Real Life. Real Leadership.

We live in a turbulent world.  More than ever before, people are looking to their leaders to provide clarity and purpose.  Put aside the theory and read on for an insight into the story of an outstanding leader – Deborah Childs, CEO, Helping Minds

We live in a turbulent world.  More than ever before, people are looking to their leaders to provide clarity and purpose.  In this series of interviews, we pose 5 questions to respected leaders.  These leaders lead anywhere from the front line to the corner office, but they have one thing in common – they are highly effective and well regarded.  Put aside the theory and read on for an insight into the stories of some outstanding leaders.

Deborah Childs is the Chief Executive Officer of Helping Minds, an organisation that delivers quality support services to families touched by mental ill health. Prior to this role Deborah was General Manager, Broadcast and Media at Sky Television in Auckland, New Zealand.

Red Emu: Tell us your leadership story – how has your leadership evolved over the years and what has shaped your approach to leadership?

Deborah Childs: I’ve been in leadership for over 25 years.  I began as a very young manager at a television station. I was initially offered a role as supervisor and not long after that, manager. I literally learnt on the job.  I probably didn’t exhibit many examples of good leadership at that stage of my career.  The company was very hierarchical and very male dominated (I’m not saying that was either good or bad just the way it was in the early 90’s).  From there I decided that, although I quite liked being employed, I would love the opportunity to be able to set up and run my own business; which is exactly what I did.  I entered into a partnership, setting up a small business within the transport industry.  We grew the business from one truck with two drivers to a much larger business that employed over 20 staff with 10 trucks providing courier, delivery and other related services.  During this time I saw the need to better understand business and contract law. I embarked on a learning journey: business law being the focus.  I think this fitted into my whole life mantra of ‘life is a learning experience’. I still hold to this manta even now.  I love learning new things. I believe this concept of ‘life learning’ is a really good attribute to possess when in any leadership position.

After selling the business for a healthy profit I returned, once again, to the world of television. I took a role as a Presentation Director for a national pay television service. I wasn’t directly in a leadership role but I knew I could direct and had previously enjoyed the industry.  Within 18 months I had been promoted to supervisor and soon after to Head of Department. From there I moved on to become General Manager. As part of this promotion I undertook extensive leadership training with the Auckland University Business School. This launched my first real step into senior leadership.

8 years ago, our family decided to move back to Perth where I grew up. This gave me the opportunity to explore something I had been hankering for: working in the Not-For-Profit Industry. I wanted to use the passion I have for what I do, to be able to give back to the community.  I was very fortunate to be given a role with Arafmi, which has since changed it’s name to HelpingMinds.  In my time at HelpingMinds I have been supported in my vision by a wonderful board. We are all extremely keen to see how we can provide greater support and help to the community.  The board have embraced my principle of thinking outside of the box, understanding it can drive us to move beyond the norms.  A large part of this focus has required us to listen; listen to what is needed, and be prepared to embrace the learning from people in our community.

I think the best story I have heard came from Uncle Charlie, who is one of the Aboriginal Elders working with the Western Australian Association for Mental Health. He talks about us having two ears and one mouth – and we should use each in that proportion. So essentially listen twice as much as we speak. I think that when we action this, we give ourselves the greatest chance to do the best. We hear what other people say and can genuinely help. We can implement things that support and empower people at their true point of need in preference to what we assume their point of need is.

Empowering others allows us to recognise the different skills and knowledge each brings, and if we work with those skills, together we can be so much more powerful as an organisation and ultimately as society.  This then flows on to each individual feeling more fulfilled in the roles they perform.

Red Emu: You have responsibility for a significant, complex organisation – how do you create clarity for your team and the broader organisation?

Deborah Childs: I am very keen to make sure that Helping Minds is a values led organisation as this supports my own very strong values foundation. During 2015 we ran the ‘HelpingMinds Spirit Project’. Team members joining the project helped to develop a clear picture of the values that reflect our beliefs as an organisation. We then worked on how we would bring these values to life.  In my previous role as General Manager we had values that looked very impressive displayed on the wall, but that had little meaning or impact to the daily running of that business. There were pockets of people who tried to live by them, but the values weren’t embraced throughout the whole organisation.  So I was determined to do it better at HelpingMinds.

At Helping Minds we focus simply on caring.  Caring for our people, caring for our clients and caring for each other.  By doing this, we recognise that we are better equipped to care for our community in a genuine way. We can make a real difference and can unite every element of the HelpingMinds portfolio of work. I can confidently say that we are very much a values led organisation. We created our ‘Guiding Principles’ that ensures we are all on the same page. We all know what we do as an organisation, what needs to be delivered and what our expectations are.  We have a clear strategic plan that has been created from the many perspectives within the organisation and the community as a whole. This process has meant that we are all working in the same way, in the same direction. This process is known as co-design and I believe we at HelpingMinds have been early adopters of this methodology.


Red Emu:  What is the biggest sacrifice or trade-off you have had to make in your leadership journey?

Deborah Childs: I would say early in my career it was not being around for my young daughter. I did try to be super woman! That was part of the reason for running my own business; so I could be my own boss. I worked extremely hard but I had the opportunity to be a Mum too. I think as the years have gone by I have definitely learned how to blend my life more effectively so that I get to spend quality time with my family while still enjoying the challenge of senior leadership roles.

I have been fortunate in working at HelpingMinds that I have been able to carve out time for my family. Now it all seems to fit. There are things I’d like to do more of such as walking along the beach but I have been able to blend these types of activities into my life through different mechanisms. I have always thought outside the box and don’t think we should should just accept the norms  – The challenge is to look for ways of making it work, not staying with traditional ways of working just because that is the way its always been done!


Red Emu:  As you reflect on your career to date, what advice would have been helpful to you when you started out?

Deborah Childs: Don’t take everything so seriously!

Enjoy the ride. I know that sounds cliched but it is about enjoying the experience and learning as you go. Enjoy the journey because living and working is a journey and you never really arrive.  Don’t just toil through. Enjoy each part, both the good and the bad, because whatever happens it all passes.

Events will happen that will be wonderful or they could be devastating but they serve to remind us of what is important and allow us to rebalance the scales and priorities.  I believe this has served to make me a more empathetic and caring leader. More focused on empowering those who work with me. I genuinely want them to enjoy coming to work so it’s not so much like work. I think it’s about trying to get the most out of each and every day.


Red Emu: How do you continue to develop your leadership and the leadership capability within your business?

Debbie Childs: COVID 19 has really created an opportunity for us to explore new ways of doing our business.  I always wanted to have a flexible workforce. We had talked about it for a few years and had dabbled previously with the idea of working from home but with no real success. Then, suddenly, we had to put it in place within a week and get everyone working remotely, still delivering everything that needed to be done. Yes, it was a complete change and there were a whole lot of extra supports that needed to put in place. But it did work and what it has enabled us to do is review what was working really well before – let’s keep doing that. If something works well over this Covid situation, we’ll  keep that. In other words, lets mould the best of both worlds and redefine how we operate.

I believe it is our openness to learning and change that enables us to continue to develop, both ourselves and our business. As we empower the people around us and work together we continually evolve and grow.

I recently came across a beautiful quote:

“We should be lifting each other up and cheering each other on, not trying to outshine one another.  The sky would be awfully dark with just one star”.