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PNG was a life-changing experience for Robyn Hendry

Robyn Hendry (Jay Cronan)ROSS PEAKE | Canberra Times | Extracts

WORKING in Papua New Guinea was a life-changing experience for Robyn Hendry.

But it wasn't the much-publicised danger of urban Port Moresby that transformed her – it was a much more positive factor, one that she brings to her new role as Canberra Business Chamber chief executive.

"I went to Papua New Guinea because my husband got a job he wanted to take there and we had an agreement that if I could get posted there with my company, we'd go," she says.

"My company said 'yes, we're always looking for good people in PNG because not everyone wants to go there, you'll be surprised to hear'."

"So I spent three years there and it changed the way I viewed the world actually.

"I know a lot of people say PNG is not that relevant in terms of the world we live in now but it taught me to work in collectivist cultures versus individualist cultures, it taught me to reframe things, to really investigate how things work in other places.

"In Papua New Guinea things move very, very differently and there are lots of different cultures within the mix."

Hendry describes the experience of working there as a complete awakening.

"I knew the trade that I was in, I knew tourism, hospitality and hotels, I knew all of that," she says.

"What I didn't know was the melting pot that was Papua New Guinea and it was fantastic – I've not looked at the world the same since. I think it was that opportunity that taught me to frame things, at times, in a less conventional way." 

Hendy has worked in the hospitality trade all her life, getting her start in hotel management in Canberra and Sydney.

In Moresby, she really discovered how differently the world works when she tried to recruit chefs for the three hotels she was managing.

"We would find someone – which was like finding a needle in a haystack – and we'd  get them in the kitchen and spend a lot of time orientating them and making them feel good," she says.

"But then – snap – they might leave overnight and we'd think, what could we have done differently. We knew that no matter what we did, it wasn't working.

"This was in my early days – I wised up after this. For that hotel, it was actually the dishwasher who was the big man in the village, so he controlled the kitchen.

"It didn't matter whether you call people executive chef or sous chef or whatever, if you hadn't run it past the dishwasher, it was unlikely to be successful.

"So instead of bringing in the mentality that I needed to work with the hierarchical kitchen in a normal structure that you might find conventionally in the developed world, you had to actually work out who's got control of the village and why does that clan system matter in this corporation and what can we do to work with that.

"You could say that criteria shouldn't come to play in the workplace, that's what you would say in this [Canberra] environment, but there you have to say, it is at play and how do we work with it. The clan system is how the whole country runs."

So what about the dangers of living in Moresby, where the high levels of rape, robbery and murder have earned the city the dubious distinction of being the world's worst city to live in from Economist magazine in 2002 and 2005?

"I loved the city, it was great," Hendry says, but points out the drift from regional areas to the city creates problems.

"They are away from their clan system, they come to the bright lights of the city from a fairly subsistence sort of living and then find it difficult to get employment and various crimes and underclasses go with that."

However, Hendry became well known in the city as she managed about 800 staff at several hotels.

"Everywhere I went, I knew people and I felt really safe," she says. "It's about respect – if you invest in respect and learning, you invest in your own safety.

"Sure, there are exceptions but I found that I was welcome most places, that people actually looked out for me, so I felt really good about that."

After the stint in PNG, she returned to Canberra to manage the convention centre and for a time took on the Crowne Plaza, then known as the Parkroyal Canberra.

In 2005, she became chief executive of the Canberra Convention Bureau where she has pushed for the ACT to have a new convention centre.

In her new role at the Canberra Business Chamber, Hendry will have to deal with a city under stress as the public service cuts bite.

One of the key challenges is finding ways for Canberra to grow and build on its strengths.

"Obviously, we are facing a difficult economic time in Canberra, we can't have the federal government cutbacks that we've had and not feel them," she says.

"We have enormous strength of expertise here ... expertise going to every facet of the world.

"We will be looking at how we can diversify the economy.”

Read the full article here



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Michael Dom

Thank you for your frank and fresh views on my country Robyn Hendry and good fortune in your new work role.

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