‘Melding head & heart’: a conversation with Tony Pietropiccolo AM

This year marks Tony Pietropiccolo’s 30th anniversary as CEO of Centrecare Perth. Centrecare is a Catholic not-for-profit, community services organisation with over 300 staff that delivers more than 70 services throughout the Perth metropolitan, Goldfields, Esperance and South West regions of Western Australia.

I met Tony more than a decade ago in the early stages of developing the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020, an initiative that continues to engage us both to the present day.

Amongst many other leadership roles, he has been President of the WA Council on Social Services, Chairperson of the WA State Homelessness taskforce, and a member of the WA Ministerial Advisory Council on Child Protection.

Tony has been a driving force behind the Valuing Children Initiative which aims to ‘inspire Australians to value all children, understand that a child’s wellbeing is the shared responsibility of the entire community and ensure children are at the forefront of our considerations’.

Retaining a sense of purpose

My talk with Tony went straight to the heart of some key challenges facing the not-for-profit sector in Australia today.

Reflecting on decades of experience, he said: ‘Not-for-profit organisations are increasingly becoming like ‘for-profit’ entities. A major challenge is how they can retain their sense of purpose consistent with their constitution and yet move to a more commercial footing.’

‘The idea that the only way to provide effective services is by organisations competing against one another is particularly challenging.’

‘There are other ways of organising the work we do other than through a competitive process. A major challenge for the not-for-profit sector is the possibility of losing clarity about its purpose. We need to keep thinking: What are we there for? Do we add value?’

A challenge for the sector

Asked about the way forward, Tony stressed: ‘Our sector has not spent enough time considering what it might look like or articulating a different vision about how we might operate.’

‘To use competition as a means to structure social services lends itself to compartmentalisation and fragmentation rather than cooperation and integrated services. There’s a big challenge for the sector and government to come up with an alternative vision.’

Unless we tackle that issue ‘we’ll end up working against integrated service delivery. We need to think how the not-for-profit sector can contribute something different other than going along with the trend toward greater commercialisation.’

Values at the centre

As with others I’ve interviewed for this series Tony talked far less about his achievements and far more about how Centrecare’s staff had helped to change people’s lives for the better and about the ongoing challenge of keeping guiding beliefs and values at the centre of attention.

‘Leadership,’ he remarked, ‘lies in the ability of my organisation to remain true to its values and its capacity to create a positive and supportive work environment even though there’s been a substantial growth in the organisation.’

‘The fact that we’ve been able to have a strong values base to our work has been incredibly important. It’s been a group achievement.’

‘What motivates me is the purpose of the work and providing services to people who are not normally able to access services, to create an environment within which people can have a better life.’

On the dangers of heroic leadership

Asked what advice he’d give to emerging not-for-profit leaders, Tony was firm: ‘never believe that being a leader is all about you. It’s about you and others. Heroic leadership can be problematic.’

‘It’s important to retain a sense of purpose and love and passion for your work and to not be afraid. Take up opportunities, create an environment that tends to minimise fear and anxiety for staff, and help create spaces in which people can grow and develop and respect others.’

‘I’ve always been more concerned about the quality, rather than the quantity, of what we do. Centrecare has steadily grown over 30 years but growth has not been our primary aim, or as an end in itself. The growth of the organisation has been a by-product of quality service.’

Asked to sum up the essentials of leadership in a few words, he was clear: ‘It comes down to heart…true leadership melds the head and heart.’

In closing, Tony drew my attention to words he wrote years ago about leadership from the perspective of a faith-based organisation:

As leaders we need to help minimise the level of angst that may exist within our organisations. Such anxiety can be created by the way that organisational policy is developed, implemented and regulated. It can be communicated through the manner of our responses to financial and service concerns.

Leaders need to ensure that honesty and openness is at the heart of what we do and how we do it. Justice and compassion need to coexist when dealing with difficult industrial matters and clients.

We have to be clear that our competitive spirit is driven by a desire to be excellent rather than a need to simply beat the opposition.  We need to believe that laughter and amusement plays an important role in our workplaces and is not the enemy to serious work.  It’s important not to take ourselves too seriously.

Dr Brian Babington
February 2019

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