Emma Bennison

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Just over 12 months ago, I commenced as your CEO. There have been many highlights and just as many challenges, but thanks to the hard work of members, directors and staff, we can be very proud of what we have achieved together and we can look to the future with confidence. In this article though, I want to reflect on what I have learned as a leader, both professionally and personally.

When I was considering whether to apply for this role, I was in the somewhat unusual position of having seen a procession of BCA CEOs come and go. I thought I had a reasonable understanding of why that had occurred. The role was far too extensive and all-consuming for any one person to cope with, particularly if the incumbent also happened to have family responsibilities to manage. When I took on the role, I knew that things would need to change if I was to last the distance.

So I restructured the staff into two teams, Policy and Advocacy (managed by Lauren Henley), and Administration (managed by Tony Grant). I also acknowledged the fact that I could not do this role without the support of an Executive Assistant, and Anna Briggs continues to fulfil that position.

This leads me to my first learning, which is that as a leader, it is neither necessary nor advisable to try to be all things to all people and that you need to surround yourself with the right mix of skills and expertise if you want to achieve long-term goals. BCA is extremely fortunate that among our staff and directors we have a well-rounded coverage of governance, policy, advocacy and administration expertise to ensure we can deliver on our mission.

My first 12 months as CEO should probably be characterised as “the war on telecommunications access”, since that is essentially what it has been. It has taken much longer than anyone could have anticipated to find a phone system which would meet BCA’s sophisticated telephony needs in terms of provision of recorded information and remote working, whilst also being accessible and cost-effective.

Recently, we have achieved this, and while there will be teething problems, I am proud that we have found a system which meets the needs of our members and of the organisation. As a result of this protracted process, I have learned not to give up in the face of seemingly endless setbacks; that it is essential to work with others and bring them with you when attempting to implement significant change; and that even though there will always be teething problems, you should never settle for second best when it comes to accessibility.

Now I want to touch on the personal aspect of my first year. I have had incredible support from my husband Vaughn, from my children, and from the board and staff, in particular from John as president and his wife Christine. I have grown and developed as a person and as a leader, and I am stronger now than I was 12 months ago.

But I want to be honest and tell you that the many achievements have come at a very high cost to me and to the people close to me. The pressure on me has been extraordinary and relentless, more so because I had already made my ambitions for the organisation clear whilst I was president, and I felt a great deal of urgency to operationalise them quickly. The travel has taken an enormous physical and emotional toll on me and on my family. This has not been helped by my recent experiences of abandonment by Virgin Australia.

Our staff team has more than doubled since I commenced, which has also presented a challenge for someone like me, who places high value on making sure people are well supported. As a result, the board and I have recognised the need to slow the pace down somewhat to consolidate BCA’s position over the next 12 months.

At the National Convention and on other occasions, I have stated publicly that I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder because I think it is important to acknowledge that mental health issues affect many of us. My anxiety has resulted in my responses to stress being heightened over a number of years, a situation which has worsened of late. As a consequence, my need for emotional support has occasionally become out of control, and has undoubtedly adversely impacted some people close to me.

For that, I want to sincerely and publicly apologise. I do so, not to seek attention or garner sympathy, but because I hope that others reading this who experience similar struggles will take some comfort from it and because I want to be honest and transparent. From this experience, I have learned that I need to better manage my anxiety issues and have recently made some significant breakthroughs which I hope will help me to reduce my stress levels.

Having said all this, I wouldn’t have missed the past 12 months for anything. When things have become overwhelming, I only needed to have a conversation with one of you, our members or with one of my incredibly hard working staff about an advocacy win or some other positive achievement to remind me why our work matters.

My commitment over the next year is to continue to ensure our organisation is focused primarily on improving the lives of our members and all Australians who are blind or vision impaired. I also commit to taking the time out I need to improve my mental health so that I can continue to lead our organisation with the energy and passion it deserves.

My sincere thanks to all those (too many of you to name individually), who have supported me in many and varied ways over the past year. Though you may not be aware of it, your words and actions have made all the difference. I am excited to see what the next year has in store.

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