It’s another bright blue day in Wagaman, the town where Vicki O’Halloran AM FAICD has worked for the past 24 years. This year marks a milestone: twenty years as CEO of Somerville Community Services, an organisation that provides a range of services, from disability to financial, to the local community.
Looking back over her career, O’Halloran has come a long way from her beginnings in the early childhood sector. A social advocate, she has dedicated much of her work to community services.
Originally from Tasmania, O’Halloran grew up alongside her four older brothers in a small town on the state’s northwest coast. After leaving school, she completed a diploma in early childhood, before working in the education department and becoming the director of several childcare centres.
Her eventual move to Darwin was prompted by family; one of her brothers had moved there a few years earlier and her parents had followed suit. “In 1989, my parents decided to travel around Australia and they loved the tropics,” she says. “In their retirement they were determined not to live through another long, cold Tasmanian winter and so they settled in Darwin.”
O’Halloran would shortly follow and says of Darwin, “It’s a glorious lifestyle here. The opportunities back then were incredible and the proximity to overseas travel was enticing.”
On arrival in Darwin, O’Halloran took on an administrative role while completing her bachelor of education in children’s services. In 1993, she applied for a job as a manager for a childcare division at Somerville.
“This was the time of when accreditation was being implemented,” she says. “I am a detailed person and this suited me. I was very keen to get this in place across the four child care centres; I really enjoyed the challenge.”
Within a short time she was promoted to deputy director of Somerville and later in 1997, to CEO.
“I am not outwardly ambitious, yet I have always strived to do my very best at everything I have undertaken,” she says.
O’Halloran learnt the difference between leadership and management early on. “I had an adaptable style to move around the different programs within the organisation, from disability to family services to childcare and to people from diverse backgrounds.”
She says the benefit of her role has been working across areas from psychology to disability, including quality assurance, human resources and myriad other business tasks.
“This diversification is inspiring. The way to get the best out of people is to treat them well, have respect and combine knowledge and experiences.”
The way to get the best out of people is to treat them well, have respect and combine knowledge and experiences.
Despite a busy working schedule, O’Halloran manages her time across a number boards and committees at the local and national levels, and has sat on the boards of as many as nine organisations at one time.
She is the current chair of National Disability Services Northern Territory and served as national president of National Disability Services from 2012–15. Her other board roles include the Northern Territory Government Ministerial Advisory Council on Disability Reform and the St Philips College board, as well as being a board member of National Disability Services and the Northern Territory Council of Social Services. “I really enjoy leading councils and advisory body structures,” adds O’Halloran.
She says the most important issue for NFPs is to always be on top of good governance and to acknowledge that this is a moving barometer.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have it all covered,” she adds. “Good governance is keeping ahead of what is the best way to provide effective, strategic leadership that is united and focused.
“This can only be done by understanding the strategic directions and mission of the organisation and making decisions based on integrity.”
She adds that most organisations in the welfare sector are about improving the quality of people’s lives.
“Boards must harness this understanding and remain focused,” she says. “The NFP sector is continuing to go from strength to strength as we focus on the importance of strategy and the impacts globally and locally on our day-to-day work.”
O’Halloran believes that diversification around the skills matrix on a board must match its capabilities.
“Regular internal and external board reviews are imperative to remain on track with the vision of any organisation. The relationship between the chair and the CEO is vital to achieving synchronised leadership that enables an organisation to flourish,” she adds.
As the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) rolls out across the nation, O’Halloran has no doubt in her mind that it remains the right reform for Australia. But its implementation has been tumultuous.
She says a truly national scheme must recognise the need for consistency as an important design feature. The NDIS is currently centralising decision making and imposing a prescriptive template across the nation and the scheme will rely on local – meaning relevant – decision making powers being in place.
“I fully support people having control and choice and this will only be achieved if supports are tailored to their needs and desires.
“The Northern Territory is a unique landscape on many fronts and to achieve a successful NDIS we will be required to communicate respectfully with all stakeholders at every turn. We must also not underestimate extensive knowledge that exists in the industry already.”
Somerville is currently transitioning to the NDIS. “It’s a lengthy process and to date we have had robust relationships across our services, which have strengthened and enabled us to have sustainable growth to deliver quality services. We need to ensure we build those relationships with NDIS and combine some of the old world aspects and work with new world opportunity.”
O’Halloran has contributed to the campaign to bring about the NDIS. She says the upside to the NDIS is that it is expected to double the current workforce.
“This in itself will bring along challenges. It’s no secret the NDIS comes with costs, but the real story remains that the cost of doing nothing is even higher.”
A career highlight for her was in 2014, when she was made a member in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) for her significant service to people with a disability. She recalls the moment when she received the news and says it is still surreal.
“I remember receiving the phone call. I was absolutely overwhelmed,” she says. “My first thoughts were ‘Who had nominated me and why would they nominate me?’ There are so many people doing so many amazing things. It’s incredibly humbling.”
Her only regret in receiving her Order of Australia award was not having her parents there. “I’m in this position because of my wonderful upbringing. My parents gave me the skills and the support throughout my life. I wish they were still alive to have seen this, they would have been extremely pleased.”