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Tales from the Trenches with Leisa Prowse

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Brisbane, but grew up in northern NSW, mostly in Byron Shire near a little town called Mullumbimby. My parents moved there for the lifestyle: our house was off the grid, I went to a one teacher primary school, we were even self-sufficient for a bit, and I had a horse.

I came back to Brisbane to go to university, and have been here ever since. I live in the inner city with my family. I am also a part-time actor, which is a heap of fun.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.
Leisa Prowse Consulting helps organisations work with their stakeholders and community to deliver complex and contentious infrastructure and planning projects. We also help clients to explore complex challenges, large and small, with their external and internal stakeholders and the community.

What does your role involve?
As a business owner, and engagement practitioner, my role involves so many different things. There’s the necessary day-to-day business management stuff, and then there is the much more interesting project work.
My role involves leading our team to design, deliver and report on community and stakeholder engagement processes. A big part of this is working with our clients to determine how the community engagement process can inform a project’s outcomes and add value to it.

I facilitate meetings, workshops and events, both large and small. I also deliver training and coaching in both engagement and presentation skills.

I advocate for community engagement and the value it adds to any process or project. In the past year I have been working with non-profit organisations, as well as IAP2, to help promote the value of community engagement. I am really interested in YIMBY QLD, and what they are trying to achieve.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
One of things I love the most about being a consultant is that there is no such thing as a typical day!

On any given day I do a lot of listening, a lot of writing, and I am part of a lot of conversations. By far, the best days are when I get to spend time with community members and when I help make a difference to the outcomes of a project.

Can you share some of the good and bad experiences you have encountered over your career and how they have helped you grow as an engagement professional and person?
So many good experiences! I have met amazing people and travelled to parts of this country that I might not have otherwise had a chance to see.

I appreciate the trust that people have placed in me when they have shared their stories, their ideas and their concerns. It is always good to see plans or designs change based on community and stakeholder feedback.
One of the brilliant things about working on infrastructure and planning projects is that ultimately a project is built. These projects can sometimes change the shape of cities, towns and regions for the better, and that is a very satisfying process to be part of.

Bad experiences? Frankly, there are a few of those too and they relate to people’s behaviour in the moment (including the media). Both clients and community members.

When I reflect on the bad experiences, quite often they relate to managing expectations, making sure that you are really listening, and working hard to understand someone’s perspective. Good planning is crucial.

How has this helped me grow? Listening with empathy has always been a key part of my approach. I also tend to be very curious, and I have learnt that probing questions will be forgiven if they come from the right place.
[Disclaimer: my family may have a different take on my ability to listen with empathy. Seriously though, how hard is it to sort the washing.]

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
Being able to help community members and stakeholders make a difference to project outcomes is hugely rewarding. Meeting people from all walks of life, and capturing their stories, ideas and concerns, is a privilege not to be taken for granted.
Getting to experience the finished product, particularly infrastructure, provides a bit of a buzz as well. Although, I learnt very quickly to have an answer at the ready when the kids asked me how I helped—the first time we were on the Tugun Bypass my son asked me which tractor I drove to help build the road.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
Some organisations value community engagement. Others do not. I recall one client, many years ago, declaring that we ‘got lucky’ with a community and a project, when in fact what we had was an excellent approach that was delivered well.

The other challenge is keeping up with the apps and the platforms and the blogs and the research.

I have been doing this work for 25 years, sometimes on contentious projects where communities are divided. You have to work at maintaining your resilience, your enthusiasm and your passion.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
I was working at Brisbane City Council as a strategic planner, and coordinating the planning department’s responses to community submissions on Livable Brisbane. I loved reading the community’s ideas for Brisbane’s future. It was 1992 (I think, but I can’t verify this as it was so long ago that not even Google is helpful).

I realised that it was this aspect of planning that I enjoyed the most. So, I went back to university and studied communication, majoring in interpersonal communication—if memory serves my first assignment related to active listening.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
1. Listen with empathy.
2. Find the opportunities to collaborate.
3. Communicate plainly.
4. Be curious.
5. Make sure you plan upfront.
6. Be flexible.
Sorry! That’s six.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
Be open to learning new things. Take the time to reflect.

Just because a technique worked in one community doesn’t mean it will work in another. When it doesn’t work be prepared to change. Be flexible.

Make sure you debrief, particularly when people’s behaviour hasn’t been that great. You do not need to take that home. And, do your best to try and see the situation from their perspective.
The tech is great, but remember that you are working with people and often that requires a human connection.