CEOs / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Kirsty Robertson, CEO of Caritas Australia

Kirsty Robertson is the CEO of Caritas Australia, the international aid and development organisation of the Catholic Church in Australia.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I have a yellow post-it note on my computer which says: “Have I kept the poorest of the poor at the centre of this decision?”  

In my role as CEO of international aid and development organisation, Caritas, this is a question that I routinely ask myself in my daily decision making.

I call myself an ‘accidental CEO’, who fell into the role after spending the first 20 years of my working life in some of the poorest communities around the world, talking to locals in the fields about the things they needed to help lift them out of poverty.

It is with this real world, on the ground perspective that I approach my leadership role at Caritas, an organisation that provides support to communities to help them implement their own solutions.

I believe a world free from poverty can exist and that it only gets changed by lots of people doing little things.

I started my career in aid and development at Caritas Australia. Over the years, I’ve worked at Anglican Board of Mission, forceten (now Act for Peace), worked as a consultant to the sector and spent five years as CEO of Mary MacKillop Today.  

I’ve lived, worked and travelled in more than 50 countries, including in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, working with the development arm of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and at Machermo, a health post in the Gokyo Valley in Nepal, looking into the protection of the rights of porters for the International Porters Protection Agency. I returned to Caritas Australia in September 2019 to become the first female CEO of the organisation, which felt like a homecoming. 

I’m motivated by tackling big issues like poverty, injustice and inequality, with the ultimate aim of building a better tomorrow. I am especially dedicated to improving outcomes for women and girls around the world and believe that we all have a responsibility to provide support and compassion so that all women can reach their full potential. 

2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

I get up at 4am every day, sometimes even earlier. I spend at least an hour exercising – sometimes two! After that, I spend an hour ‘clearing the deck’, i.e. trying to deal with anything that is sitting in my inbox that is preventing other people from doing their job. 

When my son wakes up, I disconnect and spend the next two hours playing with him. Most days we run down to the beach for a swim. After he goes to preschool, I’m back at my desk for our morning leadership team coffee. This is an activity that’s come about since the pandemic, and it has been a great way for us to remain connected even when we don’t see each other in person.

The rest of my days are quite varied, including speaking engagements, board and subcommittee meetings, and one-on-one meetings with my direct reports. Every Monday is meeting-free (or at least, 90% of the time it is). I try to spend that day doing my strategic thinking and reimagining. Sometimes I’ll talk to my colleagues overseas late in the evening or early in the morning.

I finish up every day at 5pm and go and get my son. If the weather is nice we go on a bike ride, explore the bush or go for another swim before dinner. Once he is asleep, I normally do another hour or so of work in the evenings depending on what needs to get done. Then I read: anything and everything. 

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Yes, it does. I currently work from home full time, although when lockdown ends I will be back in the office two to four days per week.

The flexibility is great for me in the afternoons as it means that I can pick up my son at 5 pm and then log back into work after he is asleep. In the pre-Covid world that was never possible, so he was often asleep before I got home.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I see it more as work-life integration. For me, the lines are blurred as my job is also a core part of who I am and what I believe in. It’s more about affirming the need to disconnect and the realisation that I am better at my job when I take breaks.

I recently spoke on a conference panel around Building Boundaries to prevent burnout – although those who work closely with me would see the irony in me presenting on such a topic. The organiser wanted someone on the panel who really struggles to ‘turn off’. For people like me, the shift to working from home and a more flexible work environment has only increased this battle.

We spoke about the fact that organisational policies to encourage staff to disconnect can only get us part of the way. Changing our relationship with downtime is first and foremost an inner job. It involves shifting our mindset to let go of guilt and value long-term sustainability instead. I’ve started to be more intentional about an after-work recovery routine, including spending time with my son and reading.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I have always been committed to gratitude. During this last year I have re-energised my practise of gratitude. Every evening I write down at least one thing I am grateful for that happened that day.

To offer that gratitude to the universe and to finish my day in a state of affirmation. I am amazed how this improves my sleep, transforms the outlook which I wake up to, and generally makes me feel positive and alive!

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I love poetry – Rilke, Tagore to Bruce Dawe. I love the beauty of words that flow.

Good Will Hunters is my favourite podcast but I have recently started to try to listen or watch TED talks etc on things completely outside of the “social justice” world that I work in. 

I literally just randomly watch things that pop up from the business or finance world in an attempt to broaden my mindset out of “group think”.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

I am a Luddite so it’s paper and pen for me! Now that I am at home I use my windows and sliding door as a whiteboard which I love.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

Anyone for whom their job was also their passion. David Attenborough, for example, is still working, creating, and inspiring people in his 80s – so he must know a thing or two.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

At one stage over the weekend when I was lying in a tent, on my lounge room floor, on a ‘camping trip’ with my son I had one of those laugh out loud moments thinking about all of the crazy things I have done since lockdown started. 

I know many of you have had similar moments, from going out on a dinner date with a takeaway at home to drinks with friends over Zoom and ‘righty/lefty’ choose your own adventure walks. 

Two years ago I would have thought all of them were ridiculous, and now they seem quite normal, even fun. I was talking to a few people last week about the struggle of letting go of plans and planning, and conversely, of the freedom that we have found in being able to embrace the unknown. 

Some days I get it and other days I continue to fight against it. It’s like being in a constant state of unlearning. At least we are all in this together and I am so grateful for the lovely, open and honest conversations I’ve had about the struggle.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.