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Jeanette Burns - Alumna 2007

Written by Kimberly Rees, Alumna 2013

Jeanette is a person of paradox, a great example of integrative leadership. She is a petite woman with soft blue eyes and a warm smiling presence, but you know she has to have a hard edge as well to have built such a successful career within New Zealand’s Department of Corrections management system.

Jeanette Burns photo - in uniform outside MECF July 2016.jpg

One would assume Jeanette has a split personality, with the ability to turn on or off her soft or hard side as required. But this is not the case – it is not one or the other for Jeanette, the duality is truly integrated within her. She balances extremes most of us couldn’t even imagine and does this on a regular (often daily) basis using her ‘whole self ’ not just parts.

To appreciate this is to know a bit of Jeanette’s career path. Starting in the health sector with nursing qualifications, one of her first professional accomplishments was changing the system at Starship Children’s Hospital to allow parents in the trauma treatment rooms. Jeannette says “These were often highly emotional situations where I had to be empathetic and objective at the same time in my role of managing the dynamics between parents and medical staff.” She adds, “That kind of balance and adapting to the situation you are faced with were foundation learnings for me at the beginning of my career.”

In 2000, Jeanette moved from the health sector to the Department of Corrections and within a few years became Prison Manager of Mt Eden Women’s Prison. She eventually led the prison’s transition into the innovative Auckland Regional Women’s Correctional Facility (ARWCF) which had a renewed focus on rehabilitation. Responsibilities included relationship management with all the stakeholders, multiple cost centre budgets, contract management of external service providers and the performance management of over 150 staff. Jeanette is also a mum of three children who were teenagers at this time. “It was a challenging period for me. Implementing change is never easy, especially within this historically rigid infrastructure - but the challenge was good for me” she says. Her success in this role led Jeanette to a promotion as Assistant Regional Manager of Area One Northern Prisons in mid-2008.

During Jeanette’s tenure as Prison Manager of ARWCF, her manager enrolled Jeanette into the Leadership NZ Programme for 2007. “I had no idea what it was about and had been on a number of leadership training courses before. But the Leadership NZ Programme is distinctly different – it leap-frogged me ahead substantially in my capabilities to ‘lead’ or manage any situation, both on a professional level and on a personal level,” Jeanette confesses.

This is a credible endorsement from a woman who, now as Northern Regional Commissioner at the Department of Corrections, has an infallible reputation for ‘incident management’. In the prison system, ‘an incident’ is always intense and dangerous, requiring a level of crisis management which is significantly beyond how we normally use the term. “Incident management involves leading with confidence, being open, adaptable, and resilient, all traits that were instilled into me through the Leadership NZ Programme,” Jeanette states.

Jeanette has been called in (often with short notice) to manage prison incidents such as the recovery response from the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 when prisoners had to be transferred from damaged facilities, and the 2013 Spring Hill Riot where prisoners set fire to the facility. She has received both the Assistant Police Commissioner’s Award and a Ministerial Award in recognition of her successful leadership through these risky situations. When asked what her key ingredients are for being competent in this specialised area she states, “I remain calm no matter what, immerse myself in the situation so I can assess it from all perspectives and draw upon my own values, life experiences and instinct to connect people together so we come up with solutions.” This is an unexpected and paradoxical answer given how control, infrastructure, systems and processes are paramount functions in her predominantly male work environment.

I have found that when you take the time to either present or understand the background, the context of a situation so that others find a point that resonates with them, it is amazing what can get accomplished.

Jeanette states, “One of the golden nuggets I received from the Leadership NZ Programme was the power of storytelling. I use it as my key form of communication in many different ways and scenarios adapting to the situation. I have found that when you take the time to either present or understand the background, the context of a situation so that others find a point that resonates with them, it is amazing what can get accomplished.”

Jeanette Burns, Regional Commissioner Northern Corrections Services, Department of Corrections is a model example of integrative leadership.