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Learning To Be a Leader


Monday, 10th October 2016 at 11:38 am
Wendy Williams, Journalist
Anne Crooks is the head of finance and ICT for YWCA NSW and a recent graduate of the Sydney Leadership Course. She is this week’s Changemaker.


Monday, 10th October 2016
at 11:38 am
Wendy Williams, Journalist


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Learning To Be a Leader
Monday, 10th October 2016 at 11:38 am

Anne Crooks is the head of finance and ICT for YWCA NSW and a recent graduate of the Sydney Leadership Course. She is this week’s Changemaker.

The YWCA NSW is on the frontline for improving gender equality and eliminating violence against women.

The charity raises funds through profit-for-purpose businesses, donations and government grants to provide a range of programs and services which deliver domestic violence support, women’s refuges, homeless support, mentoring for young women, financial literacy and life skills.

Crooks, who started out as a lawyer before becoming a finance and business professional, and has worked as a strategic financial and credit analyst in the corporate, institutional banking and legal sectors in Australia and USA, joined the team in 2014.

She holds advisory and NFP non-executive board roles in community engagement, leadership, financial literacy programs, and gender and diversity inclusion. She has an MBA in finance, a master in financial analysis, and is now part of the Social Leadership Australia alumni community.

The Sydney Leadership Course is Australia’s foremost social leadership program, based on current international research and theory on how adults learn, and how adults develop new skills to exercise leadership.

Participants work hands-on, with real world challenges to build a skill set that empowers them to make decisions in complex and uncertain situations.

Crooks, who received a scholarship to do the course from The Teen Spirit Foundation, said she was extremely grateful for the opportunity as the course had “opened her mind”.

In this week’s Changemaker she talks about making the move to the not-for-profit sector, the challenges to gender equality and why all not for profits could benefit from learning leadership techniques.

You are an experienced finance and business professional, what drew you to the not-for-profit sector?

Anne CrooksI started out my career as a young lawyer and I was working in the late 80s when Australia went into recession. It was just before the Labor government started changing our economic policies and Australia became more global and more relevant, before that we were still a little bit remote. I just didn’t see a future in that business and I looked for other work. And I ended up going to the United States where I did an MBA.

I originally thought I might do something in an environmental space and I quickly learned that at that point I needed to have a technical, scientific background and so I ended up majoring in finance which was something very different.

Then I moved back to Australia… with a young family… After that I moved into doing some board work and I really got involved in not for profit and involved with a bunch of other communities. I was involved with school communities, my old school, being interested in the role of women and particularly professional women and things like the gender pay gap, opportunities for women who have young children. I have now teenagers but I know what it’s like having to juggle all of those roles and so I got involved in a number of not for profits on the board side and it sort of went from there.

This opportunity came up at YWCA. My boss is Anna Bligh, the former Queensland premier, and she was really looking to shake up the way things were and she liked my background. So I wasn’t a strictly financial hire, I was hired for strategic purposes. So there was a recognition I think that she thought, “we need to be able to do more and I think that you’re creative enough to be able to find different ways for us to achieve what we need to”, and certainly I have done a great deal in the two years that I’ve been here.

Sometimes when you move into a very traditional space it is not that hard to improve things. I’ve been very fortunate to watch the impact on my team, to see their own growth as they see the work that they do become more meaningful across the organisation, to see the level of respect grow where perhaps the organisation appreciates their value add, so it’s been very, very rewarding and also very challenging.

I think when you’re in the corporate world and you move into the not-for-profit space where people have a purpose and their own personal purpose is aligned with what their professional one is, it makes it very easy to stay passionate, to stay motivated, and you are around like-minded people, so for me that is some of the biggest rewards.

What are some of YWCA’s current priorities?

The organisation… has been around for about 130 years… there are 11 YWCA’s around Australia, and we are working closely with all those other Y’s to be more aligned in terms of purpose, in terms of program delivery and the idea really is to be able to be at some point recognised as the voice of women in Australia.

So there isn’t a not for profit out there that speaks specifically to some of the issues that are being faced by women and their families today, some of the big issues and some of the vulnerable people that we work with and these people don’t really have a voice. And while there is a lot of stuff in the press… and there is people like Rosie Batty attracting attention to these sorts of things, there is less money going into legal aid to support them, there is less money going into program delivery and support wrap around services….but, [and] it is not a bad thing, but there is more money going into the legal system and police powers and training for them, which is all good, there is just not enough out there for everyone. There is not enough emergency housing, there is not enough information. So there is a lot of work that we are doing particularly in growing those services.

The YWCA NSW is on the frontline for improving gender equality and eliminating violence against women. What are the biggest challenges facing gender equality?

I have a view based on the work that I have done in the space and it is cultural. It starts with financial inequality, so when women are paid less, the message you send is they are valued less and it pervades all parts of the systems they work in, not just in their professional life but in their personal life and their family lives. And if you have multiple generations where women’s roles are not valued, the role as mother or caregiver or whatever that role might be, that she has made as a choice, that also doesn’t seem to be valued by our society in Australia, which is a shame.

So there is some cultural shift that needs to occur. And there are organisations, we are working very closely with Commonwealth Bank for example, they have quite a big recognition of a gender inequality coming from finances and they are working with their clients and we’re working with them to develop a lot of internal education. So they have, I can’t remember how many, 100,000 employees, if you look at the statistics for domestic violence for example, that means that there is a lot of victims who are in their employ, but there is also a lot of perpetrators, so there is a bunch of things that we’re working on in small pieces. We’re looking at technology, at an iphone app for information, which we’re piloting I think out of Nowra and Campbelltown, so there is a bunch of things that we’re doing in that space. Are we big names and big players, not yet, but we plan to be.

I had in fact a conversation with one of my peers from high school the other day, so this is a woman who has worked as a professional pharmacist her whole life, and her daughter is a young lawyer who is working for one of the big firms. Law firms, many of them, still use billable hours as their primary form of measurement, but you know that doesn’t work if you have other responsibilities, or if you want to work part time, it just doesn’t work. You are always undervalued because if you don’t have the hours to put in, it doesn’t matter how many clients you might bring in their door, it doesn’t matter how many systems you may introduce that increase productivity, it doesn’t matter what kind of mentor you are to your team, that stuff is not measured. So I was saying to her “aren’t you worried if she goes along this path, shouldn’t she look for work where they support their female lawyers more” and she was really having a go at me, because she said “well it is her choice, if she wants to stop working for five or six years to have children”, and I was like “no, she’ll never get back in, that’s not her choice”, and she said well, “what would you do Anne?” and I said I’d change a lot of things. But I’m not in government.

The whole paid parental leave, in principle it is a great idea, but I don’t think anything should be called parent anything because when you differentiate parents from the rest of the population, not everyone is a parent and it affects certain age groups, and it typically affects women. Men don’t typically take parental leave, there are a lot of places with flexible work hours and the men are not taking it because culturally they see it as a sign of weakness or they’re going to miss out or they won’t get the promotion or they won’t get the pay rise.

I’m not a raging man hater by any means but I think it is a cultural problem and if men and women aren’t on the same page on all of this, we’re not going anywhere, it’s not a job for women to do on their own.

You recently completed the Sydney Leadership course, what did the program involve?

It is a very different program from any formal training that I’ve ever done. I do have an MBA, I do have another masters in finance and most leadership gets done on a day off-site or a couple of hours or they bring in a consultant, to really focus on what I would call technical skills, so it’s things that are known or knowable, “make hard decisions”, “lead from the front”, that sort of approach to leadership. This program turns this whole concept completely on its head. It’s not even the opposite, it is a way of looking at leadership where you are helping the environment or the system you work in, understand what’s going on around them and try and solve its own problems.

An example would be, you’ve got a big process of change coming in, here is the plan, this is what is going to happen, here are the three to five steps, here is the next eight steps, these are the people whose names appear on what’s going to happen, this is what you’ve got to expect, and this is what we’re telling you to do. So a lot of organisations will say, “we’re doing this because we want to be excellent, we want to be leaders in our field etc.”, and the staff go “oh yeah here we go, another change process going nowhere, I don’t understand why they’re doing it”, they all go off and start gossiping, conversations around the watercooler, people start sabotaging, they make busy work, they try and communicate but nobody is listening… because they are all off on their project, pushing the message down from above. So it is a lot of data download and not a lot of collaboration or talking and it might work or it might not work.

Whereas this adaptive leadership talks a lot more about clarifying your purpose, why are you doing something, instead of saying this is what we’re going to do. And opening up to all the voices and trying to understand what is going on.

So it is about data gathering, it is about interpretation, it is about looking at what you see on the surface and trying to understand what is really going on underneath, because there is always more stuff going on underneath. And when you start unpicking and understanding what’s going on underneath, what’s behind things, what are people’s motivations, what really needs to be done, what are the real problems, you can start having some really hard conversations… but you start to unpack a whole lot of things that you would never otherwise be able to identify.

How capable is the not-for-profit sector in adapting to change?

There is really interesting report [on the not-for-profit industry]… [it] shows what’s happened to the commercial space. So if you look in Australia at who are the… the top 20 companies on the stock exchange 20 years ago, 15 years ago, they are not the same people who are there now. They are entirely different. There was no Google, there was no Yahoo, there was no Uber. All of these very, very different companies are now the ones that are not only the most profitable but the ones leading the advances in technology and change. Whereas if you look at the not-for-profit sector over the same period, the big names haven’t changed at all. So the organisations that get most money are the same ones that were getting money 25 years ago… Universities have moved a lot, they get a lot of grants so that’s moved quite a bit but most organisations like ours, that provide social services have just really stagnated and the reason for that is, with a government-funded model, first of all you are being told how to spend your money, and your mission is to help people so there isn’t money available to invest in anything, so all of your assets, like your knowledge based assets, IT, your people, education, marketing, all of those sort of services were just not invested in, which means that people in the space, are a little bit behind the eight ball, than their commercial colleagues. There wasn’t the money to invest in developing, and it is really a shame because we’re not as productive, we always have to have less people, we’ve always got limited resources, and its a really difficult balance.

So I fit in the place where I have to make decisions about how money gets spent and if there is extra money, and we’re in the position where we have some commercial income so we have a little bit available, but other not for profits don’t necessarily have, but it’s difficult. Now I am investing in our IT and I’m investing in the education of our staff because I can see how much more productive and profitable and how much more we can do when we do that. So it’s a tough one.

What are some of the benefits of applying these techniques to the not-for-profit sector?

I can’t see how anyone would not benefit. It is a wonderful, it is just an extraordinary way of opening up people’s mind to look at maybe taking the personal out of everybody’s view of the world. And being able to see things in an objective manner.

There is a jargon that we use that is called to get on the balcony. And for the first two or three sessions I had no clue what they were talking about… It was that idea that if you go up on a balcony, and you look down at the dance floor, you see something very different. Your perspective is quite different from if you are actually down on the dancefloor in the dance. It’s even different if you are watching the dancers and you are on the side of the dancefloor. It is a metaphor, but the idea is if you are sitting in a meeting and you can view what is going on in the conversation or the way things are going from the point of view of what is actually happening here, what is the interplay of values, what is the interplay of priorities, who is pushing their authority down on other people, who’s trying to undermine somebody else’s view of authority, it is just a very different perspective. And it opens up an ability to interpret your environment or your system, or your problem solving or whatever it is you are working on, it opens it up and you see things in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily have if you are always in the middle of the dance floor and everyone is dancing around you and you are in the middle of it. The course teaches you lots and lots of different ways to get there.

What were some of the key takeaways from this program?

One of the templates you can look at is, is what you’re trying to do technical or adaptive, is your problem a technical or adaptive one. So we have some restrictions in our financial reporting process, well that’s a technical problem, I just need to upgrade my software. What is my adaptive problem, well I actually have to change the way people work in order to really implement it. And why is it adaptive, well because people like the way they work so far, they like the way things are, they like the way things are reported, either because they are comfortable with it and they’re a bit nervous about their capabilities, or maybe somebody else might not want it clear that this is where we are actually spending our money and at the moment it’s a bit murky. If there is a problem with a staff member, is it a personal problem or it is a systemic problem? Is it a problem because there is not a proper process and this poor person it doing the best they can, working in a very flexible environment where nobody is really clear what they should or shouldn’t be doing, or interacting with that member of staff or maybe they’re not appropriately managed or maybe they have inherited a bunch of process from a previous employee and they are just doing what they’ve been told and they’re not the problem, it’s actually a system problem.

Then you start looking at well what is your role in the system. People have authority from their rank, from their title, so I’m head of finance, but what real authority do I have in the organisation. I have authority in other places… people in the hotel business find me approachable, my doors open they come tell me stuff, that gives me an enormous amount of indirect authority which someone else might find quite threatening. So you might get in a meeting and they’re having a go at you and it’s nice to know “oh actually they’re having a go at me because they don’t like that I know so much about what’s going on”.

There is a guy called Heifetz who is from Harvard, which a lot of this is based on and he looks at different ways of analysing systems, what happens when you have change, when people resist, he calls those the “unspeakables”. We looked at different ways that people communicate, so I found this tremendously helpful actually, so I’m doing a lot of talking, I’m downloading on you, I’m downloading a lot of information… often it is like that with presentations, let me just dump it on you, I’ll ask a few questions to make me feel like I’m connecting you in but I’m not really, I’m just dumping all this stuff on you. Then you’ve got debate, which is what a lot of us do, it is a circular sort of way we talk, you know a bit like my conversation with my friend who thought that her daughter should be able to leave work and that’s ok because it is her choice. So that was a very circular defensive sort, she was not really listening to me and I was so appalled that I wasn’t really listening to her either… and then the next level would be, what am I really hearing? So when you talk to people and you are hearing stuff, you know the idea is to really listen and try and understand what they’re really saying. Sometimes they say x and they mean y. And then really good communication is when you ask open ended questions and you can sit there and be compassionate and listen even if you don’t like what you’re hearing, or ask more questions, and try and unpack it. So there was a lot of those sorts of skills.

Dealing with authority, that was a good one for me. How do you deal with authority and a lot of us don’t do that well, particularly where there is conflict. How do you hold relationships through conflict, that was really eye opening for me because if I think about it I would rather avoid the conflict or the relationship is more important to me than doing that work, so I compromise. And so that was really interesting, I’m not saying I know how to do it, but I’m really exploring that and that’s a skill set that I intend to develop more.

Understanding loss, what’s the loss. Is it a personal thing or a systems thing.

Understanding timing, is this something that I can push through or do I need to go slow. I have some internal things because we were building new businesses and new processes, and I made a decision to leave everyone in their pain because they weren’t on board with why there needed to be a change in the process. So that was a change and  a process, very technical but the adaptive change was they didn’t want to do it, they couldn’t see the point, they couldn’t see how differently it was going to change their world, so I just left them in the mist for a period of time which was really difficult  to hold that line but we’ve come out the other side and everyone is on board. Which is great.

Do you see yourself staying in the not-for-profit sector for the rest of your career?

Ultimately, I plan to stay in this space whether it is with this organisation or with another, or whether it is with further board work, one of the unexpected benefits of this course was the social leadership also launched their mentoring program this year with former participants and there are some extraordinary people who have been involved and I was hooked up with a woman called Claire Braund, and Claire is one of the founders of Women on Boards. I am really excited about that so I’ve been part of Women on Boards, probably for about six years, but I’d like to work with her a little bit more and so some more things. So whether it is in paid work or in board work I think that’s eventually where I would like to be.

I also would be open to doing some more of this kind of work with a commercial organisation like the Commonwealth Bank or that sort of larger organisation, I think also PwC,  has a philanthropic arm, Macquarie Foundation, there is a lot of larger corporates that have more money allocated who care doing good work. So it will be interesting to be able to look at both sides.

The other area that is kind of interesting is impact financing. So there is an enormous amount of wonderful young people who are launching new businesses with social purposes, so I often think that is a fascinating area and there is lots of different sorts of models that are coming up.

See here for more information about the Sydney Leadership Course.


Wendy Williams  |  Journalist |  @ProBonoNews

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector.

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