‘Every decision matters’: a conversation with Andrew McCallum AM

Commenting on national political affairs, ABC journalist Laura Tingle recently wrote ‘We bemoan a lack of leadership. Some yearn for the good old days when we had it. Yet when we get it, we sometimes don’t recognise it, and even if we do, we seldom reward it.’

Politics aside, I’ve been thinking a lot in recent times about what makes effective not-for-profit sector leadership.

Are we doing a good job in nurturing the next generation of leaders? What does exemplary not-for-profit leadership look like? What should we be telling aspiring leaders?

To explore some of these questions I’m in conversation with Andrew McCallum AM (pictured right). Andrew has been CEO of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA) in New South Wales for the past 12 years.

ACWA is the NSW non-government peak for organisations working with vulnerable children, young people and their families.

Later this year, Andrew will retire, move to Melbourne and edge closer to his beloved AFL team, the Hawks. He is one of Australia’s most experienced not-for-profit leaders. He has worked in the child and family welfare sector for 40 years, 37 of which have been as a CEO.

Starting his career as a teacher, Andrew is past President of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the Victorian Council of Social Service, and the Children’s Welfare Association of Victoria. In 2011, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his social justice leadership.

I cannot recall how many conversations I’ve had with Andrew, but it’s been in the hundreds. We met over a decade ago as we began work on the national policy approach to protecting children. He went on to play a pivotal role in what was to become the the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 – the nation’s first-ever COAG-endorsed plan of action to tackle child abuse and neglect.

Since then, Andrew has been at the centre of the National NGO/research Coalition on Child Safety and Wellbeing and the National Forum for Protecting Australia’s Children which oversees the National Framework. He is a friend and mentor.

Clearing the way for others

The first thing Andrew told me was that effective leaders need to know their limitations and enable the people around them to do their best work.

‘I want to be the person who clears a way for people with better skills and knowledge than myself’.

Reflecting on his time as CEO of a large community service in Victoria, he said ‘I was surrounded by some incredibly innovative thinkers and socially-driven people who did marvellous things.

‘My job was to get out of their road and make sure no one got in their road…The kernel is to understand what you don’t know and to understand that there are people with better capacity [than you] to deliver.’

He was adamant that leaders must set the cultural standards of their organisation. There cannot be a difference between how a service respects and cares for its staff and how it helps clients in the external world. There is no room for a ‘dual standard’.

Every decision matters

He recalled vividly one case when judgements had been made by a community service about care arrangements for a child. Matters ended in tragedy, however, as the child died in horrific circumstances.

He never forgets this case because he felt not enough had been done by the service to understand the family relationships and dynamics at play.

Yet, that experience proved invaluable years later. When confronted with a similar family situation he knew to ask deeper questions about what was happening inside the family home. That questioning helped to avoid another potentially tragic situation.

For Andrew the lesson is ‘be mindful of the fact that the consequences of bad decisions can be death, especially when working in child protection…make sure decisions you make are accountable. There is never a decision that doesn’t matter.’

Colleagues who understand

Where can leaders turn for support, especially in challenging times?

Andrew focussed on the role played by colleagues and the importance of supporting each other.

‘You need to have colleagues who understand. I am the first to say don’t judge when bad things happen in systems and sometimes it’s not your fault.

‘It doesn’t mean you did badly at the time. You need people who understand that and with whom you can talk.

‘You need the counsel of sensible people when those things happen…you also need to be attuned to people who are blaming themselves.’

Clarity about what matters

Knowing his passion for social justice, I was keen to hear about Andrew’s time as ACOSS President.

He said that when analysing and commenting on social services issues at the national level, he kept a short list of key questions in mind: ‘Is it fair? Why do we do it? How would things be better if we did it differently? Do we collectively have a sense of the common good?’ In other words, clearly identifying the real issues at play is key.

And history matters. He strongly maintained that we need to keep a ‘beady eye on history’ and remember why policies, laws and practices evolved over time before deciding to sweep them away.

‘I’m a great believer in remembering the lessons of history and understanding why something was done in the first place before you dismantle it.’

A final word to aspiring leaders…

In closing I asked Andrew what advice he could give to aspiring leaders in the sector.

He was adamant: ‘don’t not do it!’

‘Learning on the job with safe people around you is the best way to do things. You are the person who looks at what needs to be done and the best team to do it.

‘The best advice I can give is if you see yourself as a social advocate make sure you get the right tools to do that and make sure that you bring people along with you otherwise your social advocacy will have a party of one person behind it.’

Brian Babington
October 2018

Read more interviews about excellence in not-for-profit leadership here