Podcast with James Toomey: Sustaining innovation in a complex context


Are you a social purpose board member or a commercial executive interested in joining a social purpose board? A CEO seeking to seed or support organisational innovation?

If so, this interview with CEO of Mission Australia, James Toomey is a must listen to.

His sage and balanced explanation of how funding, measurement tracking and culture interlink in a way that supports or constrains innovation in the sector is powerful and insightful. How do you manage risk, governance and agility in a changing context?

If you enjoy this Leadership Space podcast give us a 5 star review in iTunes – it helps others find us!



Elise Sernik: In this podcast we’ve got a really fantastic guest today. Andrea and I are speaking with James Toomey the CEO of Mission Australia. Mission Australia, as I’m sure you all know are one of the largest charities in Australia. They are a national Christian charity helping Australians in need move towards independence. This year they helped something like 160,000 people, addressing things like homelessness, assisting disadvantaged families and children, addressing mental health, fighting substance dependencies and more. I met James at a Harvard leadership panel recently and I was really impressed with the accessible way he talked about leadership and his humility given the significant role and organisation he leads. James was appointed as CEO of Mission Australia in November of 2017, and he had spent the prior 7 years as national manager and after that the Executive of Operations & & Fundraising. Prior to Mission Australia James was the operations director of Skillforce and Assistant director of Foster Care Associates in the UK. Alongside his role as CEO James is a director of a number of Mission Australia’s entities including their early learning and housing. He has a master’s degree in social work an MBA and is a graduate of the AICD. James, it’s wonderful to have you join us today. Thank you. What I’d love to do is start with really a bit of a context question. What is it that you see as complex in the current context that we are operating in and, perhaps then, what are the leadership opportunities and challenges as a consequence?


James Toomey: Thanks very much. I certainly see the context that we are operating in is actually quite dynamic and there is quite a lot of change around us, coming at us from initiatives such as the NDIS which is obviously a very significant change for either directly or indirectly for a number of different organisations in the sector, but also changes in giving behaviour. We’re an organisation which receives donations as many organisations do. The changes in giving behaviour in terms of peoples connection with philanthropy and what they want to see with their philanthropy as opposed to perhaps a picture a few years ago where people or even corporates were content to give on the basis of, well we know the organisations are the experts in how they are going to commit these funds and so we allow them to do that. So our whole area around reporting and validation of activity which doesn’t justify to our government contracted work, which is obviously very significant, but also to our other relationships as well. And there is a burden that comes with reporting, there is an assumption that organisations such as ours can self-generate significant amounts of complex information about what we do and how we do it, and where were doing it and how effective it is, that’s not necessarily the case because it’s an area that we haven’t been required to invest in,  particularly in the past, and therefore is probably an under-baked capability for organisations in the sector.

Elise Sernik: That’s interesting to hear that from Mission, because for the smaller organisations and the organisations as you go down the value chain, it’s tough right?

James Toomey: Absolutely right. We really are able to and have over the last few years invested quite heavily in our ability to actually measure and monitor what we do and to demonstrate impact and measurable impact is a very, very important part of us validating our own activity and one of the areas of complexity that arises is that you have different governments or different departments within the same government who will expect different types of measure. Frequently what you want to be able to do is say, well here is our standard set of measures of how we measure ourselves which one would you like and the answer is none of those, we’d like some bespoke ones which is specific to our department, or our contract for this period of time, and that contract might be a one year piece of work or it might be a three year piece of work, or in the case of some of our housing opportunities it maybe even multiple years. So the energy then gets absorbed, the resources in our organisation then get absorbed on reporting on the activity that were being funded to do, if you’re not very careful it becomes disproportionate to the value of the work that you’re actually doing, and I don’t mean the value to the organisation, I mean the value to community. This drives all sorts of behaviours I think in the sector where it’s possible for organisations maybe to concentrate on activities which are easy to validate, but they might not be adding the most value in communities and making the most difference. Perhaps the harder to validate community programs are the ones which actually are shifting the dial on the problems we exist to address, there are ways there that it can start to distort choices in an organisation about the way in which it chooses to commit its resources because you are really responding to the fund of requirement as opposed to actually able to focus on we are doing this because we want to shift the dial.

Elise Sernik: There is a corollary there to innovation, right?

James Toomey: Yep. And the measurability of innovation, so we may choose to innovate as an organisation and see something which we think is actually value adding or innovative, but it may not be rewarded or recognised within the context of the contract.

Elise Sernik: Slower to be able to track the higher risk innovative end of the spectrum, it takes time until you can generate the state or even know what it is you would want to measure in order to report back in some way that has the transparency and solidity. I’m curious about the link of the culture piece is that part of?

James Toomey: I think in terms of linking it to culture, organisations and Mission Australia is trying to do this now, striving to be more agile and to be able to innovate within the constraints of the program. Rather than just saying, look we can’t innovate because we are not funded to innovate, actually lets work out how we can innovate within the constraints of what we are called to do, that for an organisation, once you start to unlock a principle of innovation and where that sits in your organisation it talks to what your capabilities are and what kind of capabilities you have. If you’ve been an organisation which has not been at the leading edge of innovation, or has not required itself to innovate or hasn’t been particularly agile over any period of time, in excess of probably 5 years, what you will have done is, most people’s turnover is something between 10-15% I guess in the sector over that period of time, what you’ve got is at least half of the staff group of people who have been brought in on the basis of this is an organisation that doesn’t innovate, you then want to change gear and say now we want to innovate, your first problem is that the people in the organisation thinking well I didn’t come into this organisation to innovate, I came into the organisation for steady state. So, what kind of organisational capabilities do you have in order to follow the desire to innovate more in which the sense that there is a latent desire in people to innovate. It doesn’t necessarily bear out in my experience, people experience change, and change can be very difficult for people to cope with for different reasons and certainly people that feel well we’ve been doing it,  this is the solution to this problem for these people in this community or this segment, this is what the government expects us to do, we are very, very good at doing what the government expects us to do and we’ll continue doing what the government expects us to do and doing better than there benchmarks which doesn’t necessarily in and of itself foster innovation and a mindset that says well no we need to try something different here because where not shifting the dial.

Elise Sernik: I mean that really resonates for me when I think of the lot of work that we do and we do a lot of personality profiling both at the recruitment end and then to help with team development and cohesion and understanding what we’ve got and we can screen for and see the profile where people have a more of a tendency or more of an orientation towards agility or complexity and that’s more there preferential style verses the more structured/build on past success/steady state so that fits that we’re then recruiting and attracting and building and rewarding a particular style of processing information, adjustment and comfort with change and them being somewhat frustrated or confused about why we don’t have this bubbling up from within is that?

James Toomey: Yes. I think that the role then of the huge significance of organisational structure and how you then foster innovation so, an organisation of our size, we’ve got about 2500 employees a significant number of people will be below the age of 30, how are we able to respond to a younger cohort of the workforce who will want to see things done in a different way and have a desire to tackle social problems in a different way or in a more digitally mediated way because that’s very much the environment in which we live and operate and they kind of early adoption of new technology tends to sit within that age cohort of the population when, in this organisation as in many others, managers and senior leaders are a generation or half a generation older, that brings great experience but that experience can manifest itself as a rigidity in terms of thinking style, as they know this is how we need to do it. So any organisation which has to grapple with the sense of, and this is not a new phenomenon, new younger staff coming in with new ideas, pre-existing older staff with other organisations or career maturity going no we’ve done it this way, this is the way it should be done. It’s not a novel challenge but I think the way in which we embrace younger cohorts of staff, who I think the difference of the challenge now compared to the past, and I hear this from other organisations too, is employees coming in and saying “well no my aspiration isn’t to be a general manager or the CEO here or anywhere else that’s not what I want, I haven’t got a career path that looks like that, I just want to make a difference where I’m working”. Whereas the traditional thinking was people coming in at the “bottom” and they work their way up and therefore your motivation was to learn and engage in new things in order to be more employable in the organisation but actually what you’ve got here, not just in this sector but also in the commercial sector to, is people saying no we think our organisation ought to be making a difference and I’m less concerned about my personal accumulation of wealth or significance than I am in what the organisation can achieve. So how can we grapple with and embrace that energy and thinking in a way which actually goes to work on the problems that we are trying to solve as an organisation as opposed to it being effectively a schism of thinking between different parts of the organisation.

Elise Sernik: What is fresh to me in what you’re saying is the systemic role that funding plays in setting the sector up for a more traditional way of operating or a more a simple complicated as opposed to a complex way of working if that makes sense?

James Toomey: Any organisation either intentionally or subconsciously starts to look like its customer, and those effective relationships are very, very important because if you’re not engaging with your customer and being able to provide some kind of interlock if you like between your own operations and what your customers preferences are then they won’t be your customer, they will go somewhere else where they are able to find that interlock and preference. It happens in retail and it happens in all areas where we are thinking about customers and consumers. The difference I think in what you might describe as the social purpose organisations or sector is that the customer and the consumer aren’t necessarily the same thing. So the customer is the person who is paying you for your services, the government, and the consumer is someone who is actually not paying for the service and could become disenfranchised in that process.

Elise Sernik: Hence the disruption of NDIS right?

James Toomey: Absolutely right, so a voucher system or a user directed fund system like that is potentially very disruptive. What that means is you’re absolutely right about that potential of disruption because it means that organisations which have for many years worked on I’m going to maintain my government relationships and I’m going to make sure that I’m delivering to the governments expectations of the program and that’s what’s going to make it possible for me to keep winning the piece of work or to win new work and, I will in good conscience do the best I can for the people who are consuming my services, is a very different thing when the people who are consuming your service are saying well actually the service we got from you wasn’t very good but we had to have it because there wasn’t any choice, but now we have a choice and were going to choose not to come with you, we are going to go with a completely unknown quantity, but someone who has a better proposition, sounds like they might be better at it than you so we will take our funding there and direct it there. That’s hugely disruptive to the way in which organisations are configured and to the kind of leaders that you then seek to employ in your organisations because you need to have, particularly at the executive level and other senior leaders in the organisation who are alive to and alert to, the threat of that, to an organisation’s configuration and how an organisation can choose to respond to that. In a for-purpose organisation I think the other piece is, or social purpose organisation, I grapple with the language…

Elise Sernik: I think we’ve settled on social purpose.

James Toomey: Social purpose is a good way of describing it, for-purpose implies that other organisations are anti purpose which is clearly not the case.

Elise Sernik: We can all agree we don’t like non-profit!

James Toomey: So social purpose organisations In that transition need to be very careful with that we don’t lose sight of our purpose, and our purpose isn’t just to be or to exist or to sit on a problem and say “that’s good we’re  in this community and we’re delivering this program and we have been for the last 20 or 30 years”. Ok, have you shifted the dial? “No, No, it’s a big problem, poverty is a problem here or whatever, well you’ve been there for 30 years and everything is the same, we’re kind of a part of what’s happening and the dependency on funding the interdependency, the mutual dependency that then goes between funders and organisations, I think is a distraction from purpose.

Elise Sernik: Holds the system in a kind of stasis, right?

James Toomey: It does, Yep.

Elise Sernik: What I’m hearing from you I think to test is that the challenge then for a CEO in the social purpose space is understanding the way in which the funding market is supporting a certain kind of approach, which doesn’t support and facilitate necessarily innovation and agility, so there is the leadership part of that if you like is to try to kind of get above that system, understand how it’s driving or constraining your innovation or requiring more of it than you actually have the capacity to instantly deliver or sort of juggle all those. I imagine in a sort of organisation the size of Mission some components of the funding are sort of constraining innovation and other parts are generating at rapid rates. Is that right?

James Toomey: I guess, in general terms the freedom to allocate funding, the money we raise from fundraising, is money that we apply to services which may or may not in other ways be not funded by government but we see those in need and we apply them in those places and we do get more  opportunity therefore to be innovative or to start up a relatively low cost demonstration project with a little bit of validation alongside it to actually see if its working or how it could be improved, and to test those hypotheses. The call out for me always in relation to innovation in the sector, particularly in the social purpose sector, where the recipient of the service is a human and experimenting on humans for the purposes of innovation is fraught with difficulty. I mean if you design and deliver a program which actually leaves people worse off than what they would have been if you had left them alone it’s pretty bad, and you might have demonstrated something but actually you’ve demonstrated something at the cost of a human experience which is a real challenge, and so some of the language that we hear from colleagues outside the sector who will talk about well it’s important to fail and fail fast, well that’s true but not if the failure is at the cost of a community. Is the appetite for failure and risk within the organisation, in a way that insulates the recipient of the service from the failed hypothesis, your theory about a new program which actually turned out not to work and that’s something which is challenging.

Elise Sernik: And the low threshold too, if I think of some of our clients say who are going through the NDIS, the fail, fail fast – there are a lot of eyes watching and so if there is something that goes wrong it can bring you down on your knees pretty quickly.

James Toomey: Yes, that’s true, and unfortunately, accounts of failure or shortcomings in the system, particularly something, as you say is the goldfish bowl if you like of NDIS, are much more clickable or readable or headline grabbing, than some of the extraordinary success stories of people’s empowerment, where people have been 4 years trapped in a dependency mode with one provider providing one thing up the road from them and no other choice with anyone else are now living in the most independent way they can, within their limitations but with packages of support and care which are allowing them to engage fully in community in ways that they haven’t done in the past, but it’s not very measurable it’s a sort of qualitative measure and a more complex story. Quantitively it’s easier to demonstrate that somebody whose package of care used to be funded for them or used to be provided without recognition of cost to the individual is now regarded as too expensive by the NDIS, therefore it can’t be done, is a much more interesting story than somebody’s quality of life measurably, qualitatively improved, they are more engaged with their community, less isolated, using public transport. That’s what they’re comparing against, not having their hair cut and living more autonomously. All of those things are incredible at a personal, individual level but they’re not particularly compelling stories. I mean they are to that person, which kind of makes the point, the risk of failure is that actually it’s easy to fail and impact negatively the life of a person and that not to resonate particularly if your intentions were good. On that person they have had a profound experience and if it’s a bad experience than it’s a failure.

Andrea Van Der Merwe: I was wondering, your team, there is difference that you describe, in terms of on the one hand being able to lead in a way where it fulfils to the reporting and the existing structures but then also be open to build more of a culture of being agile and innovative, and then with the cohort of the under 30 type of employees that are very much focused in a different way. How do you look at building a team that can handle all of those aspects?

James Toomey: I think, we as an organisation, we have a benefit of scale, which is not available to every organisation and ours certainly recognise that as an asset which is easy to overlook, but we also have some complexity which drives scale and conversely we have scale which drives complexity, so if you broaden the scope of activity in the frame of your purpose. For example we have Mission Australia as an entity itself,  we have Mission Australia Housing which is a subordinate entity which is a community housing provider, in order to provide community housing in Victoria we have to have another organisation called Mission Australia Housing Victoria because the Victorian registrar requires it to have a different housing entity than the other registrars. So there is a bit of complexity, you’ve got governance, secretariat and meeting those governance requirements just before you turn the first page on your day’s work and already you’ve got to build that in because your responding to different regulatory environments and different ways in which that’s perceived. We’ve just transferred our early learning businesses to Goodstart, that took effect a few days ago. We had an early learning board and I was chair of the early learning board and executives who were on the early learning board, and that’s a requirement to have that board. All of those directors had to have working with children clearance in every state in which we operate as did the main board of Mission Australia, in order to be on the main board of a board which had a subordinate level of early learning and that’s very important from the point of view of child safety and I absolutely understand that, I’m not saying that’s not an important thing to have, it’s just an illustration of the added bureaucracy that can come with attempt to broaden scale and broaden scope of activities so that’s where scale drives complexity and then how complexity responds to scale and those two things are illustrated by those examples. What that means at an  executive level is that the pool to draw from for a CFO of an organisation like Mission Australia or a legal counsel for an organisation like Mission Australia or a head of people and culture in Mission Australia, the draw-from pool starts to look a bit constrained because I don’t pay people a lot of money to be executives of an organisation which turns over nearly 300 million dollars a year and has 2500 employees and offices all over the country 400 different services etc etc. I’m trying to persuade people to come, either to stay in the sector and move across into another organisation where they’re not going to earn more than a great deal what they were earning in another organisation, or to come out to the commercial sector because I need that kind of commercial capability particularly round governance and complex corporate finance  instruments and saying yes can you come here for half the money that you were earning somewhere else, so there is a real challenge there. I have an extraordinary executive team of people who are sufficiently motivated by the nature of the work that we do, to absolutely do that. They say ok, we will take a pay cut to come work for Mission Australia and I’m also blessed to have a board – we don’t pay the board. It theoretically saves the organisation a significant amount of money and we’re also able to draw down on pro bono relationships with law firms and the big 4 corporate services firms who may give us pro bono or low bono support. But you have to go and find that, and you have to develop those relationships. So those things are possibly a by-product of our scale and visibility, which is fantastic for us, but there are smaller organisations than us who are doing every bit as important work in the community level who do not have the opportunity to draw on those kind of resources and relationships, and that tends to indicate that consolidation of organisations will happen, because in order for organisations to survive they have to draw down on government funds or other corporate philanthropy and report on it. They’ll need to have a significant scale and complexity in order to do that. Which is one thing for the survival of an organisation but actually we’re here because of the purpose that we are trying to deliver, so what does that mean for the community recipient on the ground, when you start to lose your local community connection and engagement because organisations have to surrender itself to the market effectively and so we’re going to have to merge or we are going to have to cease operation or inverse ourselves into a larger organisation, and from a community perspective lose some of that local connection and agility which is what you value us for. For the pull to be more secure, be more sophisticated, be more corporately adept effectively, is very strong but the pull from community to say, but don’t lose touch with us and the programs that your supposed to be providing and really frankly we don’t care if you have a company secretary or not what we want is the centre to be open Monday to Friday, 7am to 7pm because that’s when we would like to use it, so we’re not fussed about your corporate structure, the important thing for us is the service on the ground. Those things can pull against each other.

Elise Sernik: When you talk about that James, what comes to mind for me is that degree of cross-working up and down and across an organisation that’s got that kind of size and scale and complexity and how to hold the polarity of the governance with the agility at the front end and all this governance, structure and system that has to mediate that. Organisations are often setting themselves up, as these are our values, as an organisation we stand by that. What does that spectrum sound like at Mission? Are you trying to create something that everybody says, ok we are both, professional, systemic and governance and risk aware and we’re also agile and innovative? How does that look, trying to hold that extreme tension?

James Toomey: Complex. Taking the question particularly in relation to risk and risk appetite, the past few years has been working particularly closely with the board and the risk committee about, what risk looks like in an organisation like Mission Australia doing the services we provide.

Elise Sernik: I’m working will very small organisations and we are having the same conversations. The pull is the same, you know. We’ve got our board, they’re professional, a lot of them are amazing people, they’re corporate, they get risk, but maybe we emerge from being a frontline organisation, maybe a lot of founder stuff, and it’s a real struggle to keep both alive inside people and teams.

James Toomey: Absolutely right and the tension is, in its worse manifestations I suppose, to seek or mitigate every possible risk in an organisation. When, at the same time we’re an organisation that delivers local area coordination through the NDIS and various other services, where we on the ground talk frequently about the dignity of risk, at a personal level, and actually there are some risks that people need to be able to take in their lives in order to have a qualitatively better life. It is possible and we see some of this in the Aged Care Royal Commission, to sedate people, in nursing homes, so they don’t break something or themselves or hit an employee etc etc. that eliminates the risk to the organisation, but what about the qualitative experience of the person who is sedated, or maybe over sedated or unnecessarily sedated? That’s an example of where a misunderstanding of the nature and the purpose of the people that an organisation is working with comes to play and it looks very simple in terms of risk management and that’s what needs to be around here. And then insurable and uninsurable risks, and the next stage you say, well I’d like to do these things but we actually can’t, we can’t indemnify the organisation against it. There’s effectively sovereign risk to the organisation. And then work practices which could potentially mean, if you for example said “as an organisations we’re not going to have any individual worker working individually with a client in a client interaction” so no lone working, everyone’s got to be accompanied, there’s always got to be 2 people etc. That would mean that essentially, we would have to pull out of a huge amount of regional and remote Australia where we do incredible work, so what’s the benefit to the community? You’ve made the organisation safer but what about the purpose of the organisation? In a commercial setting there may be a very straightforward commercial payoff, where we can’t afford to put two people in there, so we are just not going to deliver that service anymore, but in an organisation where our purpose is to deliver, we are trying to meet human need in the most cost effective way possible and the board is taking a view of risk which is going to make this prohibitively expensive, we can’t afford to do that within the constraints of the program or we are going to have to subsidise a government program because we are not funded to provide that level of workforce. So the risk is then, well we will just pull out of the difficult stuff. So you pull out of all the hard stuff and then you stick with the easier stuff,  lots of people are doing the easier stuff so you end up with communities which are over-served by organisations who are very, very good at doing the “easy”  (although none of the work is particularly easy) but the relatively easy work/lower risk work and then whole communities which are under served because everyone goes “oh it’s too risky to go out there because we can’t insure, the Board’s risk appetite can’t take that into account and so we just won’t be able to service those areas”. That’s a real problem but fortunately our excellent board who are very tuned into the reality that in a human services organisation we are dealing with human beings every day and there is this thing called free will that people exercise and sometimes things happen.

Elise Sernik: The values I imagine help that people to recruit and the board and everybody to values.

Andrea Van Der Merwe: Because it sounds when you talk like that, that the purpose in having a strong organisation and both the executive team or for the team of people who sign up for a job like this. That’s what brings manage to hold that tension together between managing the risk and regulatory piece as well as, but we need to keep shifting the dial and we need to keep making a difference on community level because that is our purpose but we can’t fulfil our purpose if we don’t manage the risks and the government, so it’s actually that that is the key that’s holding that tension probably for your team and I’m wondering also for these younger employees because it sounded like they’re very purpose driven as opposed to ego driven as a generalisation? Just thinking about culture again in that bigger group.

James Toomey: As a broad characterisation I would say that people at Mission Australia are just vocationally motivated and they draw on an intrinsic reward of personal validation of the work that we do and the satisfaction that they gain from actually working with, in some cases, some very difficult or borderline intractable problems or people who have intractable challenges in their lives and achieving success. One of the challenges particularly in relation to risk as an organisation, you can start to lose sight of the really high quality work if you create an environment where you don’t want to hear about it because actually there people are operating outside the bounds of what they should be doing. This is an anecdote, but as an example I use sometimes, where a member of staff in a supported housing team in regional Australia has been working all day, at the end of a very long week, it’s Friday, it gets to 5.30pm on a Friday, the office door happens to still be open because they haven’t got round to going home yet, someone presents and says “ I’m a victim of domestic violence and I need somewhere to stay, I’m fleeing domestic violence.” The employee goes ok I need to sort this out but it’s out of hours and I haven’t got anyone to speak to, but it’s ok  I know the deal, we can find some temporary accommodation for this person, they ring around and find some temporary accommodation and it’s in a motel, and the motel is 120km away and it’s raining and they go out to the pool car and they find people are garaging the pool cars at home over the weekend and there are no pool cars available, so ok, I’ve got to take my own car, so puts the person in their own car, takes them to the refuge or motel, gets them established, perhaps in that process, goes to the motel and they don’t have us a biller on their system because we haven’t used them before so I better pay for this on my own credit card and I’ll be able to reclaim it from the organisation, hops in the car, is driving back at 9pm in the rain and skids off the road and hits a tree in their own car. They shouldn’t have been driving the car, they shouldn’t be using their own card to pay those sorts of expenses, they shouldn’t have been potentially unaccompanied in that vehicle, they shouldn’t, all those thing  they theoretically shouldn’t have done, but would I want to create an organisation where you  say “Don’t do those things.” because If you do the “don’t under any circumstances do those things” means the person is still standing on the doorstep at 9 o’clock at night with nowhere to go and so if you over control, all you do is kid yourself that it’s not happening because actually it’s still happening but you’re not creating the environment where it’s possible for people to be as safe as they can be in those circumstances. So what you want to be, you then wrap yourself around that situation and that person and perhaps talking to the insurance company and saying “no, they were working on a legitimate organisational business, they were supposed to be driving the car, so who pays the excess? Are they injured? Were they an employee at the time? Are we going to accept the injury claim? Yes, we are, because they were working for Mission Australia, yes, they were driving a car they shouldn’t have been driving and it was late at night. It’s too easy in those situations to just cut the person off and say “ no they shouldn’t have been doing any of those things we are going to disembowel them but ultimately they were doing something because of their vocational commitment to the work and their commitment to the individual to deliver a service, that means we have a responsibility to look after that person and if you don’t create an environment in an organisation where doing that is possible and safe, then in my experience, it continues to happen but you just kid yourself it’s not, you just think, I can see the scope of my organisation and it looks like this and there is a shadow organisation which is doing extraordinary work.

Elise Sernik: In my observation some of the organisations I think we see what they’re really struggling with is that shadow and that some people are doing things which the organisation is comfortable with and some people are doing things which they’re not, and so the dotted line around the edge of the organisation, trying to hold a certain level of professionalism becomes for the Executive of an organisation sometimes really, really tricky and kind of exhausting. What that brings to mind for me is the level of the kinds of conversations you need to be able to have inside an organisation to create the capacity to work with  the shadow, to work with the dotted line as you say the blurry edges – we want to encourage autonomy and individual decision making and we want to trust people that they are operating in good values but we’re going to have to have some pretty robust discussions as we navigate that. Does that ring true for you around the capability of being able to have robust conversations?

James Toomey: Yes, it does. There are various frameworks which help you in that. Obviously organisations have a policy framework and all sorts of guidance about whether we should be doing it in the way in which we do things. Even the way in which policies are written is very important because you can write a legally complaint policy and say ”I’ve got a code of conduct and you’ve breached it and they say” but then someone can say I didn’t know about the code of conduct or can you demonstrate that I knew about the code of conduct, yes I signed a piece of paper when I entered the organisation, when I signed all those other things including my bank account details, Yes I signed it. Did I read it? No. Did I internalise it and actually think about it? Was there a guide that went along with the code of conduct that said this is what that looks like in practice? We’ve got values in the organisation which are very important, so that the interpretation of a value, and most of them are adjectives, so quite interpretable, is then a statement of this is what this looks like. So people are then able to go, if I’m operating in that framework, then I’m operating in the intent of the organisation, well no, it maybe that inadvertently people step outside the lines and are operating outside the kind of legal scope of the organisation, but even then I think we’ve got to be able to say from an organisation perspective “did we create the conditions that made that possible?” Should we be demonising an employee or actually saying “we created the conditions that made that possible” we haven’t made things clear enough. Was it at absolutely clear that that shouldn’t have been happening? In the anecdote that I gave was it absolutely clear that only pool cars are to be used in that service and if you can’t get access to a pool car you need to ring this number and then you’ll be able to do this or go in a taxi because there is a local taxi firm who we have a standing arrangement with them, that’s the fallback, not that I have to take my own car. Was it absolutely clear? Did we make that clear? I think the tendency is to immediately go to, well the person is at fault, because they did not do what we do with the people we work with in the community, which is to say, what did the system create that made it possible for someone to behave like that.

Elise Sernik: There is an interface with me there with the point that you made around getting and keeping good people in the sector, because part of what I’ve seen certainly in the last couple of months, if I think about some of the projects we’ve done in the past few months, there are some of the stars that get attracted to the sector – the people that are hugely passionate or become the people that are in particular service areas are doing a lot and have their shouldered at will – are often operating slightly outside the bounds, and to have the inability to have the tough conversations say actually we need the line to be a bit this way, or it wasn’t ok to actually say it like that or things people pass by that some of those more difficult behavioural pieces because those people have been there a long time, or those people that the organisations become really reliant on. Sometimes those people are in the executive team. It’s like, well, we don’t need to model that behaviour, we’re allowed to do it slightly differently or that person seems to be able to get away with things that other people can’t. Trying to hold that tension between keeping good people and not constraining and creating freedom but also maintaining a certain level of consistency, and commercial people will often say to me “ if this was in a commercial environment they wouldn’t put up with that. They would do this, this and this, and struggling with, well, we don’t do that in this sector.

James Toomey:  I think there are a couple of things that feed into that. The challenges of either underperformance or degradation of performance over time occurring in any organisation, in any sector, it’s not unique to this sector. If I could characterize on a scale, so if we looked at other organisations on a scale of Mission Australia in the commercial sector and perhaps government, is that, and I know this from experience, in many governments there seems to be the opportunity to find another role for someone somewhere else. So, you might have a difficult conversation but ultimately it’s not existentially it’s not necessarily challenging for that person because I can just shunt you off into someone else’s department and we will still pay you and you’ll still get your pension. In some commercial settings you’re not good enough….

Elise Sernik: But you do it, if the person’s purpose isn’t completely animated by where they are right? If you’re there more for the pay and the status then it’s not such a critical thing, but to confront somebody who “this is my whole reason for being.”

James Toomey: Yes, that’s right. Confronting in those situations, the important piece is, this might be your reason for being but it’s actually not about you. I’ve spoken to many, many staff across the organisation in the last couple of years, hundreds of staff, face to face, and said “let’s just be clear, we have a purpose in this organisation and we are here to meet human need and we are some of the people having their needs met by the organisation because we are either extensively or intrinsically getting our needs met and that’s ok, my needs are met by Mission Australia, I get to work here, I get paid for it and feel good, it’s fantastic, and I’m sure that’s the same for many of you as well. But not at the expense of the people we’re serving because it’s not actually about us. The trap that people fall into in those difficult conversations sometimes, is they say “well they’re a really good hearted person, they have been in the organisation such a long time, they’re so well motivated”, yeah, but they’re  not behaving well, and actually it’s impeding our ability to deliver our purpose in a way which is consistent with our values. There are different ways of doing it, but what are we going to do in terms of developing the person’s capability or helping them understand where it is not aligning within the organisations purpose and what else we might be able to do with them. It may not be as simple as saying “here is a number, please go.” But even in that, one of the things I talk about in the organisation, we have a responsibility with employees, and we do have them occasionally within the organisation who have been in the organisation for a long period of time, who maybe underperforming or maybe the roles changed. In any given year Mission Australia commissions and decommissions contracts to the government contracting cycle and we make people redundant every year, not the same amount, not the same programs, not in the same places, but there is this a nature of that. We can’t just hold on to everybody.

Elise Sernik: That takes a real level of grit and courage I think to do that.

James Toomey: It’s also about creating a dignified exit for people. And even looking at performance, we have a responsibility to that person as an employee to make sure they shouldn’t be deluded about capability and if they’re not good enough, they need to know that they’re not good enough, because otherwise they go out into the workplace believing they are good enough to do this job, when actually the organisation conspired against them, and actually it was a challenge in their performance and I think the integrity of the organisation and the honesty in those conversations, honestly saying to people “I’m going to have to let you go because you’re not good enough to do this role”. It’s much, much easier when people say “oh they’re such a nice person” don’t worry it’s not about you. It much easier to do that, but then that’s actually about me that’s making me feel ok, it’s nothing to do with setting you up in the best possible way to understand  what they might need to go to work on in offer to have success somewhere else. I think it’s very, very important to make sure that authenticity, it comes to the principle, it’s not about us, we’re not here for our own benefit. We’re here for the benefit of the people that we serve, we have a responsibility to those people to do the best we can, not the least we can get away with, or what’s convenient to us and that is a lot of decisions particularly around what capabilities you have and who you have in the organisation.

Elise Sernik: That feels like a beautiful note to end on. Thank you so much it’s really wonderful to explore all the nuances and to hear your perspective with has some freshness for us I think too.

James Toomey: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

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