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Why is Jo Cavanagh the ‘Invisible CEO’?

Jo Cavanagh is CEO of not-for-profit Family Life, the same organisation that helped her when she was a teenager experiencing difficulties of her own. Named one of the most influential women in Australia in 2014, Cavanagh is a passionate supporter of children’s rights.

By Jacqueline Blondell, Photography by Damien Pleming

Family Life CEO Jo Cavanagh FAIM, had a high moment of visibility when, last year, she was acknowledged as one of 100 influential women in the country. The awards, run by Westpac and The Australian Financial Review, showcase the achievements of women in 10 categories. Cavanagh, who has been on the radar since the 1990s, when she released her groundbreaking research into child abuse, received the nod for her work in the not-for-profit arena.

Surprisingly, back at the office, this warm and self-effacing woman, who in 2013 was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for her outstanding contribution to community service, considers herself “the invisible CEO”. She says:

“I don’t see myself as anywhere near as important now to the success of the organisation as the leadership team and their relationship with the practice teams. That’s what is critical to our success now.”


Cavanagh’s ties with the organisation began when she became one of its first clients. “I was 16-17 at the time and in difficulty with my family. Anything could have happened to me at the time, but it didn’t. I was very lucky that Family Life was there for me to go to. The social workers and volunteers at the time helped me so I knew the value of this community organisation.” She went on to university on a scholarship, eventually graduating from Monash University’s first Social Work School and started her career in juvenile justice, which back in the day featured facilities where young offenders were mixed with children who were actually put in there for their own protection. “It was an interesting insight into families that were really operating on the margins of society and the lack of community understanding of the needs of kids,” says Cavanagh, who eventually went on to become one of the deputy directors of the state’s Out-of-Home care operation, where from the 1960s and 1970s orphanages were closed and children were housed in the community with carers.

Cavanagh noted that there wasn’t a lot of work that went into understanding why these children were in care in the first place and into rebuilding relationships with their families. “I also learned about the things that went wrong for kids who were in this situation. There were some wonderful people providing care but there were others who simply exploited the situation and there were kids who were abused as a result of being put into care. At that time they went out to holiday hosts at Christmas time and there wasn’t a lot of screening, this was before police checks … I tried to sort out a number of cases and it was very difficult to get people to believe what was happening. They didn’t believe the children and I got very angry and frustrated about it.”


She discovered that there had been research done in North America that proved that abuse had actually happened to children in out-of-home care. This included valuable follow-up research to make the case for change and to build in greater protection. An advertisement caught her eye. It was for the Churchill Fellowship, which gives Australians an opportunity to travel overseas to conduct research in their chosen field. “I was so cross that no one would listen to me that I wrote the application to follow the research trail in North America to see what they had achieved.” After completing the application form, she never expected to hear back. Her husband, however, had already started planning the trip. They had three young children to consider after all. And by the time she learned she was a successful recipient, child number four was on the way. Six months after baby Abi was born money was scraped together, Cavanagh’s husband took a leave of absence from his job, and the family decamped to the US and Canada, staying in hotels, B&Bs and home-stays, relying on the kindness of strangers.

“I was so cross that no one would listen to me that I wrote the application to follow the research trail in North America to see what they had achieved.”

Cavanagh says while the trip was one of the best things the family has done together it was the insight of researchers and practitioners across the US and Canada that was invaluable. “It was a pivotal moment for me to believe what’s possible, that one person can help to ignite interest in an issue. When I got back people were very uncomfortable with what was being said. Now we have the sexual abuse Royal Commission [Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse] and the apology to the Forgotten Australians. That absolutely validates that those concerns at that time were correct.”


It was also a time that Australia was still suffering from cultural cringe, a feeling that the country was still not up to scratch as far as the rest of world was concerned. Cavanagh was not only able to present research that offered a window into the drastic issue of child abuse, she was also able to show that, in some areas, Australia was leading the pack. For example she found the maternal and child health program was ‘light years’ ahead of what the US could offer.

Being able to offer a balanced view helped her cause and still she believes “at times our ‘matesy’ culture, unlike US culture, doesn’t support excellence. In the US you are celebrated for being the best at something, not because you are better than others, it’s more of a step up to lift everybody. Leadership needs to be promoting those kind of egalitarian cultures around excellence and innovation and challenging the status quo in order for us to progress as a society, socially, economically, psychologically – in all aspects.”

When she returned she presented her findings Towards Preventing the Abuse of Children in Out-of-Home Care to a national conference on child abuse. “That helped spark more interest and [Professor] Judy Cashmore went on and did a study into institutional abuse in New South Wales.” The Victorian Government had Cavanagh draft the first standards for home care, write the complaints process and train home care and foster care agencies in developing discipline policies and practices. But does she think that things have changed all that much for children in care? “It’s a difficult, difficult issue, and it’s never been properly funded.” For good care of children, health and education need to be part of the care mix, but in “connecting the dots between the different departments involved” the intention is often lost, and Cavanagh believes it’s often a detriment to society overall. “There’s a little bit of that legacy, of, ‘well they’re your children, you look after them’. But in fact we are all going to end up looking after them so we may as well put the money in up front. It costs $200,000 per year for a child in residential care, we could put $50,000 into a family per year in terms of caring and looking after that young person – breaking cycles, but it’s a long-term outcome to invest in, not a short-term tidy up.”

Jo Cavanagh

Jo Cavanagh


Throughout Cavanagh’s career Family Life has popped up on the radar. In the 1980s she was asked to run a group for teenagers whose parents were separated. And in the early 1990s the organisation called again, asking her to join the committee of management as a local resident. She then became vice president, only leaving to help the late AFL player Jim Stynes set up The Reach Foundation dedicated to the wellbeing of children.

In 1995 she was asked to consult for a three-month stint on the organisation’s future, which she says “looked pretty grim”. She ended up joining permanently, as the CEO. “I’ve never looked for a job here.” This was her first leadership role and after 20 years in the job she’s able to pinpoint her strengths and weaknesses because “like a good wine I’m a matured leader. I’ve learned there’s lots of things that I wouldn’t have done very well in the past that I can now do much better because I know myself better.

“I think to be an effective leader you have to do a lot of deep, personal reflection to understand your triggers and the DNA of who you are. It helps you appreciate how other people experience you, so you can be most effective, depending whom you are working with and what the purpose is,” she says.

“I think to be an effective leader you have to do a lot of deep, personal reflection to understand your triggers and the DNA of who you are.”


She believes her greatest strength as a leader is the translation of knowledge into practice and from practice into policy. Social entrepreneur Bill Drayton, CEO of Ashoka, was an inspiration for her and she used his notion that effective change is not all about money, but about using resources more effectively. “It’s about using the resources you have creatively and better,” she says. “So when we go into communities that tend to be described as ‘problem saturated’, we started saying to our people, ‘let’s look for the abundance: what’s in this community in abundance that we can use as a resource, as an asset’.

“We had a school where one third of the children were notified to child protection, they were having trouble keeping teachers and they had a lot of kids with behaviour/learning problems, but they actually had an abundance of parents who had no role in the school.”

So the team set out to see how they could get the parents, who may not have had positive experiences of school themselves, involved. At the suggestion of the children Wacky Wednesdays and Fun Fridays were instigated. Parents were encouraged to come in and run the activities, which built a relationship between the school and the parents. “We actually had a school that started to become a community instead of a whole lot of individual units. There’s still problems in there but the teaching staff were able to stabilise things and take in strategies around the children’s resilience and general health.”

That Cavanagh understands the core business and where her staff are coming from gives her credibility within, and that is also one of her strengths as a leader. “It’s incredible the work our frontline people do. They are not highly paid but they are highly educated, many of them will have three tertiary qualifications and they are very passionate and professional about helping others.”

On the flipside her weakness comes out of one of her strengths. “My passion for what I do can be very overwhelming for others,” Cavanagh says. “I have a sense of urgency to get moving and about the pace of change. I’m very aware that children’s biological clocks are ticking and there’s another generation in difficulty, and we are too slow getting there to help them. We’ve got cumbersome systems to work with and I get very frustrated with that. Becoming impatient is something I have to moderate – just because I think it can be done by tomorrow doesn’t mean it will be.”

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