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After 10 years, Royal Far West’s CEO is stepping down in July. F&P’s Andrea Riddell sits down with Lindsay to talk about the past, present and future

The legacy of Lindsay Cane

Since she was a young child, Lindsay Cane AM, CEO of Royal Far West, has been building strong communities. Born in Manly, her family relocated to Allambie Heights after her father won a soldier settlement block in the ballot post World War II. Allambie Heights was one of the many ‘war veteran suburbs’ created from land released by the Crown after the war. Her family literally had to build their community from the ground up.

“When my mother and father moved to Allambie Heights, they built the third home in Allambie Heights. When the fourth family came to town, we had them round for a BBQ. And when the fifth family came, the fourth and the fifth families came over for a BBQ. And then we had to build the school — my parents helped build Allambie Heights Primary School,” says Lindsay.

“We were, back then, building community and building society again after the war. In my DNA is a sense of community.”

Perhaps it’s these early experiences that has prepared Lindsay for a career building strong teams and strengthening communities — both nearby and far away. It’s clear that this desire, and no doubt ability, to uplift and empower people around her has been part of every role she’s taken on.

Although her roles have often been as a leader, it seems that — to me, anyway — a more accurate way to describe Lindsay’s professional career is as a cheerleader, championing and energising those around her, from her early days as a clinical physiotherapist helping pick her clients back up (literally and metaphorically), and now giving voice to kids from the country.

The ghost of founders past

Rewind more than 10 years ago, and Lindsay was on the other side of the world on a two-year sabbatical, learning German and the Argentinian tango, after finishing up as CEO of Netball Australia. A friend in recruitment contacted her about a temporary role as CEO of Royal Far West while the Board looked for a permanent replacement. She said, “Yes”. 

“It wasn’t in great shape. It was like finding Grandma’s old silver teapot when you inherit the house. It has beautiful bones, but it’s all tarnished.”

The role took her back to her birthplace, Manly, just a stone’s throw away from Manly Beach, complete with million-dollar views of the ocean. What started as a three-month stint turned into a decade-long reign. The rest, as they say, is history.

“It wasn’t in great shape. It was like finding Grandma’s old silver teapot when you inherit the house. It has beautiful bones, but it’s all tarnished,” says Lindsay.

She was tasked with deciding the fate of the organisation.

“I thought: ‘This is an 87-year-old organisation; has it done its job?’ I talked to people and went out bush and talked to people there and saw kids from the bush still weren’t being seen. So there was a need.”

Lindsay also considered looking at all the organisation’s significant assets and the potential to build something new from them. “Should I say to the Board, ‘We had a magnificent 87 innings: done, closed, start again.’ That was a very real possibility.”

Lindsay went back to the beginning: What would Stanley Drummond, founder of Royal Far West, do? She spent some time reading the first 10 years of annual reports.

“I was deeply touched by the mobility of the organisation, the unstoppable tenacious energy of those early people and the conviction that something needed to be done — and would be done,” says Lindsay.

“I thought, ‘If you close this place down, it’s never coming back.’ The voice of country kids would not be amplified. The health of country kids will not be attended to. You close it down on your watch, you’re going to be the person who closes down a very noble, strong, once-proud organisation.”

So with the voice of Stanley in her head, Lindsay signed up to a five-year commitment to steer the ship. 

“Underneath, it was an unbelievable organisation with an amazing history. All I’ve done is polish it — I’ve brought back something that was resonant, something in the DNA.”

But in order to polish the silverware, Lindsay had to make some changes to the organisation, starting with the people and the culture. She created a set of values, which the organisation didn’t have — the same ones that still reside today: Care, Respect, Integrity and Energy. Job descriptions were updated so every employee was accountable for upholding the values.

“Energy is often not a value that you see written, but in some people back then at Royal Far West, there was a culture of ‘this is my job for life’. I don’t believe that anyone has a job for life, none of us do. In order for this organisation to be vital, it couldn’t afford to have moss growing on its undercarriage.”

There was a sense that everyone was there for the children, but not for each other. Lindsay set about to create a new sense of community, where people wanted to come to work. 

“The organisation is your friend. And you need to respect the organisation and feel a great, natural respect. You need to be able to feel bonded to the organisation, not just the children — you can’t have that division.” 

Lindsay pulled up her employees, empowering them to make decisions on the frontline. She worked to ensure everyone was comfortable to come to work as their authentic self. Perhaps, Lindsay’s impact is most acutely summarised in the words of Royal Far West’s Facilities Manager, who said to Lindsay, “The laughter has come back to the place, I’m very happy. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it for you.” She had created a strong community.

Lindsay then worked on her ‘pull’ strategy, which was, “to win recognition for Royal Far West to show people we are back in business”. So they applied for — and won — the 2013 Premier’s Award for Excellence in Public Service Delivery. And then people began to sit up and take notice. 

Lindsay went back to the beginning: What would Stanley Drummond, founder of Royal Far West, do? She spent some time reading the first 10 years of annual reports.

She describes the organisation back then as an “87-year-old start-up” with all the wisdom and learnings of an 87-year-old, but with a new beginning. And start-up is a great way to describe the culture of innovation that Lindsay has instilled in the organisation.

They approach impact with the principle of having a multiplier effect — how can they deliver a service that can impact more than one person? They moved into tele-health well before the advent of COVID-19.

“We said to the team: whatever we do face-to-face, if we could do it on a platform, we can go to any child, in any small town across the country to work with them on their developmental health needs. Suddenly the lightbulb went off for people and they got inspired to digitise their products. We all had this challenge to work as one community,” says Lindsay.

That one community perspective extends to include the child’s town. Royal Far West also works in conjunction with their clients’ local community providers, connecting in with the local GP and teachers to ensure that back home the child can continue to receive support, and the local community also feels empowered to support their children. It’s a win-win situation. 

“What we need is therapy and intervention for the child, that puts the child in the centre, but then teach the family, the teachers and the health providers in small communities how to understand complex needs of children, how to understand developmental health and how they can be barefoot practitioners. And that gets me excited because that’s the concept of teaching a man to fish.”

An influencer before it was a ‘thing’

Lindsay started her career as a clinical physiotherapist working in spinal and neurological rehabilitation helping people recover after severe injuries.

“It was wonderful work and I loved it. But it was such heavy work that I couldn’t see myself coming to 70 and still be doing it. I was holding up heavy patients, often males bigger than me, and helping them re-learn how to stand and move. I knew I wasn’t going to do one-on-one rehab forever,” she says.

After working as a physio in Australia and Canada, she came back home and took up a lecturer role at the University of Sydney.

Then she was approached to build the new education unit for the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards, working with hospital administrators across the country, combining her experience in health and education. After that, her role was behind-the-scenes at the Hospitals Planning and Design Authority.

Keen to get more business experience, Lindsay moved into the computer industry, where she used her health experience to sell computing solutions to the sector. But she couldn’t ignore the call of the nonprofit sector.

“It was soulless for me, getting up in the morning to make money to put in the bank — I can’t stand it. I’ve learnt what I wanted to learn. I’ve learnt some real  street smarts from these colleagues, wonderful lessons that I wouldn’t have learnt anywhere else so the nice health girl can now close a deal and mix it with anyone!” 

Lindsay was ready to go back to the nonprofit sector and bring her commercial understanding. And she did. In roles as Executive Director of the Australian Physiotherapy Association (NSW), CEO of the Asthma Foundation NSW (Lindsay was an asthmatic as a child) and then in a national role as CEO of Netball Australia.

Lindsay describes leading a nonprofit as “Running a very good business with round corners. The round corners are all the people things and the soft things, but it still has to be a business. It still has to be effective; it still has to be efficient. It has to be focused and targeted and meet demands.”

While her career might seem random, look closer and you can see that there is a common theme of the ‘multiplier effect’: reaching and influencing as many people as possible. I can see the influence of her upbringing throughout our conversation. Something as simple as taking guests “out the back” to mum and dad at the BBQ has instilled a deep sense of community and a desire to create strong communities in every role she has held.

This is also Lindsay’s approach to fundraising, or as she calls it ‘friend-raising’. Creating a community around Royal Far West, that connects with them on more than just a financial level.

“We friend-raise before we fundraise. Friends talk to each other and friends have coffee together. Friends pick up the phone and say, ‘Oh, there’s someone I want you to meet.’ And that person might happen to be a philanthropist or a volunteer. Friends stick with each other in the long term.”

Bicentennial planning

When I sit down with Lindsay to discuss her recent announcement to retire from her current CEO role, not even the heavy rains that hit NSW in March can dampen the view from her office. The new Royal Far West headquarters, completed in December 2018, is a six-level architectural dream bringing together all RFW staff from administration, operations, teaching staff and clinical practitioners; part of Lindsay’s vision to create a strong, close team. On an average day, children could be attending school, or in consultation with a clinical practitioner, all the while staff are planning events or managing fundraising just upstairs. The facelift has helped build the public perception of Royal Far West.

“People would see these old, brown buildings and assume it’s an old government institution because it looks like an old government institution.

“What’s actually behind those walls was a nimble, innovative, punchy company. Having a facelift has been lovely. People can now see that it’s a smart building, beautiful from the outside and welcoming. There’s a real confidence that’s lifted in the community seeing we know what we’re doing, and they’re proud of Royal Far West because there’s nowhere else in the country that does this.”

The new Royal Far West headquarters, built in 2018.

The wooden and glass space is both modern and warm, utilising design philosophy to create a space that promotes healing, learning and growth. Just before the eye hits the ocean, sit two large, uninhabited brown-brick buildings, part of Royal Far West’s property portfolio. 

The organisation has grand plans for these buildings, redeveloping them to be a vibrant health and wellbeing campus for the local community and residential apartments plans that look set to refresh the Manly waterfront on which it resides. These plans will coincide with Royal Far West’s 100-year anniversary.

This campus is a huge endeavour for Royal Far West. While situated in the heart of Manly, this will be the first time the organisation has turned their attention to meeting the health and wellbeing of the local community. Their typical client resides hundreds of kilometres from the beach-side suburb. But they’re excited for the opportunity to tell their story locally.

“People in the Manly community often don’t understand what we do, because we serve country kids. They can’t come into the service and then go off and say to someone, ‘You should see what’s happened to Jack! Unbelievable!’ And then people start talking about us and everyone is donating time, energy and funds to us.”

Manly is known for its strong, close-knit community and this redevelopment will give Royal Far West the chance to connect with local constituents, no doubt creating opportunities for future partnerships. Not only this but, as a social enterprise, the campus will create an annuity for Royal Far West securing its long-term future, hopefully for another 100 years to come.

Being situated in Manly also means that the organisation acutely understands the need to work comprehensively with the rural and remote communities that they service: “We always check in — we live in metro Manly, we don’t live in these communities, so we have to be a good friend and a partner to the towns and families. We seek to connect the client to local services where possible, and we never just fly in and fly out. If there is a speech pathologist in town, we will refer them to the speech pathologist in town. If there isn’t, but there is an occupational therapist (OT), we might provide the speech pathology,” says Lindsay. 

“We are deeply committed to strengthening these communities too. And that’s how we contribute to the system at large.” 

Last year, Royal Far West had the opportunity to turn their attention to their Manly community. With the onset of COVID-19 and Manly becoming a hotspot, they closed the guesthouse and moved 100% to tele-health (prior to COVID-19, it was around 70%). With 20 people at risk of losing their jobs, Lindsay had to think fast. She called one of her friends. 

“I called up the Mayor, Michael Regan and said, ‘I’ve got to find a solution to this. I have a guesthouse that’s used to looking after vulnerable women and children. You have a problem with domestic violence rising in this community. How about we pivot and turn this into a pop-up safe house?” says Lindsay.

Needless to say, the plan was a success. They partnered with Manly Women’s Resource Centre and the NSW Department of Community and Justice and provided refuge for 86 women and 46 children. It was an “exhilarating but terrifying time” as they provided this service amongst an unfolding pandemic.

They approach impact with the principle of having a multiplier effect: – How can they deliver a service that can impact more than one person?

It’s a great example of resourcefulness, although Royal Far West is no stranger to pivoting and adapting. Since its beginning in 1924, it’s evolved to meet the ever-changing health needs of kids from the bush. This included treating diseases like polio, addressing physical ailments, nutritional and psychological disorders, optical and dental needs. Today, a lot of these health concerns are met by local GPs and state health services, so Royal Far West focuses on where there’s a gap in support and services while their mission remains the same. And for now, the gap is in paediatric development, behavioural and disability support.

The bushfires of 2019/20 also put their adaptability to work.

“We’re not first responders usually, but we know these towns, we know all the teachers in the schools, we know most of the families, we know the service providers and we have a name where they trust us.”

With 320 families in the bushfire-affected regions on their books, the organisation set about calling them to make sure they were okay. What they got was a very personalised needs assessment.

“We started supporting them in ways that are practical. When you have a wraparound service likes ours, it’s not a cookie- cutter approach. Until these families are regulated, until they’re organised, until they’re well supported you can’t possibly do any formal therapeutic intervention,” says Lindsay.

With the help of their friends at HP they distributed computers for schools and arranged for transport to replace the school buses. They created two teams of psychologists, social workers, speech therapists and an OT and flew them out to towns. 

They’ve partnered with UNICEF Australia to create the NSW Bushfire Recovery Program to deliver psychosocial and learning programs for children in 35 bushfire-affected communities across New South Wales. Earlier this year, they released the report After the Disaster — Recovery for Australia’s Children, detailing how children and young people are forgotten in the bushfire recovery.

The Future

There’s a lot of exciting things on the horizon for Royal Far West. You would think Lindsay might want to stick around and see out this vision, at least until the centenary anniversary — and you’d be correct. In fact, Lindsay’s retirement as CEO is really a side-step into a role as ambassador for the new campus development. So while she’s handing over the reins, she will still remain in the picture, utilising her networks and understanding of the organisation to advocate for the new development. 

“I am stepping back, deliberately, so I can focus on this very big development. I’m leaving these first 100 years in the hands of the new person. And I’ll step across to the next 100 years. This is our next 100 years project.”

Deciding when to step back is a hard decision to make, and for Lindsay, one that was two years in the making. 

“I go at 110%. I would need to go another four years to cut the ribbon on the centenary. I’d love to do that. What a journey that would be. But to do that I’d have to go full tilt, 110% for the next four years, and I thought that could be a challenge.”

Lindsay describes it as taking her ego out of the picture and considering what is right for the organisation.

“[The new person] should have a shot at a five-year cycle, and they should cut the ribbon. I can be in the audience. I spent time thinking, ‘There’s no rush, I don’t have to do this’, but as the centenary loomed, and that’s a really big landmark, I thought ‘Should I take this to centenary or should someone else?’ No, someone else should and have just as much fun as I have, and I can be thrilled about it — there’s no loss for me. We get the right person in and I’ll be proud of them. I’ve done my bit — it’s a baton change, really.”

There’s no doubt about it, Lindsay has given the prospective CEO, whoever they are, a great head-start in the relay. 

Andrea Riddell is F&P’s Content Creator.

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