Kate Thiele FAICD recently stepped down as CEO of Guide Dogs SA/NT. She is on the board of Zoos South Australia, the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust, the Crows Foundation, and was the 2015 SA Telstra Business Woman of the Year award winner. She spoke with the AICD about the importance of culture, performance measurement for NFPs and the challenge of doing business in South Australia.
Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD): You recently stepped down after seven years at the helm of Guide Dogs SA/NT, what are your proudest achievements from your tenure?
Kate Thiele (KT): I'm really proud of the transformation into a very dynamic, contemporary not-for-profit. We've doubled the client base over that seven-year period, so it meant that the work we were doing was really meaningful.
We added a real professionalism to fundraising, which was incredibly important, and lifted the number of regular donors substantially. And so, revenues over that time increased about three-fold. And we won on trust, which was amazing, being named the most trusted charity in Australia for four years in a row.
The other thing that makes me incredibly proud is the team. I didn't do any of that, it was a collective effort from an amazing group of people that I had the privilege of leading.
AICD: What’s your advice for other NFPs who are looking at making similar changes to take their performance from ‘good to great'?
KT: One of things I really believe in is you can't over-communicate where you're going. Because if people don't know where you want to take the organisation, they create their own plans.
I think it is open to interpretation by all of the not-for-profits. The most important thing in terms of translating your mission throughout the organisation is really around leadership. It has to be a blend between absolute determination and humility.
And you need terrific values. People talk about soft targets. For me, I struggle with that concept really, because values are not soft, because they're actually linked to behaviours. And behaviours can be measured, managed and defined. One of the things that I was able to do, which created a platform for our success, was to champion those values relentlessly. Relentlessly. From recruitment through to delivery, through to measuring.
AICD: What are the biggest governance challenges that face the NFP sector at the moment?
KT: For many NFPs its around working out what you want to measure above and beyond the classic financial metrics.
How do you measure culture for instance? It's more than just doing 360s on your CEO and on your leadership team. How does a board actually really understand what the culture is? Culture is how someone would describe the organisation when the board and the CEO and the executive team aren't in the room. It's what happens when you're not present that is really the true culture.
So for me, with all of the forces that are impacting our sector, a big question is what to measure beyond the essential financial metrics. Because you don't want to measure too much, you get lost in it, but you really need to be crisp about what it is that you do want to measure.
AICD: You are a very proud South Australian. What is the environment for doing business like in South Australia?
KT: Doing business is a challenge anywhere. Adelaide doesn't have the same opportunities, because of the size of the state and the volume of people that live here, for fantastic success like you get in the Eastern seaboard. But I've loved living in South Australia from an innovation point of view. It is a state where, because it is tough to do business, you need to practice innovation and test new ideas. Back in my corporate days I worked with a major department store group and it was always South Australia that they sent the new products to, to see if they worked, because our environment can be really brutal. So if you can pass that hurdle, you can do very, very well.
Watch Kate’s panel from the 2017 Australian Governance Summit where she and Dr Andrew Young MAICD, CEO of The Centre for Social Impact, Ross Kelly AM FAICD, Chairman of the Clontarf Foundation and Lisa Chung FAICD, Director of the Benevolent Society discuss Taking your NFP from good to great.
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