My school, the Rockhampton Girls' Grammar School - the foundation of my life and my career - is celebrating 125 years. I consider myself privileged to have spent five pivotal years at its hillside campus in my hometown. I was also honored to have been asked to write about my life's journey for the commemorative book (page 54) - this is it ...
Leigh Cunningham (nee Rycen)
I attended Rockhampton Girls’ Grammar School from 1975 to 1979 and consider myself one of the fortunate few to be able to say the girls I went through school with are my friends today – the value this adds to my life is immeasurable. And when we get together, it is with great fondness that we remember our years at RGGS.
If I had not attended RGGS – thanks to my grandmother who insisted upon it – I would not have enjoyed a career at a high level in male-dominated organisations and I can say this with confidence.
After seven years in a law firm in Rockhampton, I moved to Melbourne and my first executive position at the age of 32 as CEO for the Institute of Arbitrators & Mediators, Australia and a concurrent role as the Secretary-General of the Australian Centre for International Commercial Arbitration. I was the only woman on both boards comprising of highly successful and prominent Queen’s Counsels, lawyers and barristers.
My success in this role came from a fortuitous alignment of my strengths and the immediate needs of that organisation. I knew instinctively what had to be done and to this day I’m not entirely sure how I knew but the rest of my career has been constructed on what I discovered about my capabilities at that time. There is no better situation than finding yourself responsible for an organisation, alone but with the confidence and self-belief to implement necessary change.
While in Melbourne I embarked on several years of graduate study in law (Master International Trade & Investment Law), an MBA (International Management) wherein I graduated as ‘Top Student’ and a Master of Commerce majoring in e-commerce. I enjoyed these years of study. Learning, at any level, is rewarding when one focusses less on the outcome – the piece of paper – and remains aware of the process and how the knowledge when it finally settles will take you to a place of greater understanding.
I left Melbourne for Sydney in 1999 for a role as the Executive Director/CEO of the Australian Institute of Project Management. Once again, I was the only woman on the board at that time and in another male-dominated industry.
After five years in Sydney, my husband and I moved to Singapore and I accepted a position with PriceWaterhouseCoopers as Director, Finance & Operations, Asia for a cross-practice business unit (the first) specialising in international trade and customs advice for companies trading in the region. I then became the CEO and General Counsel for the Association of Independent Authors, a global organisation headquartered in Singapore with members in six continents and directors in five continents.
When we moved to Singapore on a two-year assignment in 2004, we did not appreciate that we would not return to Australia for another 12 years. My husband’s decision to sail around the world in a yacht race prompted my return to Queensland in August 2015 to be closer to family and to join the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia, Queensland as its CEO. And our Vice President is a woman.
I am the author of four novels which have won seven awards including three gold medals and ‘Best Indie Books (2013)’ from IndieReader. My novel Rain was #1 on the Amazon bestseller list for Women’s Fiction.
Over the past decade, we have travelled to more than 36 countries, met incredible people who have become life-long friends, seen amazing places and rediscovered a lot of the history I first learned with Mrs Mulder at RGGS in 1975.
When we were at school at RGGS in the seventies, we did not appreciate the significance of those years as the cornerstone of our lives. As the school song goes, the reason for our lessons would be answered 40 years on and that is an undeniable truth.