Expert Breakfast Report for 18 May 2022: Dr Rachael Hart, CE Otago Southland Cancer Society

Dr Rachael Hart, currently Chief Executive of the Otago Southland Cancer Society, has a wide work experience, including in the Australian Diplomatic Corps, with spells in Afghanistan and Fiji, which served to illustrate her comments on several topics, including what students should keep in mind, leadership, and being a woman in leadership.

Dr Rachael Hart with host Lara Seaton — Image by: John Cross

Following the usual introductions, as Members say who they are, what they are studying and where they are from, Dr Hart thanked everyone for attending, told us she felt honoured to be invited, and that she would be happy to be guided by questions from Members in the bulk of what she said.

She began by giving a potted history of her career to date, “. . which has really just been a matter of taking opportunities that are in front of me, and looking for particular things.”

For about the last six years she has been Chief Executive of the Cancer Society of Otago and Southland, which has a staff of 35. The work for which the Society is best known is to provide support for people with cancer - at any stage from immediately after they are diagnosed, to when they have completed treatment, and need help with what to do next. However, the Society also works on Health promotion, such as anti-smoking campaigns, UV protection, alcohol and cancer, and are involved in cancer research (including with OU), and all this activity requires fund-raising. Relay for Life, Daffodil Day, and many smaller events. “In a couple of weeks I jump out of an aeroplane, because I got sponsored enough to do it - and I’m terrified of heights!”

Being CEO in such an organisation is “multidimensional”. In the pandemic situation, and now with the cost of living increasing, all such organisations have experienced added difficulty in fund-raising. This demands making decisions about what the Society can afford to do, and what it cannot. “Part of my role is helping the organisation think about where we are going . . . . . and what can’t we do now, so that we can do more in the future . . . thinking about strategy, our responsibility, what our mission is and making sure we are always on purpose with that, as well as meeting Health and Safety obligations and HR, and so on.”

A volunteer Board oversees governance*. “But it’s also looking after people.” Dr Hart spoke of her amazing team working under a lot of pressure with inadequate resources, and who work in highly emotional settings, such as when clients who pass away and leave behind children. Managing the infrastructure is a challenge, also looking after the staff so that they in turn are equipped to look after the clients. “And I do a lot of fun stuff . . . I get to jump out of planes, I get to talk to groups like this, I get to talk to a lot of people about what we do.”

Australian by birth, Rachael, in the top 0.5% of New South Wales school leavers, went on to an Arts degree, as she wanted to study English and History, with no clear idea of a career. Looking back she realises now that she has always been a ‘big picture’ person, rather than the detail. She had a friend doing a medical degree, who told her they were looking at the chemical reactions that happen on the inside of a cell. . . . “and I was looking at decolonisation!"

After a year in Scotland, a call from some-one she had known at school who was running the ‘Oak Tree’ volunteer organisation, a not-for-profit group. “OakTree” is focussed on ending poverty, mobilising young people to that end, and is responsible for organising some massive events. Almost immediately, with little prior experience, Rachael was running their NSW branch, later becoming national General Manager of Organisation and Development. She puts this promotion down to:

“I had started to see the stuff I talked about before, the importance of people and strategy, and of having those two things coming together.”

As part of that job, Rachael went to visit some of their projects in PNG. She spoke of the difficulties of working in a different culture to your own, and the possibility of doing harm because of that. This motivated her to start a Master's - which evolved into a PhD on Peace and Conflict Studies, a central dictum of which is that: ”Peace and Conflict are not opposites’ but seeks non-violent ways to resolve conflict.” In her PhD on the evolution over time of UN peace building discussed the lofty ideals of the UN were often not met, their strategies perhaps enforcing peace short-term, but often reinforcing differences between opposing forces.

At this time, Rachel felt that, to play a serious part in international development meant she needed time in National government, and applied to the department concerned with foreign aid. This gave her further experience in PNG, time in Laos, and her interests took her into policy in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “got sucked into the Diplomatic Corps, spent a bit of time in Afghanistan, and did a stint in Fiji.”

Rachael in Fiji during Cyclone Winston recovery.

Having met a ‘Dunedin lad’ also doing a PhD in Sydney at the same time as herself, Dr Hart found herself under a bit of pressure to come to Dunedin, where his family lived. She acceded to this, but with the proviso that she would be able to work for a not-for-profit organisation that did really good work. The very next day, the job she is now doing was advertised on line. To her surprise, her application was successful. “And I love it.“

Making Decisions

Dr Hart then opened up the session for questions - which, again, were of high quality. The first concerned whether Dr Hart felt under pressure of making the ‘right’ decisions when in a leadership position. Her response was ‘Yes’, often because one does not have enough of the facts about the issue when a decision needs to be made. She made two points, the first that leaders need to be capable of making decisions, even when all the facts are not known, and the second, that one must continue to re-evaluate, and be flexible about such decisions.

What Do Diplomats Actually Do?

In answer to a question exploring just what diplomats do. The answer revolved around the fact that diplomats are in those positions in order to serve their country - which includes maintaining relationships with other countries. How this applies can take different forms. In Afghanistan, the countries giving aid had agreed that the Afghani Government would have to maintain certain criteria in order for the aid to continue, and this was up for review at the time Dr Hart went there. Also, the Australian Government was looking to reduce their aid to the Afghans. “So I was having to look at what that might require, and what might it mean for other International obligations? - So that was the policy side of it.”

In Fiji it was more about visa arrangements and fully informing those concerned in Australia of protocol, so that when foreign dignitaries visited Australia, they were properly treated. They also provided information to inform political tension meant they also were feeding as much information as they could so that informed assessments could be made about Australian/Fijian relations.

“It’s enormous, and it’s interesting, and you get to know some really cool things . . . you get to know about things that are happening across the world - it’s fascinating.”

Pressures of Leading the Cancer Society Branch.

Asked about coping with the pressure of being the CEO of Otago and Southland Cancer Society, Rachael commented that it didn’t matter if you were doing something like payroll services even, the moment you mention you work for the Cancer Society, people tell you their experiences, and often it is pretty hard. But in a sense it is motivating, because “I can see that there is a need for us to exist; there is a need to get up and go to work.” The Society is very careful about recruiting those with recent experience of cancer - she gave as an example a woman whose husband had recently died of cancer. Such people have to be aware of the effect the work with the Society might have on them.

In contrast to working in a more structured organisation, such as Government, Dr Hart commented that she really liked the ability the organisation has to react to changing circumstances very quickly.

The Covid Challenge

In response to a question about the biggest challenge presented to the organisation by the Covid pandemic, Dr Hart noted that there were many challenges - not least fundraising - but the key issue was “. . . keeping our people safe.” People who have had chemotherapy and radiation therapy are particularly vulnerable. “When it hit all we knew at first was that people with cancer more easily died. “ But there was no analysis of this re types of cancer or types of treatment, because everyone was so busy dealing with the pandemic. Interaction between staff and the people with cancer was the biggest problem, while keeping both parties safe.

What is an Important Thing for Students to be Aware of?

Rachel said that, in uni, she had spent a lot of time wondering what her career might be, while her actual experience was that, when she needed something new, something had been there. “Getting a really clear picture of what’s going to drive you, and what’s going to interest and making sure you are following those things, because the opportunities will be there when you need them.”

Feeling Unprepared for a Post

Have you ever felt unprepared In her current position she felt personally ready, but had never been CEO and did not know exactly what such a post entailed, and there were several people in the organisation who had been working there “longer than I’ve been alive . . . ..I knew I had a lot to learn, and I took on mentors, and drew on my Board. . . I was not prepared for how people would respond to me. Coming in as a young CE, I had to work harder to prove my mettle. You’ve got to prove yourself before people are going to follow you.”

On Leadership

“I had a mentor once when I was first stepping into a leadership position who said to me, ‘The big mistake that leaders make is that they think everyone sees them the same as they are as a normal person’. I see myself as a person, and I make mistakes , and I bumble along - but that’s not how other people see you. She [her mentor] said, - ‘what you need to do is, you need to glow on people.’ It is not about doing the big speeches, or being the life of the party, it’s about giving warmth and time, and knowing people will respond to that.” Rachel also said that she had done quite a bit of public speaking at school. “I think if you are thinking of a leadership position in the future, look for public speaking opportunities, because you can’t do it unless you can talk to a group.

Being good with your staff, being present, and allowing them to talk about themselves is by far the best way of connecting.

On Being in Different Cultures

Going into Afghanistan Dr Hart had some preconceptions of how she might be seen as a young woman, but found she was not treated as were the local women. This was in part because she was going in as a member of the Australian Government. “I think one of the lessons is not to try and guess how people are going to react to you - but try to be as respectful as you can. . . . . People are kind of OK if you make mistakes, because you look and sound different, and they appreciate you having a go.”

Standout Moments

Asked about standout moments that made her think: “I love what I do,” Dr Hart has quite a few. In her present job “There are several every day!” - she mentioned going to a high-profile meeting and having a CE of a big accounting firm say to her, “Your team saved my life!” - in front of everyone. “Knowing that I’m making a difference really fills my bucket.”

There were others, including when tropical cyclone Winston hit Fiji. Her job was to go and find all the Australians, Kiwis, Brits and Canadians that happened to be there. In all the devastation, while looking at a hopelessly damaged wharf where they had hoped relief ships would be able to unload, there was “the most beautiful sunset”.

Challenges of Being a Woman in Leadership.

Rachael noted that she had spent most of her working life in female-dominated fields, “So that’s probably protected me from some of the things that we hear about.” Although when she was younger Rachael was “Really outraged when I saw that sort of thing. As I’ve moved on, I’ve just decided I’m not going to let that kind of thing touch me.” She recounted an occasion when CE’s from the various regions were being invited to a dinner, they were invited to ”Bring your wives” - and of the 7 CE’s, four were women. They all laughed and called out ‘Sure! I’ll bring my wife!

*Governance is generally concerned with the overall strategic direction and financial planning of an organisation, in contrast to Management, whose concern is the day-to-day running of the organisation.   

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Posted: Saturday June 4, 2022