Tales from the Trenches with Vivian Warren

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am the Director of Viv Warren Consulting, working with organisations to engage their stakeholders and communities and embed engagement as a way of doing business. The community engagement field has been the focus of my career for close to 20 years now. I first studied Social Psychology and Social Research and within a couple of years my first community engagement project followed. It was an instant match! I continued studying while working for small and large consultancies, and within government. I feel very grateful that I get to enjoy the work that I do.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.
Viv Warren Consulting (VWC) is a small consultancy dedicated to working with organisations to embed and sustain quality engagement practices. No small feat! We also design and deliver engagement processes (including facilitation) and coach other people to do this.

What does your role involve?
As a Director, my role is multifaceted. It focuses on getting to know people and building relationships, and understanding organisations (their culture, strategies, systems and processes). It also involves developing strategies (to embed engagement, to engage stakeholders and communities, etc), conducting research, facilitating dialogue and learning on an ongoing basis. Business administration is another responsibility of my role at VWC.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
My working day begins after a few hours of being with my son – waking up to the day, eating breakfast together and then playing for a while. Then I usually check and respond to emails, check in with people that I am working with, do desktop work (writing strategies, analysing data, preparing reports, conducting research, etc) and engage (running or attending meetings, facilitating workshops, conducting focus groups or interviews – whatever is going on). I usually end my day writing up notes and preparing for the next day…

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?
There are so many good experiences. They are often small things, like getting to know so many different people or being part of a process that facilitates learning, creativity and growth. The best experiences have emerged from when organisations are genuinely committed to engaging and willing to ‘stay the course’ if things get tough.

Bad experiences have usually been a result of compromising on the best engagement approach due to a lack of understanding or commitment to quality engagement. For example, taking less time to engage as widely and deeply as possible because there is a pseudo deadline or budget (code for let’s gets the engagement done as quickly as possible). Over the years this has taught me to really back myself and kindly challenge resistance until there is clarity.

If you are working on a project at the moment would you like to share the journey to date?
Supporting LandCorp, Western Australia’s land development agency, to further mature its engagement practice and deliver on its engagement commitments.

a. What principles did you find most useful in carrying out this project?
Meet people where they are at. Don’t try and push for engagement practices that are too far out of what a culture can accept. Stretch at a gentle pace (there are a few exceptions).

When bumping up against resistance (whether at an organisational or individual level), sit with the discomfort, take time to process what is going on and then respond appropriately. Always trust my instincts.
Focus on what is working well and build on strengths. We often spend way too much time thinking and talking about what is not working well.

a. Did you come across any surprises on this project?
Not so much a surprise but a reminder that social impacts begin when an idea is born (and the whispers begin), not just when a project ‘starts’.

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
The amazing people I work and engage with. This industry is filled with awesome professionals and the work involves meeting so many great people. There is so much to learn from all the experiences – both the wonderful and challenging ones.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
Being patient and keeping up the energy/passion when encountering resistance.
Discerning when I am helping to make a positive change or when I am enabling ‘not so positive’ change and then acting on it. This can be ever so subtle at times.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
I was initially asked to help out with some engagement projects (I was working in Program Evaluation/ Social Research at the time) and the rest is history. It was the perfect mix of complex, social, and strategy.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
1. Talk less. Listen more.
2. Trust what I feel. It is a valuable source of information.
3. Always choose the most generous explanation for why people do the things they do.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
Be yourself and do it your way. Learn from others but contribute your gifts in your own unique way.