Culturally Diverse Leader with Dakhina M Dutta 

Interview with an "Inspirational Leader"!

Dakhina Mitra Dutta, Phd from Germany and having worked on projects spanning India, South Africa , Russia and Asia, moved to Australia after her wedding. Through 6 years of persistance and focus she is now working for Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare as a Practice Lead(research and knowledge building). Her story is truely inspiring as it has examples onhow to Focus, Work hard and Having a purpose will get you what you want . Yes there will be detours in between but not loosing the focus towards your desitination and not giving up even when going gets hard is really commendable attribute about Dakhina.

Thank you Dakhina for being part of this journey with Changewindow, So you mentioned that you came here like many of us after getting married , what were you doing before you got here ?

I was pursuing my PhD in Sociology from Germany before moving to Australia. Prior to that I worked as a child rights community worker and a
social researcher in a number of countries such as India, Germany, South Africa, and Russia.

How did you find your foot in the Australian market? What was your first JOB?

Australia proved to be a tough market to crack, as I had no knowledge about how it works and what it wants from a job-seeking candidate in the social work and research sector. I had zero contacts in my sector which meant I had no one to advise me on how to prepare an application or give an interview. I got generic support from my husband and friends, who were familiar with the market here, but sector-specific support was not available.
My qualification was in a niche area of conducting qualitative social research, and at that point the local market did not have much appetite for
it. With a PhD, an automatic step is an academic career, but I was not keen on that and wanted to have a research career in the social sector. I started by networking with academic experts who usually take up research projects in the social sector. At that time, I was informed by a number of professors, that upcoming researchers within the faculties were given the first preference for such projects. I understood this practice as such benefits are essential for the career progression of students enrolled in the university; however, it does make it difficult to get into the system for outsiders like us.
It also meant these project roles did not get advertised externally. If there were, I did apply but there were no outcomes.
I was simultaneously applying for local management or coordination roles in NGOs as well. From the initial feedback on applications, I learned that I needed to have local experience to get a social sector role. It soon became a chicken and egg situation for me – no job without experience and no experience without job. To remedy the situation, I joined Save the Children as a volunteer and started to build networks. That is where I got my first short-term job as a research and child protection program support at the organisation. My previous experiences and this role, however continued to be in the international development space. Hence, it posed as an impediment for my success in securing new roles that needed the candidates to have knowledge of local issues.
Even though I was highly experienced in working directly with communities and managed large programs and teams in other countries, I was still competing in a market with local social workers. As a result, I started looking for independent consultancies and worked on a few international projects. It bought me time to learn more about the local context and establish networks in Melbourne.
I started by enrolling for paid and free online courses to upskill myself and gain familiarity with the sector. I continued building my networks and looked online for local experts in my interest areas. I reached out to them directly to understand the market and the culture.
Another thing that helped me at this time was the practice of actively seeking feedback from interview panellists. Till date, I am grateful to a few people who gave me detailed verbal feedbacks as it helped me recognise, that even though I had the necessary experience and skills, it was my answering style in the interviews, that failed me. In fact, one feedback was, “Your application was the most impressive of the lot, but your interview was the least”. Then this person spent 40 mins to explain how I should have responded. That was an excellent wake up call.
Being from a culture where modesty is drilled into the genes, I did not like to advertise my skills blatantly. I would assume, that giving examples of what I had done, would automatically indicate my soft skills. For instance, to manage a multi-stakeholder project, one would require calmness, good time management skills, empathy and negotiating skills. It never occurred to me to articulate these skills as I thought it is self-explanatory from the fact that I have delivered a big project successfully. Recognising the importance of showcasing soft skills and explaining the processes that helped me achieve an outcome, were vital learnings from this time.
On some occasions, after receiving feedback about an unsuccessful application or interview, I would meet or chat with the person to learn more about the process and the sector. Through these activities, I was able to find two valuable mentors as well.
Finally, with all this knowledge, there was a rise in interview rates and the feedbacks indicated improvement. It was then just a matter of time to be at the right place and at the right time. After almost 6 years of struggling to find a footing in this market, I suddenly had two local job offers at the same time!!!

I understand you work for Centre of Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, tell me about your role there ?

 I am currently working as a Practice Lead, conducting research and development in the children and family sector in Victoria. I develop relevant papers and reports to build the evidence base that informs decision-making in the sector. I work with multiple teams and support capacity-building initiatives that our organisation runs. And I oversee the administration of research funding grants as well.

How did you find the culture in Australia and what was the biggest challenge for you?How did you overcome your challenge?

I cannot really say I found something challenging here about the culture. Before moving to Australia, I already had almost 6-8 years of experience in working with people from different cultures and living in different countries. Hence, getting adjusted to a different culture was not an issue. Rather, in terms of the work culture, I found it refreshing to see a boisterous, relaxed and casual approach as opposed to the stoic and hierarchical structure that I had witnessed in other countries such as Germany, India, Cambodia, South Africa and Russia. I even got used to the famous Aussie banter and engaged in it seamlessly.

However, as I did not have a lot of local context in my early days, there would be times when I would not understand some remark or statement (and mind you, this can happen in any country).  But I did not hesitate to stop the discussion and ask a question.

What are the key strategies that you took in your career that may help CALD Leaders to embark on their journeys?

One of my foremost strategy was to stay focused on my career goal. It took me a good 6 years to establish myself in the local market, but as you would have read earlier, I did multiple things while waiting for a local job. I read extensively to stay relevant with latest trends in my field, did online trainings and courses, worked on international consultancies and continued networking.

Yes, there were multiple times when I wanted to give up or take up a new career path (at one point I wanted to apply for Melbourne tram driver or a Protective Service Victoria officer positions as I simply love these roles!). But two things helped me stay focussed and come out of these phases. One was the support of my partner and friends and the other was the guidance from my mentors. I had a PhD and was already highly skilled in my area (in fact it was an issue for me at times, as I was rejected for being over-qualified). My mentors helped me realise that it was better to upskill in my own field and go from level five to level ten rather than taking up something new where I would have had to start from level zero and go to level five.

Remember, every little experience that you gain while waiting for something, is valuable.The other strategy was to strike a balance between confidence and humility in my communication. I have now come to understand that confidence without humility is arrogance and humility without confidence is self-deprecation. 

I had to practice being mindful about maintaining a balance between these two traits. It enabled me to systematically articulate my thoughts and effectively share them with clarity, both in interviews as well as team discussions.It was also important for me to stand up and ask relevant questions. My father taught me that the risk of being turned down will always be there, but by not asking, you will lead the rest of your life thinking, “If only”. Whether you are trying to build your network, or know more about something, take the initiative, and ask for what you want. There would also be some people who would turn the whole situation negative, for instance send a rude reply or humiliate you.
Remember, it takes all kinds of people to make this world. But if it bothers you, then you have to practice standing up against such people, inform them in the most courteous manner, about their rude behaviour and then move on.  

On a personal level, two things have helped me further. I have always been proud of my cultural heritage and taken every opportunity to showcase my background. It gave me immense strength while traversing different structures in multiple countries. Secondly, taking care of my mental health was vital too. Moving to a new country, adjusting to its culture, its people and building new networks requires a lot of perseverance, courage, and self-belief. Keeping up with all this was already hard work. And then things would not go as I had planned. I had my share of self-doubt and depressive phases, which at times went beyond days and weeks. At such moments, I learnt to be kind to my own thoughts and address my mental well-being. I used to step-back, find things I enjoyed such as volunteering and pursuing my hobbies and asked for help from my family and friends. When I moved here, there were hardly any networking groups in Melbourne. But now there are many.  If you have recently moved here, do not hesitate to actively seek out like-minded people/networks and experts in your field to learn and grow further.

Wow Dakhina , that is really inspiring there is so much to learn even though we think we know it all sometimes, open mind , growth mindset and self awareness some of the great skills of a leader , not to mention having a goal and keep going at it with consistancy could impact your over all well being.

Important message to take away from Dr Dakhina Mitra is to continue to learn while you pursure your goal ,have a circle of support and never let anyone tell you that you cannot have it ALL !!!

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