Karol O’Brien, Willing and Able

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Karol, you joined Willing & Able in 1996 and have been the General Manager of the organisation for 11 years. Can you tell us a little about Willing & Able and its various business units?

Willing & Able is a supported employment service for adults with intellectual disabilities. We employ 33 adults with intellectual disabilities in our six diverse business units that are all located in Port Macquarie. These business units include:

Commercial Grounds Maintenance Division:  this division provides lawn and garden maintenance for organisations that have large grounds to be cared for. We provide ride-on mowing, whipper snipping and hedging.

Woodwork Division: our woodwork division manufactures and sells hardwood timber stakes to builders, surveyors, concreters and real estate agents. This division also supplies silt bags, sand bags, tomato stakes and surveyor products such as flagging, silt fence, star posts and gal pipe.

Renovation and Recycling Warehouse: this arm of our business sells a huge range of second hand building materials, including doors, windows, plumbing supplies, tiles and sinks. We also sell sporting and craft supplies.

Op Shop: our Op Shop has a terrific range of clothing, shoes, bags, books, toys, manchester, furniture and bric-a-brac.

Assembly and Packaging: this service offers collating, stamping, filling, sealing, enveloping and applying stickers. This division also performs services such as rag cutting (making cloth rags out of old towels and sheets) and recycling of items such as e-waste, computer towers, cords and X-ray films.

Coffee Bar: the coffee shop is the newest addition to our business. Located in the heart of our Op Shop, we have curated a delicious mixture of locally supplied goodies including Peak coffee, Bel’s pies and Casseras cake. We also offer fresh salads and yogurts.

What has your career trajectory looked like within the business?

I commenced with Willing & Able in 1996 as the Assembly Supervisor. We had a lot more assembly work back then, and we had 12 supported employees working within the business. 

I went on to add another hat to my role as the Supported Employee Supervisor. This saw me looking after all of the employment issues for the Supported Employees. Then I added a further hat of 2IC to the then General Manager. In 2007 I was appointed as General Manager.

What have you learnt about leadership in your role with Willing & Able?

I have learnt that it is not easy to step into a role to lead a team of your colleagues whom you previously worked alongside. However, you have a job to do and you need to step up and do it and take the good with the bad. 

I’ve had to manage some difficult staff who didn’t like change. In my time as a leader, I’ve been too soft, too hard and too stubborn. I’ve learned to never make rash decisions, to never assume, to always get the facts and to listen to everyone.  

My staff are great, and they run their businesses well. I can be empathetic when I think it’s necessary. For example; when one of my team is experiencing family issues, I always give them the time off they need, because family come first. After 11 years I’d like to think I’ve nailed it. However, you’re welcome to ask my team for their opinion, LOL.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in your role?

One of the biggest challenges that I face in my role and that we face as a business is the recent implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). This is our only source of funding that we receive, and we find it has so much additional red tape to navigate. We receive 30% of our revenue via this funding source, so we need to make up the other 70% through our business sales. This requires two very different approaches to revenue generation.

Another challenge we have always faced is raising Willing & Able’s profile in the wider community in order to generate a healthy level of sales via our shops and services. The challenge of acquiring good quality donated goods is always present as well.

We are constantly seeking new businesses to enable us to employ more adults with intellectual disabilities in meaningful employment and continue to be a viable organisation.

Seeking new Supported Employees that have employment in their NDIS plan presents an ongoing challenge for us as well.

How important do you think it is to be truly passionate about the work you choose to do?

It is important to be passionate about the work you choose, because then you know you will always give it 100%. I am passionate and motivated in my role as a result of the happiness that our supported employees display every day. They try very hard and they are very proud of the skills they have achieved and the jobs that they do. They are the reason that Willing & Able exist.

Your role reports into a Board of Directors who are responsible for guidance on strategy, governance and compliance. Can you share any learnings about working alongside a Board of Directors?

The role of the Board is not an easy one. They are responsible for ensuring that we are compliant with government standards, that our strategic direction is sound and that our businesses remain financially viable, as well as ensuring that our supported employees are treated with dignity and respect.

Our Board all have very different ideas and opinions. I have learned not to take things personally and that it is very important to give the Board Directors relevant and sufficient, applicable information and facts, so they can do their job and so that they can make sure that I’m doing mine. 

It’s important that the Board trust you and your staff. I know our Board of Directors share my passion about Willing & Able and the people we support, and they sincerely care about the organisation.

What are you hoping that Willing & Able achieves this year?

We are hoping to be able to employ more adults with intellectual disabilities in our businesses in the new NDIS world. We also want to spread the word about who we are and what we do, because “together we can make a difference”. 

We also wish to assist further NDIS participants, including our own participants in skills development and capacity building in our existing premises. Stay tuned.

Thanks for your time, Karol.

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