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For the Greater Good

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SuniTAFE has truly defined what “turn-around” means in today’s business context.

SUNITAFE has been crowned the “best-of-the-best” in the state’s TAFE and training sector, after taking home a prestigious and highly-sought award on Saturday. Campuses at Mildura, Swan Hill, Robinvale and Horsham received the Large Training Provider of the Year award at the Victorian training awards dinner held in Melbourne on September 8th, 2019.”


And in November…


“It’s official! SuniTAFE is Australia’s No.1 Large Training Provider for 2019.” – The Australian Training Awards.


The thing is: doing the right things as a leader, as part of an executive team, actually works. The big question is what are the right things? I have explored this for 30 years and as a CEO of two organisations I’ve had the chance to actually implement these approaches with people in both organisations (Dattner Group and Homeward Bound Projects) and for a range of our clients.


Here’s our part of the SuniTAFE story.


2 ½ years ago

Geoff Dea, Chief Executive Officer – Directorate, SuniTAFE Mildura, took over the job of turning around a TAFE that was:

  • Tired, dusty, out of date – facing a possible future as an outpost location for a bigger TAFE
  • Not serving employers (customers) – they saw what SuniTAFE provided as old-school, tired, disconnected, not service-oriented
  • The staff felt frustrated, disenfranchised, “over it”; they carried the load, they tried their best but didn’t feel leadership understood their challenges and needs, they felt they didn’t have what they needed to do their jobs, they felt no one really cared
  • There was little real hope in the full stakeholder group – community, staff, leaders, businesses, government
  • Money was short
  • Student completions (actually finishing the course they signed up for) were variable at best



What did SuniTAFE just win the award for?


  1. Employer satisfaction – best in state – employers (the TAFE’s clients) feeling heard, their needs met, positive about the future, working collaboratively with the TAFE, a powerful sense of a shared future
  2. Job outcomes (placement of students on completion of courses) – this is why people go to TAFE, to get a job: SuniTAFE’s job outcomes were the best in state
  3. 28% growth in commencements against a national market that went down 5% – this speaks for itself but is a significant gain by any measure
  4. Completion rates (getting the course finished) better than the state average
  5. Take up in apprenticeships/traineeships well above average – all about excitement and hope for the future


No one can overstate the vast amount of work the executive and senior leaders put into the transformation of this organisation, or the teachers. That is SuniTAFE’s story to tell.


Here is a summary of what the Dattner Group did to help over the past 2 ½ years:


  1. Interviewed each executive to understand what they felt about the organisation and themselves (to step up to the challenge)
  2. Sought feedback from their direct reports (were the perspectives of the executive or senior leadership, supported by their direct reports?)
  3. Built a Team Charter: What they needed to focus on and why – establishing their own sense of purpose and the values/behaviours that would enable them to rise to their higher selves, be the best leader they could be, emotionally agile, individually and together
  4. We ran a series of collective think-tanks with ALL staff, and we let the staff, in a managed process, engage with the strategy and contribute to solutions
  5. We then cascaded the leadership development process to 60 other leaders/influencers in the organisation connecting everyone to the strategy
  6. We measured BUSINESS ACUMEN, possibly for the first time in this sector: What were the attributes for business acumen and to what extent were the leaders confident of and demonstrating these attributes?
  7. We asked ALL the staff what the values should be to secure the strategy, patterned it for the executive into a draft set of values and behaviours which the executive refined
  8. THEN THE MAGIC INGREDIENT – we turned the values and behaviours into a full 360 and piloted with the top 60 leaders. Each leader got a report to identify how they assessed their values alignment, and how direct reports, peers and managers saw the level of the alignment
  9. We also measured the culture, to what extent was it constructive – goal oriented, self-aware, encouraging of learning and development, kind and inclusive
  10. Finally, we engaged the broader communities including businesses, community leaders, government and importantly, students, into our think tanks, both in Mildura and Swan Hill. We gathered the input, wrote it into reports, and again connected findings to SuniTAFE’s strategy


Everyone had a voice, the intention was clear, leaders were supported and Geoff and his executive owned the journey as their own.

Geoff’s team were all very smart, passionate leaders who were business savvy and relentlessly followed through on the operations of the TAFE, including the engagement of students and businesses alike. The team worked together, endeavoured to resolve issues at the source. They worked hard to change the perceptions of the TAFE both internally and externally. They built credibility everywhere they turned.

Our contribution was and continues to be focused on the culture of SuniTAFE, on the skill of leaders and on the engagement of stakeholders. As noted, it was by no means all of what was being done, but it was an important part. It is an immense turn around in 2 ½ years which everyone can learn from.

Geoff would say there is still much to be done (and he’s right), but the award is an important measure of progress and tells everyone involved that the mix of ingredients that everyone at SuniTAFE committed to is absolutely working.


Fabian Dattner, Founder Dattner Group & CEO Homeward Bound