CEO Blog: Reflection on 12 Years

I recently clocked up 12 years at Gradability.

I started in 2010 as the General Manager of Melbourne. A time when Apple had just released a wacky contraption called the iPad. A social thing called ‘Instagram’ had just launched. MasterChef was only in season #2. And Kesha’s ‘Tik Tok’ was the #1 song of the year.

It’s a long stint – so a good reason to pause and reflect on the milestone, as well as some of the memorable moments of my journey that has taken me to where I sit today, as the CEO Gradability and Performance Education.

I still remember walking into our original Melbourne office on Flinders Lane and meeting the then CEO Matt Reede for my interview. In 2010, the business’ focus was building an ELICOS (English Language Training) school as well as the Professional Year Program which was barely off the ground. It’s crazy to look back now at those early days given our PY program is now the #1 in Australia and has helped 30,000+ students. Fair to say, we’ve come a long way.

Matt’s instructions upon my appointment were simple – he gave me the keys to two empty floors in the building and told me to fill them with students. No pressure!

This is how my wild rollercoaster ride with Gradability and Performance Education began – and during that journey it has provided me with the highest of highs, together with some painful lows, and along the way I’m proud to say I’ve been involved in opening three new locations, bringing to life a range of new products and services, seeing 30,000 +lives changed through our PY program and more than 10,000 host companies partner with us to support the work we do to bridge that gap between study and employment for graduates. How awesome!

At the heart of everything that’s been achieved, and what we’ll continue to do, has always been our students – and this is what continues to drive me each day. I’ll say it to anyone that will listen, but our focus must be on putting the student at the centre of everything we do to give them the best experience and outcome. Sometimes this is easy, but other times, it’s a battle to help people get over the barriers they put up which holds them back.

While I don’t get as much day-to-day interaction with students these days, I remember one of our early PY students, Mahendra, who came to me wanting to withdraw from his course. He had decided the cost of the course wasn’t worth it as he wasn’t an Australian citizen, so he wouldn’t get a job here anyway and would have to return home to India. In Mahendra’s mind, it was better to cut his losses and go home than to dare to dream about living and working as an accountant in Australia.

Talking through it together, we worked through Mahendra’s concerns – namely the narrative of self-doubt that had formed in his head to protect himself from potential disappointment. By the end of our chat, I’d managed to guide him to stick out the program, give it his best, and allow us to help him as he was missing the opportunities and support that were in front of him.

About three months later, Mahendra popped into my office beaming – not only did his internship provide him great grounding and hands-on learning, but he had been offered a full-time role with the company! While we don’t do it for the plaudit, nonetheless it was a great feeling seeing the difference made a difference in his life. And that’s just one of the thousands of students we’ve helped along the way.

Looking at my journey honestly and from all fronts, there have been some major disappointments to go with the good times. For me, having to close our Perth operation three years back still rankles me as the opportunity was strong meaning and we were making a genuine difference in the lives of students in Perth. Unfortunately, the commercial realities didn’t stack up, making it unviable, so we had to make a very tough call on the venture.

A decision like that impacts lives and is never an easy one to make as the boss. This call (and many like it) weighed heavily on me because ultimately, as the CEO, it falls on my shoulders to make decisions for the benefit of the company and its shareholders. You often hear the phrase ‘it’s not a popularity contest’ with leadership and decisions making, and while I absolutely agree with it, that doesn’t make it any easier.

Another thing that surprises me even 12 years on, is I’m still often asked ‘what exactly do you do, Dave?’! Is it education, migration, internships, job seeking, gradate support, professional years… so I figured it might be worthwhile trying to articulate!

At Gradability and Performance Education, our role is to help graduates transition between study and employment. We do this primarily through our Professional Year Program, which focuses on international students in Accounting and IT, but do have a range of other programs and opportunities to support students of all disciplines along with universities.

Still sounding like mumbo-jumbo!? Breaking it down, we know international graduates face challenges as they have technical skills and theoretical knowledge they’ve gleaned from university, but often lack the soft skills to transition into the professional environment.

This is partly language based, but also pertains to cultural understanding – meaning they don’t know how to navigate a real-life business environment. This is where we come in helping our students build communication skills as well as contextual understanding about the Australian workplace and business culture. It’s less about ‘Friday drinks’ (as some mistake it to be) but more recognising when attending a meeting with a senior manager, your views are wanted and, in many cases expected – which is often very different if you come from a hierarchical international cultural background.

Our specialty lies in then connecting students with host companies to partake in internships that helps complement this conceptual training with practical, real-world experience in a supportive, non-threatening environment. They provide mentors committed to guiding the student along this process to adequately prepare them for the professional working environment.

Through this process the student/intern gets to experience the professional environment, participate in real-life projects, and test their skills and knowledge. Best of all if they do it well they may end up securing employment.

Of course, none of these life changing programs happens without people who make it their mission to help young professionals at the start their careers. And these people who make it happen are – hands down – the best part of my 12 years at Gradability.

Wrapping up, I am so privileged to have worked with so many amazing staff and colleagues, some of whom I now count among my closest friends. These people have lifted me up when I’ve needed it and told me to pull my head in when it’s been required.

We’ve overcome business challenges from regulatory changes to COVID-19, fluctuations in the market and everything in between. We’ve had moments of hair pulling despair over not knowing how to press forward when things seemed overwhelming, yet somehow have always found a way to keep going.

And most importantly, we’ve always prioritised culture and had fun. From tackling obstacle courses to a memorable cooking Christmas dinner for 80 people in two hours. Even in the darkest times, we’ve always found a way to see the silver lining and not take things too seriously.

It’s certainly been an extraordinary ride – and I’m incredibly proud and grateful to have been on this journey. Bring on the next 12!

Control the Controllables,

Dave Phua
CEO, Gradability & Performance Education

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