Steven Spielberg once said that: “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”
In 2014, the high-achieving career of Diana Gibbs, businesswoman, economist, cattle farmer and industry leader, earned her a place on the 100 Women of Australian Agribusiness list.
Looking back, Gibbs credits a woman in her rural community, Beryl Ingold, with playing a critical mentoring role over 20 years of that career. Gibbs has, in turn, kept a keen professional eye on several younger women with potential, as well as formally mentoring a local businesswoman in Wagga Wagga.
With degrees in resource and environmental economics, Gibbs enjoyed an international career as an economist before launching her own strategic planning and economic development consultancy, Diana Gibbs & Partners, in 1984.
Marrying Bernard Whyte four years later, she moved to rural NSW and raised two children. A partner in the family pastoral operation, she also continued consultancy work from her new rural base.
In 2000, her work with producer-owned wool-marketing operation Riverina Wool Growers P/L was recognised with an RIRDC NSW Rural Women’s Award (now the AgriFuturesTM Rural Women’s Award). She was appointed executive director of Riverina in 2002, launching pure wool scarf and wrap collections under the “Diana Gibbs” label.
With her rich experience in regional economics and community development, Gibbs has served on many public bodies and inquiries including seven years as chair of the NSW Regional Communities Consultative Council, four years as director of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), and three years as chair of Regional Development Australia – Riverina.
She is currently a director of the NSW Rural Assistance Authority and of the Riverina Local Land Services, chairs the Graham Centre Industry Advisory Panel at Charles Sturt University (CSU) and sits on the NSW Climate Change Council.
“I never actually sought a mentor,” says Gibbs about re-establishing her career from country NSW in the mid-1990s. “But it suddenly dawned on me that I did, in fact, have an informal mentor, a wonderful woman with whom I would chat over coffee every six weeks or so. She was one of these women without whom country towns just wouldn’t function.”
That mentor relationship was with Cootamundra farmer Beryl Ingold OA MBE (1927-2011), a “local hero” who served on multiple state committees to further agriculture, education, women, youth and her community.
She was chair of the Council of Orange Agricultural College and state president of the NSW Agricultural Bureau. Ingold House, on the Orange Campus of CSU, is named in her honour.
“I realised that having to organise my thoughts well enough to tell Beryl what my current problem was — and because I respected her intellect—that discipline actually made the answers fall into place,” says Gibbs.
“This was a wonderful gift she gave me. She helped me focus on what was important.”
Ingold encouraged Gibbs to take on challenges such the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) in 1999; she also put in the application to the RIRDC Rural Women’s Award on Gibbs’ behalf. “She pushed me without me realising it. I accomplished a lot more because she gave me the courage.”
Ingold also taught Gibbs the “gentle art” of chairing a meeting to achieve the desired outcome — particularly in the not-for-profit, community sector; and the importance of celebrating “little victories” outside professional life.
“I discovered after she died that there was a secret society of ‘Beryl’s Girls’, which included men. She had picked us out as having something to offer and quietly nurtured us all.”
Ingold died in April 2011, and at the end of that year, Gibbs was appointed to the MDBA, just as its contentious draft plan was about to be released.
“My first thought was: I really need to speak to Beryl. I really missed her.”
In a similar way to Ingold, Gibbs has informally mentored several competent women by watching the progress of their careers, helping when they sought advice and inviting them to apply for positions.
As a member of Women in Business Wagga Wagga, Gibbs formally mentored young businesswoman Anna Lashbrook over 12 months. Lashbrook had plans to expand her free-range egg operation, Cackleberries.
At their first meeting Gibbs said to her: “I’m never going to tell you what to do. I’m going to ask you lots of questions to help you think about what you’re doing.”
She suggested Lashbrook should “have some values in your life — I don’t care what they are — and stick to those values so you sleep well at night.”
By the end of the year, Lashbrook had changed her business plans from buying more free-range chooks to finding new markets for organic garlic. And some of her favourite chooks got extra part-time jobs — visiting nursing homes to sit on the residents’ laps as pet therapy!
This mentorship experience was a two-way street, prompting Gibbs to reflect on whether it was time to sell her own business. “A mentor should not be an expert delivering content,” she says. “They should be a trusted, non-judgemental sounding board.”
Gibbs thinks mentors can help rural women have the courage of their convictions to achieve their goals.
The biggest challenge for those being mentored is “not to expect that it’s all going to be done for them” and for the mentor to “open a dialogue, not tell their life story.”