Top Advisor and Consultant for 2024: The Story of Marion Burchell (1993)

While her closest peers had clear career paths mapped out, Marion grappled with uncertainty regarding her professional trajectory. However, in 2024, she emerged as the distinguished Top Honoree Consultant and Government Advisor for the International Association of Top Professionals (IAOTP). This achievement didn’t come overnight; it was the culmination of years spent honing her skills and expertise across diverse industries.

Marion’s journey led her to establish her consulting practice, where she specialises in leveraging extensive networks to deliver innovative solutions tailored to today’s dynamic and globalised business landscape. In this blog, she generously shares insights from her career journey, including her tenure as the inaugural female Government Chief Information Officer, along with invaluable leadership perspectives.

Can you share your journey at Santa Maria with us? When did you graduate and what activities or memories stand out from your time at the College?

Santa Maria holds a special place in my heart as it helped shape who I am today. It laid the philosophy to stand for something greater than yourself. It gave me the space and support needed to experiment, push myself and explore different aspects of who I was as a person and what I could achieve. This included a rap for a social studies assignment on pressing environmental issues, to creating a cell using lollies and jelly for Biology, to joining the debating team and public speaking. Without knowing at the time, many of these experiences laid the foundations for a future career. My fondest memory was finding my tribe. Despite graduating in 1993 and each of us pursuing different life paths, we have still managed to remain close lifelong friends.

After completing your studies, what path did you take? How did you transition into the next phase of your career?

I was surrounded by people who knew what they wanted. From a young age, my sister was always going to be a lawyer. My best friend is an engineer. I, however, was uncertain about a specific profession and instead took a different approach focused on life goals or aspirations. I wanted to be an interesting person. Someone who experienced life to the fullest and to contribute to something bigger than oneself. The 1989 film Dead Poets Society, released during my Santa Maria years, had a significant impact on how I thought about life. 

While at university, I studied many things, across different disciplines – Science (with a focus on environmental science), Arts (a sociology focus), and later Tourism (policy and planning).

The post university atmosphere was hard where on average graduates waited 12 months before successfully entering the professional job market. I was lucky to land my first job at a newly created public sector agency focused on the protection and management of the State’s water resources, the Water and Rivers Commission. It was a result of leaving my CV at head office (advice given by my mentor) and within a week I was interviewed, and within two weeks hired. Potential employers receive many CVs, it is therefore important to consider how to ensure yours stands out. Having a customer centric job through university and undertaking internships and volunteer work was key.

Marion and Sir Richard Branson on Necker Island

What led you to pursue further education at the Harvard Kennedy School, and could you provide insights into your overall experience there, detailing the projects or roles you undertook?

We can all become comfortable with our life and comfort is the enemy of growth. I wanted to extend myself as I felt like life had plateaued. Western Australia is my home of choice. My family and I immigrated here, and as an adult, I chose to stay. However, living in one of the most isolated cities in one of the most isolated countries of the world has its challenges, and that manifests in not thinking big enough, which can lead to being at the tail end of innovation and technology advances and delays in new thinking. I had a thirst for extending my thinking, and the best way to achieve this was by putting myself in a totally different environment. I chose Harvard Kennedy School as it is renowned for its quality education. It is associated with one of the top universities in the world, and it would give me a professional advantage due to the rarity of Western Australians studying there. It is an experience I will never forget. Walking and living on a campus that has produced the most US presidents is incredible and spine-tingling. Meeting people from all over the world and learning together in an intensive environment of tutorial discussions, class exercises, and lecturers and being put through our paces on an island with a range of different facilitated leadership activities was fun, insightful and life-altering.

Whatever random group I was nominated into, we always pushed the boundaries and in some instances, rewrote the rules. I remember taking over a class to organise a team exercise – what a feeling being in the centre of the Harvard lecture room commanding the class. We surprised the professors during negotiations training by doing something other cohorts had never done. We self-organised and developed our own negotiating strategy with unlikely partners by focusing on commonalities.

In the end, I completed three programs and left with four certificates including a Public Leadership Certificate.

Could you offer a brief overview of the various roles you’ve held up to the present moment, sharing any significant highlights you may have?

I started my professional career in water resource management and protection (licensing, land use planning, policy). During this time, I used a new approach to stakeholder engagement, co-design, which resulted in a highly contentious policy turning into an international best practice example of public policy development.

From there I moved into agriculture and food, primarily administering joint funding agreements between the state and commonwealth governments. I was fortunate to spend a couple of years as a Ministerial Advisor influencing government decisions that achieved a national agenda at a local level. On returning to the organisation, I made a conscious decision to leave my technical stream and move into a management and leadership stream, by taking on a junior executive position working directly with the Director General. It was here that we focused on creating a culture of innovation within the WA public sector, resulting in international experts visiting WA, collaborations across government to accelerate initiatives, and being shortlisted for a state award.

This led me to move into the Department of the Premier and Cabinet in both social policy and then into the COAG Secretariat. This role meant providing high quality briefs on issues of national significance resulting in representing the State at Premier only meetings. When COAG was not sitting, we were responsible for tasks such as reform initiatives and budget repair. 

Currently serving as the Managing Director of Azolla Holdings, could you shed light on the nature of Azolla Holdings and what sets it apart from other management consulting firms in the market?

An Azolla is an unassuming aquatic plant that despite its size, its growth was uninhibited by its environment and changed the world many millennia ago to create the atmosphere we have today. In doing so, it allowed other organisms to reach their own potential. The impact was so profound that scientists called it The Azolla Effect. This acts as an analogy for our management consulting company.

The world in which we live has changed. It is more volatile, complex, and ambiguous meaning many of the structures, ways of working and processes are no longer fit for purpose. They were created during a time of industrialisation, growing population (baby boomers), and a focus on the nation state. We now live in an increasingly globalised world, that is moving deeper into a digital age, with a huge shift in demographics. The structures of the past are not reflective of the new context, and it is resulting in greater burnout, an increase in mental illness, and a lack of community connection as we struggle to keep up with everything in life.

Our purpose is to help organisations, teams and individuals rethink and redesign how they work, so they can focus on doing what they do best – deliver products and/or services that have a positive impact in people’s lives. They can achieve this while also living their best life, being re-energised, re-invigorated and re-engaged.

We achieve this by leveraging a bespoke combination of innovation, strategy, implementation, leadership and change management, with digital and data capabilities, to re-imagine and re-focus efforts. We do not ‘trust the process’ or ‘focus on the methodology’, we embed our own practical experiences and life lessons to accelerate our clients on their transformation journey.

Your proficiency in strategy, innovation, and leadership is intertwined with technology. Can you share specific technological tools or methodologies that you find particularly effective in cultivating innovation and leadership within organisations?

 It all starts with mindset and culture. Sometimes there is too great a focus placed on a technology to deliver an outcome. Technology is only as good as the thought process before its implementation, as this determines whether it solves a problem, is fully adopted, or creates ongoing frustrations. We see many organisations plough significant investment in multiple technology platforms trying to address a similar issue or a pain point further downstream due to poor planning, design, research, and integration.

Mindset is key to inculcating a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.  Not taking things personally and focusing on solving pain points, knowing it will make life better for everyone (staff, customers) creates an environment of supportive continuous improvement.

This, coupled with culture, is key. Ensuring structures and supports are in place to progress ideas with potential is essential. For instance, having an ideas management platform does not make an organisation innovative. The ideas need to be assessed, go through a process, and have some governance, there may need to be funding, support such as experts need to be available and so on.

Technology is not always the best solution. It is an enabler of the business. We see the best gains in re-designing and re-thinking processes, streamlining, non-traditional collaborations and challenging the status quo with curiosity and assumption testing. Once the way of working has been genuinely reviewed, technology can only then be considered as a way of generating efficiencies, meeting customer expectations and providing greater value.

For instance, there is a lot of interest in Artificial Intelligence. However, AI is only as good as the background information provided, the quality of the instructions and the user’s knowledge of their customer persona or desired market. It is therefore not a silver bullet to generating efficiencies unless the upfront work is undertaken. Otherwise, it is garbage in, garbage out.

As the inaugural female Government Chief Information Officer for Western Australia, you shifted priorities and implemented an agile approach. How did this experience influence your perception of leadership, and what key insights can other leaders glean from your journey?

In leadership, choices arise: conform to the status quo, assimilate with expectations, or do what is right, even in conflict. Having a management title doesn’t guarantee leadership; it’s distinct. Leadership in challenging roles can be isolating. Establishing the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) prioritised a culture-driven vision. As GCIO, unexpected challenges like government changes and recruitment freezes required a flexible approach, focusing on priorities and agility. The philosophy “We are stronger together” guided success.

Conforming is tempting, especially with much at stake. Professionals in management roles face difficulties doing the right thing. Organisational excellence depends on leaders. Leaders should invest in themselves continually, fostering leadership skills throughout their careers. The motivation behind taking a management position shapes leadership focus. Financially-driven managers may maintain the status quo, while purpose-driven leaders prioritise impactful outcomes, even if unpopular or challenging.

Your speaking engagements cover a range of topics, including strategy, innovation, digital disruption, diversity & inclusion, confidence & leadership. How do you stay abreast of these evolving trends, and what guidance do you offer to organisations seeking successful navigation in these areas?

To stay contemporary, I have subscriptions to leading publications such as Harvard Business Review, which provides the latest thought leadership, research, and practices in high performing organisations. It is also important to be able to translate this in practical terms, which is where lived experience is used. It makes it more tangible to people when you can explain using a lived case study or personal life lesson as you can empathise with the barriers, concerns and anxiety people have in navigating these complex areas. It also means you can give pragmatic advice on what worked and did not work, and the context and assumptions at the time. My advice to organisations is to humanise the process, thinking and design, as that is who will be implementing it, who will be the customer, and who will ensure it is successful. Also, keep it simple. Start with what makes sense to you and your organisation, not what another organisation has done as the context, resources (financial state, human capital (numbers and skill), and culture may be very different. Use a phased approach and socialise key outputs along the way to create buy-in, design iteration and improvement, and testing for practicality.

On a more personal note, what are your favourite activities during your free time? How do you unwind and recharge outside of your professional commitments? If not working, where can we usually find you?

 I try to create balance in my life. Spending time with my dog, Oden, and husband Steve walking along the beach at sunset is special. Doing breathwork and yoga in the sand while the moon and stars rise feeds the soul. Reformer Pilates at my local centre is amazing for the body, and it also helps me stay connected with the local community. I’m also a huge movie buff! As with my work, I do like to push myself recreationally and enjoy driving high-performance cars in snow and ice. I have learned to kitesurf and take the stand-up paddleboard out over the summer. Travel remains a passion of mine as there is a lot to be said for experiencing new places, cultures, food and creating new memories. There is so much on offer in life! One is only limited by will and imagination.

the Winter Appeal and Outreach Mass at Santa Maria College.

Term 2 – Empowering Students and Community – Jennifer Oaten

As we conclude another remarkable term at Santa Maria College, we celebrate the myriad achievements and growth of our students. Term 2 was filled with empowering opportunities, from faith-based activities and learning innovations to social awareness projects and community engagements, embodying our Mercy values and commitment to excellence.

Read More »
Scroll to Top