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Mary Mawhinney

EDUCATION BACKGROUND
  • LLB, The University of Law (2020)
  • GDL, The University of Law (2018)
  • MA, London School of Economics and Political Science (2010)
  • BSc Political Science & Government, University of Queensland (2005)
CURRENT ROLE
  • Chief of Staff, British Red Cross
CAREER PROGRESSION
  • Head of Governance and CEO's Office, British Red Cross
  • Corporate Policy Manager, British Red Cross
  • Adviser to the Australian Ambassador and Permanent Representative, UN
  • Policy Advisor, Australian High Comissioner, London
  • Adviser, Australian Minister for Trade
  • Private Secretary, Prime Minister of Australia

  

Mary Mawhinney is the Chief of Staff at The British Red Cross and completed both her GDL and LLB at ULaw. Mary spoke to us about her extraordinary career in politics both in Australia and globally.

I was raised in an Australian country town. I was the first person in my family to graduate from university, which is a source of enormous pride. At school I was interested in ideas and I dreamed about travel – but I didn’t know what kind of job that would lead to

I had always thought about studying law, but I wasn’t sure I could do it. I am so proud that I realised that goal and had the confidence to finally complete it, even though it took me until my 30s. I thought studying law would provide a useful framework for navigating the world. I also thought it would add further depth to the in-house advice and direction that I provide in my current role. I chose ULaw for two reasons: an unrivalled reputation for excellence in legal training. I also wanted to study over the weekends so I could combine it with my full-time job. My GDL class was incredible and they helped make the experience so memorable. As we were studying on the weekends, my classmates demonstrated how much can be achieved when you are committed to doing something…and they were all juggling work, family and caring responsibilities alongside learning. Notably, during my LLB, I attended a brilliant event with Baroness Lady Hale of Richmond, towards the end of tenure as the President of the Supreme Court. I found her generosity in sharing experiences of her life and career incredibly inspiring.

When I first started the GDL in 2016, part of my role as the Corporate Policy Manager involved responsibility for working with leadership colleagues to provide evidence and assurance of our compliance as an organisation with external requirements, which can include putting additional policies, procedures or processes in place. I have also always had an ongoing horizon-scanning role, monitoring forthcoming external requirements (including legal or regulatory) and making and implementing recommendations about how they should be applied in the charity. After I finished the GDL, the university offered doing the LLB online over the summer months. I leaped at the chance to do this – I did company, employment, and family law in three successive summers, one subject at a time. I had always wanted to do both. I felt quite energised after finishing the GDL, so I wanted to continue straight on to the LLB. Company was also incredibly helpful given my work leading the governance function at the charity – as part of my job.

My undergraduate degree was in politics and international relations. In my final undergraduate year, I heard a Member of Parliament speak at an event and afterwards I approached his office to volunteer my time to see what I could learn. I started the next week and, soon after ,joined his paid staff and three years later he was elected as Australia’s Prime Minister. That was an incredible adventure for my first professional job. During this time I also served on my first Board, which was my first experience of governance and the work of a charity. The golden thread of my career has been service. I am a very curious and interested person. I love meeting and talking to people. I haven’t ever had a ‘master plan’ – when opportunities have arisen, I have thrown my hat in the ring to compete.

I have had a few different roles and chapters in my career so far: I worked in the Australian Parliament House for five years, for two different MPs. I moved to London in 2009 to do my master’s at the London School of Economics (LSE). I had never visited the UK before I moved here, which seems quite brave in retrospect. After LSE, I served at Australia’s diplomatic missions in London and at the UN in New York for five years, working with three different government agencies. Looking back, I was so fortunate with the variety of policy issues I was engaged with and advised on in my time in government – that breadth is particularly helpful in the leadership role I hold now. Living and working in New York was also an amazing opportunity.

After leaving the UN in 2015, I was interested to see if I could find a role in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – I had been impressed with their ability to provide impartial humanitarian assistance. After taking nearly a year off to travel, I joined the CEO’s Office at the British Red Cross later that year when a role came up and I have been there since – five and a half years and counting. In my current role I am the Chief of Staff (and Head of Governance) at the British Red Cross. I lead the team responsible for providing leadership advice and governance support at the non-executive and executive levels in the charity. The role is key strategic leadership position working across the span of domestic and international operations. In this role I collaborate with, advice and support the Board, Committees and Executive to make sound, evidenced based decisions and to maximise impact for people in crisis. I provide direct counsel to the Chief Executive and Board Chair; and actively contribute to ensuring the organisation is run effectively, transparently and with accountability. It is a brilliant job in a purpose driven organisation, and I learn something new every day. Prior to this, I was the Corporate Policy Manager in the CEO’s Office; and I also deployed as a Governance Delegate and interim Board Chair at the Montserrat Red Cross in 2019.

This is a challenging time for the charity sector. We are seeing considerable humanitarian need for our services and programs, and we remain focused on how we maximise and how we spend vital charitable resources to help people when they most need it. In the next few years there will be a continuing drive to put the voice of the people we serve at the heart of service design and programs, using their insights and feedback to continually improve how we deliver and provide support. There will be a need to accelerate focus on social, environmental and governance: from prioritising inclusion, driving climate adaptation and sustainability in all its forms to better use of evidence, data and digital. These will provide exciting opportunities for organisations to innovate and presents real challenges to achieve systemic change and disrupt established structures and ways of working.  

I have had a succession of dream jobs. Being part of the 2007 Australian Federal Election was a major professional and personal highlight, as was walking into the United Nations Security Council for the first time as a member of Australia’s mission during the 2013-14 elected Council term. Having been raised in a small country town in Australia, I could not have imagined the career I have been so fortunate to have. I was quite emotional when I graduated from ULaw, which was a really proud moment in my career. The commitment required to perform in a busy full-time job alongside completing law school is significant – and my Mum flew over from Australia to join in the celebrations, which was amazing.   

My last big trip before the first lockdown was to do some hiking and discover Ethiopia, which I absolutely loved. I have an extremely long list of places I’d like to visit once travel becomes safe again, in the UK and internationally. Reflecting on the pandemic, the past year has felt very different to usual in that we have all made sacrifices for the good of humanity and our collective health. Pandemic aside, outside of work I am an avid traveller – I have missed being able to travel to new places.

My employer has a flexible working policy. I have a better work/life balance now than in any of the other roles I have had, although 2020 was hectic and without the usual opportunities for renewal. Aside from an occasional conference, I don’t work on weekends. I have learned (as my career has progressed) what works for me in terms of looking after myself – I now prioritise sleeping eight hours as often as I can, and I exercise every day. Many of my leadership colleagues similarly role model taking time to exercise and having regular breaks, which I think is important in influencing our team culture and encouraging colleagues to take care of themselves.  When I was working in government, in one of my roles, I worked a compressed working week -  which I relished. I think part of our learning from the pandemic will involve embracing even more flexibility in the years ahead, and I am looking forward to supporting the team I lead to do that.

I think the qualities and skills that have been important in my career can be applied in any field: curiosity, prioritising learning and personal and professional development, grit, energy, and enthusiasm. I have never been the smartest person in any class, but I have always been highly motivated. I also think a positive attitude goes a long way. The training I had at ULaw was excellent. For me, the ULaw GDL weekend program was the perfect option to combine with full-time work. I also really enjoyed the LLB program I did online after my GDL, which I think is an example of the additional options the university makes available to help students build greater confidence in their skills and technical capability.

I have worked across legal and regulatory compliance at the British Red Cross, so my legal training has been incredibly useful and highly relevant to the work I do. I have delivered key organisational policies that relate to UK legislation including Transparency and Accountability policy, and the Freedom of Information Act, and through my leadership of the organisation’s response to the Modern Slavery Act. I have also developed policies and procedures arising from our status as a provider of regulated services, relating to obligations for services delivered under contract. My team also holds responsibility for reporting to our regulators, including all annual return requirements and on responses to serious and other incidents.

I have spent my career advising leaders at the highest level, including the UN in New York; and at the apex of the Australian Government, including in the offices of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Trade Minister. I started my career volunteering for a Member of Parliament, which I would highly recommend. The skills you learn – like getting to the crux of new issues quickly, as well as drafting speeches and press releases at no notice – are invaluable. To pay the rent I also combined volunteering with the MP with working in a wine shop. I often think the skills in that job provided an excellent foundation for my career, as working with people and providing high standards of customer service have been vital throughout all the roles I’ve had. Given that politics is about ideas, reading broadly – including about perspectives you may not agree with – is important. I try to read a book a week and I enjoy listening to podcasts when I cook or exercise, things I am sure you may be doing already. My legal training has helped me further sharpen my advisory and briefing skills. It provides a structured approach to reviewing and resolving issues, which I think was so relevant for me and the work that I do.

My eighteen-year-old self was worried that (because I didn’t get a certain mark in the Australian version of the GCSEs) I was a failure. I think if I could offer any advice to that eighteen-year-old, it would be that it is both harder and more fun than you think – be confident in and back yourself. And practically, I’d tell her to get a passport with as many pages as possible, drink more water and increase your pension contribution as soon as you can. 

 

If you are interested in studying the GDL and LLB at ULaw like Mary, please see our course guidance and application pages here.

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