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Leadership WA Spotlight Series

Sonja Cox is the Acting Director of Asset Management, WA Police. Sonja joined WA Police in 2015. Sonja has had an extensive career in the WA public sector leading policy and legislative reform, shaping strategic direction and implementing accountable and transparent governance frameworks. In 2013 Sonja won the Western Australian Telstra Business Woman of the Year in the community and government sector and was named the overall state winner across all categories. In 2011, while at the Department of Corrective Services, Sonja championed the introduction of GPS tracking for dangerous sex offenders in WA, securing government funding and commitment and introducing legislative reform to improve community safety. She is an Alumnus of Leadership WA.

Leading the Asset Management directorate is a world apart from working with offenders, but taking risks and embracing opportunities wherever they may come from is a characteristic of Sonja’s career.

“I don’t believe you necessarily need to have operational or technical expertise in the field that you lead in.  Of course there are obvious exemptions to this, but I do believe you have to have an understanding of the purpose of the unit that you lead and ultimately how that purpose feeds the overall vision of the agency.”

“So, I’ve gone up in our plane to understand what our Air Wing does. I’ve spent a night out on patrol with our canine section to understand the capability that they need, that I provide, that makes the job easier, so that they can deliver frontline services.  I’ve also spent a day with our CBD bicycle patrol team to appreciate the tremendous difference they make in keeping our CBD streets safe.”

It’s this crucial understanding of her role within the larger organization which has allowed Sonja to achieve so much. This culminated in 2013, when she was awarded Western Australian Telstra Business Woman of the Year while employed at the Department of Corrective Services. This taught her that leaders don’t have to have a fancy title, or a senior position. They can be ordinary people.

“Leadership is about your ability to make a difference.”

“The Telstra award has enabled me to share my story with lots of people, and hopefully inspire some along the way. I hope the obstacles and challenges I have experienced along my journey resonate with people  and instill an ‘I can do that too attitude’. Because you can do it, you absolutely can.”

Sonja’s most high-profile achievement thus far was with the (then) Department of Corrective Services, leading the business case for the implementation of  GPS tracking of dangerous sex offenders released into the community. The devices are designed to transmit an alert  if an offender goes into an “exclusion zone”, which could be a school, shopping centre, or a perimeter around a victim’s home.  This enables an immediate response by police. Previously, offenders could be released with no tracking apart from regular and random visits by justice and law enforcement personal.

But while Sonja has been justifiably recognized for her achievements in this area, she faced challenges when presented with the problem.

“I was asked to do a business case for the government on the effectiveness and ability to implement GPS tracking. I’m terrible with technology, and I was ready to go, ‘oh no, no, give it to someone from IT.”

“But then I thought ‘no, what we’re trying to achieve is better community safety and rehabilitation and I know that stuff.’”

For Sonja, that’s the key to leading your team through challenging problems.

“Always go back to the original purpose of what you’ve been asked to do and focus on that purpose. The solution can be anything, as long as it meets the purpose.”

To gain an understanding of how the GPS trackers would work in the real world, Sonja committed to wearing a tracker on her ankle 24 hours a day for two months.

“I was judged. I had a woman in a checkout tell me I ‘didn’t deserve to have children.’ Her words not mine. She made this perception. She saw me. She saw a tracker. She made an assumption. She passed a judgement. She had no idea.”

Ever the learner, Sonja was able to take something valuable away from the experience.

“It was a good reminder of the labels we give people, and people get judged by those labels. We don’t take time to get to know people or hear their story. We don’t stop and ask questions.”

And to Sonja, it’s not just important to be a leader at work. Every night, she faces a different kind of leadership challenge when she goes home to three kids.

“[Raising kids] has been my greatest challenge in life, because I want to raise amazing young men that respect women, and I want my boys to have a really good philosophy about life.”

“I ask my kids for feedback about how I perform as a parent.”

“The importance of leadership and seeking feedback is that we have different frames of reference.”

“We have different perceptions of our strengths or weaknesses. These might not necessarily be what other people see. So, asking for feedback puts you in a position where you can start really understanding and reflecting on your behavior and going, ‘actually, I thought that was a bad thing. It turns out it’s a good thing.’”

For Sonja, it’s important to not just look to your seniors and mentors for inspiration.

“My boys are also role models for me. They keep me in touch with the things that are really important in life. We forget to focus on the simple things, and we’re constantly trying to achieve ever-evolving goals, but we never define what they are.”

“So, it’s like, ‘oh, I’ve got to get a better job.’ What does better mean? ‘I’ve got to find a new career.’ What does a better career look like?”

“When I do strategic planning, often I’ll ask people ‘What’s your vision? What does success look like?’”

“If you never define ‘there’, how will you know when you’re successful? And I think in life, we have a tendency to always think the grass is greener, but we never ask ourselves ‘do we always want grass?’”

Sonja is an Alumnus of Leadership WA’s Signature program from 2013 (she would turn up to the experiences wearing her GPS tracker). She credits the program with changing the way she approached her work.

“It’s a bit cliché to say [the program] changed my life, but it actually did.”

“I always thought that I was the type of person that looked external to my agency, but I realized very quickly I didn’t. I operated within my silo.”

“Leadership WA enabled me to walk above those silos of big issues and ask, ‘what does it mean for me and my work? What does that mean for me as a leader?’”

“I think that the only way that governments become effective is if we start tackling the big issues together.”

“Leadership WA gave me a platform to look at the bigger issues. It also made me believe in myself.”

“It gave me networks. I can pick up the phone now and call any number of my cohort and get advice, and that’s rare.”

Do you know an emerging leader? Or are you looking to take the next step in your leadership journey? Applications for Leadership WA's August Rising Leadership program are open until early July 2018.

The Rising Leadership program shares actionable insights, new perspectives, and innovative thinking from leaders in the WA community. Participants also work directly with a community organisation on a project to effect change, building essential skills of consultation, collaboration and project management. The program develops strong connections between participants who, as graduates, may become a part of Leadership WA’s strong and inspiring Alumni.

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