Niki realises leadership potential
Dr Niki Vincent "An amazing, mind-expanding growth experience" is how Dr Niki Vincent describes her time at university.
Growing up in modest circumstances, Dr Niki Vincent says she never had big aspirations. That certainly changed.
Since walking into the University of Adelaide at the age of 26, having spent her post-school years building a family business and caring for her four children, South Australia’s current Commissioner for Equal Opportunity has forged a stellar career in research and executive leadership, and has been awarded not one but two University Medals – as well as a PhD.
Along the way she established the Leaders Institute of South Australia, among her other achievements, and has inspired many young people to strive to achieve their own goals.
Choosing the University of Adelaide based on the reputation of the psychology program, Niki first enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in psychology and media and cultural studies) after being fascinated by the psychological testing her daughter (and three other children) underwent as part of a longitudinal study of gifted children in Australia. She took an Honours year and excelled, winning her first University Medal for her research.
“The first University Medal (for my Honours research) was the thing that really set me on a different life path,” she says.
“When the letter came in the post telling me that I was to be awarded the medal, it was the first time that I really thought about the potential that I had – and felt a sense of responsibility to realise this potential.” This really set me thinking seriously about my career, and what I wanted to contribute.”
Niki’s early career was spent as a researcher for the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, the Australian Centre for Effective Healthcare, and then with the Institute for International Health (now the George Institute) coordinating an international program with the World Health Organization. This was simultaneously setting up a not-for-profit organisation focussed on facilitating the volunteering of professional skills to non-profit organisations. One memorable job she advertised was for a volunteer nuclear physicist for Greenpeace.
Niki has loved all but one of the jobs she has held since completing her undergraduate degree, believing that she has been able to make important contributions through them all.
Even the position she describes as “the worst job I’ve never looked back from” was an important professional development opportunity focussing her direction. “I learned so much in this role – about boards and people and how not to lead an organisation,” she says.
In 2004, Niki established the Leaders Institute of South Australia to focus on developing wiser, more ethical and adaptive leadership for the common good. She continued to build the organisation for 12 years – an achievement of which she is particularly proud.
There was much more to be achieved, however, and keen to contribute further to the field of leadership excellence, Niki returned to the University to start a PhD. Despite being motivated and having a proven work ethic, she admits to not being overly disciplined at the start which, she says in retrospect, is crucial to maintaining the momentum of study.
Things were made a lot tougher when one of her daughters was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and it took two years and four rounds of surgery to get her through. All the while Niki continued to “plod away” at her research.
A key motivator was the promise she had made to the 14 leadership programs and 374 participants – the subjects of her PhD research – that her work would make an important contribution to the field of leadership excellence. “This meant that in my darkest moments of the study, I just had to keep going because of the commitment I’d made to them,” she says.
She not only completed the PhD, she won her second University Medal for Excellence in Doctoral Research.
“I think the second University Medal was a wonderful reward for so many years of studying all weekend and many nights, while working as a CEO and dealing with my daughter’s brain tumour and various other personal and professional challenges,” she says.
“I published three academic papers along the way – one on each of the studies in my research project and one in the most eminent journal in the field – so this also felt pretty good.”
Niki says being appointed South Australian Commissioner for Equal Opportunity is a huge privilege. “I’m so passionate about fostering the development of informed and unprejudiced attitudes, the promotion of equality of opportunity and the prevention of discrimination, as well as helping to facilitate the participation of everyone in the economic and social life of our community,” she says.
With such an impressive record of professional and personal contributions throughout her career, you could easily think that Niki is keen to slow the pace down. True to form though, there’s more she wants to accomplish.
“I want to blow up some of those stereotypes about age and change of career and winding slowly down to retirement,” she says enthusiastically. “I don’t think of myself as even in that realm. I feel like I am in the absolute prime of my life.”
Story by Caitlin Reader
Photo by Marina Birch