We are honoured to spend some time with Liz Cosson AM CSC, who served in the Australian Army for 31½ years. At the time of interview, Liz Cosson was the Secretary of DVA, however has handed over the Secretary role to Alison Frame on 22 Jan 2023. As the recipient of a Conspicuous Service Cross, OAM and ACT Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to share Liz Cosson’s story…
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR JOURNEY THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER IN THE AUSTRALIAN ARMY?
I have a long history of military in my family. My great grandfather served in WW1 and left behind his wife and 4 children, one of whom was my grandfather who served in WW2. My father also served for 30 years, and my brother was a Dentist in the Army.
I have always had a strong connection and sense of pride towards defence, but my parents were reluctant for me to enlist as my father thought it wasn’t really a job for women back then. My father asked me to do something else before Army, so I went to Business School. My first job after Business School was a real estate secretary and I find it funny that I am now a secretary again!
When I enlisted into defence in 1979, our group was the first 12-month course for female Officer Cadets. That was an important decade for women in Army and I recall the day when 33 of us marched into the school; we were nervous but also very excited about ‘trendsetting’. I always remember that first year as being really tough and learning from amazing male instructors who had returned from Vietnam, and our Commanding Officer was a female Lieutenant Colonel. Less than 10% of Army were women and only 23% of positions were open to women, so I selected Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps.
In the 80’s, we saw so much change for women and we were officially accepted into our corps. We started to see female pilots and captains of ships. The ADF commenced integrated courses and lots of men were driving diversity at the time – military leaders wanted female input and our contribution towards defence interests. We were so underrepresented and there’s still a lot to be done, but it’s a lot better in recent years.
In the 90’s, we were involved with Timor after a long period of peace for the ADF, and it was the first major deployment since Vietnam. It was a bit of a struggle for the troops and we were so fortunate to have a great team of people preparing to put troops on the ground.
I also deployed to Bougainville as the Chief of Staff. I was nervous and suffered a little bit from Imposter Syndrome. I was a Lieutenant Colonel at the time my Colonel sternly reminded me that I was ready for this. I remember flying into Bougainville and landing on a Hercules - it was an experience I will never forget. The opportunity to help and contribute ‘on the ground’ was a wonderful highlight of my life. Upon returning home, I was posted on promotion to Defence Corporate Services, so my job as a Brigadier was to run all bases and Garrison Services - that was a great job!
Overall, I served for 31½ years in the Australian Army and it’s a career I absolutely loved.
DO YOU HAVE A MENTOR / HERO? Yes, Sir Angus Houston would have to be my mentor but also a hero. He is a gentle, values-based leader and an incredible man who makes time for people.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN 3 WORDS? Authentic, resilient, human.
BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE RECEIVED? When I was looking at transitioning from defence, someone sat me down and asked me to think about “who is Liz Cosson?”. That question stayed with me for a long time because I was very proud to wear the uniform and I needed to make sure that I knew who I was as a person without the uniform. It’s great advice because I have always been able to ground myself with that question. I have found so many wonderful opportunities outside of defence and I have been able to contribute to defence and veterans in many other ways, which is fundamentally who I am.
WHAT SKILL/S DID YOU LEARN IN THE ADF THAT YOU STILL USE TODAY? The most valuable skills I learned was centred around effective leadership and being the best leader I could be. I have worked with a lot of highly skilled civilians who have various views of leadership, but the military taught me about leading people so they want to follow you and I always understood that you have a lot of responsibility as a leader - I consider leadership to be an artform.
WHAT DOES INTERNATIONAL WOMENS DAY MEAN TO YOU? It’s an important day to share experiences and have conversations about equality in all aspects of life around the world. We are still hearing stories about the treatment of women in other nations and also the difference in salaries. Women are still disadvantaged in many ways, and we have the opportunity to continue having a voice. Unfortunately, there is still an unconscious bias that exists, and real change starts with treating women as equals.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS OF RECEIVING A CONSPICUOUS SERVICE CROSS AND ORDER OF AUSTRALIA AWARD? All of my awards are really about everyone who has supported me along the way, which is something that I am most proud of throughout my career. I have formed teams of amazing people and I could not have achieved any of this by myself – I am fortunate to have teams who want to work with me to achieve our mission. I feel so privileged to be in a leadership role and I look around and see so many people doing the best they can.
HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE THE FIRST WOMAN PROMOTED TO MAJOR GENERAL IN ARMY? It was such a proud moment for me and I felt a bit overwhelmed at the time. Thankfully, there have been a number of female Major General’s since and many more to come.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST CHALLENGE IN YOUR ROLE WITH DVA? The pandemic was tough and as a leader who prefers human connection, it was challenging to not be able to communicate in person. We worked hard to check in with people who were working from home, juggling family and also supporting veterans - it was a tough period of time.
We looked at how we could connect with veterans and their families and we knew we had a portfolio of extremely vulnerable veterans who already felt isolated and desperately trying to adjust. We had older veterans who couldn’t get the medical support they needed. Our team kicked into another gear and we never lost sight of supporting veterans. We noticed a significant influx of claims, which resulted in a backlog of processing timeframes, so we dedicated an entire team to prioritising claims for vulnerable veterans. We made sure we continued to support the community as best as possible through the pandemic. We have also been focused on helping veterans connect with other support services within the defence system.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO MANAGE STRESS AND HOME/LIFE BALANCE? I always remind my team that you need to remember that people have other things going on in their lives that we don’t always know about it. For my own stress, it’s important for me to find my own ‘space’ away from everything else, otherwise you will be consumed by the world around you. My ‘space’ is the gym, and that time is sacred to me. I have needed to commit to finding my ‘space’ and protecting it, so it has now become a regular habit and an important part of my lifestyle and wellbeing.
HAVE YOU VISITED THE TOP END? I have visited many times and I love it! All of my roles have required regular visits to the Top End, especially in my management role with Base Operations.
We recently travelled on the Ghan and we stayed at the Waterfront - it’s an amazing place. I love how easy it is to get around the city and enjoy the tropical lifestyle.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR LIZ COSSON? This job is keeping me busy enough! I am really passionate about defence community and I will never stop working in this space.
Veterans are a wonderful group of Australian’s and sometimes we have to remind ourselves of the families and the important role they play. If you have had an unhelpful experience with DVA, it’s not the end of the support you can access - we are working hard to make it better.
Interviewed by Deb Herring Committee Member The Top Ender Magazine