Interchange Meets: Jane Hunt
Episode 4 of the ‘Interchange Meets’ series, saw us have a very insightful chat with Jane Hunt, the Founding CEO of the not-for-profit organisation, The Front Project.
Jane talks to us about why she founded The Front Project, the fundamentals of good leadership, what role creativity plays within workplace culture and behaviour and more.
Tell us about your professional background.
I have spent most of my professional life working within the not-for-profit or benefit sector. Over the years, I have founded a number of social enterprises, and I went on to become the first CEO of Fitted for Work. I then went on to become the founding CEO of The Front Project, where I am currently.
Why did you start up The Front Project?
I founded The Front Project three years ago with the sole purpose of helping children who experience vulnerability and disadvantage gain better access to quality early childhood education.
For a child to be set up for life, they have to be supported throughout the 0-5 year period. The neuroscience shows what incredible change happens within a child’s brain during this time. It’s when all of the linkages are built, and it’s when they learn important things like empathy, conscience as well as skills and abilities to do things.
An enormous number of children go to school developmentally vulnerable, meaning that they don’t have the full range of skills and abilities to set themselves up for school and for life. In Australia, it’s 22% of non-indigenous children, and for indigenous children, it is actually double that, so 44%.
A quarter of all Australian children don’t make it to Year 9 academic testing and a quarter also don’t transition out when they’re adults into education employment training. So that’s a quarter of our population or community who never reach or do the things they really could in life. These statistics haven’t changed in 10 years, so there’s something that the current system still keeps in place and that feels fundamentally wrong to me, so that’s why I founded The Front Project.
What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned during your career?
It took me a long time to learn it, but one of the biggest lessons I have learned was to be less egotistical when it came to my work.
When I was leading Fitted for Work, we actually had 70% of our women transitioning into work, which was the highest outcome rate in Australia. And so, as part of that work, I won a few local awards, a national award (Telstra Business Women’s Award) and then won a global award (Schwab Foundation of Social Entrepreneurship Award), which is part of the economic forum.
After all of this, I felt like I was this incredible social entrepreneur and was helping all of these people. I found myself thinking ‘so where’s the next award’. I had this realisation that I was pretty driven by ego at that point.
A lot of people benefitted from the work that my organisations were doing at the time, and it was really great, but another realisation I had was that the work we were doing was not actually changing what kept that problem in place. So that made me think about how I could make more of an impact in that space. The conclusion I came to was that I needed to stop trying to be this heroic entrepreneur and focus more on the cause.
In your opinion, what makes a good leader?
A good leader is one that can adapt their style based on the context they’re operating in. For example, my organisation is all about supporting other people to make changes, so my leadership style is a lot less authoritarian than what it would be in a different type of organisation.
Here, my leadership style is all about empathy, influence and building very strong, trusting relationships with people so that I can coach and enable them to do what they need to do.
But if I was running a much more compliance-driven organisation, then the leadership style would have to be slightly different, based on the context of the operation.
A good leader should also have a lot of self-knowledge and be reasonably vulnerable. They should understand what they do well and what they don’t do so well, so that they can activate others to do those things in order to get a better outcome.
For example, I have learned that I am not always the right person to deliver a message to an audience. I really like public speaking and in a previous role, there came a time when a message had to be delivered and I thought ‘oh this is all about me and I am going to tell them and I will get this recognition’, but in reality, if someone else delivered that message, it would have been far more impactful than if I did it.
So I really had to hold onto that feeling of envy, put my ego away and let someone else deliver the message. Yes, they would get all of the recognition, but the outcome is far more important than my ego. Plus, sometimes you have to allow other people to get the recognition because it’s really important to them in that moment. It also lets people see that recognition is not limited and it kind of raises the tide for everyone.
What / who has been the biggest influence in your professional life?
It’s very funny. Having been at World Economic Forum events and sitting in the room with global leaders and very famous people, people often expect me to say ‘oh its Bill Gates’ or whoever.
But I actually think, in terms of leadership style, the person who really influenced me early, was when I worked at Mission Australia. We were running community programs since we had a granting process. So, community groups could apply for amounts of money to do whatever they wanted to do, and there was a group of community leaders that we put together to assess them.
We were doing that together one night, looking at all of the applications, and they were all filled out by people who had never had to do anything like this before or from people who had English as a second language… and we make them fill out this stupidly long-form… ridiculous… Anyway, I was taking the job really seriously and I was giving them a mark out of 20 *Jane starts laughing*.
This one community leader asked me what on earth I was doing, and I told her it was so we knew who to give the money to. I told her as though it was obvious! She said, “Why do none of them have 20 out of 20? Why do they only go up to 19.5??” I said, “Well no one can get 20 out of 20, it’s impossible to be perfect.”
Firstly, she said, “Okay, let’s look at the way you were raised.” *Jane starts laughing again*. She then showed me her way of assessing the applications, which was simply asking, ‘is there a need for what they’re proposing?’ and then asking, ‘is this grant a good way to meet that need?’. That was it.
And here I was giving them a mark out of 20 and assessing whether they filled the form out correctly…. How hilarious!
So, I suppose, what I am trying to say is that people who influence you the most, tend to come out of the most unexpected places. They are most often the people around you that are wonderful at giving feedback and can shake you out of your framework.
In the end, the money really went to the right places because she was at the table. If I had done those by myself, it would definitely have gone to the wrong places.
What makes a successful team?
I think part of having a successful team is being purpose-driven and aligned in values. In our organisation, we are very upfront about our purpose and values and if your values aren’t aligned or if you don’t want to do the level of reflection or iteration required, then you can’t work here, as it will be stressful for you and it just won’t work out. So that is a massive strength within our team as we are all very transparently working toward the same goal, in the same way.
Another important aspect of a successful team is trust. A team must be able to have very honest but careful and supportive conversations with each other. I believe our team is so successful due to how strong and trusting our relationships are.
Another pivotal point is having a shared understanding of the problems you face but also having the ability to admit that you can’t possibly know everything. You must then be able to bring other people in that can offer an alternate, more knowledgeable perspective.
What role does creativity and innovation play in workplace culture
The kind of unifying thing that all of our team members have is a love of learning and a love of creating something. I suppose you don’t become a social entrepreneur or join a social enterprise if you don’t love creating.
With complex social issues, you need people who can be really creative in thinking about tackling and providing potential solutions for these issues.
In turn, this means you also need to iterate and be really comfortable for when things don’t work out. This helps you work out what you’ve learned and how you may go about things differently next time.
I think the big task of our time, for-profit and for benefit sectors, is to be able to come together and create options for the future because these issues are not going away. Our environmental issues are not going away, our social issues are not going away – we have rising inequality. And that is actually really dangerous for everybody. You can’t create change without creativity and innovation.
It is also very important, as part of the creative piece, to have multiple perspectives too. Because everyone experiences issues differently. There are different touchpoints and different abilities to be able to move the dial on something.