Annabelle Chauncy OAM grew up in rural NSW and completed a Bachelor of Arts/ Law at Sydney University. Her passion lies in developing and implementing strategy, business development and speaking to promote the School for Life Foundation, where she is Founding Director and CEO. School For Life aims to break the cycle of poverty in rural Uganda by building sustainable, productive and profitable communities through the building of schools.
WLA: What do you think are the key components of successful leadership?
AC: There are several things that jump to mind here. The ability to be able to attract purpose within people is a big one.
It is also important to trust your team – don’t forget to regularly listen to your employees, show empathy and to foster clear and open communication. For me all of these traits are the hallmark of authentic leadership.
WLA: The School For Life Foundation has grown substantially since it was started in 2008. That must have brought its own set of leadership challenges, particularly considering it is an international organisation?
AC: You are right. At one stage we went from 1 staff member in Australia to 6 and 60 staff members in Uganda to 120 – all in just 12 months. Things got crazy and we had to step back and undertake a recalibration phase
- it’s impossible to grow like that without what I like to call ‘cleaning up your own backyard’: assessing what we are doing, the systems, the processes, the leadership structure, As we grew, my ability to think laterally around how to tackle problems was really important. You are working in Uganda – a cookie-cutter approach would never have worked. You have to be highly aware of cultural sensitives. Managing witchcraft, for example
- this is a strong belief in Uganda. Some of the people you are working with have deep set views and beliefs about the way things should be done.
It’s so important to learn patience as things develop. Keep your overall goal in mind; this will allow you to maintain your consistency. Develop an unwavering commitment to your vision, but be prepared to be challenged and for things to not necessarily come easily.
WLA: What advice would you give to younger women who are looking to lead?
AC: Firstly, your mindset is everything – you need to adopt a mentality of resilience and determination.
Also, follow your gut – this will enable you to follow what you are truly passionate about.
As you are starting out on your journey, particularly for young women, don’t forget to delegate. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you need to do everything yourself. I’ve had incredible mentors guide and lead me. I can’t appreciate enough the network of people who have been so instrumental in helping me get to where I have got to today.
Finally, and this follows on from the previous point, make sure you look after yourself. Don’t run yourself into the ground. Creating a semblance of equilibrium is really important.
For me, a big part of this rebalance is distancing myself from technology. The content on social media is such a big drainer – switch off sometimes! I think this is particularly salient for young people; particularly women. In order to be more strategic and effective I need to switch off and see the big picture. It enables me to develop a much longer-term vision.
WLA: What mistakes have you made and learnt from?
AC: I have made plenty of mistakes! I was only 21 when I founded the business. I made some hiring mistakes initially. I turned over 3 key staff in the first 12 months which was a lot of changeover for a small company.
I quickly learnt that it is better to admit your mistake as soon as possible, have the difficult conversation and move on than sit on your mistakes and hope the issue just naturally blows over.
The other key mistake I made early on is saying ‘yes’ too easily. Being passionate about this project, and naturally being a ‘yes’ woman anyway, I said yes too much too early. It’s important to set some boundaries and say no to stuff that does not align with your vision.
What are your future goals?
AC: I want to achieve sustainable development for Uganda, whereby the population is lifted out of poverty and is in education or employment. This model can then be hopefully replicated elsewhere. I’ve had to redefine the models and timeframes for success over time. Initially, I was optimistic that success will be achieved in just a few years, but it is now more realistic to think it will take a few decades.
I’m still incredibly passionate and love what I do.