A Quest to Avoid Complacency
11 September 2017 at 8:56 am
Georgie Harman is the CEO of mental health not for profit beyondblue which tackles stigma and discrimination, and provides support and information on anxiety, depression and suicide. She is this week’s Changemaker.
According to Harman she has got the “tripod of sectors under her belt” having worked in both the corporate and the community sectors as well as for government.
She is the former deputy CEO at the National Mental Health Commission.
She was responsible for Commonwealth policy, and investment in mental health, suicide prevention, tobacco control, substance misuse, cancer and chronic disease at the Department of Health from 2006 until 2012.
She was also the inaugural executive director for the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation in Sydney – Australia’s first and largest independent HIV/AIDS charity.
But she says coming to beyondblue felt like coming home.
Since June 2014 she has led the organisation, first established in October 2000, as it has expanded its focus from raising awareness of depression and reducing the associated stigma, to including suicide prevention in its core purpose.
In this week’s Changemaker, Harman talks about the lightbulb moment where she realised she wanted to make a contribution, putting kids on the path to a healthy future and why with suicide rates at a 10 year high, beyondblue should and must make a contribution to turning that around.
What drew you to work in the not-for-profit sector?
I have kind of got the tripod of sectors under my belt. So I started off working in the corporate sector, and then I worked in the community sector and then I worked in government and then when I came to beyondblue it kind of felt like coming home. So I know I have made the right sector choice.
Having said that, I’m not drawn to the sector for the feel good factor, that’s part of it, but I was drawn to this job in particular because I think that beyondblue is the kind of organisation that combines, what I call a community heart with a business head. So it is kind of entrepreneurial, it’s got an appetite for risk, it’s got a different DNA to a lot of not for profits, and that fits with my sort of psyche and my beliefs.
But ultimately, back in the iron age when I started my career, I was working in the corporate sector and then I was volunteering as a buddy for a person who was living with AIDS, as part of the Terrence Higgins Trust in London. Just making cups of tea, taking the dog for a walk, being a friend, sitting down having a chat whatever, and that was the lightbulb moment for me, that if I’m going to do something, if I’m going to spend a lot of time doing something in my life, I want it to feel like I am making a contribution, improving someone’s life. All of those cliche things that I think ultimately drive us.
What does a typical day look like for you as CEO of beyondblue?
The only thing that is typical is my days unpredictability. I’m a great list maker and by about 9 o’clock I’m throwing my list out the window. But I think it is important my day comprises of a mix of both work and play. I’m a morning person, so I get up very early and I go to the gym, I walk my dog, I use that time to kind of reflect and catch up with the news, I do my newsfeeds, do my emails. And then most days are a combination of back to back meetings and media, and travel and speaking engagements, and meetings and meetings and meetings.
So look, it’s highly unpredictable but directing traffic and giving guidance and making decisions and dealing with paperwork and then at the end of the day I go home. I try to leave work by 6pm every day, because I think it is important to set boundaries and set an example, but you know I might go home and start the night shift, I might be checking emails right up until the point I [go to bed] whatever. It is highly unpredictable but very busy and full and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What are beyondblue current priorities?
We’ve got a very clear business plan that my board signed off on back in June this year and we’ve got four really clear strategic priorities. The first is we were fortunate enough to win a Commonwealth tender for a new program for all Australian schools and early learning services to build a mental health program and create mentally healthy schools and learning environments, so that is a massive venture and an incredible opportunity to really change the trajectory of young Australians and their families and their educators. And we’re incredibly honoured to have won that or to be given that opportunity. But it is a huge task, we got a big task to do in a relatively short space of time. We’ve got to bring people along with us and we’ve got to prove that this thing can work and we’ve got to do that in two years, so, that is our number one priority – to get that new program designed and rolled out.
The second strategic priority is to create a very clear and discernible role for beyondblue that plays on our points of difference and the value that we can add in suicide prevention. So we’ve always had a role in suicide prevention we’ve just not necessarily been overt in that or named that ourselves, but we’ve now got a very clear decision of the board that with suicide rates at a 10 year high, beyondblue should and must make a contribution to turning that around. So we’re looking at the activities that we’re going to be doing in that space.
The third priority is a kind of digital agenda, we’ve been operating in the digital and online space, and I think doing some really interesting and innovative things. We were one of the first not for profits to really play seriously in this space but we’ve not invested in that or looked at our capability or refreshed our capability in that for a number of years, and as you know, technology moves very quickly. We’re now getting about 7.5 million visits to our online and digital platforms every year so we know that that’s how people are transacting and connecting with us, so how do we actually harness the power of digital and technology to create a pathway for people to support and to information and advice, but also how do we build relationships using those media. So there is a big digital transformation agenda that we’ve got that will have a benefit to the community but also, will set beyondblue up for the future.
The final strategy is about peer to peer support and coaching services. So again the traditional, medical model of providing mental health support treatment to people is really important but we also know from our contact with millions of Australians every year that, there is real power and benefit in people connecting with people who are going through something very similar. That peer to peer support, that offering of hope and recovery and sharing of stories. We’re trialling a number of new what are called low intensity services that use coaches, so not clinical staff but coaching staff who actually coach a person to recovery. So we’re really trying to develop new models of care and challenge and provide alternatives to the traditional medical model if you like.
So those are our four strategic priorities. There is a very clear vision, and it’s all about, for me, connecting real people in the ways in which they’re living their lives to the kinds of services and supports that they’re saying they want.
Are you expecting there to be any major changes with Julia Gillard replacing founding chairman Jeff Kennett?
No, absolutely not. Julia has been on our board since 2014, so we’ve got to know her and she’s got to know us and she’s been a serving member of our board and a great contributor at board level for a couple of years plus.
Clearly there is only one founding chair and Jeff Kennett did an extraordinary job in establishing beyondblue and turning us into what we are today. He would say it was a team effort and he would hate that statement that I made but that’s my view.
There is a special status for a founding chair. But we’re now at a different stage of our life, and Jeff decided it was time for him to retire and to hand the reigns to someone else and Julia has expressed very clearly that there is no sudden swerves in direction. Her job is to steer the organisation and lead the organisation along the strategic and business plan path that the board has set before she became chair. So we’re into the third year of the strategic plan, we’re into the first year of a three year business plan so she has made it clear that it is really just about a steady course and no sudden swerves or sudden movements in any other direction.
Through your work what is your ultimate goal?
When I was approached about the job and I was thinking about applying for the job, I really thought to myself, I don’t want to be heading up an organisation where I’m not able to get shit done. I want to be in an organisation that is about action, it is about results, it’s about not standing still, and challenging traditional paradigms. The characteristics of beyondblue that I’ve come to know and love in working in mental health for a number of years fitted that description.
There was a really dynamic chair and a really active board and a great team, and so that was really important to me. I guess, if I step back and when I come to the end of my time with beyondblue whenever that may be, I want to be able to look back and say, I left the organisation with a team that was far more talented than I am, and that it was set up, that we’ve created a viable organisation that actually has meaning for people and that is useful to people and that we haven’t passed our use by date, we’ve actually reinvented ourselves and we’ve set ourselves up to be an organisation that is going to be relevant and useful to people for the next number of years.
I think that constant quest to avoid complacency, that’s where I want to leave the organisation. To point to a few things and say, that was a seminal moment where we made that decision and now we’re supporting 90,000 people a month on our online forums for example, or we’re in hundreds of thousands of workplaces and we’re now into thousands of schools and we know we’re setting those schools and those kids up for a healthy future.
What are you reading or watching at the moment?
So I’ve been very patient because my flatmate needed to catch up with season three and four, but I’ve just started watching House of Cards, season five. I’m just obsessed and I’m having to be very self-disciplined because we’ve made a pact that we’ll only watch it together. So we’re both very busy.
And I’ve got a pile of books, that I keep on looking at and thinking “oh I must sit down and read”, but I don’t know what’s going on with me at the moment, I’m usually a pretty avid reader and I’ve always got a book on the go but for the last few months I just haven’t. I even went to Bali a couple of months ago and I had five days literally doing nothing in Bali and I took these three books with me and I think I got 30 pages into one. It took me five days to read 30 pages because I kept falling asleep. But look, in my pile there is Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, there is Stop Fixing Women by Catherine Fox, and there’s The Idiot, so a quite an eclectic mix and as I say I’ve kind of dipped into all of them but the day will come when I just pick up one and probably read it all in one sitting.
Do you have a favourite saying?
I actually did a bit of a straw poll with my executive team about this and I said what’s the thing that I say most often and they were all very clear in saying “Yes! Yes we can’t do that”. And they secretly love it but it drives them to distraction because I do. And that’s one of the challenges of running an organisation like beyondblue where there is so much need and there is so much demand and there is so many gaps and I want to be able to say yes to everything. I’m naturally quite an enthusiastic person, and so yes, apparently I say yes a lot. Yes we can do that.