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On a mission

03 September 2014

Catherine With Missionbeat Van

When Catherine Yeomans (picrtured above) was a young girl, her father told her a story about a woman who had once been so overcome with despair in the face of poverty and financial hardship that she had overturned her entire kitchen table, and in a clatter of pots and pans had fallen in heap on the ground.

That woman was Catherine’s grandmother – who had been widowed in the 1930s with two young children – and the story was seen through her father’s eyes, as a young boy watching his mum struggle to cope.

It is this story that has in many ways driven Catherine Yeomans to this point in her life, as the new CEO of leading community organisation Mission Australia.

After three years as Mission Australia’s Chief Operating Officer, and many years prior to that in the professional services publishing industry, Catherine Yeomans became the organisation’s CEO in March this year.

Catherine, who also sits on the Many Rivers board, a part of the Mission Australia group, as well as Mission Australia’s Early Learning and Housing boards, says her new role symbolises for her the coming together her experience and skills with her personal desire to reach out and assist Australians in need – people just like her grandmother.

Catherine believes her appointment to the job at Mission Australia signals two positives for the organisation.

Firstly, following an external and internal search to fill the position, her appointment from within firmly establishes the existence in Mission Australia of career paths and confirms the talent in the organisation. Secondly, as the first female head in Mission Australia’s 150-year history, it reminded Catherine that even though the organisation has shown real commitment to diversity, issues for women in the workplace still exist.

Diversity issues

Catherine hesitates to describe herself as a “feminist”, but admits she probably is one when she thinks about feminism as “equality of opportunity” and “respect for person”. In her career - at least early on in it – she ran up against some classic instances of sexism. They still make her bristle. Leaving school and entering the workforce she remembers being told as a woman working in a bank she was never going to get any further than teller… and a little later when she landed a position with the Attorney General’s department, having successfully completed the Public Service exam, she was told by a male colleague that she was only there because of “affirmative action”.

“I am pretty sure it was because I had done well in the exam. It made me realise the importance of affirmative action. In the mid-1990s I moved into the professional services publishing industry and noticed what seemed like 95 percent of the editorial workforce was female and yet, at that time, there was a 100 percent male executive,” she continues.

“What are the odds that only five percent of the workforce was ever good enough to be the executive? It must have been some preference for men in management positions,” says Catherine, her tone incredulous at the numbers.

Equality at work and in society

The reality that a “cap” exists around how far women can go in the workplace has stayed with Catherine, although she admits as she has advanced she has been able to overcome it: “I was fortunate in my career to be given opportunities and to take them and over time the limitations ceased to be visible. In fact, they began to fade away.

“For me, I think it has become about outcomes and ability, not gender, as you prove yourself in the workplace and achieve.”

Mission Australia is a non-denominational Christian not-for-profit (NFP), which aims “to stand together with Australians in need, until they can stand for themselves”.

Catherine’s faith and the organisation’s Christian foundations play a large part in supporting her to be effective as a leader.

“Reading the bible and prayer are givens in my day,” Catherine says. “For Christian women in leadership roles the perception of what leading actually looks like exists in the stories. I read the bible and see women in leadership roles throughout. I’m not conflicted or challenged by what leadership can look like because their stories provide role models that say to me, ‘women exist as leaders’.”

Catherine says passion for what you’re doing, as well as networking, communication, the ability to influence and inspire people to join you in the journey, are important aspects of the leadership journey.

“If I feel I’m flagging I’ll go out and see the services we provide and the work staff do at the coal face and the results of that work with our clients. The wins, the sparks in self-esteem, they really motivate me,” she finishes.

Reflecting on career she understands being comfortable “sitting in the grey” is an asset: “I’ve described it as sculpting marble. An artist would say the form, the sculpture, was always there, all it needed was patient development to reveal it. It’s not immediately clear, and as we keep chipping away it’s important to remain comfortable that it will emerge and not be tempted to rush to one conclusion.

“I don’t mean we’re just chipping away without thought, demolishing the marble. There’s something in there and it can feel hard, which is why I use marble in the analogy, but once the sense of the picture emerges, that is very motivating. Keeping people with you on that journey is important,” Catherine explains.

Westpac partnership

When Catherine was first appointed to the new role as CEO she met with Westpac CEO Gail Kelly.

Mission Australia’s partnership with Westpac spans over 150 years, as banking partner since the early beginnings of the organisation and a longstanding supporter through pro bono services, expertise, staff engagement and financial contributions through the Westpac Foundation.

Catherine says her meeting with Gail left a deep impression: “Gail articulated this very simple truth about ‘being present’ in whatever you are doing - about giving your whole self to whatever you are doing at that moment. Whatever I am doing I try to be present.”

As an organisation reliant on community and philanthropic donations, corporate sponsorship, and government funding, Catherine says there is a constant need for Mission Australia to demonstrate the value and importance of its work.   

“We are keenly focused on delivering evidence-based programs and likewise, advocating for evidence-based policy from governments across the nation.”

Mission Australia has invested heavily in measuring outcomes and achievements in its projects and policies across the years. Surveys, data collection, robust reporting procedures, they are the measures used to demonstrate Return on Investment (ROI).

There’s the annual youth survey which canvasses the views of around 14,000 young Australians between the ages of 15 and 19. The results of which are used to inform Mission Australia programs and to better understand the needs of young Australians. There are longitudinal studies on homelessness among men that demonstrate the need for more social housing and wrap-around services to support people to remain self-determining and lead a healthy life as part of their communities.

There’s a growing body of evidence to demonstrate that up-front investment, especially in education, training and employment, provides longer term savings for society. For example, if a young person is supported to successfully transition from education to employment, their ability to become a positive contributor in the community is significantly boosted, and the costs of supporting them if they had been unsuccessful in that transition are avoided. Similarly, people who have the security and safety of their own home and experience a strong sense of independence are in a better position to make positive life decisions and experience better health and well-being outcomes.

“The current political and economic environment is very challenging,” says Catherine. “There appears to be less appreciation for the fact that strong investment is required now if we want to prevent the cycle of poverty and assist people to participate in our communities.

“Recent policy changes which would see income support removed for six months out of every 12 for anyone under the age of 30, are concerning. We’re concerned it could push more people into poverty.

“We are all only two or three major life events away from homelessness. The loss of a job, family breakdown, an episode of mental illness: combine any of these life events and it’s easy to slip from having a home to being homeless.

“I think we are the sort of society that acknowledges that some people have some pretty big challenges in life and if we can support them we should. What’s important is that we invest in supports that assist people to improve their lives and regain their independence.”

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