Kerry has worked in social change for over 20 years. Her purpose is to evolve the way social change happens in Australia for the benefit of young people.
Kerry is a Founder & Director of Collaboration for Impact – Australia’s leading organisation for learning how to respond to complex problems through effective collaboration. In this role, Kerry curates learning for and provides support to communities, corporations, governments, philanthropy and non-profit organisations on how to drive large-scale social change in intractable social challenges. Kerry also lectures on collaborative practice with Centre for Social Impact at University of New South Wales.
Prior to this Kerry held executive roles within national non-profit organisations (Inspire Foundation CEO; Good Beginnings Australia, COO); and advised governments on social policy (Australian Social Inclusion Board, NSW Treasurer’s Advisory Body). She holds qualifications in public policy, law, social work and community management.
In this podcast Kerry explores systems change and collaboration. She reflects on her own personal journey as a leader and what it takes to succeed in this complex environment.
- Read the transcript below
- Learn more about our work.
- Learn more about Collaboration for Impact and Kerry’s work.
Read the transcript
Elise Sernik: Welcome to conversations that shape us, the podcast series from Leadership Space. I’m Elise Sernik, Executive Director and Founder of Leadership Space. The inspiration for this podcast series is some of the fabulous conversations I’ve had over the years with social purpose leaders as well as thinkers and innovators. Sometimes these have been over a coffee or a Skype and other times they’ve been a speaker at a workshop I was running or interviewees on a client project. For me, its been those moments when time seems to stop and I’ve felt a wave of gratitude that I’m here and having this particular conversation right now and it’s seemed almost criminal to me that this wasn’t available to everyone I know and care about, whether they be clients or colleagues, or the people I haven’t yet met who I know, also to some degree, are inspired by a vision of a thriving social purpose economy. I’ve often wanted to then introduce these people to everybody I know, which isn’t efficient or good for the people!
So, my hope is that this podcast series, in some small way, facilitates dialogue around ideas, that it facilitates and supports collaboration, that it really connects people to one another, even if it’s only virtually. So that people can build on each other’s thinking, feel connected to a wider community of thinking and tapped in to something broader than what they’re working. I know for a lot of my clients who are social purpose leaders, you’re face down and focused on what’s ahead of you and having the time to connect and have these delicious unfolding reflective conversations is sometimes something you don’t get enough of and it really matters. What I’m hoping for you, for this series, and for you as a listener is that you walk away feeling connected, inspired, maybe just curious and stimulated.
Without further ado, thank you for joining us, I really do hope you enjoy today’s conversation with the really, truly wonderful Kerry Graham and that you come back for others.
So Kerry, welcome.
Kerry Graham: Thank you, Elise, it’s great to be here.
Elise Sernik: Kerry, I remember back when I first met you, soon after we met you became one of the youngest CEOs of the Inspire Foundation and you’d had a career to date already then in the sector and have done a lot since. Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to that position back then to step into your first CEO role in the sector?
Kerry Graham: I think like many people who take on CEO roles; they’re a culmination of seemingly everything that’s happened before. So my short story is: I’m a lapsed lawyer so I started out my social purpose career as a criminal specialist working with children with the Aboriginal Legal Services, which was an incredible experience I’ll never ever regret doing, and I feel grounded me in everything I did since. But what it taught me is: I was trained in a technical skill, being a lawyer and an advocate, and I was working in a very large system that was working with children and young people at a point in their lives where probably their legal matters were not the things that were keeping them awake at night. I was a lawyer for nine years with Aboriginal Legal Services so over that time I got to see sibling groups come through the court system and I felt like at the end of that once I was a competent lawyer, I became a tour guide through the system, that I could predict with great accuracy what would happen to a young person when I first met them and when their matters concluded a few months later. It made me feel really impotent as someone who thought being a lawyer was the way to make the most amount of difference in the life of a child or a young person.
I became increasingly frustrated about how a system like the court system couldn’t do more. I saw great case plans created for young people that three weeks later seemed to just disappear when a young person was back at court. Where was everybody who said they’d do all these things? I became very frustrated and left the law and retrained in social work and became a social worker. First, working in drug and alcohol, which has many antecedents in the lives of individuals and communities and led me to working in youth mental health, which is, of course, Inspire’s mandate. I was hugely attracted to Inspire because when they were first created as an organisation, they were completely out of the box and, in fact, I think they were probably considered cowboys because they were the first people to consider engaging with young people who were experiencing vulnerability and meeting them online where they were gathering in droves. That you meet young people where they’re at was such a founding principle of the organisation and within 10 years they were seen as definitely national leaders, if not international leaders on how to deliver online youth mental health services. So, a really great example of an organisation that took innovation in adversity against the system into a transformed offering for young people.
Elise Sernik: Yeah, I remember Inspire and it hitting my radar back then too and it resonates really strongly. What was it like to move into that CEO role? What, as you look back, did you do well in choosing that role for yourself and what were you less aware of when you made that move?
Kerry Graham: I think it’s a great question, particularly around awareness. I felt, and I still feel, that Inspire is very aligned to my values and that was important – it was a great fit. I was able to bring Inspire at that stage in the organisation, seven years’ old, into the next era, which was one of more strategic positioning and focus around their unique capabilities and how they could scale.
Elise Sernik: It’s a critical turning poin and I see a lot of organisations like that where they’ve proved their case, earned their right to exist and are now moving out of start-up mode and into more of a medium size business.
Kerry Graham: That’s absolutely the point Inspire was at and they were also, of his own volition, moving off and away form their founder. So it was a real coming of age time and it was an incredible privilege to be the CEO that took them through that transition, established them strategically and positioned them for the future that they’re now completely stepping into.
What I learnt in terms of self-awareness was that Inspire’s mission was to be relevant to every young person in Australia, so to reach all three million young people in Australia. It didn’t take long for me to realize, even if we were able to do that, and by 2012 we were reaching 1.5 million so 1 in 2 young people. But that alone was not ever going to be enough to support young people who were experiencing mental health difficulties, and the more that we reached out across the mental health sector to try and align people behind Inspire, or even behind this mission of being relevant for young people when they need help, it was very difficult. The mental health sector, like many other sectors, is highly fragmented, constrained by its funding arrangement, has no convening organisation to make all the pieces coordinate and fit together well and I just saw this great lost opportunity for young people at a national level. I became increasingly less engaged with fundraising for the machine that was Inspire and they needed a CEO that could really do that. My passion, and path started to become: what are the ways that we can bring existing resources and effort that sit in Australia for young people and align them to create the change that young people really are asking for and need?
Elise Sernik: Which takes us really beautifully into the next area I really wanted to explore with you, which is around the sector’s change. I hear in what you’re saying, if I’m right, it’s not about is Inspire doing the right thing – there’s no critique if Inspire in this.
Kerry Graham: In fact, the youth mental health system is a perfect case in point. Inspire has a unique capability in reaching young people online that actually is relevant for every other service provider but actually, at that stage, there was no way of creating those links or those connections that coordinated services unless people voluntarily opted in. There was no forum or mandate for that. So, I went looking for what are the processes that can create significant, large-scale social impact systems redesign and stumbled across Collective Impact just after it was published in 2011. I became enchanted by it as this framework that offered hope around a systems redesign for young people and became a student of that.
Elise Sernik: What appealed to you when you were enchanted by it? What really appealed to you about the model, what was is it offering that you hadn’t, and perhaps even now haven’t, seen since?
Kerry Graham: There was a couple of things but right from the get go, it was this idea that most leaders I’ve worked with in this sector are purpose driven, full of good will, good intention and all of them, without fail, have been in collaborations where they’ve brought the best of themselves and those collaborations have failed. There are many reasons why they fail and when I looked into Collective Impact as a framework, I could see that it addressed some of the things that had caused failures in the past but also created a way for people to come together with a greater sense of discipline and strategy around collaborative action. So that was the promise and when I went to the States to go and look at Collective Impact in action, I then saw the impact. I saw alignment of leaders around a common agenda, and that moving from ego-centred leadership about: ‘my organisation needs more money to scale’, to a more eco-system leadership which is: ‘together we all have skills and expertise and niches that we can all be brilliant in our own area but if we are aligned it means we are serving the population we exist to serve so much better’. I saw what that type of leadership looked like and what it delivered for populations. I went over curious and came back evangelistic.
Elise Sernik: As you speak, it reminds me of one of the models I often use on my clients which is from the philosopher Ken Wilber and ‘integral theory’, so this notion that: to create change, we need all aspects of a system humming together: that individual self-awareness and skills; as well as systems and strategies: as well as culture and power all aligned together. It’s interesting.
Kerry Graham: I agree and I know Wilbur’s work and I see Collective Impact as a framework that can bring that alignment between an individual leader and their organisation with the system and the population they seek to serve. I see Collective Impact as the most promising framework to create that alignment.
Elise Sernik: It’s interesting; perhaps we’ll come back to some of the questions that I’d love to explore around the sector, but you seg-wayed into the leadership question. What stage of an organisation, what stage of a leader do you need to be at to be able to participate in this level of engagement? What’s you experience – what do you need?
Kerry Graham: I have a working theory about the type of leadership that we need for complexity, which is: really large-scale collaborations take a lot of time and intention and a lot of work. So, they are the best response to a complex issue but you would also only bring that level of work and focus and commitment of so many people to bear because the problem is complex. This type of response is only warranted in a complex situation.
Elise Sernik: It’s not a one size fits all solution for every problem?
Kerry Graham: That’s it and if you’ve got a simpler problem, then you should be looking at more simple solutions. That’s the point, we are very good as a country at technical solutions and in a way, we have incentivised and rewarded really good leadership for technical solutions. So, what I’m seeing is that this new awareness of what complex, adaptive problems are, and some people have a natural affinity to lead in that space, and the type of leadership needed is: how to work well with others across diversity, across difference. To be able to work with the constructive conflict that difference brings. To harness it to understand what it takes to align, what alignment means at a personal level and an organisation level and a system level. And to really focus on measuring change, like database decision making. So, within the types of skills are leaders who can really tackle complex social problem – it’s this blended model.
Elise Sernik: Technical and adaptive?
Kerry Graham: Yeah and it requires some things that we know really well. I think from the status quo system, which is: this visionary leader who has the solution, but it also requires a great amount of humility and service leadership to the purpose.
Elise Sernik: There’s that in abundance in lots of ways in the sector. What’s the next frontier? As you’re talking, I’m thinking about your own personal journey of self-development or self-awareness, and in your own personal experience, how have you changed?
Kerry Graham: Well the reason I shared the fact I’m a lapsed lawyer is I think I’m a perfect case in point – I am a person who is technically trained. So, I had to unlearn, that’s what Inspire taught me and what I went on to learn when I really focused on collaborative practice was: I had to learn what is needed in adaptive leadership and I didn’t have the language for that when I was learning it. Really, what it meant was: I had to be able to hold the discomfort I feel around not knowing the answers and hold that discomfort of ambiguity on behalf of others and to not want to always jump to solutions. To learn to always try to understand the problem we’re trying to solve from multiple perspectives, create spaces for that learning and through that collective wisdom, find a new solution that has not yet been realised or brought to bear.
I got some great coaching in how to do that but my first experiences with coaching on this type of point were not your usual experiences. I had a coach who came to me and said: “I’d like to help you”, which was extraordinary. I had a particular fixed view on what coaching was and what I received and what I engaged with was very different. I sort of look back on it as ‘coaching by stealth’ because at the end of each coaching call, we had a conversation about: have I been challenged, has this coaching call shifted me, is it worth us meeting again? And we would sign up to the next coaching session on the basis of the one we’ve just had so I didn’t feel like I was on a programme. I was being led and met in this self-discovery.
Elise Sernik: I love that. The beginning of the organic, responsive, relational, usefulness of that dialogue. What was really valuable for you about those dialogues that at the end of each conversation you turned around and said: “more please, yes I’ll do one more!”?
Kerry Graham: I did! I think a couple of things that I learnt were to accept my own power in any dynamic which I don’t think I had been very good at before. I learnt that everyone has power, power is not a dirty word and it’s you becoming aware of it and being able to apply and channel it to achieve, and be in line with, your purpose. That was pretty significant. The others things I learnt, I think, were around understanding my role in any dynamic, that if I’m in a challenging situation or I can’t create a shift that I feel needs to happen for progress, then not just looking at it from what everyone else is doing but how am I contributing to that, which can be very confronting.
Elise Sernik: I always love, and it might be from Wilbur’s stuff and systems theory, but the idea that microcosm reflects the macrocosms. Whatever your experience in doing and feeling is happening, is happening in the system as well – you’re contributing to it and it’s a constant feedback mechanism.
Kerry Graham: I think that’s where the learnings are for leaders of social change at the moment because we can go to many places: online, conferences and learn the technical skills we need to know about theories of change and program design and how collaborative practice works technically. But we need to create and seek out places where we can learn the non-technical: how to lead; how to work with dynamics; how to create environments or holding environments where other leaders can step in and go through their own alignment or their own awareness to wanting to create more collaborative impact. These things you can’t learn; you can’t go to a course to learn. You can only learn them by being in them and getting up on the balcony and starting to get aware of the way you lead, the way others respond, what’s happening in the system. I think the benefits of coaching, reflective practice, all of those things are critical in these areas or else we won’t be able to build our adaptive leadership muscle the same way we have spent a long time building our technical capability, and we need both and our muscles are weak on the adaptive side.
Elise Sernik: Yeah and my observation of you, and one of the things that is so valuable for me and I see how beautifully you do, is finding your leadership voice and style that’s completely in line with your nature and your integrity and your values. You do exert a lot power but it’s not ‘power over’ and it doesn’t ever jar the experience I have of you. That sense of having gone through the transformational journey yourself to facilitate your own journey, then to be able to support others resonates for me, and years of putting myself through the opportunity to have my ions rearranged and come out different. I think that’s really powerful and I hear my clients talk about: how do I find my power and also keep humble? Because on some level it fells like a disconnect or that they’re opposing forces.
Kerry Graham: I think there are external forces that incentivise us to work in ways that are about hero leadership and ‘power over’ because our systems reward having the single solution when we know in these complex problems, there is no one solution, no one program, no one organisation, no one policy that can go it alone. The other side, I think, is we are incentivised through our funding structures to go it alone and so we have these external forces which, if we are to take this step and step into leading truly to your purpose, then we almost have to turn away from some of the incentives on the system consciously and say: I’m going to work with them because that’s the system we have but I’m going to be part of changing those so that we can get the social change we so desperately need, particularly for young people in Australia, by working in new and different ways together.
Elise Sernik: That sounds like your vision for what the sector needs.
Kerry Graham: I have moved away, somewhat unconsciously and now consciously, from the language, from sector and I really do see the ways social change happens in Australia as more of a system. We need to conceptualise that system differently because within that system is the role of government, and we have looked for a long time for government to be the drivers of solutions because they hold most of the funding that creates solutions. Yet government only have a certain number of levers that they can pull within the system to create change so similarly, non-profits who have been long seen as the delivery vehicle, they need to be repositioned; they have a significant number of levers they can pull to create population level change but they can’t go it alone and we need the other parts of the system which is business and philanthropy community voice, lived experience, citizen leaders. All of these parts create the whole social change system, or the social purpose system, and we need them to recognise each other and be more in balance with each other. And you would say that the part of the system that is weakest is the part where we turn to residents and the people with lived experience – citizen leaders, We have lost a lot of strength and capacity in that part of the system and we need to focus on rebuilding that.
Elise Sernik: Absolutely. I like to try and come back to the language of a thriving social purpose economy, which is the language we chose to express our vision, but trying to hold that with non-profit language and sector language and how embedded that is in our vocabulary and our mindset. Even with the awareness, we’re inventing a new language, as well as new systems. I’m very hopeful as I look at things like collaborative forums and peer forums, and how much more engagement we’re facilitating, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Kerry Graham: We do but there is such momentum now. That’s the thing I just find so exciting. It feels like a new era of the way we lead and conceptualise social change and how we practice social leadership is emerging.
Elise Sernik: Yes, there are more and more lights on the hill.
Kerry Graham: There are and they want to be connected with another; and they want to peer learn from each other; and they also want to do what they can together. That is a significant cultural shift that we’re right at the beginning of and I think in ten years’ time or more, we’ll look back on this time as a real time of turn and change but out of that, is emerging a more impactful and more sophisticated way of working together.
Elise Sernik: Wonderful, a great note to end on. Thank you so much, Kerry.
Kerry Graham: It was a pleasure; it’s always great to be in conversation with you.
Elise Sernik: Wonderful. So we will be back – the Leadership Space podcast – so tune in again. Thank you for those who tuned in and listened, we would love to hear your comments and thoughts on what you would like more of or what you enjoyed from this, and if you want to find more information about Leadership Space, it’s: leadershipspace.com.au, or about Collective Impact, it’s: collaborationforimpact.com. You can also look up Kerry Graham for more information on her. Thank you very much and we’ll see you again next time.