SYDNEY: An interview with Dr Sarah Hill

Dr Sarah Hill is CEO Greater Sydney Commission and mentor of Anna Mitchell in the Women4Climate Mentorship Programme for Sydney 2019. She has extensive experience in city planning: she has received two international planning awards including the Mayor of London’s Award for Excellence and the Royal Town Planning Institute Award for Planning. Sarah is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology Sydney in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building and in 2018 completed her Doctoral thesis on the economics of planning in NSW. Her career spans the public and private sector, including prior experience in the UK working on affordable housing strategies and the 2012 Olympic Games. 

W4C - What piece of advice do you wish you had received when you were starting out in your career?

Dr Sarah Hill - During my twenties and thirties, I had a very strong focus on gaining as much project experience and education as I could. This gave me a solid foundation and great confidence in my ability to do things. But I really wish someone had told me how important it was to get away from my emails, my desk and out of the office to meet more people and make connections that would help me deliver my work and ideas more effectively. A great piece of advice that’s stuck with me since I first heard it is to identify five people each week to have a coffee with and then make it happen!

I’d encourage anyone starting out in their career to make more connections and to make collaboration an integral part of their work. It’s something that’s at the core of everything we do at the Greater Sydney Commission – an independent agency responsible for planning Greater Sydney’s future. We are planning a dynamic city with many moving parts and unknowns, so it’s important that we all work together, and that people feel informed and consulted about what is happening and where the opportunities are to make positive changes for our environment.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is how we’ve broken down long-standing silos between government agencies and councils. We’re seeing unprecedented levels of collaboration and information sharing, which is leading to new ideas about how we can address major issues such as urban heat, water management and social inequity.

I also wish someone had told me to chill out a bit and not to sweat the small stuff!

W4C - Did you have a mentor during your career development? How do you think mentors can help women in overcoming the barriers we all experience and in strengthening their leadership?

Dr Sarah Hill - I have never officially had a mentor, but I have had the incredibly good fortune of working with some very impressive, generous and intelligent leaders. I have learnt so much from watching and working with them. From my time at a council in East London and the Joint Planning Authorities Team for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games to the Greater Sydney Commission I have worked with wonderfully strong and dedicated women such as Lucy Turnbull, who have taught me the importance of staying strong, pragmatic, fair and solution focused.

But I must say my dad has also been a great guide. He only has to say something once and I know he is right and that it’s time for me to push myself to the next step - whether I like it or not!

I also want to acknowledge the male sponsors I have had the benefit of working with who have taken the time to open many doors for me, having the faith to put me forward for a number of great professional opportunities.

Mentors can help women improve their confidence, expand their network of contacts and share valuable lessons from their own experience. In this way they can show we are all human, we all struggle to get out of bed sometimes and we all have our moments! But importantly, mentors can provide an external view to help put things in perspective and give you a good nudge when it’s time to stretch yourself.

If you don’t have a mentor, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who inspire you - touch base with them at an event or drop them a message via LinkedIn. But in my view, it’s really important to have a mutual chemistry with your mentor for it to really work. They need to be passionate about guiding you and you need to respect them. Just because someone is senior or successful does not mean they will be a great fit for you.

W4C - What barriers to women's leadership do you think are still present and what do you believe we're lacking in order to effectively remove them?

Dr Sarah Hill - I think women are really hard on themselves. We are always working to prove something and we feel guilty for taking time off to have children, we feel guilty for not taking time off to have children and then we sometimes fail to back ourselves in when a new opportunity we deserve comes up. This is isn’t always the case for our male counterparts.

Some things stick with you in life and one of those things, I heard at a women’s networking event about a decade ago. I recall the keynote saying that she had worked very hard when her children were babies because she had built a strong team around her in her home life. But when her children grew up to about six and seven years old, she took two years off to be with them because that’s when she felt they really need her – and specifically her.

I started as the inaugural CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission with a four-month-old baby, thanks to the incredible support of my Chief Commissioner Lucy Turnbull. Four years on I am planning on taking six weeks off to just be with my kids over Christmas. Despite everyone – including my Board and friends all encouraging me to take this well-earned break it has been a tough decision because inherently I think women push themselves hard to just keep going.

I’m always encouraging young women to have the courage to put their hand up and say yes to new opportunities. There are great benefits to expanding your horizons and getting out of your comfort zone. But now I am also learning that we have to look after ourselves, because if we fall over, a lot of people fall with us. We have a responsibility to care for ourselves, take a break and learn when to push and when to rest for the wellbeing of all those around us.

W4C - What advice would you give to young professional women who are concerned about climate change and want to take action?

Dr Sarah Hill - I’d encourage women concerned about climate change to identify where their expertise and industry intersects with the issue. While it’s a dauntingly significant issue, I encourage all of us to break it down and see what we can do. Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of connecting with others – collaborating makes it easier to not only identify issues but to work through potential solutions scaling them up to be something significant and capable of sustained change.

It is also important to get buy-in, so be strategic - find the right window of opportunity to tell the story that resonates with the people you’re working with or those you need to influence. There’s a good chance you will encounter conflicting views and obstacles and you might find solutions beyond your individual control, that’s why it’s important to collaborate with like-minded people. They are out there, you just need to find them.