Published on the 13/08/2021 | Written by Cincom partners
Leadership in 2021 at Northcott…
We sat down with Northcott CEO Liz Forsyth to discuss how her organisation banded together during COVID, what challenges they overcame, and the importance of the proper perspective.
Liz Forsyth is the CEO of Northcott, one of Australia’s leading disability services providers. In a wide-ranging chat, we spoke about the disability services sector, and what it means for someone to rise up the ranks of a not-for-profit, knowing that the rewards for success are going to be far greater than simply financial ones.
Can you tell us a little about your Northcott journey?
I joined Northcott in 2008 as a support worker in Coffs Harbour, after early experience in social work and child protection. Over the years, I had the opportunity to take on a number of roles including Area Manager, Business Development Manager and leadership roles in Customer Experience, Supported Living and Northcott Innovation. I left for a period to take on the role of CEO at Care South, before returning to Northcott to lead our COVID-19 response. I was appointed CEO in September last year.
One of the great benefits of working for an organisation like Northcott was that I was given opportunities to gain experience in a range of areas. The fact that I started in a frontline capacity and was able to undertake roles at a senior level really helped shape my path to becoming the CEO of Northcott.
How has Northcott overcome its biggest hurdles in the past year or so?
The pandemic really shifted everything for everyone. The way that it impacts the individual is something that you need to be able to understand and work through. During COVID, we needed more staff, because more of our customers were staying home and needed additional support. We transformed the way we could roster staff across facilities and entities with different industrial instruments.
What got us through was the commitment and dedication of the staff at all levels of the organisation. Everyone leaned in to make things happen. Even in the face of a global pandemic, we pushed forward on important initiatives to strengthen the organisation for the future. We delivered significant workplace reform and improvement, and we’re undertaking industrial reform to enable our team to continue to grow and support more customers.
Even in the face of a global pandemic, we pushed forward on important initiatives to strengthen the organisation for the future. We delivered significant workplace reform and improvement, and we’re undertaking industrial reform to enable our team to continue to grow and support more customers.
During COVID, how have you managed mass communication in a way that successfully achieved cut through?
For a disability organisation that supports people 24/7, the ability to maintain constant focus and attention on our customers in the face of a crisis was essential. For our customers, it was about ensuring we were keeping them informed of any changes to our services, and how we were working to keep them safe and support them well.
We made sure it was simple and produced content to cater to different needs. We directed them to a single point where we could maintain up-to-date information, and encouraged them to rely on trusted sources.
Most importantly, we tried to not overwhelm people. So, we balanced the essential health and safety information with useful content to manage lockdown. We had to make sure our staff were kept fully informed about the ever-changing situation, and the measures we were putting in place to keep them and our customers safe.
To what do you attribute Northcott’s ongoing success?
Northcott has been around for over 90 years. Why we’ve continued is our ability to be progressive, and push beyond the here and now. We have always had a very forward-thinking board which challenges us to evaluate what is going to help us achieve our purpose and inclusion in the long term. It has given us the ability to progress and evolve in order to achieve our purpose as the external world changes.
Our success is always our people. We’re in a people business, we deliver services to people through people. We’re only ever as successful as the teams of people who work with us and support our customers.
What do you think sets Northcott apart from your competition?
We’re an organisation that lives and breathes our purpose and values, and we never compromise on that. We’re progressive in how we improve the lives of people with disabilities. The work we do in Sexuality and Relationship Education is the first of its kind to be offered by an Australian disability organisation.
We strongly believe in people’s right to live their life across their whole lives. For people with disability, that includes achieving their sexuality and relationship goals and desires. Strong and good governance has also allowed us to run a really strong business. We have always had a skills-based Board that has made very good decisions about the financial health of the organisation. This has allowed us to continue to reinvest in purpose.
Have you encountered gendered hurdles or other types of discrimination in your career, and on your way to becoming CEO?
I think there is the challenge of our own self-imposed perspectives of gender and age. I have often been very conscious of my gender and my age, given the nature of the work and the circles that I’ve engaged in. It can be hard to be a young female in a position of power and responsibility, because the reality is that there are a lot of men in positions of power, and you don’t see a lot of young people having significant responsibility.
At times I find that really visible and obvious to me. I’ve often walked into meetings in fancy offices in the city that are full of men, and I turn up in my K-mart ballet flats. That raises questions of legitimacy because I don’t operate in the same way, and don’t subscribe to the same idea of power. It’s something I have been very conscious of, and the hurdle may be more my ability to feel comfortable in environments that can appear to be male-dominated.
What would your advice be for other women who aspire to such leadership roles?
My advice would be to have confidence in yourself, and believe that if you have made it to a leadership role, it’s for a reason. There are qualities that you bring to that leadership role that are unique and authentic to yourself. Don’t compromise that authenticity in the face of any idea of what you think a leader should be.
Be willing to step out of your comfort zone and just give things a go. It’s OK to say ‘‘I don’t know”.
Leadership doesn’t mean having all the answers.
It’s being OK with not knowing, and having the confidence to step into situations that are new, and being willing to learn.
What is your leadership style?
I like to work through people, to harness the skills, the energy, the ideas, the contributing components from all the people that might be participating in a particular discussion or piece of work. Because that’s how you get great outcomes. The relationships with the people around me are really important, and having the right people that you can trust. I like to be clear on things like principles that might need to drive or shape something, and the outcomes that we need to achieve, but I’m not going to give people the details of how to go about it. People need the autonomy to do their job in a way that works for them.
You can’t help but be true to your inherent style in how you operate and think. I like to have fun and a laugh. We’re all doing our best to work together to achieve what we’re trying to achieve.
What do you think is the key to being successful in this kind of business?
Even before COVID, the past decade has been a constant state of change for the disability sector. We haven’t had a static operating environment since the NDIS came in. You need to be able to operate within uncertainty and complexity in ways that aren’t draining.
I have responsibility for the lives of so many people, and for supporting them to be safe and live wonderful lives. You need to be able to hold that without being overwhelmed. The secret is you can’t think about it all at once. Take the time to switch off and do whatever works for you to stay well.
And always remember, you can only do your best.
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