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Changemaker  |  Social Issues

Encouraging People to Ask Why

12 December 2016 at 10:17 am
Wendy Williams
Anita Le Lay is the head of Uniting Disability. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 12 December 2016 at 10:17 am


Encouraging People to Ask Why
12 December 2016 at 10:17 am

Anita Le Lay is the head of Uniting Disability . She is this week’s Changemaker.

Le Lay has worked in the care sector for more than two decades.

In that time she has taken on leadership roles across strategy and operational management, contract and grant management, performance management, human resource management, corporate services and training and facilitation. She has experience in child and family, criminal justice, disability, mental health, employment and youth services.

As a director at Uniting, she is responsible for a $56 million portfolio and over 220 staff, covering the greater Metropolitan Sydney, South-East NSW, the NSW Central Coast and ACT.

She helps to drive overall organisational performance and the delivery of the strategic plan.

Another key component of her role is leading the transformation of Uniting services so they are ready for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

According to Le Lay, in “25 years in not-for-profit land” she has never seen change occur on such an enormous scale. She said she is inspired to be part of a movement of people that’s changing the way we think about support for people with disabilities.

Le Lay is also a non-executive director of Job Centre Australia, a not-for-profit organisation operating across NSW and QLD. JCA provides disability employment services, transition to work services, youth2work program and Aboriginal Employment Pathways Program (NSW).

In this week’s Changemaker, Le Lay talks about encouraging people to ask why, the impact of giving people choice and control and why it is important to make time to get up on the balcony.

Anita La Ley What drew you to the not-for-profit sector?

Well, 25 years ago I finished my social work degree and never left really. So I think I chose social work firstly before the not-for-profit sector, I suppose. But I think that for me, it was important to do something that allowed me to make a difference in someone’s life and really just to be impactful in some way.

Social work allows you to do that in a number of sectors, you can work in government and others places, but I think for me the not-for-profit space was about impact at a systemic level and also the ability to kind of work with people and effect change at an individual level. So at the heart of it it was about social change and really that is something I am passionate about so I suppose putting all those pieces together is why I started here and have never left.

You worked your way up from the ground level, gaining experience on both the frontline and in the corporate services side of things. How helpful has it been to understand both elements?

I think it has absolutely been critically helpful. I think that more and more as our environment asks us to be leaner, so whether we are funded through government sources or any other sources, the not-for-profit space is about being leaner, it is about being more efficient and it’s about innovating. And really we are being asked to drive change at such a fast pace now so I think that to have had experience operationally and to have experience from a corporate services perspective allows me really to think about things, using what I think about as an enterprise approach. So it’s about regardless of where we are in an organisation, the core purpose is the same, we are operating from the same value space and really the people we support sit at the middle of everything we do, whether we are in accounts, or in marketing or delivering those services frontline.

So I think to kind have straddled both really allows me to think about collaboration in a different way and ask operations to be mindful of the challenges that corporate services have in delivering, and the reverse, remind corporate services of their role in allowing operations to deliver to the people we support. So be able to look through two lenses really.

What does a typical day for you entail as head of Uniting Disability?

In essence, no day is the same, but in a way it’s I think why I’m still here and I think that’s what drives and motivates me.

My first answer to this question is that some days it feels like I literally am in 400 meetings but it’s more than that. We work on a 90-day planning cycle in Uniting, and our 90-day plans are anchored off our strategic plans, so essentially it is important for us to be agile. A typical day can just be about accommodating changes that are going on around us, either in our 90-day plan or other things that are going on, it often involves engaging stakeholders whether they’re internal or external around projects and operational issues.

I always try and find a balance of operational requirements and some time for leadership and some time for reflection but often fail! So, in the absence of that I actually try to find time for some humour and some fun, because I think that balances. And lastly, I think to thrive and not just survive, I use exercise, so a typical day for me usually involves some exercise, usually in the morning and usually that’s when I have my best thoughts. The trick is then to remember them when I get back to the office.

What do you like best about working at Uniting?

One of our key strategic areas in our current strategic plan is a really beautiful piece around reimagining how we work with vulnerable people and communities. And I think that’s what I like best.

It is an organisation that kind of says, look we can keep doing what we’re doing, keep doing the same work, generating the same results or we can actually seriously re-look and reimagine the way that we work. And this particular part of the strategy sits around innovation, sits around co-design, and using people that we support and the communities that we work in and putting them at the centre and kind of thinking about how we work with them to wrap solutions around them, rather than delivering solutions to them. So I think for me, that notion of reimagining what we’re doing is something I like very much about Uniting.

What are some of your organisation’s current priorities?

No different to anybody else’s I’d imagine. So, we’re a very large organisation, 8,500 staff, $800 million turnover, so very large. But, there’s a very short, sharp change program that we’re undertaking at the moment, wrapping that around our delivery models, our structure, and a very large piece around cultural change. And so we’re no different to any other not for profit who is really needing to understand how to operate financially sustainably, live within funding envelopes, but I also think our current priorities are about learning how to be agile, not just talking about it, actually doing it, learning how to be creative, and innovative as well. So there are concurrent priorities.

You are leading the transformation of Uniting services so they are ready for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. What challenges have you faced in this transition?

What challenges haven’t we faced. No, look 25 years in not-for-profit land and I’ve never seen change occur on such an enormous scale. But I do think that with this level of seismic social change, there’s really such potential to be impactful for generations to come.

So we’ve been working for the last two or three years on a comprehensive change program, and some of the challenges have been reworking our culture, moving ourselves from thinking about clients with little choice, I suppose, to customers with a lot of choice. We’re challenged like everybody in the NDIS operating environment that customers will choose us in future or not choose us. So I think some of the challenges have been in understanding what we do best, what our customers need and how we can provide them with that. We’ve also had to reengineer our shared services, our corporate services, to support our frontline to deliver in different ways, we’ve looked at technology. We’re looking at community embedded mobile work teams, we’ve created low cost hubs and transitioned people out of traditional offices and desk spaces, and I tell you what, that has been a significant challenge. And we’ve also had to understand really how much our services cost in a way that we’ve never had to before.

I think the last challenge is really getting leaders in our teams to think about new or different ways of thinking and really discarding old ways of thinking and I’m really inspired and excited by seeing that in quite young managers now who are using new language, new thinking and really challenging themselves around that, sort of really working out of our default positions.

Are you excited about the NDIS?

Absolutely. I mean the direction and the destination of the NDIS is the right one, I think we all acknowledge the road is pretty bumpy at the moment, but again I think anything at this transformational level is going to have challenges.

Uniting also play a role as local area coordination services in New South Wales and so we’ve got a couple of different hats that we play, and we’re certainly mindful that everybody is experiencing some level of short-term pain, but we’re seeing incredible impact already on people with disability and their families.

People who’ve previously had no choice in the support they’ve received or they’ve been sitting on wait lists, they’ve been unable to fund basic equipment to live their lives well and we’re starting to see that change so I think that’s something to get really excited about.

Through your work what is your ultimate goal?

I like to, as part of the big change agenda and as part of transforming, it’s probably a really simple one. I really want to keep encouraging people to be asking why. Why are we doing it this way, why does it need to be this way. I love that Uniting enables me and in fact the external change environment enables me to be a bit of a disruptor if you like. And inspire other people to be asking why.

So I think it is about how can we do it differently, why are we doing it this way and through that comes change, comes innovation, it can be little things, it can be big things, but I think that’s my ultimate goal, to keep my team moving through that and working with the people that we support around that as well.

What inspires you?

I think there is two parts to this question. Personally my family, I’ve got two sons, just starting in university and my daughter is just starting high school. And I just am inspired by sitting back and watching their lives unfold. And seeing what exciting paths lie ahead for them. So I think personally, I can’t wait to see that play out and that inspires me.

And professionally. I was thinking about this, I think just being part of a movement of people, community and government, that’s changing the way we think about support for people with disabilities is inspiring.

So it’s pretty basic but I think we have taken for granted for so long, that the little things that we take for granted, that help us live an everyday ordinary life, having a job, having somewhere to live, going to school, being part of community, haven’t always come easily for a person with a disability. Even in a first world country like Australia. So I think it’s a really inspiring time to be part of this sector and watch people sort of really coming to understand what it means for them.

Yesterday I was sat in a meeting and we were talking about the scheme and I was with a frontline team, and I always like to hear good news stories and the team told me the story of a 13-year-old boy with muscular dystrophy from a western Sydney area. So low socioeconomic demographic, he had had no support provided through the state at all. He was a little boy who used a wheelchair and I don’t know if you know, but life expectancy of people with muscular dystrophy is not that long, and the family had no capacity to take him into the community because they had no modified vehicle.

So he was a little boy, part of his goals of his NDIS plan were to get out and go to groups and to just do stuff on the weekend. His family couldn’t afford [it]. The only other way to get him to any of those places was expensive taxis and they had no modified vehicle. So the team were talking to me about the planning process and about how the NDIS plan has actually given the family the budget to modify their car, which now allows them to take him wherever he wants to go as a normal little 13-year-old boy and it has really, impactfully changed their lives now. They’ve got support coming into the home where they had none before, I don’t know how they were coping. But you know he is a little 13-year-old who just wants to get out and do stuff, like any other ordinary 13-year-old and that’s the power of the scheme. So that’s inspiring.

What are you reading at the moment?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am reading the Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Change Management, so boring. But look, I am an avid reader, I’m always happy to mix up work reading with a bit of fiction, so I’m actually reading Hannah Kent’s The Good People, certainly a book that takes you away from the 21st Century.

Do you have a favourite saying?

This is a funny one… I asked my leadership team [this question] and hilariously I ended up with an email with the subject line entitled Anita-isms and a long list of sayings, so clearly I have little insight into what I do like to say.

But seriously, I actually tend to spend a bit of time reminding people to “Make time to get up on the balcony”. I think it is critical that as the pace of change quickens, our workloads increase that we all as leaders make time to get off the playing field and to purposefully make time to think about strategy and broader directional pieces, so that’s what that means, making time to get up on the balcony.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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