How the chair and CEO of Settlement Services International are helping refugees get a better start in Australia

Friday, 01 June 2018


    Violet Roumeliotis GAICD and Elisabeth Shaw GAICD of Settlement Services International are driving diversity by supporting refugee integration.

    Violet Roumeliotis

    There are many similarities in my experience as the daughter of Greek immigrants who arrived post WWII and the stories of the new arrivals we work with today at Settlement Services International (SSI). There’s the desire to work hard, to be part of and contribute to the community. My parents mortgaged their home to buy land to build the first Greek Orthodox church in Bankstown, while also running a business and raising a young family.

    My work has always been about helping people that the system has left behind, or for whom it has added insurmountable barriers.

    We want to achieve a society that values the diversity of its people... I take that lens to work every day.

    Violet Roumeliotis GAICD

    The SSI vision really spoke to me. It’s all about extending a hand to someone when they need it. At a time when they have a particular vulnerability, we focus on their strengths. We want to achieve a society that values the diversity of its people and provides support to ensure meaningful socio-economic participation for individuals and families. I take that lens to work with me every single day.

    There’s a lot of complexity running an organisation that receives significant government contracts and funding — in an area that is highly political. We need to maintain integrity and trust with all of our stakeholders, our funders, but also our collaborative partners, the community. That is a very difficult challenge for boards to manage because they are inherently risk-averse.

    Boards can be very worried about risk to brand and reputation, or not meeting contractual obligations around adverse commentary in the media. The SSI board manages that well by understanding the strategy of becoming a brains trust for government and community. This provides opportunities to impact on policies rather than attacking media commentary.

    I’ve known Elisabeth for around 20 years. She has extraordinary emotional intelligence and resilience. She’s run her own [clinical psychology consulting] practice and is a good listener, reflecting what you say and helping to crystallise it. It is a cliché, but being a CEO can be very lonely, so having a chair who is generous with her time is a great gift. I think her main motivation is [ensuring] board members are operating efficiently and honestly — that goes straight to the culture of the organisation.

    Elisabeth is the sort of person who tactfully but firmly drives discussion. I’ve seen her drill down to get directors to account for their position. She does it with great respect and I think “Good on her!” — it’s not easy to get people to listen to other points of view. She’s very humble, but there’s a steely bit, too — she has the ability to influence, but not in a dominating way. We share a “can do” mentality — we look for strengths and how to capitalise on them, and we also both work with an ethics-based lens.

    I’m really proud our programs are commercially viable so we can continue to meet the needs of community. Organisations sometimes forget they are also accountable to the community. We want to continue to grow, but without becoming predatory. Our approach is a values-driven “honeybee” one, attracting collaborators across the sectors [see Honeybees and Locusts: The Business Case for Sustainable Leadership by Gayle C Avery and Harald Bergsteiner].

    I want SSI to achieve both a national and an international footprint. When I talk about international work, I’ve seen the fear of God in directors’ eyes as they consider the associated risks. We take a quiet approach in the media, sharing success stories that humanise our constituents. The board understands the strategy well, and the importance of maintaining strong relationships with all our stakeholders, not just those who give us dollars.

    One of our recent success stories is that of three Iranian sisters who have opened a beauty business in Parramatta. They went through our startup program, IgniteAbility, which supported them in negotiating with landlords and setting up the business. The immigrant story is one of success that repeats itself generation after generation, no matter where people come from. We’ve had about 850,000 people arrive in Australia as humanitarian refugees since 1945. That’s a lot of people.

    violet and elisabeth

    Elisabeth Shaw

    I envy Violet’s lovely Greek traditions and sense of community. My parents came out as “£10 Poms” in 1952 and didn’t become Australian citizens. They were of the era where you could just stay — you didn’t have to make a case. So it’s a very ordinary story compared to some of our board members, who have been in refugee camps, who have lived and breathed the migration story like our clients.

    SSI was born out of a group of members. To reach maturity, it needed a governance structure that wasn’t solely reliant on its membership base. When SSI was moving to an independent board, it called for applications via the AICD and Violet rang me, saying she was intrigued in the work I’d done around ethics.

    I was her management coach in her first CEO role, at an organisation focused on post-release services for people who had been incarcerated. Both of us did further study. A great thing about further education is you mix with people from different organisations — it stops you from being caught in your own ideas.

    Part of my motivation in joining the SSI board was that I completely trusted Violet as a high performer. We also talked about how to manage this new element in our relationship — so that if I had to take action of any sort, I could still do my job.

    I am very impressed by Violet’s passion for the community sector and her values in attending to the disadvantaged. She has a genuine respectful engagement with her work, in how she runs the organisation, doing the right thing by staff, and keeping clients at the centre of the enterprise. We are both drawn to working in ethical and principled ways so it has become a common language — and a sound basis for decision-making.

    We are very focused on the front line, even though we have senior roles, so we work hard at being able to stand in the shoes of the most disadvantaged person.

    As an organisation, it could be tempting to be subordinate to government, given [current] policy and debate. Instead, we bravely entered the debate by providing a steady pipeline of constructive examples of the migration story.

    It’s a huge pleasure to celebrate the success of refugees and asylum seekers, talking about migrant women in leadership, telling the story through the arts and running a variety of forums.

    There are challenges governing well with an expanding team. The board has a clear role around managing growth.

    Elisabeth Shaw GAICD

    This year, we’re putting Australia on the map by hosting the International Metropolis Conference in Sydney (29 Oct–2 Nov), which brings together leaders and experts to talk about migration, diversity and integration, which is pretty impressive, considering Australia’s controversial reputation.

    Now we have grown, there are challenges around managing and governing well with a fast-expanding organisational team. When you get the size of contracts we do, you have to ensure you are managing prudently and managing risks.

    The board has a clear role around managing growth because otherwise the seemingly boundless opportunities could almost run away with you. A lot is going on, but making sure we’re doing the right thing by vulnerable people is crucial.

    Louise Petschler, AICD General Manager Advocacy, sat on the Settlement Services International Board until November 2016. Ms Petschler had no involvement in the editorial process for this article.

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