05/05/2017 - 13:33

CEO lunch with Susan Rooney

05/05/2017 - 13:33

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Outgoing Cancer Council CEO, and new St Vincent de Paul Society CEO, Susan Rooney, joined Business News for lunch at Julio's

CEO lunch with Susan Rooney
Susan Rooney, Photo: Attila Csaszar

The experiences she had growing up in a working class Irish Catholic family in many ways helped shape the career choices made by new St Vincent de Paul Society WA chief executive, Susan Rooney.

After 15 years at the helm of the Cancer Council WA, Ms Rooney this week starts in her role at Vinnies, an organisation she has been familiar with for decades, after she emigrated from England to Perth with her family when she was seven, in 1970s.

Her father was an air-conditioning duct installer and there was more opportunity in Australia, she said. 

“Dad got a job the next day, and saved up money to get a car, and then, later, rent a house,” Ms Rooney told Business News. “We stayed in a hostel initially, which was an old army barracks, so it was really hot. We weren’t allowed to cook; we all had to eat in the canteen.”

The family moved many times, and Ms Rooney attended eight different primary schools in Australia and (previously) England.

“We had to be within walking distance or on a bus route, as mum did not drive,” Ms Rooney said.

“Plus, we moved to Queensland for a while.”

Ms Rooney loved history and the arts during her school days, and is a voracious reader even to this day, reading two books a week on average. She could read from aged four, and was very academic, if a little quiet, during class.

Even though she had the grades for university, Ms Rooney left school to become physio, in order to get a job and earn a living.

“Being from a working class family, we were encouraged to choose an education that would lead to a job,” she said.

“My father left school before the end of primary school and went straight to work. He and my mother wanted us all to become independent and have a good life, and they thought that education was critical to achieving that.”

The physio job took Ms Rooney up north, over to Newcastle and on to Europe (before she returned to Perth). Having been promoted to head up departments as she went, Ms Rooney decided to do an MBA at the University of Western Australia, the only place that offered them back in the 1980s. Executive positions beckoned after this, as did marriage and a family.

Not for profit

Ms Rooney said she was only ever interested in working in the not-for-profit sector.

“I suppose it comes down to what motivates you,” Ms Rooney told Business News.

“I’d been raised in a family that was very much about making a difference to people’s lives. My parents were always helping other people, and involved in Vinnies, in fact, I used to think everyone’s house was full of stuff before Christmas, making up hampers for the less fortunate.”

Bob Mitchell, the first CEO of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority (now the Department of Fire and Emergency Services), was a key mentor and boss during this time.

“I worked with Bob for a few years, and it was he who suggested I apply for the Cancer Council position,” Ms Rooney said.

“He saw me as CEO, although I never had (thought this) up to that point.”

The Cancer Council’s mission appealed to Ms Rooney, as it was an organisation that made a big contribution to many people’s lives.

“When I arrived, the situation at the Cancer Council was that the need was beginning to outstrip the income, and we were in danger of funding our operations out of our reserves,” Ms Rooney said. “So we needed to look at our core business, and five-year projections, to work out a plan to move forward.”

Changing times

The environment for charities had changed significantly during the past 15 years, Ms Rooney said, with perhaps 500 or more groups in WA all competing for funding and trying to keep their operations going.

While Cancer Council was one of the larger ones, with 180 staff, there were plenty of smaller ones, run by wonderful people, but really struggling to keep going.

“Things have become increasingly more sophisticated from a marketing perspective,“ Ms Rooney said.

“It’s increasingly more complex. You have to understand where you fit in the landscape, and how you can forge a sustainable future.”

“It used to be that you could have lots of smaller charities, but that’s becoming much harder now.”

The current downturn had exacerbated the situation, as charities were now faced with increases in demand for their services, which increased costs, while the funding environment was at its worst, she said.

“We are even faced with charities over east trying to raise funds over here in WA,” Ms Rooney said.

Cancer Council funds cancer research, cancer prevention and support for cancer patients and their families, especially in regional areas and poorer demographics. They also have an advocacy role.

Progress on disease

Ms Rooney said demographics and lifestyle played major roles in an individual’s likelihood of contracting cancer, and the degree of success in treatment.

“It depends where and who you are,” Ms Rooney told Business News.

“Statistically, the more disadvantaged you are or the more likely you will smoke, or not exercise, or have poor diet, the more likely you are to have cancer. The risk factors are closely related to other diseases, such as the heart, so we work together with those organisations.”

Overall, however, outcomes were improving.

“Maybe 40 years ago the five-year survival rate was 40 per cent, now it’s 62 per cent, for all cancers combined,” Ms Rooney said.

“For some cancers the rates are even higher, with breast cancer five-year survival rates up above 90 per cent, as is the case for prostate cancer.

“There are drugs available that can give some people with secondary cancers another 10 years, whereas a few years ago they would only live perhaps a couple of years.”

However, with as many as 200 known types of cancer, advances in the treatment for some are not necessarily replicated with others, such as brain cancer, for example.

The statistics show that, by age 75, one in two men and one in three women with have a cancer of some kind, although this includes some fairly straightforward skin cancers that can be treated fairly easily if caught early.

Management building

After a 30-year career, Ms Rooney has some advice for those in their 20s looking to build their own.

“I believe people should look to take a risk and do different things, things that look interesting. You need to match your career to your values and what drives you. Don’t go into a work environment that makes you feel soulless,” she said.

Ms Rooney describes her own leadership style as inclusive and values-driven.

“The organisation has to be driven by the mission, and be focused on that. The leader’s job is also to enable others to lead and manage, and to create an environment where everyone can perform at their best,” she said.

Ms Rooney believes outcomes are far better if people believe their opinions are valued, and a diverse range of people are involved in decision making.

“If everyone sees the world the same way, they make decisions really easily, but it does not make them right,” she said.

Meanwhile, digital disruption is already making its presence felt in the NFP sector.

“Anyone can set up an online fund-raising mechanism these days,” Ms Rooney told Business News.

“People can raise money, sometimes for treatments that are not evidence based. Theoretically, there are controls to prevent this. People can also fund raise across borders, even from other countries.”

“Overall, there is growth in online giving, and even texting to donate, although that last avenue has more hype than reality.”

Ms Rooney is not a user of social media, apart from having a LinkedIn page. Given the choice of posting on Facebook or reading a book, the book wins every time.

“I’ve learned that my time is too short; so these days if I’m half way through a book and I don’t like it, I’ll move on to another one,” she said.

“I used to think I had to finish it, but now I believe that, with so much to do and read, if it’s not good enough to hold my attention, then it’s not my problem.”

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