In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking with Kirsten Sayers, Chief Executive Officer at RedR Australia, about her global career across international trade, diplomacy, and humanitarian work for Australia.
Kirsten Sayers is an accomplished commercial and humanitarian diplomat with demonstrated expertise advancing Australia's interests, creating innovative partnerships, building a premium brand, and delivering value at the confluence of government, business, education and civil society.
As a current CEO of United Nations and Australian government partner, RedR Australia, advisor to the Export Council of Australia, board member of Sphere Humanitarian Standards, and Asia Literacy Ambassador, Kirsten builds for the future. Australia's first Investment Commissioner to ASEAN and Chief Negotiator for APEC Women Leaders' Network, Kirsten is an experienced Senior Trade & Investment Commissioner and lawyer specialised in Chinese and Indonesian law.
Kirsten speaks English, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Swedish and Norwegian.
Going back to the beginning of your career, what did you study at university and what was your first professional role? Did you envision your career as it is today?
I studied combined Arts/Law at the University of Melbourne, Chinese law at the East China Institute of Politics and Law, Mandarin at the Beijing Language Institute and French at the Université d'Aix-Marseilles in France. My Master's degree in Comparative Law was done by correspondence while I was living in Taipei and Bangkok. My first professional role was as an articled clerk/trainee solicitor in Melbourne. I was also volunteering in community legal centres and studying Vietnamese at night. I didn't have a clear game plan for how my career might develop but I've always had an international perspective and seized opportunities where my skills and experience can make a real difference. I'm now studying sustainability—environmental and social governance (ESG)—at IMD Business School, Lausanne.
You have spent a significant portion of your career progressing Australia’s relationships with Asia. What have been some of your key learnings from these experiences?
Of my five diplomatic roles, four have been in Asia. Australian companies understand the opportunities for engagement with Asia but often need "the how" to realise them. Asia comprises many countries and cultures. It is not one size fits all. Languages and cultural literacy are important, and so is an understanding of the different protocols and approaches to doing business. Relationships are critical: Zoom can only go so far for so long.
People-to-people links are the building blocks for our engagement in Asia, and with Asians in Australia. The original Colombo Plan, the alumni diaspora, the New Colombo Plan, student and teacher exchanges, deployees on mission, civil society links, and business-to-business links. Languages and cultural literacy. These are the platforms for long-term resilience in our Asian relationships and our economy. Our relationships need to be deeper and broader than government-to-government.
Australia's Asia competencies have been declining at the time we need them the most. We need the right leadership, platforms and role models to accelerate Australia's multifaceted engagement with Asia, and shape the skills, cohort and programs that will advance Australia's interests in a post-COVID-19 world. Free Trade Agreements are one such platform, bilateral business councils, and the plethora of youth initiatives such as the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program are another. As an Asia Literacy Ambassador I mentor young Australians to build Asia capabilities.
I was privileged to be part of Australia's early strategic engagement with ASEAN as a single entity and still am today through RedR's partnership with the ASEAN Centre for Humanitarian Assistance. I work closely with RedR counterparts in India, Indonesia and Malaysia to ensure that collectively we have the right skills, governance and partnerships to support our region before, during and after conflict, pandemics or natural disasters.
You're currently the Chief Executive Officer at RedR Australia, playing a key role in delivering humanitarian action on Australia's behalf. What does a day in this role look like?
Every day is different. We have offices in Melbourne, Suva and Amman, experts on deployment to UN agencies, governments and communities in high risk environments—conflict zones, natural disasters, health emergencies—and we provide training in Australia and overseas. The safety and wellbeing of our people is naturally a high priority. Our partnerships with UN agencies, governments, the private sector and civil society require nurture at multiple thematic and geographical levels. And of course measuring and evaluating the impact of our work over 30 years—and day to day—is critical to providing the evidence which informs strategic decisions as much as the stories of impact borne from the provision of 30% UN surge capability.
RedR is the only United Nations Standby Partner in the Asia Pacific, and we are fortunate to be able to influence and catalyse some of the change we want to see in the world: we place our experts in key influencing and policy roles in governments and UN agencies. We work closely with Pacific governments on disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation, with UN and regional agencies on gender, disability, diversity and inclusion, and with the RedR International Federation to provide experts with the right technical expertise when and where it's needed the most.
Each day (and many nights because of time zone differences) involves managing and nurturing this diverse ecosystem of stakeholder relationships and ensuring that all our efforts are delivered within a framework of the highest standards of international governance.
You are highly skilled in a range of European and Asian languages! How has your language proficiency supported your professional goals?
Thriving personally or professionally is linked with the ability to communicate and be understood. Speaking the languages of the countries where I have lived has enabled me to be independent and do my job, lead my team, build professional relationships, address the media, ask for directions, and make friends! When I last spoke at the UN, I spoke in English, French and Mandarin. Language and cultural proficiencies are also a professional advantage: knowing how to speak, explain, and negotiate in other languages is a differentiator in a global employment market.
Reflecting on your career so far, what is your proudest or most transformative professional achievement?
Building for the future is an ongoing transformative journey, connecting people across cultures, and catalysing action. I am proud of RedR’s agility during COVID-19: we have stayed and delivered, working with communities and countries in need. We have built Australia’s flagship civilian deployment capability—a future-fit end-to-end technical advisory capability that is agile, digital, networked, diverse in skills and cultural competencies, and in demand—providing 30% of UN surge capacity globally. We have built the complex stakeholder architecture and funding mechanisms to provide experts when and where they are needed the most.
I was also privileged to be Australia’s first Investment Commissioner to ASEAN—establishing Australia’s first One ASEAN Investment strategy and shaping the multicultural dispersed team that contributed substantially to doubling the amount of foreign direct investment into Australia during the period.
Investment sounds like serious business, but serious business can also be fun. We piloted the Business Club Australia (BCA) platform at the Rugby World Cup in France—partnering with the Wallabies and Rugby Australia. The success of this led to the adoption of the BCA platform at many other global sporting events from New Zealand to India and the United Kingdom.
Finally, what attributes do you think make the best leaders?
Leadership is different things through different lenses. Agility, the ability to adapt, question, and listen. Diverse voices (especially cognitive diversity), experience and thinking styles around the table. Fact-based compassionate communication. And CQ or cultural intelligence is as important as EQ and IQ.
Leadership is close and personal—every day it's the opportunity to win hearts and minds, connect and catalyse people to build for a better future. It's also what others think of RedR, our reputation and brand from a distance. It's important to model the values and standards that our partners depend on.
Where do we want to be in three years, five years, 10 years... 50 years—and how do we get there? The challenges we face today demand leadership at all levels: everyone has more talents and skills than the title on their business card. True leaders inspire their teams to step forward and lead with impact and innovation in their sphere of influence.