After training as a lawyer and starting her career in corporate law, Annabelle soon recognised her calling was in human services and the child/family space. Swapping careers and moving into the public service, Annabelle was then offered a 12 month stint to run ‘Elsie’– Australia’s first ever women’s refuge.
It changed everything for her.
Now, Annabelle heads up the charity ‘Women’s Community Shelters’, working with local communities to set up shelters for women who find themselves homeless or leaving domestically violent situations. Under Annabelle, the charity is moving from strength to strength and expanding rapidly– with two new shelters set to be built in NSW by the end of the year.
Annabelle was the winner of the 2016 Not-for-Profit accolade at the Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards. We check in with her to get an update on life over the past 12 months, how she’s managing the juggle and what’s next on her agenda.
Can you give us an update on the last 12 months?
Oh, wow. Well, everything has gone into hyper-drive! We are on the path to establishing two new shelters in the South-East of Sydney and in the Penrith LGA in greater Western Sydney. We hope to have them both open by the end of this year, accommodating up to 6 women and their children in each at any one time. Communities are approaching us and asking to work with us to set up more shelters. We’ve also added an outreach component to our services where we stay in touch and continue to support women after they have left our shelters. It’s been funded by two amazing organisations and we’re really pleased to be able to provide that support. We’ve also got about a million more ideas we are looking to implement, including proper disability access for each of our shelters. Four years in, I’m a much more confident CEO. It feels like I have ‘my feet properly under the desk’ now!
What does an average day look like for you?
I’m not sure there is any such thing as an ‘average’ day! I share care of my two primary-age daughters with my ex-husband on a week about roster, so if it’s a ‘kids’ morning, I have the whole ‘everybody up and off to school’ disaster. I am perm-attached to my phone – it wakes me up, I check the temperature, I check Twitter, email and Facebook as I wake up, reposting anything relevant. I generally do around an hour of responding to urgent messages or talking to people from home before heading into the office around 9.30, unless I’m on the road to one of our existing or proposed shelter locations or meetings. I get a lot of variety during my working day – it’s never boring! I save my late meetings, evening functions and long days for the weeks when my girls are with their Dad, although we swap around here and there as we need to. It’s a collaborative arrangement. If it’s a kids week, I pick them up by 6, we do homework, dinner, and the whole evening routine. I might sit down and do more work or personal admin around 9pm. I am absolutely unashamed about buying in help where I need it – I have a housekeeper a couple of days, I do online shopping, and I use after school care. I couldn’t function without it all.
Bedtime is generally way later than it should be. If it’s a non-kids week, I might watch a series with my partner (we visit each other, but don’t live together) or if it’s a kids week I collapse with a book or a video, or play my guitar a bit.
What unique skill/s do you have that have helped you grow and be successful in such a difficult sector?
Probably two things. My optimism – I’m very lucky to be wired towards happiness and the cheery side of the spectrum. Nothing keeps me down for very long. It helps with cut-through and pushing on through set-backs and disappointments. The second is my insatiable curiosity to learn more about people and the way the world works. Because I’m always learning and seeking to know more, I rarely feel jaded about the world. It helps me reach out, and connect – a skill that is vital to my work.
How are you handling the daily juggle?
Define ‘handling’!? I keep a lot of plates spinning at once. In fact, I’m not great at slowing down, particularly on holiday. I’ve had significant family responsibilities over the last five years – caring for aged grandparents who were effectively extra parents when I was young. Now that they’ve passed away, I’ve been responsible for handling their affairs, in addition to my job, my kids and my relationship. I do find though that the more you handle the more you CAN handle. Some days feel busy but smooth, others it’s more like being a human pinball or walking through a field of exploding landmines. I try to stay focussed on incremental progress and everybody being fed, watered and reasonably happy.
What does the ideal future look like for you?
I’d love to be out of a job in ten years’ time because we’ve solved the twin problems of domestic violence and homelessness. I think that if you work in not for profits or charities, you should always have your eye on the goal of making yourself redundant. It helps your focus.
For me personally, I hope to always be in a position where I am in service to others – whether that’s in a paid or volunteer capacity. As a part of that, I’ve got a long term goal for politics, and possibly my own foundation. Holidays would also be nice.
How do you look after your wellbeing and health outside of work?
I don’t get a lot of ‘formal’ exercise and it’s the one bit of my life that’s a bit out of balance. I do go for long walks on weekends with my partner and playing Pokemon Go which has helped me increase my step count incrementally.
Otherwise, I swim and snorkel in summer and indulge in a range of highly frivolous pursuits around clothes and shoes. I also have an amazing group of women friends, old and new, who I just adore. As my family responsibilities decrease I’m building more time for those relationships and it is just the best thing. A tribe of women who support other women is a blessing and a sanity-saver.
What advice would you have for other emerging female leaders?
It can take a while to find your feet and find your niche in your career. Barring tragedy, you will have time. People peak at different times and that is totally OK. Your work and your passion may combine, or they may not. You can find fulfilment in paid or volunteer roles and across one role or many. There is no script. Find time to make a difference in your local community with your skills if you can. I promise you will get more out of it than you might expect.
What do you think would change in the world if more women were leaders?
An interesting question, and one which can boil down to discussion about what women ‘are’ and how they are ‘different’ to men. I’m wary of essentialism. But I welcome the thought of bigger societal conversations about power where we are equally represented – what is power, who wields it and why, because the reality is there are leaders at the top of organisations and all through the layers. It’s not about the title or the corner office or the board position. It’s about how you build others up and influence those around you.
What makes you angry?
I rarely ‘do’ anger – it’s so much wasted energy. But there are things that irritate me, otherwise I wouldn’t be human. Ego. Narcissism. Self-aggrandizement. Exaggeration. Inflammatory and polarising speech. Incivility. Disrespect.
How do you escape after a tough day?
I’m not quite sure fully ‘getting away’ is in my best interests. I read a quote by Elizabeth Gilbert which said something like ‘if my mind is not making something, it’s breaking something.’ I tend to be a bit like that. I always need a project – something to be working towards or thinking about. I’m a bit of an achievement junkie. But ‘achievement’ could be as diverse as travelling to a bucket list destination or getting to Level 40 on Pokemon Go, which I recently did. There are physical get-aways, mental get-aways, and other projects to plan for the mid to longer term. I have a note in my phone called ‘Long Term Goals’ and it has a few nifty plans in it. I love having things to look forward to.
How do you stay on top of business news and trends, and other things affecting your industry? What publications do you read? What tools do you use?
I am immersed in digital life, and generally stay across news and my industry by reading news from a number of different perspectives – ABC, Washington Post, New Yorker, The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, AFR. I also love more niche digital publications like Women’s Agenda, INDUSTRVS, Lucie Magazine and The Mandarin. I also absolutely love ‘Barking Up the Wrong Tree’ – a regular blog/publication by Eric Barker. It helps me think differently about work, life and everything in between.
If you could have an extra hour to yourself every day, what would you do?
Just ONE hour?
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Without question, it is ‘Always have a Plan B’. Given to me 25 years ago by a wise older woman, it has been the best insurance against disappointment ever. I also love the Emmeline Pankhurst motto of ‘Deeds, not Words.’ A lot of people do a lot of talking. Pay attention to their actions and you cut through to a lot of truth.