Dr Judith Slocombe could arguably be touted as a professional juggler.
As well as heading up The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, she holds numerous non-executive board roles, including positions at Open Universities and South East Water, among others. She is also the mother of nine children.
While some may find such a schedule daunting Slocombe says, “all those aspect of my life are really necessary, and invigorating and exciting and enjoyable”.
“It’s not a matter of what I do,” she says. “It’s a matter of what I don’t do. I don’t do things that don’t matter so much. It really helps you sort your life out if you’re busy. You just cut out irrelevant things or the small things. That doesn’t mean I don’t have fun, but things that don’t matter can be put aside.”
Slocombe, a one-time veterinarian, began her juggling career when she opened her own practice.
“I started to employ people and the business grew, and then I entered into a joint venture with a large medical diagnostic business which gave me a whole new business structure that I could use to grow the business and be much more strategic and competitive.
"That was the point at which it was recognised as an interesting approach to a fairly traditional business, and I was awarded the Australian Telstra Businesswoman of the Year [in 2001].”
“Once that phase was over, I sold my business and went on to manage a much larger medical diagnostic business of about 2500 people. It was challenging and exciting. And then when we were taken over I left, and that’s when I started a non-executive career on boards.
We’re one of the very few businesses who want to go out of business. We would like not to be needed.
“I found myself getting itchy feet to get back into an executive role, and that’s where I quite consciously made a decision to manage a not-for-profit, rather than go back in the corporate environment, and it was the best thing I ever did.”
Slocombe’s work at The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, an organisation started in the wake of the Port Arthur tragedy of 1996, aims to keep children safe from violence (Alannah and Madeline Mikac, ages six and three, respectively, were two of the 35 victims of the tragedy), and often involves difficult and heart-wrenching situations.
“We deal with children who have had pretty terrible things happen to them,” Slocombe says.
“I have a team of people who are experts in dealing with children and young people and helping them recover, and we make sure we look after our staff and the people who are involved in that area. It is very rewarding, but it’s terrible to hear those stories. We’re one of the very few businesses who want to go out of business. We would like not to be needed.”
In addition to helping those affected by violence, the foundation works to prevent violence against children, with programs such as eSmart, an initiative to help schools reduce cyberbullying, and Better Buddies, a peer support initiative for children entering their first year of primary school.
“We deal with a lot of people who have had experiences through bullying, cyberbullying and other terrible things,” Slocombe says. “But I think that sort of interaction with kids who have been really affected by violence gives you the impetus to go on and do the work that you’re trying to do to prevent it.”
“I have to say that working in this organisation has given me an insight into the worst of human nature, where you see children who have been abused, and the best of human nature, where you see people who have a wonderful heart and want to help someone else. We rely on the good hearts of people. And if we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be able to operate.”
While relying heavily on donations from the general public may seem difficult in today’s financial climate, Slocombe says her organisation felt no effects of the global financial crisis (GFC).
“We didn’t have a GFC here because we found that people, even when their own income is cut and things are bad for them, still share what they’ve got with others.
“I’m in the most wonderful place here. It gives you a reason to get up in the morning.”
To donate to The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, click here.
Championing change for women
With a non-executive board career spanning more than 10 years, Slocombe is well placed to comment on the continuing diversity issues on corporate boards.
“All the stats will say that companies that have women [on boards] will perform better, from an economic point of view as much as a cultural point of view,” Slocombe says. She does, however, note that boards should not limit themselves to gender diversity, but rather focus on “diversity of race, ethnicity, cultures, disabilities and abilities”.
“I believe in quotas,” Slocombe says. “I think that we’ve had people talking about getting women on boards for half a generation and it just hasn’t happened, and unless you do something concrete about it, it’s not going to change.”
“If you think about affirmative action in any social issue … you didn’t get equality of race in the US until you actually had affirmative action, and they had to put people of African-American descent into senior positions. That’s what turns it around. And in countries where there have been quotas for women, you see it lift up.
“For people who think that’s insulting for women, I don’t agree,” she says. “I actually think that the balance is so against women that it’s only just somewhat addressing that imbalance. It’s not at all insulting because there are good women out there. They just need to get past some of those invisible barriers that stop them.”
Slocombe acknowledges that once upon a time, she thought gender diversity would happen as a matter of course as the new generation rose through the ranks. Decades later, the issue remains and the new generation has the same look of the “suits” that used to run corporations.
“What I find is they’re [the board members] the ones that mentor and choose their successors, and it’s human nature to choose someone in your own likeness. So they’ve mentored and chosen another generation like themselves. You actually have to break that nexus in a concrete way and in a real action-oriented way, and the only way to do that is through affirmative action.”