By Amila Dedovic

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“To me, everyone’s equal. I don’t particularly like the title of CEO. All I do is work with other people and that’s a title that I have because my role and responsibilities have got to be identified in some way. But I’m at the same level as everybody else.” – Deb Deshayes, Blind Citizens Australia CEO.

Having worked in senior management roles with service providers Vision Australia, Women with Disabilities Victoria and Yooralla, Deb has spent close to two decades in the disability sector and understands the intricacies of working for an organisation that serves as a voice for people who are blind or vision impaired.

As many may know, she also previously served as BCA’s General Manager, Projects and Engagement. She also owned and operated a counselling practice for 11 years.

Deb’s experience is bolstered by qualifications in counselling, mental health, management, and coaching, with her completing the Certified Community Directors Course with the Institute of Community Directors Australia. In addition to her background in mental health, her own lived experience has shaped her approach solving challenges and what it means to be a leader.

Having been at the helm of Blind Citizens Australia for six months, Deb spoke with Amila, Communications Coordinator, about what the journey has entailed so far.

Question: What has it been like stepping into the CEO role for you?

It’s an honour to serve our members, be challenged by members, and to navigate challenges together with the members – the 2025 Convention is a classic example of that. Making sure we’ve got the best possible skills and people to take us to where we need to be – that’s not easy either.

I always think how you start in a job is how you continue in the job and how you end up. Always with grace, commitment, effective communication and an authentic approach. It’s important to be vulnerable – to show your team and your directors that vulnerability. Apologise if you’re late for something, say that you don’t get everything right and everything’s not perfect because then your people know that it’s okay for them to bring a problem to you. Show that vulnerability when they’re sharing what that problem or issue is. I’m very grateful for when people do that. I thank them for showing that openness and trust. You connect with people on a much deeper level, which is a real gift to me.

It’s a real privilege to lead Blind Citizens Australia. I feel fortunate that I’ve worked here before in another role.  I had a good sense of what our processes are like, what our people are like, and what we could do differently. To streamline processes and trim the double ups – those sorts of matters.

I can’t really speak enough about the privilege of being able to lead an organisation with such passion and purpose. I hope I do it justice like many have before me. I was so excited that I was going to work with all these people again.

Question: When you’re dealing with unexpected situations – what type of leadership do you think is needed?

To be adaptable. It’s like you go out for a swim at the beach and you’ve already arrived with a plan, but then suddenly there might be a current that washes over you. You’ve got your paddle board but what are you going to do? You need to constantly be adapting to that environment and be very focused on options. What are the solutions? Being solution focused – What’s option one, two, and three? It’s important to be to be calm, particularly the more stressed everyone else is around you.

Question: What does leadership in general mean to you?

Trusting your people and trusting yourself is important to me. Trusting your people to do what they need to do, you’ve got a skill set, you can do the job, and your values align with BCA. We’ve gone: Yes, you’re the right person to be part of our team – you can get on with your job. I trust you to do your job. If something doesn’t go right, we’ll talk it out and work out what area, gap or bit of development needs improvement. We’ll keep moving through it and move on. If it’s something major, we’ll have a different process to work through together.

But if you show you trust your people, because you do genuinely trust your people, then they’re going to trust you. They’re going to trust you to lead the organisation, process or decision-making. Then the Board is also going to trust you. It’s all about trust at those different levels. I’ve got a bit of a different view. I don’t think you earn trust. You start with trust – you give people trust from the beginning and then what they choose to do with it is entirely up to them. They can take it and run with it, or they can question it and challenge it. I don’t mind being challenged.

It’s also important to treat people as people – we are people first. Not a project, not a policy, not an advocate. You treat them in their preferred style. A conversation I have with one staff member might be approached differently from a conversation I have with someone else because they’ve got different needs and expectations.

Sometimes people open up straightaway and you know more about them. Then you go: Oh yeah, now I get it. Now I understand why they do what they do. I understand their stress points. I understand what they revert to when things are too much for them. People show you that at different points in their working relationship with you.

I think it’s much harder working remotely in some ways because you don’t get to have as many incidental conversations in the lunchroom – the water cooler talks as they say. But I think you listen better when it’s remote. You have to listen to what people are saying to you, but it’s also listening to how they say it – how they’re communicating that to you. Listening, hearing the views of others, seeing the person first, before their disability or lived experience – however someone chooses to describe themselves, that’s a personal matter. That’s going to be really important. So that’s about valuing people, who they are as a whole and where they’re at in that point in time as well.

To me, everyone’s equal. I don’t particularly like the title of CEO. All I do is work with other people and that’s a title that I have because my role and responsibilities I’ve got to be identified in some way.  But I’m at the same level as everybody else. I think we do it pretty well here. We’re not very hierarchical.

Question: Have there been any challenges that stood out to you so far?

Certainly, navigating challenges is an inherent part of any leadership role. One challenge that stands out to me is the ongoing need to balance the diverse needs and priorities of our community with limited resources. Ensuring that we are effectively allocating our resources to maximise impact while also remaining responsive to the evolving needs of our community requires careful strategic planning and decision-making.

Another significant challenge has been navigating the complexities of advocacy and policy reform. While we’ve made strides in raising awareness about the issues facing individuals who are blind or vision impaired and advocating for change, there are still systemic barriers and entrenched attitudes that we must work to overcome. Building consensus among stakeholders, engaging with policymakers, and driving meaningful change requires persistence, patience, and strategic collaboration.

I am confident that we will continue to rise to the occasion as we work towards our shared mission of informing, connecting, and empowering.

Question: What have you enjoyed the most in your role as CEO?

I’ve found so much fulfillment in my role, particularly in the opportunity to witness the impact our organisation has on the lives of people who are blind or vision impaired. What I’ve enjoyed the most is the chance to connect with our community, hearing their stories, their challenges, and their triumphs. Every interaction, whether it’s with a member, volunteer, or partner organisation, is a reminder of why we do what we do.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to advocate on behalf of our community, whether it’s raising awareness about the issues facing people who are blind or vision impaired, or consulting with government for policy changes to improve accessibility and inclusion. What I’ve enjoyed the most is seeing the tangible impact of our work and knowing that we’re making a positive difference. I’m constantly inspired by the resilience and innovation that our team brings to the table. Together, we’ve been able to develop strategies that really make a difference for our members.

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