Thinking positively can have a transformative effect on mental well-being and, even, on achieving organisational goals. Here, Starlight Children’s Foundation CEO Louise Baxter shares her leadership journey and lessons learned, including how she has used the power of positivity to transform her charity into an award-winning beacon of brightness in the lives of sick children.
Sam has been a Starlight Children’s Foundation child since he was a baby. When he was just a few weeks old, doctors diagnosed him as having a tumour on his eye. This traumatic news was the start of a journey for Sam and his family that saw him in and out of hospital for years, undergoing treatment; ultimately causing him to lose vision in both eyes.
And yet, Sam’s memories of his time in hospital are also filled with moments of joy, thanks to the Starlight Express Room in the Children’s Hospital. In this medical-free oasis, an exuberant Captain Starlight and the Starlight volunteers transformed his pain, fear and stress into fun, laughter and happiness with games and activities, allowing him to leave his illness behind, even for a little while. On the day his remaining eye was removed to save his life, the Starlight team was right there bringing smiles to the faces of Sam’s family so his final visual memories would be happy ones.
“People ask me: is it terribly sad working for Starlight? And I tell them, no, it’s one of the happiest, most uplifting places to work,” Baxter says.
Lighting the way
Helping brighten the lives of sick young people like Sam is what the Starlight Children’s Foundation team lives for. It’s why their passionate CEO, Louise Baxter, has worked so tirelessly to transform the charity into an accountable, sustainable and resilient organisation that expands and improves its offering to sick kids and teens across Australia, year on year.
Under Baxter’s visionary leadership, Starlight has not only won accolades for its innovative programs for sick children, but is the only charity in Australia to have been awarded AON Hewitt Best Employer accreditation and was also ranked AFR 2020 Best Places to Work.
A moment of truth
Baxter was a highly respected marketing veteran when she joined Starlight on a six-month maternity leave contract in 2001. She had worked for big brands like Johnson & Johnson and Arnotts, was on the executive team of advertising agency Leo Burnett, and had started her own agency with two colleagues. However, several years into this venture, she was looking for something more.
“One of the things about life is that you must love what you do every day,” Baxter says. “It’s really important that you have that passion for what you do and you really enjoy it. And I was finding it less enjoyable and I was questioning why I was doing it.”
If you are not enjoying your job, it’s time to look for a new role that will allow you to flourish.
In a moment of truth, Baxter realised that she wanted to use her knowledge for the good of others. Afterall, she thought, is selling chips and shampoo really leaving the world a better place? Believing a corporate social responsibility role would be more fulfilling, Baxter set her sights on gaining the relevant experience by first working with a charity.
When she heard about the role at Starlight, Baxter was immediately interested. When she was 12-years-old, a similarly aged close family friend was terminally ill with leukemia. “I had very vivid memories of him sitting in pain on his mother’s lap with nothing really to distract him,” she said. “Starlight didn’t exist then.”
Baxter took the job.
An invitation from the board
Six months at Starlight quickly turned into six years. By the time Baxter left Starlight for a corporate social responsibility role, she was second in charge, and had implemented a number of changes she believed would help move the charity from being run like a small business, to an accountable, professional not for profit (or profit for purpose, as Baxter prefers to call it).
Regardless, Baxter knew the charity needed to continue evolving if it was to further expand its services for children like Sam and their families. So when the board offered her the CEO position 18 months after her departure, Baxter didn’t hesitate to return.
“To be the CEO and really set Starlight into its future direction, and leverage the opportunities that I knew existed, was really an opportunity for me that was too big to miss,” she said.
By now, however, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had blown through, the economy was in a recession and the charity was struggling. The long-term partnerships Baxter had carefully nurtured had been neglected, and the team was anxious about whether they’d still have jobs. “It was really eye-opening how quickly things can turn south,” she said.
During challenging times such as a recession or pandemic, transparent, authentic and honest communication to your team about the situation and how the organisation is going to respond is essential.
“Otherwise, people make stuff up and it escalates anxiety,” Baxter says.
After consulting with each team member, Baxter began putting in place the programs and policies that would turn Starlight around, ensuring it grew into a sustainable charity that sick children and their families could count on to be there for them, long term.
Finding internal alignment
One of Baxter’s first challenges was bringing the charity’s mission and the team into alignment.
“In our sector, because people are so engaged with our purpose, it’s very personal for them. So, some actually believe that they have a better way to deliver it and might pull against your strategy or your route,” Baxter explains.
For Starlight to flourish, it needed high-performing, happy team members who could handle the emotion and stress of their work environment while delivering on their mission to brighten the lives of sick children. Furthermore, they need to do so to consistent standards.
“Each Captain Starlight can have their own personality, but in our Starlight Express Room program, we have standards that must be met,” Baxter explains. “And we’re constantly researching, testing and getting feedback on those to ensure that we maintain that quality as we grow into a much larger organisation.”
To drive high performance and engagement, Starlight implemented positive psychology training for every team member, equipping them with a well-being toolkit that allowed them to prosper in challenging conditions. Everyone who joins Starlight must undergo this training.
“We support the wellbeing and resilience of the children and families we help, so it makes all the sense in the world, as an authentic organisation, that we support our team in the same way,” Baxter says.
A culture of innovation
As Starlight continued to grow, Baxter encouraged the team to innovate in order to improve on their offering to children. Now, for instance, children too sick to leave their hospital beds can visit a virtual Starlight Express room. This can be via their own or a hospital device and interact with Captain Starlight via live streamed video and a chat box.
Today, Starlight has over 350 employees, and even more volunteers. There are Starlight Express Rooms in all Children’s Hospitals across Australia, and in addition to its famous Starlight Wish program, the charity has rolled out online programs and palliative care home support.
Starlight also has a Reconciliation Program, and provides support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in over 140 remote communities around Australia. “These children have some of the poorest health outcomes of kids anywhere on Earth. If Starlight can be a part of impacting generational change and closing the gap on health outcomes for those kids, then that’s remarkable,” a clearly proud Baxter says.
Staying the distance
In the 12 years since she became CEO, Starlight has come a long way from the post-GFC turmoil Baxter inherited. Indeed, the charity currently facing down the COVID-19 pandemic is a stronger, more positive and resilient organisation, with recurring revenue growing from 1.23% in 2009 to over 40% in 2021. This is a huge testament to her capability as a leader.
Nonetheless, at times, being the leader of a national charity can be bruising – literally. Baxter has passed out from dehydration, gone over the handlebars of a bike, and tackled her fear of heights while climbing a mountain at dawn, all in the name of Starlight fundraising activities.
However, when asked what she has found most challenging about being CEO, Baxter says loneliness. “Being a CEO anywhere can have moments of loneliness, because there are some things that you, and only you, can potentially know about or ponder,” she says.
She counters this by drawing on one of her strengths – her zest. “Having zest is important because it takes tremendous energy to be CEO and you can never completely switch off,” she says. Baxter maintains her energy by taking good care of herself mentally and physically, including playing sports like netball, golf or skiing.
Staying fit and well is crucial since Baxter, like the charity she leads, is here for the duration. Bringing joy to sick children and teens continues to inspire Baxter and her team every day. Her conviction that positivity is transformative has clearly been proven right, allowing the now award-winning and resilient charity to help even more sick children like Sam exchange sadness and stress for cheerful, happy memories.
Louise Baxter’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA
Image credit: All images supplied by the Starlight Children’s Foundation.