Spotlight on Justine Colyer

LLeadership WA Spotlight Series with Justine Colyereadership WA caught up with Justine Colyer, who believes not-for-profits can balance commercial astuteness with humanity.

Tell me about Rise –your organisation and its goals.

JC: The Rise Network, formerly the Hills Community Support Group, assists people with disabilities, mental health issues, the aged, young people at risk, carers, people fleeing from domestic violence, and others of disadvantage. While the group began in the hills, hence its name, we are much bigger now.

That is one of the reasons why we rebranded – our reach is as far as Joondalup in the north, across to Morley, and Rise has also purchased a place in Cockburn to take advantage of the National Disability Insurance Scheme down there. Across the metro area, we support 2,000 people a year.

There are about 500 staff and volunteers, and Rise will have a turnover of $30 million this year; we want to increase that by 50 per cent during the next five years. So we have quite an ambitious target.

That is ambitious. How did you come to this role?

JC: Well, that’s a good question … because it was through Leadership WA. I answered a call from Hills Community Support Group because it had requested strategic planning assistance through Leadership WA’s Skillsbank.

I had previously worked with Hills when employed by the government and knew the organisation, so I lent a hand.

I worked with the board for about a year. The then CEO, who set up the organisation 30 years ago, had been the only CEO for three decades and decided it was time to retire. The board had gotten to know me and I applied. That’s the story I always use for Leadership WA. I didn’t do it for that reason, because I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I got a great job out of volunteering for Skillsbank.

What did you do before you moved to Rise?

JC: I worked for Stockland, Australia’s largest property developer, doing community development for a year. Before that I worked for 10 years in government, including establishing the Project Management Office for Corrective Services. Project management of building of prisons was brilliant, and then I actually ended up running a prison – my second favourite job to the one I am in now. I also worked at the Department of Housing. So I am not one of those people who had a five-year goal: I have literally flopped from one job to the other. I guess it’s because I have no expectations. If something pops up, I just think ‘yeah that sounds great’, and I give it a go.

Do you think a leader who works in government needs to have different skills to one in the private or not-for-profit sectors?

JC: I think the more you move around, the more you realise that people are people are people and each organisation has its own culture. People look at government and just think they are bureaucrats and struggle to get things done. But there are amazing people in government.

People think the private sector is super efficient and hard nosed, but that’s not always the case and some people think NFPs are just warm and fluffy and don’t know how to run a business. So all of those are true and none of those is true and they apply to each of the sectors. Culture changes are different to each organisation because of the organisation, not because of the sector.

So I now work with people in my organisation who are more commercially minded than I have worked with in the private sector. It just depends on where you go – and the culture of an organisation will change dramatically when a leader changes. Not necessarily because it is a sectoral change, but because of the person or people at the top.

How did Rise change as a result of your becoming CEO?

JC: It depends who you ask. It’s not just me; there is a whole team at the top, about 10 of us in the leadership group. Thinking like a business and acting like a charity is our approach. So we are much more commercial and business minded than in the past. This means we make better use of our resources, so we can do far more for clients. Although people think those two are incompatible, they aren’t; because you have got to be commercially astute to run a good charity, otherwise you just fritter money down the drain. Project management, risk management and good governance are all important – we do things once, we do them well. We embrace technology and social media and are willing to take risks, as well as implement mergers and acquisitions.

External valuations of our service quality have gone up, so something is working. In fact, in the NFP sector, many people are coming through who think like that and they balance humanity with commercial astuteness. I think neither one is sacrificed for the other, they just go hand in hand. It’s a good time to be in the sector.

You are also involved in some volunteering, personally. Can you tell us about this?

JC: I do a lot through Leadership WA, still, including mentoring, and have done quite a bit of on the ground – drug and alcohol and suicide prevention counselling on the phones and, individually, strategic planning. I especially enjoy mentoring women as a lot of women gave me a break and took the risk on me, so I guess you just pay it forward.

What brought you to Australia from the UK?

JC: I was in London, running a pub, and my partner then was from Perth. London was miserable in the winter and he woke up one morning and said: ‘I just can’t do this anymore, come back with me and see where I live’. When all you have really done is lived in London for 10 years and someone takes you down to Cottlesloe Beach and you go: ‘Oh my, what is this paradise?’ So I came here. It’s beautiful – I love it.

As you think of yourself as having evolved as a leader; what are some of the things you know now that you wished you had known 20 years ago?

JC: I don’t know that I would change anything as I think you have to do things to make the mistakes and learn. Now I am more relaxed about making mistakes, much more relaxed about not knowing stuff, much more relaxed about me making mistakes, more relaxed about people making mistakes. I’m much more into devolving responsibilities, so I am more comfortable with people going off and doing stuff and, if they come back and haven’t done it quite right, it’s almost never the end of the world.

The counter is that is you get so much more out of those people. I am very comfortable not knowing things, very comfortable being the first person in the room saying: ‘I just don’t understand what you said’. But that is much easier to do when you’re in a position of authority.

So, more relaxed, less worried about trying to control everything, much more comfortable at things not being so perfect, and really comfortable in how I recruit superstars so all the people who work for me are really heaps better at their jobs than I could ever be. You surround yourself with greatness.

One of the things we talk about at Leadership WA is the whole concept of work-life balance or integration; how do you take care of yourself and your loved ones and also engage professionally at the level you like to?

JC: You’re not indispensable, so when I want to go on holiday, I go on holiday. You’ve got to set up things around you so you don’t have to be the only one to make the decision in the organisation; otherwise there are always people trying to contact you. I have a dog, so I walk her twice a day, I go to the gym almost every day and I’m a morning person, so that’s easy. I have a good rule at work – you are there to work 7.5 hours per day. That’s it, and then you go home. I don’t want Rise staff to be in the office after 5pm. It’s just not productive after a certain time. I also believe in flexible hours, it’s about what you do and achieve, not about the working hours. I also love cooking and food and just being out and about being active and exercising.

I am intrigued by your individual generosity to create a scholarship that sponsors someone else to be part of Leadership WA. Tell me about this and how you came to that decision.

JC: I could buy a $6,000 handbag if I wanted to, but I decided to help sponsor a Leadership WA participant. I suppose I’m investing in my own future and wanting decent, smart people to run WA, and I do love it. I’ve had lots of opportunities and there would be lots of other people who have not had them, so why not? It’s not a hard decision.

Please explain more about your Leadership WA experience and what you hope others will gain from it?

JC: At the start, I looked around and thought: ‘What am I doing here?’ I think I was sandwiched between the CFO of a large branch of Wesfarmers and one other amazing overachiever. But I realised that everyone there was a nice person – they were funny, smart and decent. The biggest benefits came afterwards. The graduation was a nice way to finish off then, after a few months, that’s when I started engaging with Skillsbank. You can pick up the phone and say: ‘I know you don’t know me, I’m not stalking you, but I found your name on the list – can I ask you something?’ You can’t get that anywhere else, in WA.

If you think about leadership in your life so far, is there anything you would like to share?

JC: In the past five years, since I have been at Rise, I’ve got better at having the tough conversations and I would say, in well over 50 per cent of the cases, the tough conversation ends up benefiting you and the person you’re having it with. You both come out the better for it, suddenly you think: ‘Oh gosh, this is what we both needed’. Then you see a way forward.

I do find it very hard. I’d rather be reasonable and hope that people come good, but the reality is some people don’t. But you’re there to be a leader, not a friend. I like to be liked, who doesn’t? So it’s trying to find that balance. I haven’t nailed it yet, but I think every day I get slightly better at it.