This month we chatted with Nat Traeger, Chief Executive Officer, Kingston District Council about her career, being a long time supporter of LG Professionals SA and working at a rural council.
We’ve been following your career journey for many years now – can you tell us where you started in local government and where you are today?
Well it’s been a lengthy journey that has taken me to places and given me experiences I never would have imagined when growing up in the small rural community of Coonalpyn. When I started (way back in 1987, quite obviously when I was 10 years old!) my late grandfather was an elected member and my late father was a community facilities team member of the then Coonalpyn Downs Council. It was that exposure to local government and the opportunity to secure a role in my local community (I hadn’t adjusted well to city life) that saw me start as a casual in the Tintinara office, some 33 years ago.
Casual turned to permanent, amalgamations came 10 years later, and this directly resulted in opportunities to access varying and higher-level roles due to the increased size of the organisation. Having by that time held customer service, administration, finance and human resource positions, I secured the Manager Corporate Services role with the now Coorong District Council in 2007.
My natural passion towards community development saw me start managing a few new and different projects for the Council. The Acting CEO at the time, and now one of my highly regarded mentors John Coombe, expanded my portfolio and I became the Director Community & Corporate in 2011.
By that time, I had two amazing daughters, relocated to Tailem Bend, built a gorgeous house on the River Murray and wasn’t contemplating any sort of career change. I’d also never truly aspired to be a CEO; I was comfortable at the Director level and never actually backed myself to take that next step – until last year.
A cancer diagnosis and personal issues made me really think about my future and readjust some of my life and career goals. Overcoming life challenges gives you confidence to tackle anything, so I decided to go for it!
I was fortunate to secure the Kingston District Council CEO role mid last year. The sea change has been so much more than I’d anticipated. I’ve never looked back nor regretted my decision to take a major deviation in both my career and personal life.
You’ve been a member of LG Professionals SA for over 10 years! Being involved with our rural management challenge, leadership excellence awards, network forums and conferences, what’s your highlight so far?
You just can’t go past the leadership excellence awards! I love the challenge of pitting your projects and achievements against others in the sector. From recognising your team by making them the subject of an award nomination, to developing the submission, finalists’ announcements and ultimately being part of the annual gala awards dinner is affirmation and recognition of a job well done at the highest level for our industry.
The Kingston team had not participated in the leadership excellence awards prior to my arrival and the fact that we are a finalist this year, up against two large metro councils has been a fun-filled and rewarding journey. It makes you realise that it doesn’t matter how large your budget is or what resources you have on hand, the collaborative teamwork that you are doing is making a difference to your community and we should all take every opportunity to recognise and reward that.
How cool is it that thanks to COVID-19, ALL our team members can join in the celebrations given that the virtual event is virtually free? The only minor disappointment is not being able to frock-up but we are still looking forward to some light refreshments and being more inclusive with who can attend the award ceremony.
Now that all has been revealed and Kingston District Council were announced the winner of the Excellence in Local Economic Development award last Friday, what do you think this award means to the Council, your staff and the community?
You only need look at our Facebook page to see what this means to our community; our award win has been one of our most engaging posts this year, reaching an audience of over 3,300 people. In this time where we are working on community connectedness and recovery, this sort of promotion and sense of pride has been a major boost for a region that has been doing it tough in 2020. As for our council and staff, we are such a great team, that when the announcement was made and my acceptance speech was done, I came out to tears from the Mayor and a couple of the staff. So yes, it meant a lot to have affirmation that bold decisions are recognised, worth it and vindicated at the local government logies!
What would be your advice for others thinking of entering in the future?
Take the Nike approach – just do it! Think well in advance about the categories and their criteria and try and capture thoughts along the way to contribute towards the award submission. Don’t leave it until the last minute, involve the team through brainstorming and input into the nomination and lastly, give it the time it deserves. Now I have given away my trade secrets, I’d better start working on our 2021 nomination!
Why do you like being part of the LG Professionals SA community?
The level of investment versus the rate of return is value for money in terms of opportunities to network, access to professional development and being part of a team of like-minded people and stakeholders with the ultimate end game of working for the community. I would at some point in the future, like to have a more hands-on, higher level contribution to LG Professionals, whether that be through the Board, or other representational opportunities.
What is the most satisfying thing about working in Local Government?
The people – whether it’s your team, your contractors, your consultants, ratepayers (love them the most), community members, visitors, tourists – just so many different people. Yes, they are at times our biggest challenge, but they are why we do what we do, to make things better for the people.
In terms of being in a leadership role in local government, it is being able to provide a solution to a problem that might generally be out of reach individually. For example, following a devastating spate of male suicides in a short period of time in my previous role, I was able to respond by founding and leading the ‘Conversations Matter’ Suicide Prevention Network. At a time when the community needs you the most, being able to deliver outcomes which are effective and truly make a difference is very rewarding.
In more recent time, being able to lead the local recovery for our Keilira community ravaged by bushfire in late 2019, and knowing how much those property owners have appreciated you going that extra mile, because you are local government and that’s what we do, has been the most satisfying thing about my new role to date.
During these uncertain times, what do you see as the biggest challenge for your council, and regional councils more generally?
Our Council area is unique in many ways and we are faced with a different set of challenges to metropolitan councils, and in indeed many rural ones. We have a seasonal population and economy, an ageing demographic with over 100kms of coastline with some 25kms actively being managed during a period of impactful climate change weather events. Further, we have a vast rural and agricultural area which expects, and rightfully so, a serviceable and well maintained sealed and unsealed road network.
Notwithstanding the on-going general challenges, by far the biggest hurdle we need to get over is our marine infrastructure in Kingston and Cape Jaffa; balancing the community’s expectations with what we can reasonably deliver and afford with a small income base is a conundrum that we are faced with every day.
That coupled with developing acceptable and affordable strategies to help our community recover from a dual bushfire and pandemic crisis, with very limited resources will remain a challenge for an indefinite period.
When reflecting on regional councils more generally, I’d suggest sustainable asset management, attraction and retention of good quality and skilled staff combined with maximising tourism, post disaster stimulus and economic investment opportunities will be common issues.
Finally – what do you enjoy outside of work? How do you spend your leisure time?
I love doing what we are all now being encouraged to do – explore your own back yard, whether that is literally or figuratively.
A good old road-trip, weekend camping adventure, camp-oven cooking, fishing, geo-caching, shopping, 4WD’ing and cruising along the beach. If I am not able to get out and about, I enjoy pottering in my recently acquired house, cooking, socialising, table tennis, tending to my ‘succulent farm’ and catching up with family and friends on social media.
My absolute, ultimate favourite past-time is op-shopping – just love a bargain or finding that quirky treasure that you can re-purpose or restore!