‘We’re here to create change’: a conversation with Simon Schrapel AM

If you want to lead change, prepare to be discomforted and keep your values close at hand.

Those are some of the key messages from my recent interview with Simon Schrapel AM (pictured) on excellence in not-for-profit leadership.

Simon has worked for over three decades in the social and community services sector in Australia and abroad. His organisation, UnitingCommunities, is a leading South Australian community service agency that delivers a range of social and health services to over 20,000 people each year.

Simon is also Chair of Together SA, Chair of Foodbank SA, a Board member of Families Australia, a Director of Foodbank Australia and a member of the Premier’s Council on Suicide Prevention. He has held a number of key leadership positions, including as President of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS). He was awarded Membership of the Order of Australia in 2017 for his services to children and family services and the community sector.

I’ve worked closely with Simon for over a decade, particularly on the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020. I know him as an unrelenting advocate for social justice. He was an illustrious cricketer in his youth. He is an AFL ‘tragic’: no-one is perfect.

We’re here to create change

Simon talked about his desire to help create a more equal society. ‘I’ve been driven by a clear purpose about making change to benefit society, particularly for those who are struggling and vulnerable. In whatever role I’m in, the key thing is that I’m there as a change agent.

‘Disruption for disruption’s sake is not necessarily a good thing, but most of us look at the world and think things should be a whole lot better. Throughout my career, that’s the thing that’s motivated me.

‘If I thought I was keeping the status quo ticking along I would have given up long ago’.

Keeping our soul in place

On challenges facing the not-for-profit sector, Simon talked about how increased commercialisation and marketisation of services have mixed implications. ‘The sector is having to re-examine the ways it does business. We are operating in a more competitive environment. If we are to offer the best service we can to clients and consumers, it’s beholden on us to be as efficient as we can’.

But, there are downsides. ‘The biggest challenge,’ he said, ‘is how we keep our soul in place. I’ve seen some changes in the sector where I think some of that soul is being lost…I feel we had stronger advocates in the sector in the past, people who were prepared to speak out and challenge the status quo both within the sector and in public policy’.

‘There’s a growing cautiousness within the community services sector that worries me because one of the sector’s defining qualities has been that it reaches out to alleviate poverty, vulnerability and disadvantage, and is also prepared to challenge publicly in terms of policy debates. [Advocacy] isn’t dead, but we’ve got fewer leaders prepared to take the risk of speaking out ’.

‘One of the responsibilities we have as leaders is to have an external view of the world and to be out there trying to make a difference in public policy debates, and not just look after our organisation’s interests’.

Playing devil’s advocate

What defines an effective not-for-profit leader? Simon was clear that leaders must encourage questioning even if it is discomforting for others and ourselves: ‘If we don’t hear the voices of others,’ he said, ‘then we only speak to ourselves’.

‘It’s important to have people around who think like you. But, it’s as important to have people around who are prepared to challenge you…the best ideas come when you are challenged’.

‘I lament that we like the voices we like. If we’re not prepared to hear other voices, we end up patting ourselves on the back about our own views and thoughts’.

‘You’ll never bring about change if you don’t know how other people are thinking’.

‘In my own organisation, while I don’t always like it, I feel better when I’m challenged because it forces me to improve my argument and sometimes rethink and change tack’.

‘We need to be open to alternative thinking. When we aren’t, we get stymied and don’t grow’.

‘One of the key things about leadership,’ he said, ‘is to give permission, legitimacy and openness for people to be able to come up and challenge you. Leaders who shut down that type of thinking become very myopic and, ultimately, aren’t good leaders’.

Asking questions and playing ‘devil’s advocate’ is a strategy Simon often uses to open up discussion. ‘I have a tendency to challenge people’s thinking…I think arguments can be good if done respectfully…debate and discussion provides richness in thinking and problem solving. If we don’t do it, we resort to group-think’.

‘Our tendency,’ he said, ‘is to smooth things over and avoid conflict but conflict has a place and we shouldn’t always be shutting it down. There’s a balance’.

‘Sometimes we are too polite or get very defensive. It’s easy to say “I like to be challenged”, but sometimes it creates a level of discomfort.

‘So perhaps one of the most important ingredients of being a good leader is a preparedness and ability to be uncomfortable because, if you aren’t, you’re not really listening, learning, growing and adapting. But it’s hard’.

On being challenged

Simon pondered how leaders can get better at being challenged. There are no easy answers. On one hand, there is pressure on leaders to defend positions: ‘to stick to your guns…to be stoic’.

On the other hand, to ‘defend your position blindly closes you off to other opportunities and change’.

Mentors can be useful but ‘not unless you are prepared to listen and accept what others are saying’.

A responsibility to liberate

Asked about achievements, Simon was emphatic: ‘it’s not about what we do but about what we allow others to do’.

‘Our biggest job as leaders is what we do to allow others do their job better. We have a responsibility to liberate the people we work with to be their best’.

Final words to aspiring leaders…

So, what is Simon’s advice to aspiring leaders?

‘Always remember,’ he said, ‘that you’re not only leading debates but leading people’.

‘A lot of people will remember you for how you managed or led them. If you’ve done that with a light touch that facilitates their ability to get the best out of themselves, to lead themselves, and to grow and develop as leaders in their own right, then that’s the best legacy we can leave’.

‘Also, it’s pretty hard to sustain energy and focus without true beliefs about why you are doing this work. Whatever that passion is, make sure it sits at the forefront of your leadership’.

‘And, don’t panic. Remember that some of the big changes you seek won’t happen immediately and some things can happen when you least expect it’.

‘You don’t bring about change without taking risks. When things go wrong, the important thing is to remain calm because panic is contagious and poor decisions get made when people panic’.

‘Once that happens you lose control and the organisation and those others around lose control as well. It’s important to demonstrate a level of calmness so that other people can take control of the situation around you’.

Dr Brian Babington
October 2018

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