourite way to recharge is walking around the city and discovering new places and having long lazy coffees and watching the world go by. I also love all things design, so spending time at the National Gallery of Victoria or doing my own fashion illustrations is a great way for me to recharge and feel inspired. And in non COVID-19 times, I love travelling and discovering hidden spots in big cities.

What is your proudest or most transformative professional achievement so far?

I have actually never thought about this, so I guess I am still working towards it.

But I can say that seeing the growth of Victoria’s international network over the many years and ultimately more than doubling to 23 trade and investment offices from when I started in 2010 is something, I’m so pleased and proud to have been part of. Victoria more than any other state or territory significantly values its international relationships and has a great team locally and around the world who are extremely committed to progressing these global connections.

Also, from a professional perspective, a moment for me that has resonated with other women is the day I consciously decided to be truer to myself in the way I conducted and presented myself within the business world. Embrace the things that make you unique and don’t be afraid to express your individuality, whether it be through your personal style, celebrating your ethnicity, or shining light on past experiences. I find it empowering and I have encouraged other women to find and use their super-power and dial it up to get noticed, be heard and feel confident with. Differences can help to define us and if used well, leveraging differences in a team can help to harmonise the team dynamics and bring out the best in people.

What advice would you give students and young professionals looking to pursue a fulfilling career in international engagement?

First and foremost, international engagement is a people business. You have to have a genuine interest and inquisitiveness for culture, language, how people live, behave, consume and trade around the world. With this you need a strong sense of empathy and ability to find ways to build genuine connections.

To support this, I recommend that you invest in yourself and your own learning. While not possible now, but in a post COVID-19 world, spending time abroad is often the best way to learn and immerse yourself in new cultures and experiences. For example, I undertook an Executive Course at Harvard in Building Global Enterprise and I chose to undertake the course in India where I would meet peers who had very different experiences to me and also challenged my thinking and broadened my horizons. It also provided a fantastic way to meet new people and build new networks.

Also, I would recommend you spend time keeping up to date with global affairs and reading and having conversations. It is a very rewarding career, with the world at your feet – so if you want a diverse and dynamic role, it’s the way to go.

My three tips for young professionals seeking opportunities in international work would be:

  1. Look for opportunities that allow you to develop personally and professionally. Especially in the early days of your career, don’t simply chase the next level (grade) or salary. It really is about building your skills and self-confidence. Also, remember that everyone has their own journey – so stay the course and don’t compare yourself with others.

  2. Find organisations and roles that allow you to have the maximum impact, increase your network and give your work profile. Be bold in putting up new ideas and share your ideas so they can grow.

  3. So much of our job satisfaction comes from our immediate manager, so find people you respect and can learn from and that will also become advocates and champions for you. If this is not in your immediate manager – build up your own Board of Advisors who you can rely on to provide advice, lend an ear in times of need and support your professional development.

What attributes do you think make the best leaders, particularly in the public service? How can early-career starters best hone these leadership skills?

Great question, there are so many attributes, so I’ll try to be concise.

For me, the best public leaders have an innate passion and commitment for what they do. They love making a positive contribution and creating impact. When someone loves what they do, others around them feel it and it becomes a contagious energy – so first and foremost, passion is critical.

A strong sense of empathy and ability to inspire others is also critical especially in the public service. You often need to represent different groups and voices and having an ability to both understand others and motivate teams and communities is critical in building trust and momentum.

Integrity goes without saying. Leaders should always be honest, open and transparent and do the right thing even when no one is watching.

If 2020 has taught us anything it is that leaders need versatility. Now more than ever, leaders need to be able to digest information quickly, be responsiveness, and manage multiple challenges in an ever changing fast paced environment. The easiest way to develop this skill is to seek feedback from your colleagues and manager. For example: Where should I focus my attention, what should we stop doing, how can I be more effective, how can I help you?

I mentioned this earlier, but relationships in our business are Queen. They hold the power to how effective you can truly be. And we all know from personal experience that you want to work with people who you can trust and respect. So having strong relationships at work and with stakeholders, an ability to empathise and build meaningful connections will be an important factor in your success. Also be really intentional with your relationships and make sure your nurture them and not only call on people when you need something.


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