Breaking Down Barriers
24 March 2014 at 9:36 am
Working her way through university as a disability support worker gave Claire Robbs enough of a taste of the Not for Profit sector to know it was the right fit for her. Robbs is this week’s Changemaker.
Armed with more than 20 years’ experience in the welfare and community services sector, Robbs joined Life Without Barriers, a Not for Profit that provides care and support services across Australia and New Zealand, in 2004.
As part of the many senior positions she has held in the organisation, Robbs oversaw the commencement of services to refugees and asylum seekers and the delivery of new services across youth justice, mental health and homelessness.
She also played a pivotal role in the success of the organisation’s Life Without Barriers’ diversification strategy.
From 2005, she led the Life Without Barriers’ operations division and by 2010 was appointed Deputy CEO, Operations and a year later was appointed Chief Executive.
Robbs recently joined the board of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA), the peak body for NGOs providing services for children and young people and is a member of the New South Wales State Committee with the National Disability Services.
What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?
I came from a practice background, studied the sector, and knew it was for me. My role has changed since starting as a disability support worker.
I didn’t particularly focus on becoming a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) but I moved into management roles early in my career.
In 2012 I graduated from an Executive Masters of Business Administration (EMBA) which has helped me to bring a more commercial strength to the organisation to complement the practice strength of our service delivery.
My EMBA also focused on leadership skills which were transferable in a CEO role, irrespective of which sector you work in.
How long have you been working in the Not for Profit sector?
More than 20 years.
What was your first job in the Not for Profit sector?
I started as a disability support worker in Scotland as I worked my way through university. In coming to Australia I started as a residential care worker and then moved to more behavioural support and clinical services roles ending up in a management role.
I have been with Life Without Barriers for 10 years now, holding many different roles and in 2011, became CEO.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Seeing change, knowing that I can make a positive difference in people’s lives and the community, advocating and seeing new developments in the sector.
What has been the most challenging part of your work?
The pace of change and reform around the organisation both internally and externally is frenetic and sometimes overwhelming.
Making sense of this for people so they understand what is happening around them is a real day to day challenge.
We try to overcome this by sharing with people why we are doing what we are doing, trying to make sense of things for people by sharing our story of where we have come from, where we are going and why and therefore why we need to do what we are doing now.
Of course, this is easier said than done but we spend a lot of time and energy as part of our business planning, change and project management, and communications on “sense-making” so people can join us on the journey.
What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
I passionately believe in the values and purpose of the organisation and love the spirit and identity of Life Without Barriers.
I consider my greatest achievement to be …
Juggling my passion for helping others while watching my children grow into happy and healthy young people.
Favourite saying …
“Every day is a new day, and I love making a difference.”
I’m always being asked …
How do I juggle work and children? To answer honestly, sometimes well and sometimes not so well but like all of us, I do my best every day; and at home we are honest about when the balance is right and what we will do when it is not.
It is also about teamwork, I am lucky that I have a great partner to be a team with at home and a fabulous team at work also.
What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?
I am very busy with family and work so I love short, snappy opportunities such as the TED talks being held in Sydney soon (TED is a global set of not-for-profit conferences under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”).
Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?
Since Life Without Barriers began in the 1990s our services have grown from delivering disability services in Newcastle, New South Wales, to delivering the full scope of services in Australia and more recently New Zealand.
My ultimate dream would be to continue to deliver better and more personalised services to people wherever they live, and in particular, some of Australia’s remote communities.
My greatest challenge is …
Identifying new opportunities to make a difference, whether it’s through the services we deliver or the communities we deliver them too.
Keeping pace with changes such as the NDIS is another challenge too.
School taught me …
My schooling taught me that through passion and discipline you can make a difference.
What does a typical day for you involve?
As we deliver community services to more than 250 communities, I am on the road every week, visiting sites, meeting our clients and support teams and external partners.
My usual day starts at 7am through to 10pm, with a break in the evenings when I am home for my husband and kids.
I have the weekends off generally with family and friends, which is crucial time to assist in managing the balance in our family life.
The parts of the day I love most are when I get to meet with, and hear the stories from, the people we support and our local teams.
This reminds me of the difference we make in peoples lives every day and ensures I keep our organisational focus on our clients and their workers.
What (or who) inspires you?
I can be inspired in many ways, by people I read about, or by people others tell me about or even people I watch on television.
Most of all though I am inspired by the people I am fortunate enough to have meaningful relationships with because through these relationships I get to understand them as individuals in a more authentic way.
Where do you feel your passion for good came from?
I distinctly remember a defining moment when I was 11 years old. I was travelling with my family overseas and at one of the tourist places we visited there was a woman begging with her young baby in her arms.
It was a very cold winter and I remember how angry and frustrated I was at my own family and everyone else for just walking by.
From then on I think I convinced myself and others that I was going to do something good for others less fortunate than myself and I think this became a self-fulfilling prophecy for me, leading to study and then work in the Not for Profit sector.
What are you currently working on in your organisation?
As part of our 20th anniversary this year we have refreshed our brand and our values. Early in 2013, a group of us got together to develop a clear set of behaviours to underpin our values and bring them to life in our daily work.
Our refreshed values represent the voice and thoughts of all of us and underpin everything we do at Life Without Barriers. Our new brand also gives us a fresh and dynamic identity and marks the next chapter in our organisation’s journey.
We want to ensure that people’s experience of us is consistent with the way we describe ourselves and the core values we hold.
Another priority is the transforming of our disability services ready for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Through endorsing the NDIS in 2013, we will continue to ensure people with disability get more personalised, coordinated and responsive care than ever before.