Mat with the team at Domiz refugee camp in Iraq implementing the Education Cannot Wait early learning program.
Photo: Save the Children
Mat’s tenure has come during a period of profound change. Save the Children’s Australian services are transitioning to the new 54 reasons sub-brand, while the executive leadership team has welcomed a new Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Executive Officer.
“All of a sudden, it’s almost a complete renewal of the executive leadership team. So for me, it was really important to ground that team again in the right culture, behaviours and practices,” Mat says.
To steer the organisation through these uncharted waters, Mat is drawing on a tapestry of experience woven over decades spent in Australia’s legal and political systems, but which began with a focus on community.
Leadership’s many faces
Born and raised in Geelong by two teachers, from an early age Mat was shown the importance of being part of the community through his parents’ work and their dedication to the local footy club.
After school he pursued law, where as a young lawyer he was pushed to excel by Raf Pisano, a senior lawyer he describes as “a feared boss” due to her high expectations and no-nonsense approach to feedback.
In contrast, Mat’s first venture into politics was under the warm guidance of Natasha Stott Despoja. After just a few weeks in the job, Natasha surprised Mat with an invitation to housesit while she was away.
“[She was] very trusting to bring an employee in to feed the cat and look after [her] beautiful house,” Mat reflects, “it was about building connection and inviting me into her world.”
Mat’s final professional experience before joining Save the Children was as Chief of Staff to Bill Shorten who had a frustrating, yet endearing habit of not taking no for an answer.
“…you'd kind of go away and get really frustrated and try and tell him another way of doing it. And then you sort of work out, actually he's right.”
When asked to compare working in the non-profit space with his time in politics, it’s the approach to leadership that stands out.
“In politics, by its nature, you cannot be a vulnerable leader … in modern leadership, that's the very opposite of what you need to be a good leader.”
Mat’s own leadership style was put to the test on his last trip to Fiji.
“I'd done that typical thing of wanting to go with an agenda, get an outcome, move on ... whereas what my Pacific colleagues wanted to do was sit with it and understand it and talk about the why.”
It was there that our Fijian staff taught Mat the notion of Talanoa, a local process of inclusive, participatory dialogue intended to make wise decisions for the collective good.
Mat with staff and families in Fiji as part of the Australian Regional Leadership Initiative.
Photo: Kelly Vacala / Save the Children Fiji
This lesson has informed Mat’s approach to addressing the organisation’s most profound challenges, such as navigating the relationship with First Nations communities within the broader context of an oppressive colonial history.
Here there are no quick solutions. The path forward requires dialogue and, most importantly, listening.
“Unless we're prepared to create a service delivery environment that's culturally informed, culturally safe, that leverages the wisdom that comes from those communities, then we're destined to repeat this cycle,” Mat says.
Walking the talk
While Mat hopes to challenge the status quo of an industry still impacted by its colonial roots, he is honest about the limiting factors at play.
“We would like to think that governments give aid because it's the right thing to do … But let's be honest, governments give aid partly for that reason, but partly because they want to combat China's influence in the region, or they want to build a bilateral relationship … if we pretend that that political dynamic doesn't exist, then we also won't be a credible player in that political economy …
“…my commitment as a CEO is just to be honest about that and to be prepared to take risks there, but also not pretend we have all the solutions straight away either.”
Each of these experiences has left its mark on Mat and his leadership style. He maintains a love of footy, high expectations, trust in his employees, a relentless persistence, and a growing appreciation of the value of talk, be it big or small.
“It's a privilege to have this job, to be able to talk about child rights issues. I feel lucky to be able to go and see that work, to understand its impact and potential, and to be able to relay that to the rest of the world so we can do more of it and do it better.”