In-Conversation with WO-N

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This article is part of the Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series.

The main message that I took away from my phone interview with Warrant Officer of the Navy (WO-N), Deb Butterworth, was that it’s not about being the first female WO-N and what that has meant for her, it is purely about being the best that she possibly can be.

I had the unique opportunity of asking WO-N Butterworth a number of questions in order to gain insights into how she succeeds in her everyday job and what leadership lessons she has learnt along the way. 

Before commencing the role of WO-N, what challenges did you think you would face (in particular as the first female WO-N)? Did any become a reality and how did you deal with it?

The biggest challenge that WO-N Butterworth faced in 2020 was not one that she could have planned for. In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, her challenge was adapting to a new way of doing her core function, which is to hear the concerns, views and opinions of the sailors across the fleet. With travel restrictions and social distancing in place, it no longer allowed her to have those critical conversations face to face. It meant that, like many people this year, new skills needed to be learnt and new and innovative ideas were needed in order for communication to be effective in less traditional ways. 

WO-N Butterworth had aspirations for this role for 10 years prior, and although being the first female WO-N is a huge accomplishment for women in the Navy, that is not what she wants to be known as. It is more about being the best possible WO-N that she can be. WO-N Butterworth knew the position was going to come with challenges, but she had the confidence in herself that she could succeed in the position. She had been selected for a reason and she had to back herself and her abilities. 

“Don’t ever see gender as a barrier”

If you could give a Junior Sailor or Junior Officer one piece of advice for them to have a fruitful Naval career, what would it be?

“Be your authentic self”

WO-N Butterworth said she spent quite a number of years trying to compete with others, especially being a female in a male dominated environment. It was tiring and when she was a senior Petty Officer, she finally realised that trying to compete against others wasn’t getting her to exactly where she wanted to be. She wasn’t being her authentic self. Being an honest and authentic leader was more natural, more successful and less tiring. WO-N Butterworth became comfortable with her strengths and weaknesses and this allowed her to be her true authentic self and succeed with her goals and aspirations. 

What has been your most valued leadership learning experience, either positive or negative?

“You don’t need to default to yelling to get your point across…”

The biggest leadership learning experience that WO-N Butterworth experienced was when she learnt how to better control her emotions. Her original default was to become frustrated and yell when something went wrong. She was easily frustrated and she began to see how this was affecting her team, especially small teams. The team synergy wasn’t working well and she noticed that they were less likely to come to her with any issues due to this reaction. Through maturity and reflection WO-N Butterworth was able to better control her emotions, and realised that some things weren’t worth the frustration and stress at the end of the day. 

However, this wasn’t something that came naturally so WO-N Butterworth attended a two-day National Institute of Dramatic Art workshop to learn about presenting and engaging with an audience authentically and in a manner that incites influence and followership. This allowed her team to be comfortable enough to come to her with opposing courses of action and suggestions. These new skills became invaluable to her as she increased in rank. From a responsibility and a leadership perspective, they were pivotal in leading a successful team.

What are the qualities you look for in a role model in terms of their leadership style? 

WO-N Butterworth describes the attributes she looks up in a role model as someone who is a calm and collected leader (a quality she admittedly has needed to hone over the years!), and who values the opinion of their team. Her own role model has given her advice throughout her career on how to best approach situations and has mentored her throughout the years. They are polar opposites in personality, and this proved to be a good match as it made her view situations from a different perspective. He challenged her in questioning what was important organisationally, what was worth getting wound up about and what maybe didn’t need quite as much time and effort put towards it. 

Your time and leadership are greatly appreciated Ma’am, thank you!

About the contributors:

Leading Seaman Lanna De La Torre is a Cryptologic Systems sailor in the Royal Australian Navy. She enlisted into the Royal Australian Navy in 2012 and has specialised in operational submarine deployments. Leading Seaman De La Torre is currently posted to HMAS Watson as an instructor for Cryptologic sailors in Initial Employment Training and will soon complete a Bachelor of Global Security, majoring in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism studies. 

Warrant Officer Deb Butterworth, OAM, CSM and Bar is the current Warrant Officer of the Navy. She enlisted into the Royal Australian Navy as a Stores Naval Sailor in 1989 and has had an extensive operational career prior to being appointed as the Royal Australian Navy’s ninth Warrant Officer of the Navy. Twitter: @WONAustralia