How do you lead effectively in tough times? Indispensable advice from Mission Australia’s CEO


From bank clerk to the head of one of Australia’s largest not-for-profit organisations, Mission Australia’s first ever female CEO Catherine Yeomans is responsible for 3,500 employees across Australia.

With staff at Mission Australia providing services to thousands of the community’s most disadvantaged people – a challenging job that can result in high rates of burnout, it can be challenging to keep everyone motivated and inspired.

In the lead up to her keynote address at this year’s Not-For-Profit People Conference in November Catherine shares her thoughts on how to effectively lead staff in uncertain times and tough circumstances.

I love working in the not-for-profit sector because…

Every day I am inspired by the resilience and courage of our clients, the commitment and belief of our staff; and the desire and determination of our supporters to make a difference – to see a fairer Australia.

You only started your current role at Mission Australia earlier this year – can you tell us a bit about your career so far?

I started out my working life as a bank clerk straight out of school, before securing a job a couple of months later as a clerk at the Wollongong courthouse.

This is where I developed an interest in the law, so I undertook a law degree at University of Technology, Sydney and used that as the foundation for a lot of my subsequent work in the corporate sector.

Prior to joining the not-for-profit sector, I held senior management roles in a broad spectrum of fields across the corporate sector, with a focus on professional services in the publishing industry.

In 2011 I reached a point in my career where I was seeking a stronger connection between my work and my own values, with the desire to make a greater social impact.

This is when I joined Mission Australia and served as the organisation’s Chief Operating Officer, responsible for functional areas including advocacy, media, marketing, fundraising, HR, legal, IT, procurement and property.

In March this year I was honoured to be appointed as the organisation’s first-ever female CEO.

You’ll be speaking at this year’s Not-For-Profit People Conference about how to engage and inspire staff in the NFP sector. Can you share with us what you believe is the most important factor NFP leaders should keep in mind when engaging staff?

The not-for-profit (NFP) sector truly is the sector of the people. Those who come to work in this sector are driven to do so by their desire to make a difference.

As leaders, like the ones taught on this content, we must acknowledge the passion and commitment of the workforce and be closely connected to the work undertaken at the coalface in order to engage with staff. Most of all, we must have a clear values framework that guides our organizations and connects the people within.

What is the most common challenge faced by NFP leaders when trying to motivate and inspire staff?

People come to work with Mission Australia because they are motivated by the work that we do and just as importantly, they personally identify with our values.

As leaders we must ensure that the values are enacted – in the HOW we do what we do – because that is what staff are looking out for, and in fact it’s the standard of behaviour to which everyone needs to be accountable.  So it’s important to define the values into a set of behaviours and to make sure that leaders across the organisation are clear about their role in modelling those behaviours.

These are uncertain times for many NFPs, especially those waiting to hear the outcome of Federal Government funding applications. How can NFP leaders keep staff motivated and inspired through uncertainty?

Reliance on government contracts or community and corporate donations certainly makes it difficult for NFP organisations to offer the same level of security the corporate and public sectors can achieve.

Many organisations face a constant cycle of ramping up for new programs and winding down when contracts end. Motivating and inspiring staff to continue doing great work in these circumstances is challenging.

The key is engaging in a constant conversation with staff about change, and helping them to identify how they fit into the long-term plan, irrespective of “seasonal” changes.

If you provide staff support through these periods and continue to recognise and reward them for the important work they do at the coalface – regardless of whether their program may be coming to an end – you can ensure they remain engaged through their commitment to the cause they are involved in.

You’ve worked in both the corporate and NFP sector. Do you see any fundamental differences between how to motivate and inspire staff across the two sectors?

The NFP sector is not just about delivering services. It is about protecting the social fabric of the nation. Therefore, the people who come to work in our organisations, are – and must be – motivated by their determination to make a difference.

Ensuring alignment between the values of our organisations and our individual workers are vital challenges for directors and managers in an environment where salary levels are not a key motivator in staff recruitment or retention.

Values are not just a poster on the wall. They go to the heart of how an organisation and its people conduct’s itself – and this is what ensures staff remain engaged in NFP organisations.

If an organisation came to you saying that they had a “morale” problem – what would be the first piece of advice you would give them?

Get out of the office and go speak with your staff at the frontline. Hear their stories, understand their concerns and demonstrate how you are going to respond with action.

I could certainly spend my time in our head office, beavering away over the finances, setting the strategic agenda and ensuring our contracts continue to be fulfilled. But without an appreciation of the daily experience of our staff and the people we work to support, I would not be able to drive our organisation forward. And I certainly wouldn’t be able to bring our people with me.

As a leader, you have to be ready – in fact, you should be desperate – to spend time understanding the staff working to deliver your services. And then you must find ways to connect their experience to the bigger picture – the strategic plan and the public advocacy that your organisation embarks on.

To hear more about how to inspire your staff, Catherine Yeomans will be speaking at this year’s NFP People Conference, November 13 & 14 in Melbourne. Book your place today

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Name *
  • Website