Arriving at a career on purpose
New directors in SVA’s consulting team, Susie King and Malcolm Garrow give a fresh perspective on the Australian social sector and share what’s brought them to a career in the sector.
Malcolm Garrow and Susie King have career trajectories that span global oil corporations and advising UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on his country’s long term strategic challenges.
As well as sharing their initial observations of the social sector in Australia, the two new directors in SVA’s consulting team describe the journeys that have brought them to SVA and what it’s been like to make the leap.
Coming in fresh with your wealth of international business experience, what are your observations of the social sector here in Australia?
Susie: Being so new to the sector and to Australia after many years living overseas, I still feel like an outsider looking in. So I can only share emerging observations.
With that caveat, I have been struck by the proliferation of activity and energy in this space compared with the late 1990s. Specifically, the increasing engagement from corporates and the growth of social enterprises focused on tackling some of Australia’s most challenging social issues. There are obvious positives and negatives of this, particularly around scale and the potential to deliver real impact.
In an environment of scarce resources, growing demand and the increased value placed on personalised and wrap-around support, I see real power in collaboration around service delivery – along the entire spectrum from merger to strategic alliances.
… challenges associated with intergenerational poverty have been encountered in the US for many years before they emerged in Australia.
Second, compared to the US, which does not have the same level of societal obligation to provide a safety net to those experiencing disadvantage, I’m observing the crucial but challenging role played by governments – at all levels – as policy makers, funders and in some instances, still as service providers. Unless we, as aspiring shapers in this space, engage and partner with governments in the same way we partner with community-based organisations and corporates, we will limit our capacity to move the needle.
Also, the challenges associated with intergenerational poverty have been encountered in the US for many years before they emerged in Australia. There is much we can learn – in terms of successes and failures.
Malcolm: Like Susie, I am very aware that I have a lot to learn about the sector and so am cautious about sweeping generalisations!
Having said that, firstly I don’t think my former colleagues in the private sector appreciate the size of the ‘third sector’. Non-profit organisations registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission had total revenues in 2014 of over $100 billion which makes it bigger than agriculture. So not only is the sector delivering important services to many Australians, it is also an important part of our economy.
Secondly, the problems are more complex. In the for-profit world, in essence, most initiatives are about maximising shareholder value. In this sector it is more complicated. What outcome are we trying to achieve? Can we measure that outcome? How efficient are we in achieving that outcome? How do we compare to others? These are complex questions.
I am interested in understanding non-profit boards’ appetites for risk given that you need to embrace and manage risk so as to grow and have more impact…
From what you’re seeing, what are you particularly interested in exploring further?
Malcolm: Non-profit boards’ attitude to risk and growth interests me. I have a lot of experience in the for-profit world where company strategies need to ‘win’ in the market place and create value for shareholders. Typically this involves some level of risk-taking and boards play an important role in that process. I am interested in understanding non-profit boards’ appetites for risk given that you need to embrace and manage risk so as to grow and have more impact aligned to purpose. If you always avoid or minimise risk, you minimise impact.
Competition is the other area. In the for-profit sector the competitors’ actions are an important driver of innovation. If competitors provide a better service or product, consumers will choose it and capital will flow to the company providing that service or product. So you need to understand competition and use that as an important input to strategies. I’m interested to see how non-profits look at their ‘competitors’ and evaluate whether they are providing a better ‘product or service’ to their clients. And how that drives innovation and strategic actions such as divestments or mergers, or alternatively, collaboration to ultimately create better societal outcomes.
Susie: I’m also keen to better understand the importance of strategy in non-profit organisations – given its key role as a driver of value creation in the private sector. My aspiration is to see SVA building on its leadership role in the sector around strategic purpose. I see SVA continuing to challenge traditional thinking on strategy development and innovate approaches to iterating and adapting strategy in an environment of ongoing change and disruption.
… assisting US payor and provider clients to respond to the transformative challenges to the US health care landscape…
You have both had extensive experience in the commercial sector albeit very different trajectories. Can you briefly describe your careers?
Susie: I started out as a commercial lawyer in a large corporate firm, then jumped ship when the opportunity arose for a secondment into a policy role within the private office of the Victorian Minister for Health.
After a couple of years, despite being incredibly engaged in the work (looking back it was probably my favourite job so far), I moved to McKinsey & Company. I wanted a formal development program particularly around business skills which I believed were crucial to my ability to continue to deliver impact in the public sector.
I planned it as a two-year stint before moving back into the public or social sector. Twenty years later, three international moves, three children, and some amazing professional experiences, I’ve come full circle. Those experiences included advising Prime Minister Tony Blair on long term strategic challenges for the UK government and assisting US payor and provider clients to respond to the transformative challenges to the US health care landscape posed by the controversial Obamacare legislation.
Having relocated back to Melbourne to bring up our children in Australia, I’m finally pursuing my aspirations to make a contribution to the social sector, specifically for people experiencing significant disadvantage.
Malcolm: Essentially, I have worked in two different sectors: almost 20 years in the oil industry including 10 of those in Singapore, UK and USA and over 10 years of management consulting experience with a top tier consulting firm.
It wasn’t a straightforward trajectory. On completing my engineering training, I worked in the oil industry but was not satisfied with my contribution to society. So I started volunteering as an advocate for an intellectually disabled adult which was an eye opening experience. Through that relationship I got involved with my local community health centre and ended up on the board.
It proves you can follow your heart even if it takes you 20 years!
I found the experience more fulfilling then my paid work, so hatched a plan to study for an MBA in London and then transition into health administration. But at the end of the MBA, I realised I still had more to learn so I took a management consulting role and my career took a different path – from consulting to the oil industry, living overseas and then back to consulting.
Finally I’ve found my way back into the social sector. So it proves you can follow your heart even if it takes you 20 years!
Can you describe your biggest challenge or achievement and why it was significant for you?
Malcolm: That’s difficult – it’s like asking who is your favorite child!
This challenge happened when I was Director of Corporate Planning of an Australian oil company. Shortly before Christmas 1999, when we were already stretched preparing for the ‘Y2K’ event, we were informed that a plane using our fuel had stalled just before takeoff and they’d found ‘gum’ in the engine – which seemed to be from our fuel. Obviously, aviation fuel contamination has catastrophic consequences!
We had to move quickly to ground aircraft all over Australia and the Pacific region – everywhere the fuel had gone. We then spent the next three months in crisis mode: sourcing and distributing new fuel supplies; decontaminating planes; managing customers and the associated insurance and legal claims; and responding to government inquiries by both the aviation authority and the Senate. And yes, we were successful and no one got hurt.
I learnt many things from that experience. Two standouts were: make sure you have crisis plans and follow them (we did and they were invaluable) and ensure the decision-making environment is such that people with a diverse range of skills and experiences feel they can contribute and are listened to.
Susie: Professionally, my biggest challenge, without doubt has been juggling my role as a mother and spouse with my own professional aspirations to engage in personally meaningful, high impact work. And for me this has not just been about getting the right balance with respect to bringing up our children, it has also been about navigating the right balance across two careers – my own and that of my partner, an executive with an international energy corporation demanding significant flexibility and mobility at short notice.
It forced me to think beyond myself, to consider our collective purpose and to manage the give and take that all two-career families must do.
… there are some practices in the corporate world that can add real rigour to the social sector.
What are the key skills or experience you believe will be most valuable in your work in the sector?
Susie: At its simplest, I bring a passion to make a contribution to this sector and an experienced strategy consultant’s toolkit. At this early stage, I’m still figuring out specifically where I might make the greatest contribution. There is so much that I have to learn about the sector, its complexities, its strengths and importantly the most effective levers to drive meaningful change.
I’m also a people person – for me, working in teams with clients, is where I can be at my best. I’m keen to support others to build skills. Apprenticeship or learning from peers and colleagues is something I’ve benefited hugely from and I’m passionate about its value within SVA and for clients more generally.
Finally, there are some practices in the corporate world that can add real rigour to the social sector. We need to be smart and sensitive about where we apply these insights and approaches but I’m committed to exploring these opportunities and how they might move the needle on some of our nation’s most challenging issues.
Consultants often don’t appreciate the complexity and challenges of running a business day-to-day which consumes a lot of a leader’s time.
Malcolm: I have had the opportunity to work both in leadership roles running businesses and as a consultant advising business. As a result, I feel I have some unique insights to help SVA’s clients achieve their objectives.
Consultants often don’t appreciate the complexity and challenges of running a business day-to-day which consumes a lot of a leader’s time. I had days filled with operational matters: union issues; product quality; financial reporting and controls; safety management; project reviews; and customer relationship management. I call that the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ which then means you don’t have the benefit of devoting enough time to thinking about the future of the business.
Conversely, managers don’t always appreciate the value that consultants can bring. There is value in having people with specific functional skills look at your business using a ‘hypothesis-driven approach’. The resulting evidence-based insight can really challenge paradigms. Independent eyes can bring new perspectives and appropriately question ‘we’ve always done it this way’. Ultimately, that type of thinking can then drive better outcomes for our clients and reduce disadvantage in Australia.
Why did you want to work in the social sector? What have been the major influences for this transition?
Malcolm: Well as mentioned, I intended to move sector 20 years ago!
Last year, I had the opportunity to ‘stop and pause’. We, the partners at Booz & Company, sold our consulting business to PwC and I had to decide whether to become a PwC partner or leave. I realised that after 30 years operating in the for-profit sector I wanted to make a more impactful contribution to addressing disadvantage in our society.
Like many people this was heavily shaped by my parents’ example. My father worked for CSIRO his whole life in a career spanning wool research to heading up the information/library service. He was committed to using science to make Australia a better place. Outside of work, both my parents were also committed to ‘service’ and that you need to roll up your sleeves and support the community.
For me, it’s been exciting and liberating to finally make the change.
It [USA] is a tremendous country where individuals personally commit to making a difference to those less fortunate whatever their socio-economic status.
Susie: Like Malcolm, my influences go back to my family. Although it was never explicitly discussed, both my parents were health professionals with significant public practices and a strong commitment to the Australian public hospital system. Much of their underlying social commitment was instilled in me growing up.
My early work in the health minister’s office exposed me to the significant challenges many people in our society face. I was shocked by my ignorance – and blown away with how incredibly motivating the work was for me.
Finally, living in the US for close to 10 years has been a more recent, powerful influence. For all its challenges, many of which are now coming to a head, it is a tremendous country where individuals personally commit to making a difference to those less fortunate whatever their socio-economic status.
Why did you choose to work for SVA?
Susie: It was a magic combination of the potential for high impact work, the talented and diverse team and the inclusive and flexible culture which attracted me, drew me in and convinced me to give it a go. I’m hoping I can add some value relative to what I could do elsewhere. So far, SVA has exceeded my expectations on all of these dimensions. And as for my contribution, stay tuned…
Malcolm: SVA is uniquely positioned at the cross-roads of the corporate world, the social sector, philanthropy and government. So, I felt that SVA was an organisation where I could best use my skills to have an impact. Once I got to know the people here it reinforced my decision.
… the people bring an amazing range of experiences and a passion to make a difference.
What most strikes you about SVA?
Malcolm: I am really struck by the quality and commitment of the people who bring an amazing range of experiences and a passion to make a difference.
For example, amongst my director colleagues in the consulting team, we have a former CEO of an ASX listed startup, an international banker/consultant, someone who worked in Haiti for the Clinton Foundation, one of Australia’s leading social outcomes measurement professionals and former consultants from McKinsey, Bain and Booz. That is a raft of skills that brings tremendous experience and quite a combination!
Susie: Three months in, what strikes me most about SVA Consulting is the power in only accepting advisory work if it addresses issues which align with SVA’s purpose – to have positive impact on the lives of people in need.
As a non-profit, SVA is not driven by sustaining revenues. Although of course we need to cover our costs to continue the great work that is not the main driver in accepting a project. To me, that orientation is liberating and highly compelling. It also gives SVA the flexibility to serve a diverse range of clients – from large government departments to start-up social enterprises. This means the consulting work is hugely variable, the client relationships diverse and meaningful, and the opportunity for impact significant.
I’m empowered by no longer being the square peg in a round hole.
What is most different about your work at SVA compared to your previous roles?
Malcolm: Firstly I am learning a lot – every day. The industry is new and I have a lot to learn. Secondly, I’d say the complexity of the problems we help organisations with, as noted earlier. I’m much happier and more fulfilled personally – my personal passions are more aligned with my work. In turn that means I’m doing better work and able to help more people.
Susie: To be honest, I’m empowered by no longer being the square peg in a round hole. I’m immensely grateful to the firms, clients, mentors and peers for all of the opportunities I’ve had. But at my core, I continued to experience an internal niggling. I just didn’t have the passion, drive and, in many ways, the ruthlessness to continue to perform consistently in the corporate world. In contrast, at SVA, there is real alignment between my professional and personal purpose. I am energised by what I’m doing and I’m comfortable to bring my whole self to work each day.
In making this transition, there are obvious changes in remuneration levels. Was this an issue for you, and how have you managed this change?
Malcolm: It’s true that the financial remuneration is much lower than I used to receive. However, at this stage in my life maximising remuneration is not my number one objective. I’ve realised that I should judge my ‘worth’ by the impact I have and the satisfaction I feel in achieving that outcome.
Susie: So yes, there are some changes in salary but they are not as great as you might expect. I think of ‘compensation’ as the whole package – pay but also the opportunity to do high impact work and other benefits such as flexibility, professional development and exposure to exceptional people who are doing amazing things. I also work to role model to my children the importance and value of being a contributing member of our society invested in the welfare of the broader community.
The biggest challenge… is without doubt figuring out where I can have the most impact.
What is the biggest challenge for you in this transition, professionally and personally? And what is the biggest satisfaction?
Susie: The biggest challenge, as I alluded to earlier, is without doubt figuring out where I can have the most impact. I’m at a stage in my career where I want to focus on the highest value work around delivering my purpose, as an individual and as a professional.
SVA gives me the freedom to create ‘my SVA’. My role as a director empowers me to shape my consulting practice – to apply my knowledge and passion for strategy, to work in partnership with clients to test new thinking and to pro-actively seek out challenging and complex opportunities. I’m excited by this and in collaboration with others, setting this path is itself a real source of satisfaction.
… our clients at SVA are often much more resource constrained than in the private sector… this requires significantly more pragmatism and resourcefulness.
Another obvious challenge is, of course, that our clients at SVA are often much more resource constrained than in the private sector. As a consultant this requires significantly more pragmatism and resourcefulness.
Malcolm: For me, the biggest challenge professionally is the nature of my client projects. In the past a typical project value ranged from $500,000 to $5 million and I might only be working with one to two clients at any time. Now the projects are much smaller, with less time spent on the proposals scoping the work, smaller consulting teams and less resources contributed by the clients.
I have to get more comfortable with not having the time to understand all parts of the client’s organisation and have all our hypotheses fully explored. And be really disciplined to ensure I am working on what creates the most value for each client.
On the home front I am loving the flexibility and improvement in lifestyle. I get home to enjoy meals with the family.
I have the sense of being totally authentic.
However, clearly number one is the sense of satisfaction I get from working on projects that I know or hope will lead to improving the lives of people in need in Australia. I have the sense of being totally authentic. It reminds me of ‘ikigai’ – the Japanese concept meaning ‘a reason for being’ since I feel that I have found something that I love, that I get paid to do, that I am good at, and that is good for the world.