[Reproduced with kind permission from Kairos Catholic Journal Vol 23, Issue 1 – 5 Feb 2012]
Janet Buhagiar is a remarkable woman. At 30 years of age, she left her hometown of Melbourne, her family and friends and her corporate career at Coles Myer to become chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society in the Northern Territory. There she was responsible for 40 employees, more than 200 volunteers at five retail outlets, 65 emergency hostel beds and five outreach programs that serviced more than 300 people in need each night.
Despite having no prior CEO experience, in just four years this faith-filled woman doubled the charity’s income, increased services to remote communities, improved training and youth mentoring programs, won private developer support and government funding for a $5.8 million project to build two-bedroom units to house 20 families, and raised $60,000 through a corporate ‘sleeping rough’ campaign to fund white goods for the units. Janet was awarded the 2010 Telstra Marie Claire Young Business Women’s Award and is now director of the social policy division of the Department of the Chief Minister in the Northern Territory. Kairos Catholic Journal’s Fiona Basile caught up with Janet while she was back in Melbourne.
Why St Vincent de Paul Society, and why Darwin?
It was certainly by the grace of God; it definitely had nothing to do with planning. I also think my mum had said a few Rosaries to ensure I didn’t end up overseas. I had come to a point in my life and career where I felt it was time for me to put back into the community and to transfer my skills to a business that worked primarily for people. I’d applied to volunteer overseas and, at the same time, a friend suggested the CEO position at Vinnies that was being advertised. I remember thinking, “what do I know about being a CEO of a charity?” I was a food scientist, I worked in the corporate sector—sure, I’d volunteered with Vinnies and had sat on their state council, but I didn’t know how to run a business. I thought, what do I have to offer? Fortunately, my business mentor encouraged me to apply. I had a phone interview with the board of Vinnies, they invited me to attend their AGM in Darwin, and I just fell in love with the simplicity and genuine compassion of the people and the work.
Were you surprised when they offered you the position?
I have reflected on this often. I think it was very brave for the board to hire me. I was from Melbourne, had a corporate background, was an extrovert and young. So that’s risky for them when you consider a lot of the volunteers and workers are more senior and there’s a lot of tradition. But I was struck by the board’s willingness and openness to start a new chapter in the life of Vinnies in the Northern Territory.
Was your faith a factor when considering this role?
It was a real gift to work in a Catholic organisation and to be able to really nurture my faith through action in my day-to-day job. I felt that I was being called to not just make a difference for Vinnies, but to make a difference in terms of its presence as a Catholic lay organisation in the Northern Territory, and to do that confidently and fearlessly. Vinnies is an example of the beautiful and positive aspect of the Church and the faith that we belong to.
How did you approach the role?
It was a real journey of self-reflection and self-development and also a time of reflection and development for the team and organisation as a whole. Very early on I knew that we had a responsibility to the people we served and also to the people we weren’t supporting who needed our assistance, to really know who we were. We needed to be a strong organisation and stable enough to respond with services, confident advocacy and the challenge of policy and lobbying, to ensure that the right services were being funded and supported to actually make a difference.
There must have been some challenging times?
Yes, particularly early on. There were some difficult decisions and conversations. There were some volunteers and staff who, perhaps out of fear, or lack of confidence, resisted any change or the opportunity to review what we were doing and where we were heading. Some people decided they didn’t want to be part of the next phase. That was hard because I saw the pain and I felt it. I had to remain prayerful and strong, and trust that we were making the right decisions.
During the challenging times, what kept you going?
I felt so blessed to have Fr John Kelleher MSC, my spiritual director, who always gave me great support and counsel. I questioned sometimes, “am I doing this just because I think it’s the right thing or am I really listening to the call?” He was really good in helping me to discern every step of the journey.
It’s important to check in regularly with what’s at the core and to be prayerful and courageous enough to ask, “am I still on track, am I still listening?” I also surrounded myself with supportive, positive people whom I knew would be honest with me, but who were also my consolation; because there were definitely times of desolation.
Why do you think Vinnies was so successful during your tenure?
Because we had a cohesive and empowered team. Everyone knew their role and was empowered to take risks. They were excited about what we were doing—we had a really strong profile and chose the work that we were going to do. Government and other agencies came to us for advice; we sat on the relevant boards, we influenced the way policy was developed and the way we and others in the sector responded to need. Our programs were relevant and exciting. We invested in the equity of the human spirit, which then returned so much more to the people who worked for and with us.
Is it true to say that you are grounded in your faith?
Absolutely. Everybody who knows me knows that my connection to God is my fundamental base. I’m not much of an evangelist and I’m not a Scripture scholar. For me, it’s my everyday actions—through my welcome of all people into my life, into the activities that I’m involved in, all of which are grounded in my faith—that serve as a witness. And at the end of the day, it’s about being joyful. When I use the gifts given to me by the Holy Spirit joyfully, it’s infectious. People can’t help but be touched and inspired.
Who inspires you?
My mum. She raised six children and is a quiet, humble woman. She is very understated and very grateful for the blessings she has. She always encouraged us to question what we were doing for others; how we were sharing our gifts. So, she planted that seed in me from an early age. That encouragement and nurturing really stuck. And her unconditional faith and trust that the decisions I have made are the right ones—that’s a real gift.
What has been the impact of winning the 2010 Telstra Marie Claire Young Business Woman of the Year award?
It has given me permission to celebrate the successes that we have achieved. And it’s allowed me to share my story with such a broad spectrum of people. It’s allowed me to reflect and to acknowledge what I’m thankful for, and who has made me who I am today. The past year has really made me think about how I got to this place and I certainly didn’t do it on my own. I may have won the award but it’s due to all who have surrounded me and influenced me. It’s a wonderful privilege and opportunity to be a witness not just to the successes that are commonly promoted and recognised—the financial and business successes—but to have a platform by which I can introduce the beautiful successes of th
e human spirit.
What do you love the best about your work?
I love the fact that we get to make a difference. I know that term gets used a lot, but for me, making a difference is as simple as putting a smile on someone’s face and giving someone a sense of purpose.
What would you say to people who don’t think they can make a difference?
No matter how great or small, we all have the gifts that can make a difference to someone. We are anointed through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation; we receive beautiful gifts of wisdom and understanding and can translate that into compassionate action. All of that makes a difference. You don’t have to save the world, you don’t have to be out there hours on end volunteering. It’s as simple as do you cross the road instead of walking past the guy selling The Big Issue? If you don’t have the $5, do you just say, “have a great day”? It’s as simple as that. You don’t need a degree, you don’t need money. You just have to open your eyes to the people that are around you. Everyone has this opportunity.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Listen, genuinely listen. Listen to what is nurturing within, but equally listen to what is nurturing around you and respond accordingly. If you have these two listening notions in tune, you can’t go wrong.