A night to remember and leadership stories to be shared!

Daring to Lead Cultural Change with Samantha Freebairn- Wednesday 24th July 2019 Over a delicious meal courtesy of Guy Grossi and his team at Merchant) we had a night to remember with two speakers, our special Guest Speaker- Elizabeth (Liz) Grossi-Rodriguez and Samantha Freebairn

Elizabeth (Liz) Grossi-Rodriguez;

Liz supports diversity across the hospitality landscape, however fell into supporting diversity without actively recognising that was what she was doing.

In 1999 the first female waitress served at her family restaurant, Grossi Florentino. This was controversial at the time and some long-term customers felt that having a female perform this role somehow lowered the venue. Liz stood by this decision because she simply placed people in the role in which they belonged based on merit, and gender was not a factor to her.

Whilst Liz acknowledges that her early actions in placing female staff were not deliberate acts of diversity, she now believes that change comes about as the result of considering the long-term impacts, the potential benefits, and persevering to reach these goals. These changes take time to achieve and change can be difficult, so the smallest steps forward are an achievement in themselves.

In supporting diversity and inclusion, Liz challenges us to ask ourselves these questions;

  • What example am I displaying?
  • How will I deal with adversity?

Liz believes that through creating a new sense of the way we do things we will create our new normal. She has learned not to be paralysed by failure, instead to learn and move on.

Liz’s final piece of advice to us was powerful;

Look for champions who want to see you succeed and who will support you, and be that person for others.

Samantha is a highly skilled and driven women, a Wing Commander, Pilot for Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), World Economic Forum Global Leader, Telstra Business Woman, Gender Diversity and Inclusion Advocate, Mentor and Women’s Leadership Specialist and a busy Wife and Mother of two.

Our Daring to Lead Cultural Change event is born from Samantha’s first-hand experience in creating systemic change in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Samantha’s work has been globally recognised in 2016 by the prestigious World Economic Forum, where she was identified as a Young Global Leader, “Most influential global leaders under 40 years” for her outstanding leadership drive and qualities.

Furthermore, her entrepreneurial flair has also been recognised Across Australia by Telstra in 2014 by taking out the QLD Telstra Business Women’s Award for Business Innovation of the Air Force’s Graduate Pilot Scheme. 

Samantha Freebairn:

Samantha grew up in Drysdale, Victoria. Her first active realisation that she wanted to become a pilot was as a seven-year-old on a holiday “overseas” to Hamilton Island. She was allowed with some other children to go into the flight deck (she refuses to call it a cock pit) and see what the pilots do, which ignited her passion to become a pilot.

Samantha knew that to become a pilot she would have to perform well at school and study hard. She went to an all girl’s school and saw this as an advantage because if a girl was strong in a certain area, she became a leader in that field within the school. This meant there was no point during school where Samantha ruled herself out of anything. Her dad was also a strong factor in this thinking, and made sure that Samantha and her sister were able to change a car tyre, timing them with a stopwatch. No daughter of his was going to not be self-sufficient.

Samantha joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as an eighteen-year-old, studying at the RAAF Academy in Canberra. She was one of only two women to graduate at that time, and naturally she stood out, so spent the first ten years of her career just trying to fit in. She acknowledges that through trying to fit in and be “one of the boys” she really wasn’t able to perform at her best.

Samantha recalled a mission where she was flying a C-130H Hercules, a cargo transport aircraft. She was required to deliver the crew briefing via her radio headset. Afterwards, the Loadmaster pulled her aside and said “Ma’am, you can fly the hell out of this aircraft, it just doesn’t sound like you can.”

When Samantha queried what the Loadmaster meant by this, he explained that he could only hear her briefing via the headset, and her voice, pitch and tone did not carry authority or instil confidence in her leadership. Through this experience she learned to use her “Captain’s Voice”; lower, slower and louder. This big lesson in leadership highlighted to Sam that it wasn’t about changing who she was, but rather adapting to her environment.

Samantha spoke about a humanitarian mission she was involved in to retrieve victims of the Bali bombings. She described the experience of landing in Bali and seeing the many dazed people wandering about, many with singed clothes, injuries and burns. During this mission she and her crew did not know if they themselves could be victims of further attacks, which was when she realised the true significance of “signing on the dotted line” that she would serve her country and potentially make the ultimate sacrifice for others. 

Samantha and her crew transported fourteen of the bombing victims back to Darwin, and during take-off, Samantha recalls the navigator holding her hand. The sights, sounds and smells of what they had witnesses in Bali had clearly had an impact on the crew, including the navigator. During the mission debrief on their return to Darwin, the crew were asked if they would like to see a psychologist to unpack what they’d seen in Bali. Everyone looked away and no one wanted to admit that the events they’d seen had impacted them. Samantha as the youngest and least experienced member of the crew, spoke up for everyone and said that yes, she would need a whole lot of therapy to unpack what she’d just seen. As a result, everyone received the counselling which was very much needed.

From this, Samantha learned that leadership is sometimes about speaking up for those who can’t or won’t speak up for themselves. After this experience, she stopped being something other than herself, started to back herself, and that was when she really started to thrive as a leader.

Samantha had a new mission- to increase recruitment of female pilots. The RAAF had not met its female recruitment targets for eight years. The quality of applicants were failing to meet the required standard, with women amongst the highest failure rates.

To address the shortage of female pilots, Samantha established Project WINTER (Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles.) It was noted that at Griffith University, 30% of those studying aviation were female. However, of those 30%, only one woman had considered becoming a military pilot, compared with 94% of men studying the same qualification. Social hurdles identified for women were twofold; military careers and aviation careers were both not traditionally feminine roles.

As a result, Samantha decided to target her approach, towards both women in aviation and women already in the military. This approach centred around changing policies, including increased focus on retention of women returning from maternity leave. To achieve success, it was vital to understand the barriers in order to remove them. Also vital to this process was women supporting women, through development of women’s networks and women’s mentoring programs. Another barrier to women’s career progression was that men were quick to speak up when they wanted career opportunities, hence women were overlooked. To address this, an Expression of Interest process was introduced so that anyone could apply for opportunities rather than on a first in basis.

Samantha reinforced that when considering workplace diversity and inclusion, it is not just about recruitment, but also how workplaces retain, support and progress their people. 

For women in non-traditional roles such as Samantha’s, the feeling can be of having to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. She realised this was the case when in the USA for pilot training, where 40 other women were also undertaking training. It was a nice feeling not to “stick out” for a change.


Samantha discussed five elements for leadership success:

  1. Confidence- which Samantha describes as more “grrrrr” or more “tiger”, having some bravado. A TED talk delivered by Amy Cuddy on the importance of body language and “power posing” is something that has resonated with Samantha, and that she uses herself to increase her feelings of confidence. She also added that this will not compensate for not knowing your stuff. For leaders it is important to recognise when people are under pressure and at risk of not performing at their best, and where possible give them some time and space to mentally prepare. An example of this is in undertaking exams, where it has been shown that power posing for 2 minutes prior to the exam can positively impact results.
  1. Communication- spoken about in more detail in the uncomfortable conversations and GROW model frameworks
  1. Culture- There are “morale vampires” who will suck the lift out of you if you let them. Samantha talks about “below the line” comments as negative comments, which can be reframed into positive ones. Reframing these comments can have a positive impact on workplace culture. For example- “We can’t achieve this” (negative), would be reframed as “What can we achieve?” (positive). Take the negative portion of the comments made by your “morale vampires” and throw it back at them.
  1. Connections- Connect with positive people who will build you up and recharge your batteries.
  1. Courage- Be brave, call out bad behaviour. Make it better for the person following you- just because you can tolerate it doesn’t mean the next person can or should.

Samantha offered a framework for having uncomfortable conversations or calling out bad behaviour:

  • Situation: Provide the time, date, occasion
  • Behaviour: What the person did or said
  • Impact: How you felt when they did or said it

Example: “On (date/time) you said (****) which made me feel really uncomfortable, as though you don’t value my contribution.” 

These conversations should be conducted in private. If you feel the need to practice, “workshop” what you’re planning to say with someone first to get their feedback on how you come across.

Samantha also discussed how to have coaching conversations using the GROW model:

Goal- “What is your goal?”

Reality- “What is happening now?”

Options- “What options do you have?”

Way Forward- “What is the next step?”

The GROW model prevents the issue of having people coming with problems, and having to take on everyone else’s problems. Instead the person is empowered to solve their own problem. 

Samantha concluded her wonderful presentation by giving us an opportunity to practice a coaching conversation using the GROW model, with feedback from the group that it was a powerful tool to use in coaching conversations.

Q & A with Angela and Samantha:

How did you change the culture of the RAAF?

Samantha wrote it down in policy, which made it repeatable, no matter who was in management. She became a manager herself, and not only supported women but also supported men in parental roles to progress at the rate of their peers. Changing the culture is about both showing and doing the things that can be done.

Digital Women’s Network began to support other women and rise together. Do you think that there is still a problem, and how can women do this better?

Samantha once gave a talk at a primary school, in her RAAF uniform, and told the children that if they could pat their head and rub their tummy at the same time, they had the potential to be a pilot. She asked who wanted to be pilots, and all the boys raised their hands. Samantha asked why none of the girls raised their hands, and one girl responded that it was too dangerous, girls can’t do it, and that she wanted to be a flight attendant. It was at that stage that Samantha realised that female pilots were invisible to young girls, and she went back to the RAAF and built the women’s network. As a result of this work female pilot numbers doubled when they had previously been stagnant for thirty years. 

How did you change the conditions for parents in the RAAF?

Women had managed to negotiate working conditions for themselves prior to Samantha, however their supportive bosses left. There was need for formal documentation, so Samantha wrote the policy. It had to be documented, regularly reviewed, and enduring so that no change of management could impact working conditions. Additional to this, Samantha worked to increase parental leave for men, and increase carer’s leave entitlements. Her takeaway from this experience- “Fix what pisses you off.”

How do you remain feminine in a masculine environment and still be respected?

Samantha talked about the changes she went through in having two children, in terms of tolerating the pain of childbirth as well as what the female body can do. “The amount of pain I can tolerate is immeasurable.” This stopped her from trying to fit in, as there is no need to fit the stereotype or the mould. Samantha’s advice is to set up environments where people do the best they possibly can without deferring to cultural norms.

Q & A From the Audience:

Females can be seen as emotional or having a tendency to make irrational decisions. What are your thoughts on this?

Samantha spoke about a time that she failed a flight test. The instructor told her that he couldn’t pass her, and even though she knew that she was going to fail, she still cried. Crying she says is a purely physiological response to stress, if she feels like crying its because she’s really stressed. The important thing is to identify the trigger which can assist to control the physiological response, which may simply be by removing yourself and giving yourself an opportunity to cry in private.

With decision making, we all make the best decisions we can at the time with the information at our disposal. If the decision is wrong, we fix it. The important thing is to make a decision.

You talk about changing what pisses you off. What pisses you off now?

There is a program Samantha is involved with for Air Force Cadets, which although governed by the RAAF, is run by volunteers. What frustrates her is expecting volunteers to adhere to RAAF policies, and this is something that she’ll be working to change.

You mentioned that you work for a great boss. What makes that boss great?

He sets deadlines because he knows that otherwise Samantha tends to procrastinate. He understands flexibility, and that sometimes she needs to work around kids. He is creative, and also a supportive boss in that if she does something silly he “has her back.”

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