What happens when you lead a team that delivers 86 million meals to charities across Australia every single year? You quickly learn how to set boundaries and personal policies. 

That’s what I discussed with Brianna Casey, CEO of FoodBank on our Leading Generous Teams podcast this week. 

Brianna is the CEO of Foodbank Australia, the country’s largest hunger relief organisation. Brianna joined Foodbank in July 2016, following her successful term as CEO of Australian Childcare Alliance NSW. Prior to that, she spent 14 years in agri-politics, both in NSW (as Policy Director) and Queensland (as CEO). Brianna has served on a number of Ministerial Advisory Councils throughout her career, is an active volunteer in her community and recently received a Pro Bono Australia Impact 25 Award.

In this episode:

  • How Brianna Casey fuels and engages her team, even when delivery such complex work

  • Insights into techniques for resetting + recharging leadership

  • How she circuit breaks in constant change


Clare: How do you keep your team motivated when the work never ends? Welcome to Leading Generous Teams, a podcast dedicated to making leadership easier. We bring you insights from leaders who are having an impact, even when resources are stretched, resilience is constantly tested and the social issues and opportunities are never ending.

I’m your host, Claire Desira from the Top Five Movement. We’re a team of award-winning coaches with a vision to support generous leaders to have a bigger impact. Our expertise lies in the practical application of neuroscience for sustainable behavior change in the workplace, and we’re so glad you’re here.

Welcome to another episode of Leading Generous Teams. Today our guest is the wonderful Brianna Casey, the CEO of Foodbank Australia. Foodbank is the country’s largest hunger relief organisation, and Brianna joined back in 2016 following her successful terms as the CEO of an Australian Childcare Alliance, New South Wales. Prior to that, Brianna spent 14 years in Agri Politics, both in New South Wales as a policy director and Queensland as a CEO. Brianna’s career has centered on her love of social policy and advocacy, and her passion for powerful storytelling. Brianna’s the Australian representative for the Global FoodBanking Network.

Brianna served on a number of ministerial advisory councils throughout her career, is an active volunteer in her community, and recently received a Pro Bono Australia Impact 25 award. We’re sharing this chat with you off the back of World Anti-Poverty Week, where you’ve probably seen Brianna in one of her many media appearances launching the Foodbank Hunger Report. I’d recommend checking it out, but in the meantime, welcome to the podcast Brianna.

Brianna: Thank you for having me.

Clare: Wonderful. Well, I can’t wait to dive into your experience at the intersection of social justice and the environment and everything you’ve learnt in the many years since becoming an accidental CEO at the young age of 23. Brianna, let’s start with what you really love most about leading your team right now.

Brianna: What I love most about leading our team is the team itself, and the fact that we are making such an incredibly positive difference to the lives of so many. I feel really fortunate and privileged at Foodbank Australia to have a team who share my personal values, who are driven by a desire to leave a positive legacy on everything that they touch and do.

And for me, not only am I surrounding myself with people who believe in what I believe, and are striving for the same outcomes that I’m striving for, but are constantly challenging me in the way that I lead, in the way that we have impact and having such an incredible appetite to do more. To have more impact and to make sure that everything we do leads to better outcomes for those who may not be able to have a voice, and experience vulnerability themselves.

Clare: What are you finding most challenging at the moment?

Brianna: The severity, the intensity, the frequency of challenges that we are facing.

If I look at the last few years in terms of the work that we’ve done at Foodbank, we bounced from a period of a really devastating drought, affecting a lot of Eastern Australia. Then we dived into the black summer bush fires in January of 2020, which was monumental in terms of impact and workload and fatigue.

Then we rolled straight into this extraordinary period of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Interspersed with that was a series of natural disasters in the form of floods. And if we look at Western Sydney as an example, there are some communities who have gone into their third and fourth consecutive flood in the last 18 months.

So we’ve had all of these natural disasters coinciding with the global pandemic, and now we’ve got this cost of living crisis that is coming in over the top. And the challenge that’s presenting for the team at Foodbank, is we just can’t catch up. We can’t come up for a breath. We’re going from one crisis to another.

And I am only too aware of the challenge that presents us in terms of fatigue and energy and a desire to do more. And I know for many leaders and those in management roles, there’s this constant challenge around working on the business or working in the business. And when you’re in the business of food relief and you are facing a period of time where every possible challenge under the sun is being thrown at you, there’s not a lot of room to make choices. You just have to keep going.

Clare: Gosh, tell me, you’ve mentioned team fatigue and you’re certainly not alone when it comes to teams who are still shaking off fatigue and navigating changes. What are some of the things that you are doing to help your team’s mindset, resilience and mental health?

Brianna: I think one of the things that we are doing as a team is being really open about mental health and wellbeing and how important it is to constantly have our EAP, our employee assistance program, front of mind. And to focus on that, not just being a reactive tool, but a proactive tool to be constantly checking in to do your baseline assessments around how you’re feeling, how you’re coping, and to really look out for thresholds around where you’re up to and how you are coping.

We have a really strong open door policy at Foodbank Australia. I know as a leader, and as a CEO, when I’m having a tough time and need a mental health day, I’m really open and honest about that. I broadcast that to the team, the fact that I’m taking a mental health day, and that I just need to recharge my batteries for a bit.

I don’t think that anyone should hide or be concerned or see a stigma attached to mental health and wellbeing, and how important it is in the workplace to own the need to look after yourself and to look after your teams and look out for one another. So that is one thing that we put up in lights, is how important it is to discuss that as a team, to support one another.

And, of course, confidentiality is respected. I know I want to lead by example in saying when I’m not coping and when I need a bit of additional support. Or to provide personal feedback on how I find seeking external support and how valuable that is. So I think that’s a really important part.

And I think the other piece for us at Foodbank, knowing the work that we do is going to continue. I mean, I’m probably the only CEO in the country with a KPI to do myself out of a job! But I certainly think what we’re seeing at the moment is an expectation that we will need to provide food relief to a growing number of people across Australia for many, many years yet.

So we need to recognise it’s a marathon and not a sprint, and to pace ourselves, and to make sure that everyone in our team knows that it’s okay to take a break, that it’s important to take a break, that family comes first. Your mental health and wellbeing comes first. And one thing we’re being hypervigilant about at the moment is taking annual leave and making sure people whose families are overseas or interstate have the chance and the opportunity to go and spend some really meaningful time with them now that we finally can.

Clare: I think it’s really incredible the way you’re putting EAP up in lights and signalling that this is something that people can access proactively to build their mental health. Of course, it’s something that people can access when they reactively need to take measures, too. But for leaders especially, this work can be really lonely, and being able to draw on as many internal but also external resources and people. Whether it is mentors and advisors, or psychologists and therapists, or a mix of all of the above, it can be really, really powerful work and really incredible role modelling on different ways to slow down to go faster, not only to support leadership and the way leaders show up, but also that role modelling for their teams.

Brianna: Yes. And look, I know I’m not alone in this space, and I have seen some extraordinary leaders in recent years who’ve really been exemplary in terms of setting the standard that I want to meet and exceed.

And I’m really fortunate at Foodbank that we are surrounded by both multinational and national food and grocery companies, as well as local farmers and suppliers and so on. So I get to see some incredible role modelling around how to inspire and motivate teams.

And I love nothing more than doing town hall presentations for food and grocery companies. One, because it’s my chance to say thank you, to thank them for the contribution they’re making to Foodbank, but also to thank them for the incredible work that they did through the pandemic. Our frontline essential services weren’t just our nurses and our doctors and others who did extraordinary work. But they were the people who grow and manufacture and sell our food and groceries. And they often were the tireless heroes behind the scenes that we weren’t thanking and recognising.

So it’s an absolute joy to be able to thank and recognise them and to ask questions about how they coped with the last couple of years, the fatigue and the relentlessness. And the fact that they were often working harder and under such incredibly trying circumstances, and to blatantly pick their brains and borrow ideas about what made a difference, and what has kept them motivated, energised, and positive about the future, and delighted to be in these workplaces.

Clare: What a great space to create, to be able to support people to slow down like this.

Brianna: Yes.

Clare: At Top Five we talk a lot about slowing down to go faster, and I love the examples that you’ve shared here of this. We also know and see about the importance of proactively accessing EAP programs or mental health support for leaders. And your openness and role modeling here will be creating more permission for others than you’ll ever fully understand. I’m sure of it.

Now, Brianna, you’ve been doing this work for years at the intersection of social justice and the environment, and no doubt that takes a lot of energy and resilience. So I’m wondering, what are some of your personal non-negotiables to maintain and build your own mindset and energy?

Brianna: I’m laughing because they are non-negotiables, but gosh, I’ve been a little bit loose with how negotiable they might be in the last couple of years.

But certainly I have seen a lot of positives come from the lockdown period and the change in working environment for myself personally over the last couple of years. I’m a person who experienced burnt out previously in my career and was terrible at saying no, and terrible at creating and enforcing boundaries in my life, be that personal or professional.

And I think what COVID did for me was to force me to find some boundaries and to identify what I needed to do to be a great Mum, to be a great CEO, to be a great leader. And, for me, I now have a policy of saying no until someone can convince me it should be a yes. And if they can’t convince me it’s a yes, it’s a no.

And that might sound really simplistic and really trivial, but it means that where in the past I would’ve just said yes. Can you speak at an event? Yes. Can you go to this meeting? Yes. Can you present this? Yes. Can you help me with this? Yes. Now I’m saying, does it need to be me? Could it be someone else? Does it need to be in person? Could I do it virtually? Is there a better way for us to achieve this outcome than me downing tools and diving into this piece? Is there something different we could be doing? So I am trying to default to no more than I am. Yes, and not in a negative way. I’m seeing this as a really positive thing to do.

So for me, that is becoming a non-negotiable. I don’t always enforce it, but it is something that’s really present and front of mind for me. And, I may or may not have a post-it note on my laptop saying exactly that!!

Clare: I love that so much. If I can just jump in there. You know, when people imagine having a post-it note on their computer, it might be a reminder to get milk on the way home or an over the top affirmation, like reach for the stars. But yours is just “no”. No, of course it’s not just no. It’s a no with those powerful follow up questions that you’ve shared. Does it need to be me? Or is it valuable? Or where does this sit in our priorities?

Now, those questions are actually important circuit breakers, right? They support us to slow down to go faster, and they circuit break that pace and that momentum and adrenaline, that’s often just pulling us along so much, but can actually really get in the way of the most impactful ways to use our time. I just love that.

Brianna: That’s right, and I don’t want it to come across as a no because I don’t care. It’s a no, because I care deeply, and that’s the difference.

Clare: What a boundary, I love that so much. Thanks for sharing it. Now tell us, what are your other nonnegotiables that you loosely/humanly apply, because you are human after all.

Brianna: This one, if I think if I look back, my teenage self would find hilarious, because I was never someone who loved exercise. But exercise has become a non-negotiable in my life in the last couple of years, and it’s a really interesting one because I’ve always loved being in nature. I have always loved, right back to my childhood, spending time, whether it be in the ocean, on the beach, in the rainforest, on farming country.

I have always loved being in nature, but I really lost sight of that in the last few years and it became something I would do on weekends rather than maintenance and something I would do every day.

I think any parent out there will have heard a refrain that I heard for a very long time around, “can I get a dog?”. And I must confess my post-it note of just “Say No”, obviously went out the window and I finally relented. And we got a rescue dog at the end of January 2020, which was my way of acknowledging to my children that I really hadn’t spent enough time with them throughout that month, because we were literally working night and day to respond to the black summer bushfires at work.

And the reality of having a rescue staffy in my life is that she needs walking twice a day every day no matter what. And it has been an absolute revelation because it means that twice a day, morning and night I am leaving the house. I am exercising. I am spending time in nature.

She’s a dog that loves jumping into the creek, loves the waterfall, and loves walking through bushland. And it means that it’s time out for me to get lost in my thoughts. It is time for me to do ‘walk and talk’ meetings. It is time for me to listen to podcasts. And it just is a discipline that’s come into my life that I have relished. And I really hope that sticks with me because not only is it helping me physically, but just what it’s doing for me mentally and spiritually to be back in nature every day, to be walking and talking every day.

And I know any health professional out there is going to sit there and go, goodness me, it took you 44 years to work that out. But the reality is, it has become a non-negotiable in my life. I’m loving exercise, I am loving being outdoors, and I’m loving the fact that my team and anyone who’s had to do a meeting with me, with my snorting dog in the background, knows that I’m taking that time to be outdoors and looking after myself. And yes, I can do work while I’m doing it or yes, I can just absolutely spend time on me, but regardless, that’s in there, it’s on my list of non-negotiable.

Clare: I love it. Who knew hey? That exercise would be so valuable! You talk about taking 44 years to learn it. I think some people never do, so I reckon you’ve got it in a good time by the sounds of it.

Brianna: That is true. And my third non-negotiable, and it is critically important, is to surround myself with my tribe. And I have never been more grateful to have a network of peers and supporters, my cheer squad, that I can draw on and lean on.

They are people who I know either personally or professionally, not all working in the sector that I’m in. In fact, many of them are outside of the sector that I’m in, but they are people who are great at holding me accountable. They are people who are great at challenging my assumptions. They are people who are great at telling me to pull my head in when I need to pull my head in.

And people who are very good at reminding me to be kind to myself. And, I just feel so grateful to have that tribe around me that I can draw on, I can lean on and I can rely on. I don’t think any leader can excel in the work that they’re doing without that group of people, that cheer squad around them that can pick them up when they need picking up and really wrap their arms around them when they need it.

Clare: I want to pick up on what you said around that, that they encourage you to be kind to yourself. Because one of our go-to mechanisms, coping mechanisms when we’re stressed, in this modern world of ours. Sure, there are things like booze and Netflix and chocolate, but also critical self-talk is right up there, right?

People don’t step into leadership roles because they don’t want to make a difference, they want to make a difference. And so there’s often that constant reviewing around, “what am I doing?” And “can I be doing more?” So actually having someone in there that can be that kindness check around, are you saying things to yourself that you would actually say out loud to other people, is, I think, a really important check.

Brianna: Absolutely, and I’m trying to think who I heard say this in something I was listening to last week, but they talked about being seduced by the negative, and I think we’re all seduced by the negative. It is so easy to focus on that one critical comment that we might have received in a day, or that one negative thing that happened in a meeting or an interaction.

There might have been a world of positive things and amazing outcomes, but one person, one comment, is all it takes and we spiral into “what if I’d done it differently?” “What if I’d said x?” “What if I had looked at that?” And it is so important to keep those things relative, and I love being able to have those conversations.

I’ve got two colleagues in particular, who I lean on heavily through my background in agriculture. And they are so good for me in terms of allowing me to be vulnerable. But also they’re extremely good at reminding me about the great work that each of us is doing. And yes, we could focus on the negative or we could focus on the fact that we are rock stars in so many aspects of our lives, and we should be celebrating that.

Clare: I love that. And look, when our brain is seduced by the negative, it’s actually doing it’s job. Part of our brain’s job is to actually look out for us, and keep us safe. So it’s of course looking out for threats. But the problem is that it’s not very good at distinguishing between a real threat, like the world falling apart around us, or a bear chasing us versus that perception of threats like, a spiralling inbox or something having gone wrong as well.

And so we’ve got to introduce tools and use tools that can actually help us disrupt that. And we talk a lot about it in our work around circuit breaking. How do we circuit break those unhelpful or negative thoughts and replace them with something else? And we don’t say, how do you replace those negative or unhelpful thoughts with positive thoughts because positive thinking is just a bit over the top, unrealistic and a bit boring if you ask me.

And you know, all of us have had a bit of a shaky day and someone has said, just pull your socks up or be more positive. And that’s the last thing, the last thing! We’re professional friends here, right? So we’re not going to talk about what we really want to do to them, but we certainly don’t want to be saying thanks for that sage advice.

Brianna: Yay, I’ll just smile through it. Hoorah!

Clare: So the space that we really frame people in and support people to learn the tools, how to support their thinking, and their mindset. Is around how we make the most of our thoughts by focusing on the most helpful, encouraging, and productive things. So helpful, encouraging, and productive is in there to really circuit break that critical self-talk that we’ve been chatting about.

Brianna: I love that.

Clare: We call it, and some of our clients call it HEP thinking. So HEP, helpful, encouraging, and productive. And I guess in the spirit of that idea of HEP thinking or helpful, encouraging, and productive thoughts, what do you think are a few really important helpful, encouraging, productive thoughts that leaders can remember right now in this time of ongoing change and uncertainty?

Brianna: Remembering the why. I am constantly reminding myself of why we are here and why the work we are doing is so important. And quite often in Foodbank meetings, you’ll have someone remind us of the why. They’ll say, but let’s have a look at the empty chair. That’s the person that we’re helping. That’s the person who wouldn’t have a voice if we weren’t giving them a voice.

That’s the person who wouldn’t have a meal to put on their table tonight if it wasn’t for the work that Foodbank is doing. What about the empty chair? It’s a really visceral and visual way for us to have that circuit breaker moment that you were talking about, to remind us why we’re here and why we are doing what we’re doing.

The work that we do at Foodbank is complex. It’s huge. It’s about logistics and transport and farmers and regions and charities and schools. It’s a really big undertaking, but at its core, it’s about delivering hope to someone when they’re at rock bottom. It’s about providing a meal and making food one less thing to worry about.

It’s about wrapping our arms around someone in their moment of need and vulnerability and reminding them that someone cares. And it might not even be someone who knows them, but it’s a constant reminder that they’re not on their own. And that the work that we do is important, and that we are here to provide that hand up, not a handout. To be able to help people get back on their feet and re-engage in everything that’s important to them in their world.

And it’s a really wonderful opportunity for us to really check in on why we are here and we can spend all day long focusing on how wonderfully busy we are and how many meetings we go to, and how many trips we attend and how many places we go and how many media hits we get.

But at the end of the day, a mum who’s just escaped family and domestic violence with her children, and has no idea what the future looks like, knows that there is someone sitting in Sydney working incredibly hard to get her and her children a nutritious meal. That’s a pretty wonderful gift.

Clare: What an incredible wire to keep anchoring back to. Thank you so much for sharing that, I’ve got goosebumps here. Brianna, tell me, looking back over the last couple of years, what lessons are you going to take forward from this time?

Brianna: I definitely think I will focus more on a recognition that this too shall pass. I know I’ve talked about the fact that we have bounced from one disaster or one crisis to another, and we haven’t been able to come up for air.

But if I think about why we are doing what we are doing, I know that we are always going to be able to help someone come through to the other side, and come out with a more positive outcome. So I really want to focus on the fact that we will keep pressing forward with this. This moment of crisis, this moment of disruption, it will pass. And we will find a new adventure and a new challenge in front of us. And that’s not only okay, but it’s actually something we should delight in.

And I think the other thing that’s going to really stick out to me as a lesson from the last few years, is that the notion of work life balance has gone out the window. That there are so many ways to deliver on the objectives and outcomes, and KPIs in a business setting, through non-traditional means. And if that means that you start your day later, if that means that you are interspersing work and personal life in ways that you haven’t before, that’s fantastic. Whatever is going to work for you and your family is a great outcome for everyone.

And I think we’ve really challenged assumptions about what healthy and flexible workplaces look like. And I know as a society we tend to have really short memories. But I really hope this one sticks, this recognition that spending time with family and loved ones and interspersing your personal world and your work world is something to commend and be proud of rather than questioning it.

It’s really interesting for me to look back, because one of the things that I was always incredibly open about and I still am, is a concept that I’ve coined. And I’m sure it wasn’t me who coined it, I’m sure I’ve picked it up somewhere, but I’ve loved it, the ‘noisy exit’, and I’ve always had that in every workplace that I’ve been fortunate to lead.

It’s about recognising that yes, in the kind of pre COVID world, where we all worked nine to five in an office, and work was work and home was home. Not sneaking off to attend your child’s school assembly or run them to soccer training or to go to a medical appointment, to actually delight in that, and to be really noisy about it.

And I’ve always been someone to have that ‘noisy exit’. Not to slink away and sneak off to an appointment, but to walk into the team and say “Hey guys, my son’s getting an award for X, Y, Z, I’m just going to duck off to school, I can’t wait for him to see that I’m there, it’s going to be amazing.” And to actually role model, that taking time on the issues and matters and people who matter most to you is something that should be commended and celebrated, not something that should be hidden away in the background.

And I really hope that sticks because it’s something that, as an employer, as a leader, as a mum, is incredibly important to me. I want my kids to know that I can be there and that I want to be there, and that I’m in a workplace that wants me to want to be there.

Clare: Incredible, I love it. The ‘noisy exit’. May there be many ‘noisy exits’ today all over Australia.

Brianna, we love working with generous leaders, and for us, generous leaders are obviously doing work that has an impact.

And so you absolutely fit into this group of people for us. And we also see generous leaders as people who not only recognise that policies and structures and roles, and an environment to work in, help move a group of people towards an outcome. But actually that mindset is a resource that leads people to that space too. And I’m just wondering, when you think about your very broad and connected world of people, who springs to mind when you think of generous leaders? I’d love you to drop some names for us.

Brianna: There have been many. One of the most generous leaders that I have the fortune to work with is Danica Leys, the CEO of the Country Women’s Association of New South Wales.

Not only is she a former colleague and someone who I hold dear as a friend, but she is such a great networker and so generous with her time and ideas and vulnerability. And I’m really fortunate that she and I tend to do co-speaking, particularly around rural leadership events and courses and so on.

And we have a pact with one another about being vulnerable, and also about radical transparency, about the fact that sometimes leadership sucks, that managing people is awful and that being a leader is hard. And not to hide that away, not to glorify it, not to give it the Facebook image of the world, and look this is my Instagram perfect leadership role.

But to actually go, do you know what, some days are really rough and really tough, and I love that she’s incredibly generous in the way that she is honest. But she’s also a fierce advocate and the way she stands up for, and fights for, country women is something to behold. So I think she’s extraordinary.

But I also work with people within the social services sector. People like Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, who not only is a social justice warrior, and will stand up and fight the good fight, no matter what. But she is so generous with her time and her compassion, and I’ve had some really challenging periods in the last couple of years, in the advocacy and government relations space, where I really felt broken at times. And Cas has been so good at not only providing a shoulder for me to cry on, and a set of ears for me to bounce ideas off, but in checking in regularly and just making sure I’m okay. And to remind me about not sweating the small stuff, and about why we’re here and why we do what we do.

I think it’s no coincidence that the people who spring to mind as generous leaders for me are often women, because I feel there’s an empathy and compassion there, and a values alignment that, for me, is really natural. Which is not to say there aren’t male leaders who I find extraordinary. People like Dr. Stephen Brown, who is an educational leader who has given so much of his life to leading, motivating and inspiring educators across Australia.

There are some wonderful people out there, and for me, the leaders who are the most generous, the most kind, that have the most impact, tend to be the ones that aren’t household names. They tend to be the ones that are behind closed doors doing extraordinary work. And I think there’s something to really look into there.

When it comes to leadership and leadership theory and leadership investigation, is to really look at what’s unique and what’s common amongst leaders who are generous and kind and impactful. Because I think it all boils down to that values mindset, and as you said, mindset as a resource. And people who are really focused on, back again to the language you use, being helpful, being encouraging, being productive. They’re the people who make such a difference.

Clare: Well, we absolutely agree, too. Brianna, we’re going to wrap up there, but I want to say an enormous thanks for your extraordinary insights and generosity with your time and wisdom today. I’ve certainly learnt a lot in our chat, and I can’t wait to share this episode with our listeners. Thank you.

Brianna: Thank you.

Clare: As we wrap, if you are ready for a refreshing take on mindset, resilience, and leadership training, then sign on up to our newsletter over at topfivemovement.com/tools. When you join us, you’ll get access to our free resources, episode summaries and exclusive events, where we bring generous leaders together.

We’ll share the links in the show notes.

Hey, I’d also like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation from the country where this podcast is produced and pay my respects to elders past, present, and emerging. Thanks again for listening to the Leading Generous Teams podcast. We’ve loved having you here.

Have a cracking day.

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