Ascending Leadership: Sarah’s Journey to Director

Sarah Flenley works in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. She shares her story of how our leadership development program helped propel her career to Director level.
Sarah Flenley
Women & Leadership Australia
4 mins

To celebrate 20 years of empowering leaders, we’re sharing some of the inspiring success stories from our past participants.

Sarah Flenley is a senior leader in the Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. In 2021 Sarah was an Assistant Director, but she wanted to stretch herself further. Seeking to expand her leadership capability, Sarah chose to undertake our Executive Ready Program, designed to propel ambitious professionals towards executive-level leadership through a blend of self-reflection and applied learning.

Sarah shares her experience with our program:

The Executive Ready Program was very practical so what we learnt in the course, we could apply in our jobs. [The cohort was] a fantastic mix of women from a range of industries and skills and experience, all who wanted to connect, learn and grow from each other. We shared openly and honestly.

Sarah’s pursuit of senior leadership

Sarah, like many ambitious professionals, found herself at a crossroads. Having established herself in a middle management role, she desired the opportunity to broaden her leadership skills and step up to manage larger teams.
“I was an Assistant Director working in Government, I had been in that middle management role for a couple of years and I was pretty keen for the next step in my career. Having become a subject-matter expert, I wanted to broaden my leadership beyond specific projects. I aspired to shift from ‘doer’ to leader, managing larger teams and gaining a contemporary understanding of leadership.”
“I craved professional development, I’d done a Graduate Certificate of Business through university, and whilst that was great, I was keen to explore a more practical and hands-on program such as the Executive Ready Program.”

Gaining the skills, behaviours and mindsets needed to step up


There's no magic bullet with leadership, every context requires a different approach, but it's good to have some extra tools in the kit bag to be able to use when you're managing different people and different situations.

The program equipped Sarah with a toolkit of leadership essentials such as:
• Values-based leadership frameworks
• Communication and influence skills
• Performance management
• Crisis and change management
• Coaching and mentoring skills
• Managing diverse teams

Sarah recalls, “The SBI (Situation-Behaviour-Impact) framework provided a clear structure for giving constructive feedback. It focuses on the situation, the behaviour observed, and the resulting impact. This removes personal aspect and allows you to say things like, ‘In this situation, your action of X had a positive impact of Y.’ It’s a simple yet powerful tool compared to generic praise.

“Feedback can often feel vague,” Sarah continues. “People would say ‘amazing job,’ but without specifics, it’s hard to learn and improve. The SBI model encourages clear and specific feedback.”

Building Strong Teams

Sarah highlighted the program’s focus on valuing people’s skills and experiences at all levels and the role of leaders in supporting and nurturing their growth. One aspect that stood out for Sarah was the coaching module.

“I loved the opportunity to develop my coaching skills,” she shares. “Strong leadership is always about people and building relationships with your team. It’s about understanding their strengths, what motivates them, and how to best communicate the business needs.

“Developing these leadership skills is key. By understanding your team, you can encourage them to pass you, which is a key aspect of leadership. It can also mean recognising when someone isn’t the right fit for the team or role.

“Recently, I used these skills to identify someone who wasn’t a great fit. We worked together to find a better suited role within the company. It’s just as important to help people find success elsewhere when it’s not working in your team.”

Leading with Confidence

Beyond the practical tools, the program instilled a sense of confidence and empowerment. Sarah discovered the link between personal wellbeing and effective leadership, and the importance of creating a culture that embraces challenges and open communication.

Sarah valued the program’s emphasis on continuous learning. It pushed her to challenge her assumptions and experiment with new approaches, a vital skill for any leader.

“The program really drove home the importance of testing your theories and assumptions. You need to challenge what you think and be prepared to learn continuously.”


That's the beauty of leadership, right, there is no pinnacle and it’s also a core value of my own that you are forever learning, no matter where you are in your career.

What changed for Sarah after Executive Ready

Armed with newfound confidence and skills, Sarah felt prepared for the step up.

“The program really gave me a confidence boost in my leadership. I feel more empowered to handle difficult situations and respond. I’ve got a whole toolbox full of practical tools I can pull out and use whenever I need them.”

When the opportunity came up to go for the Director role, Sarah reflects: “There’s a level of preparedness to take on the next management role. I had sought a mentor, I had done this course, I had done the uni course prior. So, all of these little steps sort of build a ‘fitness’ that had me ready to take on the next step.”

Sarah’s hard work paid off, securing a well-deserved promotion from Assistant Director to Director. While the new role came with its own set of challenges, Sarah felt well prepared.

Sarah Flenley LinkedIn post about promotion to Director. The text says I'm happy to share that I'm starting a new position as Director, Secretariat to Agriculture Ministers Meeting and Agriculture Senior Officials Committee at Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry!

“Personal health and wellbeing have always been really important to me,” she shares. “There were definitely some stressful periods when I stepped into the new role. That’s when I realised the importance of building an all-rounded fitness, both physically and emotionally. It allows you to withstand any challenges that come your way.”


So I'd built that foundation, that things didn't feel like they could rock me. I felt like whatever came my way I could stand very firmly on the ground, both physically in my body, but also on a professional level as well.

Investing in growth and development

Sarah’s story shows the power of practical leadership programs to develop confident and empathetic leaders who are supporting the next generation.

“I’ve just had a new staff member start who is reporting to me, but I’m equally learning from her. Those values around leadership were present in the Women & Leadership Australia course about the value of people and their skills and experience that they all bring. Your role as a leader is to support them and embrace that you’re forever learning from others.”

By investing in the Executive Ready Program, Sarah developed the skills, behaviours, and mindsets she needed to achieve her career goals.

Find out more about our programs for individuals, schools, and organisations