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Tales from the Trenches with Max Hardy

Max Hardy, founding member of IAP2 Australasia, Director of Hardy Consulting and winner of the recent IAP2 Australasia Wordsmith Competition shares his tips on community and stakeholder engagement. The Wordsmith competition asked members to come up with the best definition of an engagement practitioner using everyday language. His winning entry was: “An engagement practitioner helps individuals, groups, organisations and decision makers with different interests to talk, listen, learn, think and work toward solutions to address tricky and sometimes controversial issues.”

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I live in Fitzroy, Melbourne, with my wife Angela, and have three grown up kids who live in NSW. I also have a grandchild; Atticus aged 5. I really enjoy travelling, great food and wine, hanging out with friends, cricket, live music and addictive mini-series.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.
I started Max Hardy Consulting in 2014 when I moved to Melbourne. I work as a sole trader, though I work with other consultants and companies on a regular basis, and also serve as an associate to a number of other companies/organisations. My focus is upon helping organisations to engage their communities to respond to complex and/or controversial challenges.

What does your role involve?
I work on projects, building organisational capacity through training, mentoring and providing strategic advice to executives and project managers. Sometimes I just facilitate a challenging meeting or conference. Plenty of variety which I love.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
A typical day starts with a great Fitzroy coffee. Then anything could happen. I work quite a bit from home when I am not working directly with organisations and communities. I also share space at a hub; Place Lab in Flinders St, Melbourne (not far from Federation Square).

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
Well this could take a while. One ‘bad experience’ early was when I was a very conscientious young consultant (over 20 years ago) trying to please my client as much as possible. They were anxious because they didn’t know what they were doing; I was a little anxious to please them and to represent Twyfords well. I found that trying to ‘please them’ only reinforced their anxiety. They needed someone with authority to provide some guidance. I learnt, from that experience, the importance of stepping into the role of consultant, and not as contractor. Very useful.

Good experiences are aplenty. Basically any time where I have invited the community and organisations to appreciate the complexities of their projects/issues, and seeing them rise to the occasion. I’ve learned we can trust people and expect more of each other.

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
There are so many. I find it very rewarding to democratise engagement processes. Finding space for those who are disengaged, and politically powerless, to be provided opportunities to participate and add value. I believe in drawing upon the collective of wisdom of the ‘community of interest’ and not getting in their way.

I also love seeing what happens when people become involved and find the process empowering, and even transformational.

We are so fortunate in our profession to witness magic happening. It is the stuff that gives me hope for the human race and the planet.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
To be honest, the hardest part is knowing where I should best direct my energies. There are so many opportunities.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
I saw an advertisement in 1997. Twyfords were advertising for a Community Consultation Consultant. I appreciated the alliteration. I had to apply, having worked in the NSW public sector for 15 years, as a Probation and Parole Officer, a Child Protection Worker (Disability specialist), a Community Program Officer and Principal Policy Analyst. I was open to a new opportunity, and realised that what I most enjoyed was immersing myself in the most challenging issues. Having the chance to establish IAP2 in Australasia with half a dozen others was rewarding and timely. I recall someone telling me that it will never succeed. I love a challenge like that, and continuing to push the boundaries in community engagement keeps me fresh, curious and non-complacent.

What are the 3 biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
1. Communities can get their heads around complex issues, and contribute enormous value.
2. Very ordinary questions are asked of communities because organisations are afraid and expect little of communities (see my TedxTalk about this)
3. Never assume that any formula is the answer. But always rest on principles that you know are solid.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
Look for ways to improve the practice and never doubt what people can achieve, or resolve, when they feel connected, and are invited to respond to a great question.