Chair and acting CEO of Playgroup Queensland, Gloria Sherlock and Michele Galagher, outline how shared values drive better performance, writes Denise Cullen.

    An obstacle-defying energy flows when the values of a chair and CEO align. Although Playgroup Queensland is all about promoting children’s learning through play, the deeper purpose articulated by chair Gloria Sherlock MAICD and acting CEO Michele Galagher MAICD involves building parents’ and carers’ skills through education, training and support.

    While metropolitan, middle-class families may be the most visible face of the playgroup movement, they are only a small part of the mosaic. “About 71 per cent of our programs support people living in rural, remote and marginalised communities,” says Galagher. “It’s anticipated that supporting those individuals in the very early years will alleviate challenges in the future, including difficulties in school, unemployment and incarceration.”

    Such an appraisal challenges the notion that child’s play is trivial. Sherlock acknowledges that many outcomes are intangible, but research underpins everything Playgroup Queensland does. “People might think we’re just a mothers’ club, but we’re not,” she says.

    Sherlock and Galagher are both parents, but they also share strong financial backgrounds. Sherlock started her professional career with Ernst & Young (now EY) as an e-risk consultant and auditor. Playgroup Queensland was a client. After leaving Ernst & Young, she became a director of Playgroup Queensland — a breath of fresh air on a board entirely populated by senior men. She later became vice-chair, and when the chair left six years ago, a heavily pregnant Sherlock stepped up. “I chaired my first meeting with a newborn in my lap,” she says.

    Giving back to the community

    The American-born and MBA-qualified Galagher arrived in Australia 20 years ago. Attending university in her new country, she gained further qualifications in commerce and accounting. Galagher attributes her love of learning to the path she eventually took — as the Brisbane Montessori School’s business manager and company director, then Playgroup Queensland’s manager of finance and corporate services. She took the role of acting CEO in September 2019. “It’s so exciting for me as an accountant and a governance and finance professional to find a happy place where I can connect with community and contribute in my own way,” says Galagher.

    Sherlock says their working relationship works because “Michele’s values align with mine perfectly — her absolute belief in giving back to those less fortunate”. Yet, while like-minded in many ways, the pair is clear on their respective roles and responsibilities, and they manage any differences with a healthy dose of humour and mutual respect. Galagher says Sherlock’s belief in Playgroup Queensland’s purpose means she is always accessible “no matter what time of day”.

    “Gloria has been a chair for a long time now and understands the importance of implementing boundaries between the operational and strategic direction of the company,” says Galagher.

    Meanwhile, Sherlock credits Galagher with encouraging her to “turn my big dreams into reality”, yet maintain a down-to-earth grasp of the fine detail. She also describes Galagher as having an open, honest style that staff respect. “She communicates well and takes the employees along on the journey with her.”

    Take the work Playgroup Queensland does in the remote Indigenous community of Yarrabah in Far North Queensland, for example. “You can see Yarrabah across the Trinity Inlet, but to get to it, you have to get into a car and drive for an hour and a half though mountains and around the coastline,” says Galagher.

    In September 2019, a Yarrabah mother embarked upon this journey in reverse, before taking a plane — her first — to Hobart, Tasmania. On the podium at the Early Childhood Australia national conference, Kelita Choikee discussed her role as the trained facilitator of the Yarrabah Young Mums and Djenghi Playgroups.

    “It’s so important for us to have somebody from community,” says Galagher. “These facilitators are (employed) maybe four hours per week. We support them, we give them life skills, really — how to show up on time, what you need to do, what’s a checklist. It’s a beautiful opportunity for them to be a representative in their community and they’re quite proud of it.”

    [As chair] I can be the meat in the sandwich between organisation and board members. It’s my role to try to manage different views... make sure everyone’s happy.

    Gloria Sherlock MAICD

    Getting on with governance

    Established in 1973, Playgroup Queensland is part of a federated structure. It is a member of Playgroup Australia — the board of which is comprised of both state and territory organisations-linked directors, including Sherlock, as well as independent directors. Playgroup Queensland is highly innovative, in that it delivers 24 different programs. For example, Sing&Grow is a music therapy program that supports at-risk families; while Ageless Play delivers intergenerational programs into aged care and retirement living services.

    Staff program managers typically spot emerging needs, but it’s in the boardroom that their ideas are tested. “We have to make sure any program we introduce is sustainable and financially viable,” says Galagher. “The worst thing… would be for us to move into a community and then say we’re done, and back out again.”

    The organisation’s volunteer board meets every six weeks. Its current composition reflects a broader cultural shift — with a younger, predominantly female and hands-on parent demographic. Until recently, there was only one man on the board. Sherlock has since recruited James Farrell, formerly general manager advocacy with Cancer Council Queensland.

    Conflict in the boardroom is handled with an eye to organisational values such as respect. “[As chair] I can be the meat in the sandwich between organisation and board members,” says Sherlock. “It’s my role to try to manage different views and make sure everyone is happy and comfortable.”

    The organisation, inevitably, is infused with family friendliness. Playgroup Queensland now has more than 100 team members, although the full-time staffing equivalent of 49 reveals that a high proportion of them work flexible and part-time hours. All roles, even senior ones, are hands-on. Sherlock, for example, facilitates playgroups, while Galagher recalls breaking up a food fight during a Messy Play May event.

    Nominal membership fees bring in about $230,000 annually. However, when Sherlock recognised a $40 annual membership was prohibitive for some families, the organisation successfully sought Queensland Government funding to implement the Play Stars program. This provides a free 12-month family membership for families with a child under one year old.

    Income of around $5m in the past financial year comes in the form of government and other funding grants. However, the board’s decision to become more sustainable prompted the introduction of fee-for-service programs such as PlayAble, in which therapists work with young children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and their parents.

    Remaining cognisant of funding sources and expectations allows Playgroup Queensland to guard against complacency. “Even though we’re a not-for-profit, we need to be very vigilant as much as a commercial operation, even more so, because we’re caretakers of the funds provided to us for the benefits of families,” says Galagher.

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