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The CEO Series: Q&A with Sarah Ireland, CEO at One Girl

The CEO Series: Q&A with Sarah Ireland, CEO at One Girl

Liska Turner

about 2 years ago by Liska Turner

Liska Ceo Articles (7)

The CEO Series: Leadership Observations From The Front Line

Interviews with CEO'S from the For-Purpose sector with Liska Turner


For-Purpose leaders are as diverse as the organisations that they lead. Every couple of months I sit down with a CEO where they share their experiences and thoughts on leading a for-purpose organisation. This month I had the pleasure of talking to Sarah Ireland, CEO at One Girl.


Sarah Ireland, CEO at One Girl

Sarah began her career as a first-responder to the disaster zone in Myanmar from Cyclone Nargis. Since then, Sarah has built over 10 years of experience in humanitarian outreach, international aid, and the development sector.
She has led emergency response teams in the Philippines, Iraq and in the Horn of Africa. Then as a Humanitarian Advocacy and Policy Adviser, Sarah lobbied both Australian and overseas governments to increase foreign aid budgets and the intake of refugees, and to prioritise women and girls in their overseas aid programs. It was on the front line of disasters and crises where Sarah witnessed the power of education. Sarah is a winner of Pro Bono’s 2018 IMPACT 25 Awards and is currently the humanitarian representative on the Red Cross Australia Victorian International Humanitarian Law Advisory Committee.


CEO’s lead from the front. What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organisation?


I think in the first instance my decisions are based around the people of One Girl. This includes our staff in Melbourne and Freetown as well as the broader One Girl community which encompasses our supporters, corporate partners, suppliers and the young women we support in our programs.

The decisions I make need to respect the contributions of our supporters, provide inspiration to the young women in our programs as well have the biggest impact possible to support our organisational goals.

My decisions need to show the team that they are valued. This is through proper remuneration, and ensuring everyone has a voice and knows that their decisions are heard and communicated. This is essential because I want to provide an environment where the team can do their best work, be creative and provide solutions to the complex challenges that we face and have the best possible impact for girls and young women everywhere.


What is your best habit?


Talking to people. Listening to other peoples’ ideas and perspectives. Being available.

I sit in an open plan office. We sit very closely together, so talking, listening and being available to other people is easy to do here.


Culture is fundamental to organisational success. How do you help a new employee understand the culture of your organisation?


Leading up to my appointment and in the 14 months, I have been CEO we have had, bar 1, a wholesale turnover of staff. This was for a number of different reasons and I have seen it as a real opportunity to recruit a team aligned to our values and restructure some of the positions as well.

So, building culture has been something that we have all done together. As a team, we have co-designed our organisational values and mission statement and worked out ways we can embed these in our organisation.

We now have an induction process that incorporates our values and shows our ways of working. We also want new employees to see this in us as a team. So, starting this year we now use the weekly team meeting to reflect on where and how we have lived our values each week. Each meeting 2 staff members nominate themselves to reflect on this and share their observations with the group. Our values are now also embedded in our performance appraisal process, and in our external communications. This ‘seeing’ component sets the standards of expected behaviour.   


No business operates in isolation. When you’re considering partnering with another person or business, what factors are deal-breakers for you?


One Girl really values collaboration – we’re a small organisation and we know that we need to partner with others in order to have a global impact. However, being strongly values led, we also look to partner with organisations that align with our values, and believe in transparency, gender equality, and collaboration. Within this, we have really looked at our own sustainability and ethical practices, and look for the same in our partners. A deal-breaker might be if a partner doesn’t place the same value on gender equality and we don’t see this in their practices, such as paying their employees a living wage, for example.


Succession planning is key to building a sustainable organisation. How do you choose who to promote?


This is difficult in a small team with limited budgets and positions. I can’t create new positions for people to step up into. But I can ensure that everyone has access to training and professional development to build their experience and gain new skills. I have been blown away by the support from some of our volunteers who may not be able to support us with dollars but have offered coaching or mentoring opportunities for some of our junior team members. It’s quite remarkable really. Assigning a budget for professional development is challenging, so where we can access pro bono support for formal training or mentoring relationships I encourage staff to do this during office hours so they don’t need to do this in their own spare time.


Where do you draw your support and inspiration from as a leader?


I am really lucky as I have a mentor through Kilfinan and I also part of a leadership program called Tables of Ten which includes a free monthly coaching session. My Kilfinan mentor is a male and my Tables of Ten coach is a female which I really value as they offer different perspectives.

When I took this role on, I recognised that I did not have many female role models in similar positions, so I consciously reached out to some female leaders who I find inspiring and the response has been great. I have been upfront in my approach saying that I am a new CEO and I recognise that I “don’t know what I don’t know” so would value their advice and guidance.


You have discovered these past 14 months that the role of CEO is quite unique. What advice would you have given yourself 14 months ago?


Do your research on board governance! Both the technical elements of governance and compliance but also the relationships and different responsibilities of the board and CEO. My Kilfinan mentor has been invaluable to explore the dynamics and divisions of where the different responsibilities lie.

Also, give yourself a break. Acknowledge that everything doesn’t need to be done at once. Actually, it can’t be. For the first 6 to 8 months I worked a lot because I could see a lot of things that needed to be done. I am incredibly proud of what we have done here as a team at One Girl over the past 14 months and I need to remind myself that we can’t continue to deliver if we are burnt out. Time also gives perspective.  

And finally, make sure you are very transparent and open with the board. I have done this and have been very upfront about the operational and organisational challenges we have faced, and also where I see the priorities. For example, making recruitment a priority because without staff we can’t deliver on programs or funding.


What leadership decision are you most proud of?


This is a challenging one. The leadership decisions that I am most proud of are where I have made values-based decisions when it comes to fundraising that keeps the integrity of One Girl. It is where I have said no to funding because the potential supporter organisation or individual does not align with our organisational values.

If we are committed to gender equality and equal access to opportunity, education and health care in our international programs, then we also need to be committed to that in Australia as well. We are never going to change the world if we only talk to people like us and so we embrace opportunities where we are able to showcase a best practice pathway. This allows us to expand our impact outside of Sierra Leone and Uganda where we run programs, and make positive change all across the world.  Two of our values are Collaboration and Positivity and this has been a great way to live these values in a practical and impactful way.


Personal Social Accounts

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sarah.j.ireland/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarahjireland/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sarahjireland1


One Girl Social Accounts

Twitter: https://twitter.com/onegirlorg

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OneGirlOrg/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/onegirlorg/

Website: https://www.onegirl.org.au/


Liska Turner is an executive recruiter that specialises in the For-Purpose Sector. She works with Boards and CEO’s to build sustainable organisations through connecting people and ideas. She can be contacted at liska@beaumontpeople.com.au or 02 9279 2777.