Karden Disability CEO Karen Robinson shares her vision

CEO of Karden Disablitity Karen Robinson. PHOTO The Courier

CEO of Karden Disablitity Karen Robinson. PHOTO The Courier

Founder and Chief Executive officer of Karden Disability Support, Karen Robinson, could never have envisaged the extraordinary growth of the organisation she leads nor her role at the helm. 

Karden was born in 2006 after Karen was asked by parents of a boy with a disability to run services for him as he didn't fit with any existing program in Ballarat at the time.

In just eight years the not-for-profit service has grown to support over 140 people in the community and employ more than 100 staff. 

”I don’t know I expected it to become as big as it has. I never saw myself as a huge risk taker but to take this journey I've found I've had to take a few risks -  just doing it - to stand out on the limb,” Karen said.  

Karden's point of difference is to provide individualised, flexible support for people with a disability. Support ranges from 24-hour support to just an hour a week to help do shopping. Personalised day programs and art programs are attractive features.

“Use it wisely. Leaders aren't always the ones in the paid leadership role. It’s a privilege to be a leader, to be considered a leader and not just a manager so be respectful of the privilege people have offered you. - Karen Robinson on leadership

As Karden grew Karen realised the model’s potential to revolutionise disability services in Australia. She has welcomed interest from all over the country in what it does, taking part in research and committing herself to national, state and local committees - at last count around seven.

These include being Chair of Annual Complaints Recording Reference Group and a Disability Services board member. She sits on the newly formed national board of the National Disability Practitioners. Locally she has a seat on Leadership Ballarat,United Way, and City of Ballarat Disability Advisory Committee, boards and is national disability coordination officer for the Regional Disability Group.

“I’d come from working as a manager and leadership roles in other organisations but did not envisage this would eventuate where people are researching and writing papers on what we do.”

“Just because you might be the leader doesn't mean you have to be the one to get all the limelight. In fact it can be very empowering for other people around you to get the attention and they'll respect you more.” - Karen Robinson

Her personal style of leadership she describes as collegiate and consultative.

“As women we tend to go into this space of “we” did this and “we” did that rather than “I”. I stand by the belief I can’t do it without everyone else. I can’t be a leader if others aren't willing to be led.”

“Leadership for me is around inspiring people to go on a journey with you and making them feel ultimately that it was their idea. That they thought of it and that is great. Being a quieter leader, it’s great to have people come to me and say let’s do this and I can say yes that’s exactly the destination we want to be heading to.”

Leaders are often forged from their experiences. Karen credits one of her first managers with giving her the confidence to lead. At EW Tipping Foundation, Chief Executive Officer Richard Dent saw her potential.

“I have a lot of respect for Richard. He gave me my first opportunities to be a senior leader and  manager. He encouraged me, made me feel valuable and instilled in me the confidence to see I was not just a little person from Ballarat but had thoughts and ideas that should be seen more broadly,” she said.

Starting up the Ballarat branch of EW Tipping Foundation, Karen moved on to be regional manager and then statewide strategic projects manager.

Although Richard's influence took Karen out of her comfort zone she now sees how this experience empowered her and equipped her to run a large organisation like Karden.

Dent is now CEO of Leadership Victoria where his skills and ability to empower others are being fully utilised.

The importance of parental encouragement has also played a big part in the leader Karen is and work she does.

“They made me feel like I could do whatever I wanted to do that I could do something important and strong. Mum constantly believed in me and was a powerful positive in my life. Collectively my parents belief in me was a huge factor.”

Leaders who continue to show strong leadership through difficulty provide Karen with inspiration. 

“(Politics aside) former Prime Mnister Julia Gillard was someone I saw did make some tough decisions and had interesting challenges by virtue of gender and I think history will be a lot kinder to her then we were at the time as a nation.

“She’s someone I respect as being a strong person, who continued to show leadership through adversity and continued to try and work a path. I think she’s an incredible person.”

Other leaders to strike a cord are Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama who both showed incredible leadership in adversity.

“As leaders they continued to show compassion, stayed true to their values and made people want to go on a journey with them,” she said.

While it may be a team approach at Karden, Karen won’t back away from the tough decisions.

“Ultimately if I have to make a tough decision or back someone in then that is my part in it. I will make the tough decision if I have to. But I believe I’m a person who is willing to take other people’s contributions and let them run with them and not claim them as mine.”

Leadership is important on the local stage too.

“If we have people who will stand up and put a hand up and say I want my community to be a better place we create better places.”

“People like Rebecca Paton, a mum who is taking an amazing stand and generating interest in an inclusive playground.”

As for future leaders Karen advocates compassion for others and staying true to your values and beliefs.

“Just because you might be the leader doesn't mean you have to be the one to get all the limelight. In fact it can be very empowering for other people around you to get the attention and and they'll respect you more.”

“Use it wisely. Leaders aren't always the ones in the paid leadership role. It’s a privilege to be a leader, to be considered a leader and not just a manager so be respectful of the privilege people have offered you. Engage with them as you will go a lot further on the journey if you do it with others.”

Read previous articles in our series on leadership: 

Part 1: From battlefield to boardroom: Ben Roberts-Smith

Part 2: RAI's chief executive Su McCluskey on putting regional areas in the spotlight.

Part 3: Regional Arts Victoria CEO Esther Anatolitis.

Part 4: Goldfields Australian Football League Commission's Sue Brown.

Part 5: Quotes on leadership from world leaders past and present.

Next week: Pret-A-Porter co-founder Megan Quinn.

What’s your favourite leadership quote? Share it here.