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Di Dixon on creating a global innovation hub

Jenna Rathbone | April 2017

Di Dixon campervanned and backpacked around various countries, looking to trade in her hometown in London for a new city that boasted an enviable climate and exciting lifestyle opportunities.

She came across the Gold Coast and in 2001 decided to take the plunge and head down under.

While she didn’t have a plan to stay in the city indefinitely, she got a job within weeks of landing in the city and hasn’t looked back.

Dixon, who has a background in sport development, marketing and project management, first accepted a role at the University of Queensland before taking on a position at City of Gold Coast.

One of the first projects she worked on was project managing the construction of the new council chambers and was even granted citizenship at the first ceremony held at the site.

She is now the Project Director of the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct (GCHKP), responsible for leading a team to develop the site into a global hub for collaboration and innovation.

Dixon sat down with More Gold Coast to talk about what lured her from the UK to the Gold Coast, what she has learnt about leadership and the impact the GCHKP will have on the city.

What lured you to the Gold Coast?

London is a busy city with lots of opportunities and lots of things going on, but it just doesn’t have that outdoor climate and lifestyle I would like.

The decision to move was really lifestyle-driven and the fact that you can actually be involved in things from the ground level up. On the Gold Coast you are not just joining a bigger pond of things happening. My partner and I also made the decision that we didn’t want to go to a capital city – we wanted to be in a city where we could actually influence some of the work that was going on and not get lost in a broader city sense.

What was the childhood dream?

I have always been sporty and eventually decided I wanted to work within the sport and recreation industry with my initial degree in recreational and business studies. After working in the sports domain for several years I wanted to become more involved in its promotion and completed a post graduate diploma in marketing and communications. On arriving in Australia and becoming more involved in managing projects and driving economic outcomes I wanted to do something with a bit more of a business angle which is why I did my initial post graduate qualifications in project management and subsequently my MBA. My personal nature is to organise things, be methodical and see real outcomes. I was always going to do something that involved logical stages to realise outcomes while looking at things strategically for the broader perspective.

Who have been some of your biggest influences in business?

My parents have always worked very hard, supported me in all I have wanted to do and made me always strive to achieve more and have instilled that work ethic in me. I have two other siblings and we worked as soon as we could; we had Saturday jobs, holiday jobs and worked through university.

From an industry and project management sense and since working on the Gold Coast, it has been colleagues who mentored me in relation to investment attraction and city building and a former supervisor who shared their extensive global networks with me. Anyone who has that ability to have a strong network of people and be willing to share them is invaluable. The belief in others from my workplace and from industry on the Gold Coast has been key to the development of my career and the ongoing support you require to continue learning and to strive for great outcomes. I have found that on the Gold Coast it is easy to build up good networks and have mentors in different industries – people are very open to building relationships and endorsing one another.

What have you learnt about leadership during your career?

I have learnt that people see through things very quickly and true substance is critical so you really have to believe in what you are leading people towards. You also have to balance building strong professional relationships that also have a level of friendship – it is critical to get a balance of the two so you are still staying true to what you are actually delivering professionally, while maintaining good friendships for support. I think a lot of the time, particularly in project management, it is about networks and credibility, so for a good leader to really be able to drive people they have to demonstrate integrity and reliability and not contradict what they are aiming to do. Leaders have to empower people and be very clear about what they have to deliver and their role in that delivery – this drives confidence and builds strong teams.

Also, creating a strong team is very reliant on a leader knowing when to get involved and when to step back. Admittedly I can be a control freak – I do want to jump in and do things but I have learnt that I can’t do everything and I have to rely on other people and let them learn.

I think if you are in leadership, you are constantly learning while also hopefully inspiring others and keeping it real – everyone makes mistakes along the way but what is important is how you react and your ability to learn.

What have been some of the biggest challenges of your career?

When people start seeing you as a leader, you start questioning what they are basing that on. You need to have self-belief that you have worked hard and deserve the rewards but you also want to be humble as well. The challenge is probably making sure that you stay open to learning all of the time and learn from your mistakes and appreciate that you are not infallible. I hate to be seen as someone who fails so I can be quite tenacious and I am hard on myself if I don’t get the right outcome. The challenge is around being able to accept you are in a position to make real changes but sometimes you have to react to certain circumstances or changes in priorities and it’s about being able to be flexible, make clear decisions, maintain positivity and have a clear vision of what you and your team are seeking to achieve..

What have been some of the biggest highlights?

Before coming to Australia, a highlight was the application of a successful sports lottery funding grant in the UK which then led to the redevelopment of the only 50-metre pool in London (at that time) and then actually being able to oversee that project. That was a significant piece of infrastructure and I actually had limited project management experience at that point.

Then coming to the Gold Coast, a highlight was being involved in the project management of the construction of the Council chambers building and then having that open. I was actually in the first citizenship ceremony that took place that day. That was a highlight – to stand in something you helped deliver while being made an Australian.

I have been involved in the city’s major projects and economic development initiatives for several years and to manage the delivery of the current Economic Development Strategy was significant. Then the Health and Knowledge Precinct has also been a highlight. It has been a 15-year City project and I have been involved for eight years. It shows how much commitment you have to give to a project sometimes to actually eventuate it. To have the privilege now of leading that project and having all of the stakeholders believe in your ability to do that has got to be my main highlight.

Why is the Health and Knowledge Precinct such a game-changer for the city?

It is the perfect example of driving economic outcomes through effective land use and infrastructure delivery – the fact that once it is fully built, and if we get it right with the right companies and the right skills and the right jobs, we could actually create something that will deliver $2.9 billion in GRP for the city and deliver over 12,500 knowledge intensive jobs. All of that just raises the city’s credibility. It also gives us a better reputation in talent attraction and companies wanting to come here because they know they are going to get the sustainable workforce skillset coming out of the precinct.

The commitment by all the partners including government, Griffith University and Gold Coast Health is an indicator of how special this precinct is and how you need to have a clear shared vision for as long as it takes to get the land use right. A project such as this changes the economic landscape of the city and has the potential to raise our credibility and attractiveness to global business, industry, research and investment.

The next stage is committing to create other such economic precincts in the city, particularly with the infrastructure opportunities such as light rail. This one has taken 15 years for it to get to this stage so then we need to keep up with that requirement across the city and maximise our economic land productivity with committed resources such as the GCHKP Project Team.

How are you attracting investors to the precinct?

We have an investment attraction strategy specifically for the precinct. For about the first 12 months of my role, it was about identifying the clinical, research and academic strengths that the partners have and identifying what the niche areas of strength are that are globally competitive and attractive to business. We have several knowledge precincts across the state, many across Australia, and then obviously thousands globally so you can’t just replicate what everyone else is doing.

We have undertaken market capability analysis in selected global markets to align with areas of precinct expertise and developed in market end user and investor market missions to target these potential Precinct occupants. This has resulted in development lined up to start immediately after the Commonwealth Games and a range of collaborations and partnership projects underway.

We have been very focused on discreet areas, for example in the 3D advanced manufacturing sector we are actually focussing on the fact Griffith University is doing some world-leading design and new material development work and we look at how that can be applied to 3D printing and in particular in the biomedical setting in terms of the creation of replacement body parts. That work is quite advanced and we are identifying global companies that can leverage this knowledge and the creation of an industry engagement platform within the precinct that they use that for their own company development through highlighting collaboration opportunities and establishing networking relationships for long-term occupancy opportunities within the precinct.

Why is the Gold Coast a great place to live, work and play?

It really is that opportunity to combine everything together – you can have an amazing lifestyle and if you have the vision and the work ethic then you can achieve anything. That is what my experience here has demonstrated – I came here with an attitude that I wanted to make a difference and while I want to work hard, I want to live in a place where I can enjoy myself. The Gold Coast allows you to get that balance right.

See Business Gold Coast for more.

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