Powerhouse Leader, Fiona Kalaf (1984) Has Done It All

In 1984, Fiona Kalaf graduated from Santa Maria College without a clear indication of what her future professional endeavours would be. As of 2024, she has accumulated over three decades of substantial experience in the workforce, assuming significant roles such as Board Chair, Non-Executive Director, Senior Executive and Chief Executive Officer among prominent Western Australian organisations. Allow us to share her story:

Can you share your experiences from your time at Santa Maria College? Are there any staff members or memories that stand out to you?

I have such fond memories of my time as a student at Santa Maria College. I especially enjoyed Music – we had a fabulous teacher, Gail McMaster, who encouraged us to have fun, which made learning a real joy. We would often spend our lunchtimes in the Music Department playing various instruments – some better than others! I think music is a wonderful all-round subject where you can dive into creative expression, explore history and, of course, practise instruments. Being part of the school’s orchestra (I played flute) was also a great grounding in teamwork and leadership.

Following high school graduation, what path did you pursue? Did you always have a clear indication of what you wanted to do?

I didn’t have a clear indication of what I wanted to “do” or “be” when I left school. I had thought I would be a doctor, but I was (and still am!) quite queasy around blood and needles, so I didn’t think medicine was the right path for me after all! I was drawn to healthcare, so it hasn’t surprised me that I have ended up working in that sector, albeit in the management side, rather than clinical.

I studied a mix of sciences and the arts for my leaving and enrolled at The University of Western Australia in a Bachelor of Arts, where I majored in French and Fine Arts. I also completed a Bachelor of Architecture at UWA. I started work as an art curator, which was a career I loved and which saw me spend time working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I gradually moved into arts marketing and then into business-focused areas, such as strategic planning and management. With some encouragement from a mentor, I undertook an MBA, which was very helpful for me in transitioning into other sectors, such as financial services and into senior roles, such as CEO of Lifeline WA and of Youth Focus.

Can you share with us how you ended up studying at Harvard Business School? Was this a longstanding goal, or did circumstances lead you here?

Many of our Master’s of Business Administration courses centered around Harvard Business School case studies, sparking my keen interest in studying there. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to enroll in the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management course at Harvard. Beyond the brilliant lecturers and captivating content, the most enriching aspect was the chance to connect with numerous like-minded individuals from around the world.

Throughout your leadership journey, what challenges have you faced, and what important lessons did you learn from this?

Like many things in life, leadership is as challenging as it is rewarding. I have faced my fair share of challenges along the way – from financial and risk through to strategic – but the greatest challenges are usually related to people. I have learned a lot about leadership and a lot about people, and I think my greatest learning is that people want their leaders to make decisions, to communicate openly and to support them to achieve their goals and plans.

In today’s dynamic business landscape, how do you personally ensure you remain adaptable as a leader?

Adaptability is one of a leader’s most important skills. It is important to set a clear strategy and to stay the course. However, there are always unpredicted events that arise from being agile enough to adapt to those changes is critical. There were some especially hard lessons learned from many of us during the pandemic. 

Personally, I think adaptability is driven by confidence because you need to be confident to lead change. For me, that confidence comes from ensuring that I am up to speed with industry and sector issues and risks, which makes it easier to spot opportunities and chart a path through any adversity. I consciously allocated time each week to my own professional development – a combination of reading, attending seminars or webinars and networking with peers.

With your extensive work experience across diverse industries, could you please provide a brief overview of your professional background?

After more than three decades in the workforce, I have varied experience as a Board chair and Executive Director, Chief Executive Officer and Senior Executive across a range of sectors, including financial services, human services and infrastructure and development.

I am currently a Chair of Amaroo Care Services Inc, a non-executive director of Euroz Hartleys Group Limited (ASX:EZL), Perth Festival and Celebrate WA, and a general councillor of HBF. I am the former chair of the Art Gallery of WA and former deputy chair of Healthway. I am also currently General Manager Projects at APM (ASX:APM), the world’s leading mission-driven human services business operating in 11 countries. I have held numerous leadership roles, including CEO of Employable Me, Lifeline WA & NT and Youth Focus, and senior executive roles at HBF and Asgard Wealth Solutions.  

I am also a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors Course. 

How do you stay informed and prepared for the evolving demands within the Healthcare Sector?

Healthcare is a fascinating sector. It is fast-moving, science-driven, and evidence based for population health on the one hand, and on the other, it is all about hand-crafted services for individuals. I am not a clinician, so my focus is on health and human services management.

Do you have any advice for aspiring leaders?

One simple piece of advice: get a mentor! I have always had the benefit of great mentors, and in turn, I have been a mentor to people, too.  At each stage of my working life, I have sought out someone who I trust to mentor me. I take mentorship very seriously  – I prefer not to meet for a general “coffee catch up”, but rather to meet with a specific issue or challenge I am facing and ask my mentor to share their experience and guidance.

Let’s get to know you better. When you find time for yourself, what are your favourite activities or hobbies?

I have never been sporty, although I was captain of the Santa Maria College netball team the year we won the grand final – but I do enjoy exercise as I find it is a great way to relieve stress, unwind and recharge. I have undertaken the Hawaiian Ride for Youth 700 km road bike event from Albany to Perth five times, raising funds and awareness for youth mental health and suicide prevention, and I have also completed many (too many to count) half marathons. 

I always use all my annual leave as I love travelling. Experiencing new places and cultures expands your mental horizons and helps you appreciate the similarities and differences between us all. 

Closer to home, I am pretty social, so I enjoy entertaining with family and friends, and I also enjoy little more than a quiet night reading a great novel. 

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to Fiona for graciously dedicating time from her busy schedule to share her remarkable career journey with our Santa Maria Community. She exemplifies how one can achieve great feats without having everything mapped out from day one.

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