Considering that she applied to join the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) “on the spur of the moment”, these days Captain Allison Norris (formerly Allison Horder) is anything but ‘all at sea’. In 2008, she became Commanding Officer (CO) of HMAS MELBOURNE, and in 2012, she took command of HMAS SUCCESS – literally and figuratively.
A supportive family and a Josephite education loom large in Allison’s success story. There was no family history of military service and Allison’s choice was influenced by a presentation by Recruiting Officers to Year 12 students at St Joseph’s College Lochinvar. “I had always been attracted to the water and decided to apply. My family was very surprised by my chosen career path.”
However, Allison clearly has no regrets, “Twenty-seven years later I would not change a thing.”
A significant mentor in Allison’s high school years was (then) principal, Sr Lauretta Baker RSJ, whom Allison remembers as “a very outspoken nun….She continually reinforced to me that there were no boundaries to what a woman could achieve in her chosen career. I was fortunate to grow up in a positive environment where I felt supported and mentored. I have always felt that my school years at Lochinvar, combined with my very positive family environment, provided the foundations for the confident, determined and successful woman I am today.”
Perhaps the strongest stereotypes of Navy life are uniformity – in dress and attitude, regimentation and clear expectations. All of these apply, but when Allison speaks warmly of her career, she conveys a world of opportunity and immense breadth of experience. To achieve the mission, Navy ships and personnel are constantly involved in domestic, regional and international exercises and operations. Closer to home, personnel have provided disaster relief assistance to local communities, specifically during the recent bushfires.
“The Navy is a unique lifestyle with its own challenges and rewards. I have loved the opportunities the Navy has provided for me that a more conventional career would not have. I’ve travelled the world, visited dozens of countries and worked with men and women from differing backgrounds in Navies across the globe. I’ve had the opportunity to serve in Operations in the Middle East and East Timor,” said Allison.
“The most fascinating part of Navy life is the people I’ve met, the different cultures I’ve experienced and the firm friendships I’ve forged.”
While Navy personnel are not always at sea, they are almost always on duty and maintaining family and other ‘non-Navy’ relationships is difficult. For Allison, “The main challenge has been the separation from family and friends for long periods of time. I firmly believe it’s much harder on the partner left behind than those of us deployed at sea. Long separations can take their toll but I am fortunate to be supported by my family and very understanding husband, Adrian. Together, we have maintained a strong marriage and a unique relationship.”
Progressing through the ranks and acquiring a Bachelor of Science, Masters of Management (Defence Studies) and a Masters of Maritime Studies, Allison reached the pinnacle of her career to date when she was appointed CO of HMAS MELBOURNE. Allison recalls, “The motto of MELBOURNE is ‘She gathers strength as she goes’. I often reflect on this and I really believe it aptly describes my career progression over the past 27 years. My professional experience has included watchkeeping on the Bridge of the ship to maintain navigational safety, warfare training in weapon capabilities and tactics, leadership and management training and experience.”
For the layman (and woman), Allison explains, “Command at sea is chosen based on merit and experience and Commanding Officers are appointed by the Chief of Navy.” While the satisfaction of leadership is obvious, there is also what Navy folk call ‘the loneliness of Command’. “It’s often difficult to manage the needs of the individual and balance this with the operational mission. Whilst our focus on achieving the mission is always clear, there is significant emphasis on pastoral care for our sailors and as CO, this is a key element in my decision making.”
In terms of particular challenges for women in leadership, Allison says, “I have been asked this many times over the years. My answer is invariably the same. My sailors don’t care if they have a man or woman as the CO. They care about having a CO who is decisive, consistent, exhibits strong leadership, cares about their welfare and whom they would follow into combat.”
Despite its hierarchical nature, “The Navy is definitely a family, we enjoy common goals, a sense of purpose and a desire to serve. Navy instils in its people the values of honour, honesty, courage, integrity and loyalty,” said Allison.
A highlight of Captain Norris’ career so far has been participating in RAN Centenary celebrations in Sydney in October. “HMAS SUCCESS was privileged to be the venue for the Welcome Reception hosted by the Commander Australian Fleet; a glamorous evening attended by NSW Government and City of Sydney Council representatives as well as visiting Navy officers and sailors.
“We were also involved in the International Fleet Review by the Hon Quentin Bryce. Being part of the ‘Cheer Ship’ as the Governor General sailed by was a proud moment and a particular highlight.”
I don’t really need to ask Allison if she would recommend a Navy career to other women. It’s obvious in her commitment, passion and enthusiasm that the answer is, “Absolutely!” She says, “The Navy has afforded me the opportunity to develop both personally and professionally and I look forward to the challenges that lie before me.”
No doubt SUCCESS will loom large.