THRIVHER INTERVIEW: April McCabe



Thrivher Achievements:

  • Policy Manager, Lord Mayor of Sydney City of Sydney (about to take up a new role as Associate Director at Cred Consulting)

  • Founder of Urbanistas Sydney, which is part of a global network amplifying the voice of women by supporting ideas and projects that create positive change in our cities and communities.



THRIVHER DIVE


Can’t start the day without: Coffee (cliche I know, but....)

Go-to coffee, tea, cafe request: 3/4 Soy Flat White (Eye roll - so inner-city hipster)

Best read for personal growth of all time: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. I love her thoughts on vulnerability and what it means to be brave.

Favourite quote: I have two, both by Brene Brown -

“I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.” and

“Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.”

Most afraid of: Not being good enough.

Go to for fun or to let your hair down: The beach or a night out dancing!




Thrivher Survivor Moves



Looking back, what were the defining moments that formed the career you are living today?

As a child, Lego was always my thing, I loved building things and creating places. I’ve always been fascinated by geography and I think it’s that background that led to my love of urban planning and cities. I studied Human Geography and Sociology at University and that was how my passion evolved – I don’t think there was one moment where I decided this was what I wanted to do.


My career has been a meandering journey and that has allowed me to explore other areas of my field and to expand what I do. I feel a bit like a collector of ideas - I take them on and apply them one way and then I develop them further. I’m constantly refining what I do and how I approach both in terms of professional and personal development and it has been a wonderful way, and sometimes surprising to discover what I’m passionate about.


Politics has always fascinated me – I was a member of the Australian Democrats at university. I think this fascination is maybe a bit idealistic, but its important because politics, at all levels, has such an important role to play in the lives of everyone. Politicians who inspire people can make such significant, positive changes and alternatively those whose decisions are guided by anything but the wellbeing of people and in the public interest can be incredibility damaging. To my mind, this is very much the same in terms of the decision making about planning and therefore, understanding the politics fit very well together.



What experiences have influenced your career path the most?

I love visiting cities in other countries and just experiencing the everyday life. But equally I love getting out with my camera and do a bit of urban exploring in my backyard. Living overseas, being a curious cat and reading a lot of books about cities continues to opens my eyes to doing things differently and the importance of diversity. That’s one of the reasons why I love Sydney so much, because it is culturally so diverse.


For me, being a Planner isn’t just about the physical elements, the structures or the buildings. Of course, I love design and architecture, but they are just structuring elements to a city. What is far more important to me is how those structures influence people’s experience in the city and what happens in the spaces in between. That’s what gets me excited.


Humans are complex and therefore cities are complex ecosystems, so if someone is suggesting a one-size-fits-all they clearly don’t understand the issue. There is no silver bullet to meeting the challenges we are facing, like affordable housing or intergeneration equity or climate change, only multi-faceted solutions that require a cooperative approach involving different levels of government, community, and business. That’s the ideal.



At what point in your career did you manage to combine your interests in politics and planning?

For the majority of my career, I’ve worked in government, and I take the term “public servant” literally – even after 18 years of being a planner, I still have a bit of an idealistic, change the world mentality, albeit tinged with a bit more cynicism than when I started! I’ve always worked with the aim to leave things in a better position than they were to begin with. For me, local government is the most important level because people can engage directly and have a voice in decision making and a greater ability to directly influence people’s everyday lives.


I’ve always like the idea of advocating and fighting for something important, to be able to give people a voice and influence change. Having a longstanding interest in politics, particularly the strategy element, working as a political advisor was something that I wanted to do. However, I also felt strongly that to do that job, I needed to work for a politician I whole-heartedly believed in. When the opportunity to work with Clover Moore (Lord Mayor of Sydney)came up I just had to go for it. I think, in partly unbridled enthusiasm in the interview was what landed me the job!

I think that if you are authentic and believe in something or someone strongly, people see that.


I’ve been really fortunate to find a profession that I’m passionate about and have experienced a meaningful work life – knowing I’m doing something worthwhile really makes the hard days easier. It’s fulfilling to work with someone like Clover – who started her political life because her and her neighbours wanted their local park improved for all the families in the area and South Sydney Council said it wasn’t possible, so she decided to get elected and make it happen. It’s a real privilege to work for someone like Clover and an experience I will take so much from.



I’ve been really fortunate to find a profession that I’m passionate about and have experienced a meaningful work life – knowing I’m doing something worthwhile really makes the hard days easier.


How important do you believe it is to be able to be your authentic self at work?

Authenticity and honesty are key and are core values for me. It’s funny, I work in politics but I have no poker face. I’m very easy to read so I’ve always had to be authentic, because it would be so obvious if I wasn’t!


As a manager, one of the key responsibilities is creating an environment that people feel comfortable to be themselves which has so many positive flow on effects. I’m very lucky that I work for an organisation like the City of Sydney that works hard to ensure that people can be themselves. I’ve been involved in the City’s LGBTIQ network - City Pride - and talking to people, as well as my own experience, the difference it makes when you feel comfortable to be who you are at work is probably why authenticity is so important to me.


The difference it makes when you feel comfortable to be who you are at work is probably why authenticity is so important to me.

I’ve found that being your authentic self, coupled with a willingness to roll up your sleeves is a strong foundation to build trust – something that takes time and hard work to gain, but can be lost in a heartbeat. It is also that fundamental element to building real connection with people, whether it’s been at work, personally or through Urbanistas. Most people have a pretty good bullshit meter and I know for me, I respond to people who I think are genuine, whether I agree with them or not.



We have been seeing the start of really positive change for women in the workforce, do you see this continuing?

Absolutely! It’s been a slow burn, but more recently we have seen this feeling that enough is enough. This is also coupled with the next generation of women are rightly expecting more and I think that is the key. One of the aims of Urbanistas is to amplify the voice of women. It came from the idea that women generally don’t have the confidence to get up and talk about an idea that they haven’t fully formed. Men seem to have an almost genetic confidence and subconscious entitlement, whereas women often struggle with that. We wanted to create a space to help collectively to build that confidence and provide a platform for women.


It really feels like women, in the last two years, have found their voice - a collective voice. Often when I talk to older women who are CEOs, they will say that they have had to act like a man to get to the top. I was reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’ and she made a great point that women need to be each other’s cheerleaders. I also read that within Obama’s administration, there was a group of women who did exactly that. That is why the amplifying women’s voices is important – one voice can be easily dismissed, but it’s much harder to ignore the roar of a strong collective of women!


Women are actually good at working together and working collaboratively and these qualities are being valued and seen as real assets. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I think there is a resurgence around equality happening right now - it feels like there’s change in the wind, the next generation feminist movement.


Women are actually good at working together and working collaboratively and these qualities are being valued and seen as real assets.

I love that Urbanistas provides a platform and a voice for women, but I’d like to think of a day when we won’t need to provide that platform. It’s not about putting men ‘in their place’ and it’s not about being militant feminists, it’s simply about wanting a level playing field for everyone and recognising that women are starting well behind the start line.



You are in a fantastic position to promote equality and women’s interests within government. Is it challenging being that voice on the inside?

No. I think it’s a personality thing. But in saying this, it has taken me most of my adult life to get to this place that I can confidently say that being that voice on the inside isn’t as challenging as it used to be though it has its days. I remember in my first job, a colleague, who was a fantastic mentor, making me speak up in meetings because she knew it was something that scared the hell out of me – something I will always be appreciative of. These days, I’m not too worried about speaking out and I think it is my job to be brave. This is one of the things I say to my staff and young planners – be the person who is asking the brave question, even if it’s not the popular one.


Be the person who is asking the brave question, even if it’s not the popular one.

A big part of the job is to explore all available options and push boundaries to make things better and I think bravery comes in different forms. I feel so fortunate to work in an organisation like the City of Sydney. The CEO is one of the most impressive people that I’ve ever worked with. She’s the true definition of a leader. She manages an organization of over 2000 staff and the amount of empathy that she’s able to give is phenomenal. I’ve been really lucky to have worked with some amazing women and this has always inspired me to be the best I can be, but also to be that support to younger women coming through, because that support and mentoring that I was lucky to experience has positively shaped me professionally and personally.



What have been your biggest challenges that have helped you progress in your career?

From a professional point of view, I always take things on that are a little bit challenging. My love for what I do has always gotten me over the line on everything. So for me, it has been more about the personal things. I’ve struggled with anxiety. I’m pretty open about it because I think it’s important to talk about mental health. It wasn’t until four or five years ago that I actively started dealing with it and that has been the catalyst for approaching things differently. I don’t think I would have achieved nearly as much as I have in the past five year if I hadn’t worked hard and learnt to be more with being vulnerable, though it remains a day by day proposition to manage. Vulnerability is necessary for learning, creativity and giving yourself the best chance of reaching your potential. Until that point I really hadn’t been able to do that. It’s about embracing your unique qualities and seeing them as your strength, rather than a weakness. That has been and continues to be my biggest challenge.


Vulnerability is necessary for learning, creativity and giving yourself the best chance of reaching your potential.


What have been your top “pinch me now” moments in your career so far?

Getting that first job at Parramatta Council and the amazing people I worked with there. I think I would have been a very different planner if I’d worked somewhere else. I look back now and can see that the breadth of people I worked with there, and the two incredible mentors, gave me the best start into this career. I also have three of the most incredible women from the Parramatta days that all have over the years grown into close friends.


Being involved in the 2016 local government election here in Sydney, with Clover and the team, is another career marker. The night we realized that not only had we won, but that the community had put so much faith in us that we got in with an increased majority, was pretty special. It’s hard to describe that kind of moment and it is special because you can share that with a small group of people that all have worked so hard to get the result!


Urbanistas is really big deal for me. It’s something I found I’m really passionate about. Again, it’s about that vulnerability. I took a deep breath and did it and it’s been brilliant. It has given me back so much more than I ever expected.


Another significant moment for me was five years ago when I was struggling at work and I resigned without another job, because I had to deal with my anxiety. It was a really tough time because my work made up a massive part of who I was and my identity so I felt like a failure. But looking back, I can now see it was an incredible act of bravery – to step back and take the time to figure things out. If I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today.


But looking back, I can now see it was an incredible act of bravery – to step back and take the time to figure things out.


Do you have any career advice you wish you’d been given in your 20s?

I was asked this very question for a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’ I wrote for Parlour – an organisation for women in Australian architecture. So some of the things that I said I wished I’d known in my 20s was - find the hardworking, passionate people in the room, watch them closely and take notes. Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way and find your trusted tribe – people who you can be your true self around and embrace your authentic self. Be brave; take the time to find out what inspires you and let it feed your energy - your job should feed your soul, not just pay your bills. Be generous to people who give you their time and those who are willing to make a stand.


Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way and find your trusted tribe – people who you can be your true self around and embrace your authentic self.


For women who want to make a positive change in their life, but don’t know how to go about it, what would be your advice to them?

My advice would be to breathe, don’t worry if you can’t change the world tomorrow (next week is fine), ask for help and be willing to make mistakes! Don’t stop learning. After 18 years of working as a planner, there is nothing better than going to a talk or reading a bit of research that challenges your thinking and completely rocks your nerd world.


Most importantly, find your trusted tribe, those people you can be yourself with. Discover your authentic self and become comfortable with who you are — once you have done that things become so much clearer.



Check out Urbanistas Sydney and keep posted for their upcoming events.

Urbanistas is a global, collaborative network amplifying the voice of women by supporting ideas, projects and actions that create positive change in our cities and communities.

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Join us for our next online workshop in wellness 'Mastering Your Stress Management'


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Wednesday 7th November
7PM-8PM SYD / 8AM-9AM LON
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