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 Brianna Casey, CEO at Foodbank Australia.
Brianna Casey, CEO at Foodbank Australia
Brianna is the CEO of Foodbank Australia, the country’s largest hunger-relief organisation. In this role, she is proud to be tackling both food insecurity and food waste not only in Australia but also across the world through her involvement with the Global Foodbanking Network. Brianna joined Foodbank in July 2016 following her successful term as CEO of Australian Childcare Alliance NSW, where she championed the rights of families to be able to access quality early childhood education and care. Prior to that, she spent 14 years in agri-politics, as a Policy Director at NSW Farmers and as CEO of Queensland Farmers’ Federation. She’s a graduate of the Australian Rural Leadership Program, an unashamed ‘agvocate’ and recently received a Pro Bono Australia Impact 25 Award in recognition of her impact in the social sector.
Brianna is a mum to two sports-mad boys, so on weekends and most weeknights, you can find her at soccer, futsal, cricket or Little Athletics, where she isn’t so good at sitting still or keeping quiet! And if you work out of home and you have primary school-aged children, you’ll know how important it is to have fabulous before and after school care, so Brianna has also spent the last 7 years playing various roles on this committee at her youngest son’s school. She’s a keen baker, appalling cyclist and firmly believes life’s too short for bad coffee.
CEO’s lead from the front. What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organisation?
First and foremost, I see the role of CEO and leadership as two different things. As CEO it is important that I lead from the front and my decisions inform how we function as a team, a well-oiled machine at that!
Leadership to me is actually not being out at the front, rather corralling from behind. A ‘we are in this together’ approach. Ensuring we are all on a path to deliver the best impact we can for the vulnerable Australians we serve. I want my team to know that I have their backs. Here, if we fail, we fail fast, get back up again and move forward together.
What is your best habit?
One of my staff coined this phrase about me, “radical transparency”. I think of it as no surprises. As a national CEO of a network of state and territory Foodbanks with a range of operating and management styles, I want them to know where I am at. Equally as important, I want my staff to know what I am doing and why.
You could call me a radical over-sharer! It’s been part of my success that what you see is what you get.
In my very first week, I implemented a weekly email to my board, all state and territory CEOs and my staff where I captured what we’ve been up to for the week and what’s coming up next week. This provides the opportunity for them to have input and confidence in knowledge of knowing what we are doing.
The one boundary I do have is social media and my children. My children are not fair game on social media.
Culture is fundamental to organisational success. How do you help new employees understand the culture of your organisation?
By living it from day one. New staff go through an induction that is beyond process. It sounds cheesy but it really is “welcome to the Foodbank family”. My glass door policy is a huge part of it. Understanding our values and what drives us is fundamental to our culture.
The values of why a person joins Foodbank is also important. You need to have empathy for people who are at rock bottom. You need to understand people at a human level.
Family is important here. It’s all about the noisy exit. We don’t hide family. If you want to go to your kids’ assembly, go and enjoy it!
No business operates in isolation. When you are considering partnering with another person or business, what factors are deal-breakers for you?
This is a crucial question for us as we have over 70 national and multinational partners. When we are looking at new partners, we look at business values, business performance and media presence. The reputation piece is critical. Are they living their values? We weigh this up against the benefits the partnership might bring us.
We have to take a careful, calculated decision. Some things are non-negotiable like tobacco and alcohol, as they are so intrinsically linked to food insecurity.
The demand for food relief is increasing and we have to address ethical and moral dilemmas every day.
Succession planning is key to building a sustainable organisation. How do you choose who to promote?
Whoever unlocks the key to perfect succession planning will be very lucky.
We have a formal and structured performance process. As a team, we set KPI’s so that we all buy into supporting each other in the process of meeting the team and individual KPI’s. As a team, we also celebrate our successes.
Some things that I look for:
Going above and beyond. I don’t mean in this as staying back and working long hours. I mean helping other members of the team and being there for our Foodbank family more broadly. That’s what going above and beyond means to me.
The feedback I receive from our stakeholders.
And then just gut instinct.
Where do you draw your support and inspiration from as a leader?
There have been a few things, two in particular.
Firstly, I was tapped on the shoulder 15 years ago to participate in the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation program. I had joined the Queensland Farmers Federation as an environment officer and following the resignation of the CEO, I was asked by the Chair to keep the seat of the CEO warm and it lasted 5 years. I was 23 years old.
I have never underestimated the significance and risk of the decision he took. They saw something in me that I didn’t.
That experience put me on a path of wanting to celebrate people and give them the push into what that they are capable of – even if they don’t know it yet.
Secondly, I see my role as a privilege. To give families who are at rock bottom a hand up and not a handout. It’s what gets me, actually all of us, out of bed and the relativity of what really matters in life.
The role of the CEO is quite unique. What advice would you give someone going into a CEO leadership role for the first time?
Surround yourself with a network of people who share your values. For me, courage and kindness are important when connecting.
Be open to being mentored.
Mentor others. See the potential in others and support them. It’s a superb way of questioning your own practices and perspectives. You have to think about how you do leadership. I’ve gotten more from mentoring because of that.
Talk to friends and colleagues outside of work to sound out and test ideas with.
Know how you recharge your batteries. Understand your own operating principles.
What leadership decision are you most proud of?
We had a really challenging situation last year. Six weeks out from Christmas we found out that the federal government was going to halve our funding. This was significant because we can leverage that funding by a multiple of five.
It is thoroughly unorthodox for charities to speak out when things like this happen because of the risk to ongoing funding. You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you.
But we were talking about a decision that was about to affect many Australians and the first thing I did was ring my Chair and say I understand that this is a risky play but I want and need the full support of you and the board.
I used every ounce of what I have learnt in my career to get me through the process. I put my philosophy of radical transparency into play. I briefed the key politicians, the press gallery, the opposition, our key stakeholders and my staff. Everyone from the PM’s office to my team knew what my next play was going to be and then I used my networks hard.
I didn’t blink and in 24 hours the decision was reversed.
It all boiled down to my Chair and Board trusting me and my team being brave.
Identifying the opportunity, chasing it for the right reasons, communicating effectively, executing well and leveraging your networks is what leadership is about.
You can connect with Brianna and Foodbank at:
LinkedIn: Brianna Casey | Foodbank
Facebook: Brianna Casey | Foodbank
Twitter: @briannacasey1 | @FoodbankAus
Instagram: @briannacasey1 | @foodbankaus
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 02 9279 2777.