Foodbank boss Brianna Casey got her first CEO role at 23. Storytelling and advocacy made it happen

Foodbank boss Brianna Casey got her first CEO role at 23. Storytelling and advocacy made it happen

Brianna Casey

Brianna Casey is a storyteller. It’s what she’s done at every point in her wide-ranging career, and it’s these stories that have led her to hold executive and advocacy roles in some of Australia’s most prominent industries.

Casey, who is currently the CEO of Foodbank Australia, says every role she’s taken on in her career to date has revolved around providing her voice on an issue, or for a group of people, that she feels passionate about.

In the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, a Women’s Agenda podcast series supported by Salesforce, Casey shares that her path to leadership began unexpectedly, when at just 23 years old, she was thrust into an interim CEO role at Queensland Farmers’ Federation.

“The incoming Chair took a punt on me and said ‘will you keep the seat warm, while we’re recruiting for a CEO?’ and I said, ‘I’m 23 years old and I haven’t got the first idea of how to be a CEO’,” Casey recalls in the podcast.

“But he really saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I kept that seat warm for another six years.”

Casey had previously graduated from university with a passion for sustainability and social policy, so advocating for farmers in the agri-politics space was something that piqued her interest.

“If I was to have a role in influencing government policy, I had to tell farmers’ stories and I had to tell them well,” she says.

“That was the turning point in my career. To have someone who believed in me at such a young age and recognised that storytelling and advocacy was something that I was deeply passionate about.”

During her time at the Farmers’ Federation across both Queensland and NSW, Casey learned that the best way to have an impact as a leader was to work alongside people, “corralling from the back”, as she calls it.

“It’s that leadership model where you’re not out in front and shouting from the rooftops,” she says.

“Inspiring and motivating and providing that leadership as a peer and a trusted colleague, not as – apologies for the language, but we use it all the time in farming – a shiny bum.

“Shiny bums spend a lot of time sitting at desks and thinking they know the world. Guess what, you’ve got to get out there and get your feet dirty and understand the issues you’re dealing with.”

For Casey, being a leader is all about seeking first to understand and then be understood. This is an idea she’s taken with her across many positions.

In the podcast, Casey really opens up about her past struggles with burnout, an issue that led to her leaving the farming sector, with an impetus to take 12 months out of the workforce.

“I had two young children and I felt like I was failing them as a mother, I felt like I was failing the  Farmers’ Federation because I wasn’t 100 per cent there – my mind was in a hundred different places. And I needed a break,” she shares.

“My plan was to take a year off, be a stay at home mum, do all the things that I never had time to do – from drop offs, to pickups, to reading groups, you name it.”

Her plan didn’t last long, as she was headhunted to take on the CEO role at Australian Childcare Alliance NSW, the peak body for privately owned long day care services across NSW. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse.

The role seemed to perfectly blend her passion for telling stories and advocating for those who didn’t have a loud voice. She used both her experiences as a CEO and as a mother who relied upon high quality early education and care, to push for some significant reforms in the sector.

Since 2016, Casey has been heading up Foodbank Australia as its CEO, and juggles parenting alongside. She says the coronavirus pandemic has really helped the organisation become transparent about the challenges working parents face everyday.

“What has delighted me about COVID is we now have this radical transparency and honesty about how challenging it is to be working parents,” Casey says.

“I love that I sit in on Zoom meetings with children on laps. I love that I see dogs barking in the background. I love that someone goes, ‘I’ve got to check out because I’ve got to run my child to soccer training’. Because guess what, we’re all in this together and going through the same challenges.”

“Just because we can be it all, doesn’t mean we should be.”

And while Casey has never been prouder about the work Foodbank does fighting Australia’s hunger and sourcing food to people across the country who need it, the organisation’s culture of flexibility is also a significant achievement for her as a leader.

“One of the things that I love about Foodbank, and we are back in the office now, is that we celebrate the noisy exit,” she explains.

“It’s not about slipping away quietly to your child’s assembly or sporting performance or reading group. Don’t tell me that it’s another appointment or make up a meeting.

“Celebrate the fact that you are walking out of that office to go and be with your family. Go and be an awesome parent because that is to be commended. They are the values I want us to live by in our team.”

The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.

The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.

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