Alumni News

Overcoming adversity against the odds

Erma Ranieri

Associate Diploma in Business (Personnel/Industrial Relations)
South Australia’s Commissioner for Public Sector Employment

Be tenacious. Be bold. Know your purpose.
Erma-Ranieri

The old saying that ‘pressure makes diamonds’ rings true for Erma Ranieri.

There is much to be said about a young migrant woman who grew up in Adelaide’s western suburbs who became the 2014 Telstra South Australian Business Woman of the Year and is South Australia’s Commissioner for Public Sector Employment.

Erma is known for her dynamic, adaptive and values-based leadership, which she embeds in all facets of her role as Commissioner. As Erma reflects, this approach helps her fulfil her vision to build a modern, inclusive world-leading public sector.

“I’ve always known I wanted to be in a position where I could be bold, make real change and contribute to make things better,” Erma said.

“Anyone who knows me knows I am driven by purpose. When you are in touch with your purpose, what is important to you and your instincts, you design your life according to your priorities and you are willing to make sacrifices and trade-offs.

“And, in my experience, you will have less regrets.”

Erma’s story is one of overcoming adversity against the odds— speaking English as a second language, negotiating male-dominated environments, working part-time and caring for a family member with a disability are just some of the challenges she has overcome to achieve her personal and professional aspirations.

Life wasn’t always easy and disadvantage was commonplace. But, it always lifted Erma’s spirit to see people help her family when they needed it most. As Erma explains, it was these experiences that cemented her commitment to be a connected and adaptive leader – a leader that builds resilience, capability and the capacity of peers and colleagues.

“My experiences growing up often made me feel like we weren’t on an equal footing with other people.

“The acts of kindness from others to my family still motivate me to make a difference. My experiences taught me a lot about compassion and how to build resilience.

“As Commissioner and leading the Office for the Public Sector, I draw on these experiences to guide me to be an adaptive and connected leader - a leader that fosters inclusivity, innovation and purpose. As a steward of the public sector, it is my priority to ensure our workforce reflects the diverse community we serve.”

As Erma recounts, her work ethic was established early. At just 12 years old she was running the local deli on Saturdays. Growing up, she wanted to be a psychologist and earned a place at university. Her parents, however, had a different view.

“My parents were very traditional and weren’t supportive of me continuing my education. So I joined the ‘dole queue’ until I won a job with the Registrar of Motor Vehicles filing registration cards for my first boss, Rod Frisby.”

Erma found a mentor in Rod, and with his support she enrolled at the South Australian Institute of Technology (SAIT) (now part of UniSA) to study Human Resource Management and Industrial Relations.

“I have always had a keen interest in transformational change, adaptive leadership and human behaviour.

“My study gave me a taste of that with the foundational pieces in industrial relations, policies and reforms. Back then, HR management was considered ‘back room’, but it is now well and truly the right hand for any chief executive.

“I studied part-time and worked full-time, and anything I learned was practical and translated into my professional life. It was excellent grounding for the career that lay ahead of me.”

It was the mentorship and guidance Erma received over the years that motivated her to establish her mentoring program for 11 aspiring female public sector leaders, which was launched on International Women’s Day in 2017.

“I know the value of a great mentor, and how it has helped me build personal resilience.

“I wanted to give back, and share my experiences to help build other women’s skills and confidence. This program is very personal, and personifies my mission to foster transformational change in other people’s lives. Nearly a year on, I am proud of the program’s impact and what we have achieved.”

While becoming Commissioner was not planned, Erma says working in an administrative position in the then Commissioner’s office when she was 23 years old, piqued her interest in the role. Recognising this role required rigour and enthusiasm, Erma worked tirelessly to climb the public sector ranks.

With her purpose, values and ethics as her foundation, she embraced innovation, courage and tenacity to drive sector-wide reform. This led Erma, for example, to pioneer job-sharing at the executive level as a general manager at the Department of Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA).

“At the time, many women ‘levelled-down’ or left when they started a family, but I refused to give up. At the time, a job-share at that level was unheard of. It took tenacity, but we made it work.”

This courage paved the way for other women, and as Commissioner, she has helped implement a whole-of-government Gender Equality in Leadership strategy, to ensure more women are represented in leadership roles.

2014 saw Erma achieve two significant milestones: she was appointed Commissioner and was named the 2014 Telstra South Australian Business Woman of the Year, where she was recognised for driving change and reforms to make the South Australian public sector more efficient, flexible and responsive to change.

“Being awarded Telstra Business Woman of the Year was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

“I am passionate about tapping into what motivates people and how people can reconcile both work and life. This award helped open the door to many more opportunities to challenge work place ‘norms’ that enforce conformity and impact employee wellbeing.

“It put the spotlight on these issues and I hope it helped many people—both men and women—think differently about work and what can be achieved.”

As Commissioner, Erma has continued her commitment to sector-wide reform, with the roll out of initiatives that foster a ‘One Government’ approach.

“To deliver a world-leading public sector we need to embrace different ways of thinking to deliver public value.

“In both my office and in the public sector, I see purpose, values and behaviours as driving our performance, building our capacity and our capability to deliver for our community.

“That’s why my team advocates innovation, flexibility and inclusion at a whole-of-government level. These are grounded firmly in the public sector values, which are: Service, Professionalism, Trust, Respect, Collaboration & Engagement, Honesty & Integrity, Courage & Tenacity.

“Importantly, all agencies form ‘One Government’. That’s why we need connected leadership to ensure we are inclusive and we collaborate to achieve great results for our sector and our State.”

This sector-wide approach is evident in many initiatives Erma and her office oversee, which can be viewed here

“Our initiatives are bold, but rightly so.

“Our purpose - what we do and why we do it - motivates me every day.”

For more information about the Office for the Public Sector visit www.publicsector.sa.gov.au

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