Knowing what leader you DON’T want to be: a conversation with Jenni Hutchins, CEO of Big Fat Smile

The vital importance of leaders engaging in their own reflective practice was at the centre of my recent talk with Jenni Hutchins, CEO of Big Fat Smile, as part of my series of interviews with CEOs about excellence in not-for-profit leadership in Australia.

Jenni has been the CEO of Big Fat Smile, based in Corrimal, New South Wales, since 2017. Big Fat Smile is a not-for-profit provider of early learning and care, out of school hours care, cultural and inclusion services in NSW and the Australian Capital Territory. It comprises a network of 27 community preschools, 15 fun clubs (out of school hours care), a play cafe and a portfolio of community and inclusion programs. Their vision is to enrich the lives and minds of our children and families in their communities.

A registered psychologist by training, Jenni has had extensive senior experience in the community services sector, including with The Benevolent Society, YMCA NSW, and the NSW Department of Community Services. She is Co-Chair of the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, a group of large providers who advocate and support the value of early learning and care.

Listening deeply

Asked about her approach to leadership, Jenni talked about the vital importance of collaboration and strong culture. ‘Strategy and culture are really important. How I collaborate to build a strategy and how I deploy that through culture are critical. When I undertook the Sydney leadership program, they talked about leadership being a doing word, a verb, rather than a role. I agree with that.’

‘I’m really passionate about leading through a culture and values lens – we constantly reflect on whether we’ve used our vision and values as parameters to be successful leaders and provide direction, protection and order for our staff.’

‘Sitting with ambiguity and complexity is often the hardest thing to do,’ Jenni said. ‘We often deal with unique, dynamic issues and try to deal with them with ethical integrity. It’s about acting ethically and mobilising people into collaborative action. By collaborating, you’re listening deeply to other people’s views and formulated actions with the best intent.’

‘If we listen deeply we often find what’s in the best interests of the child or client and it leads to what is right. It links back to authentic relationships and to some of the work that’s been done on leadership around gratitude and apology. It’s OK to say sorry when you’re a leader. Showing gratitude is the right thing to do. Often the ethical approach is about leading with the head and the heart and to blend them. There’s a dual lens to leadership.’

‘Working in a ‘for-purpose’ organisation absolutely motivates me. What I’ve learned in previous roles is that I am at my best when the organisation’s vision and values are aligned with my ethical framework and values, whereas, if my values aren’t aligned with the protected behaviours of the organisation, I struggle to sync with an organisation.’

‘What motivates me,’ Jenni said, ‘is being a strong advocate in the for-purpose area for children and families, asking: What’s in their best interest and how can I achieve that in my role? I have to have a belief in the purpose of what I do. People, engagement and outcomes are, at the end of the day, what motivates me.’

Curious questions            

I asked Jenni about important sources of support she gets in her leadership role. ‘Its personal connections with wise ones,’ she said. ‘I really lean on, and lean to, people of wisdom and look to them for guidance on specific or curious issues. I catch up regularly with people so I can ask the curious questions and understand their conceptualisation which helps build my knowledge and ability.’

‘It’s important to know that you’re not the be-all and end-all to every problem and to be gracious and apologetic if you’ve done wrong or you haven’t quite hit the mark. Knowing and acknowledging these things is important so that people recognise you’re human.’

‘I’ve always had a thing about how I can be a bigger, braver, wiser, stronger leader. And, helping other people to be good leaders is important. I ask myself: How I can listen to other people’s views on issues when they’re showing true and authentic leadership?’


On issues facing the not-for-profit sector today, Jenni talked about challenges in the area of governance, the changing nature of families, and the increased role of for-profit organisations in settings which have been traditionally firmly in the not for profit space.

‘Risk has been pushed more to not-for-profits and managing risk is critical. And there’s the changing face of families. We need to be clearer about the expectations families have about us. How do we clarify the role of not-for-profits and the difference with a for-profit doing the same thing?’

‘How can we show our unique identifier to governments, stakeholders and clients and what are their expectations of us? The line between not-for-profit and for-profits is closing with for-profits driving their social responsibility pathways.’

Define your leadership

Finally, on advice to aspiring not-for-profit leaders, Jenni had this to say: ‘Sometimes it’s understanding what type of leader you don’t want to be because that helps to clarify what type of leader you want to be.’

‘Take lessons from experiences you don’t want to go through again. What was it that you didn’t like? How can you adopt behaviours that will ensure that you don’t experience that again, or so you don’t give that experience to someone else as a leader?’

Dr Brian Babington
April 2019

Read other interviews on excellence in not-for-profit leadership here.