By Violet Roumeliotis, CEO Settlement Services International
I cut my teeth in leadership in my late teens and early 20s, working in voluntary roles within my own Greek community. When I looked around, all I could see were predominately older, male leaders. One of the things that spurred along my leadership journey was that lack of representation. When I couldn’t see other leaders in my community who looked like me, I decided to become one.
In my early 20s I became the president of the Greek cultural organisation that established the first Greek Festival of Sydney, which is now entering its 36th year. People were remarking on the fact that there was a young, Australian-born woman of Greek background heading this cultural event. That was unusual ? even among the more progressive Greek community organisations at that time. There was quite a bit of pushback from the older elements of my community but, with the fearlessness of youth, I enjoyed that battle and having the opportunity to show exactly what I could contribute.
My first paid leadership role as the St George Migrant Resource Centre Coordinator instilled in me a great sense of responsibility. At 28 years old, it was also the first time I realised that leading and managing people was something I was good at.
I learned that being a leader is more than just the day-to-day tasks of developing people, negotiating leases and managing payroll. It’s also about facilitating and enabling the outcomes you desire by creating opportunities for collaboration.
An important contributing factor to my initial success as a leader was that I knew I wasn’t alone; I knew I could harness the expertise and the energy of others. If I didn’t know something, I could reach out to my colleagues or other leaders in my sector and, collectively, we’d get it done.
When you’re young, there’s not an expectation that you should know everything. You feel more free to seek assistance from a mentor or coach. But coaching is no less critical as we mature. In fact, it is an often-underrated tool that is key to maintaining growth and development.
Many people think of coaching as being those awkward conversations about poor performance. For me, coaching is about offering opportunities for growth ? providing constructive and honest feedback that enables people to go from good to great.
Through my work with the Executive Central Coaching Academy, I’ve developed my own ability to coach others and share the experience and lessons I’ve learned in my career. The skills that you require to coach ? active and power listening, effective questioning, and offering feedback ? are wonderful skills in our personal, as well as professional, lives.
In the years since graduating from the Executive Central Coaching Academy, I’ve been fortunate to receive wonderful acknowledgement, including being recognised as the 2017 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year and being included in AFR’s Top 100 Women of Influence for 2018.
Since I joined Settlement Services International (SSI) as CEO in 2012, we’ve been on a steep growth trajectory. In just a few short years, our revenue has grown from $6 million to almost $120 million. We’ve also shifted from a NSW-based organisation to one that straddles the entire east coast of Australia, thanks to our recent launch in Victoria and merger with Access Community Services in Queensland.
Embarking on our initial period of growth was one of the great joys I’ve encountered in this job. But the greatest challenge I’ve faced as a leader came after we had grown and I realised that not everyone was happy about it.
As a fledgling not-for-profit on the rise, people supported us ? saying how great it was to see a community organisation get ahead using an innovative approach. But then we reached a tipping point. I turned around and realised our size and ceaseless growth was scaring people. There wasn’t the same collective joy in our success and the possibilities that it brought for the broader sector in which we operate.
We’d lost our base. I wasn’t sure exactly when it happened, but I realised it was something I’d missed. It blindsided me. We’d lost the people I thought about as being ‘my’ sector. It was a very painful time of reflection.
I had to own the repercussions and embark on a listening exercise, where we reconnected with people to better understand our situation. That reconnection took a while but we did get there, and that taught me a valuable lesson. With success and with growth, there will always be animosity and detractors, but you can reconnect with the people and organisations you truly value ? and we continue to partner and collaborate with those stakeholders today.
As with any journey, my path towards leadership has not been all sunshine and roses but I feel fortunate to have now reached a point where I have the gift and opportunity to use those lessons and experiences to help others as they navigate their own leadership journeys. Working with Executive Central was an important part of that journey and developing my own skills.