As the CEO of Women’s Community Shelters, Annabelle Daniel OAM will soon open her ninth crisis accommodation shelter in as many years. While now a respected leader in her sector, she has battled industry scepticism and, at times, her feelings of self-worth to ensure that women and children facing domestic violence have a haven in their time of need. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
It was one of the most significant moments in her life and one that Annabelle Daniel does not take for granted.
As CEO of Women’s Community Shelters (WCS), Daniel was awarded Australia’s highest recognition for outstanding service and achievement when she received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2020 for her work helping women and children find a safe haven from domestic and family violence.
“It’s pretty significant when your country says thank you for what you’ve done,” Daniel says. “I am enormously honoured and still, you know, get emotional thinking about it.”
And yet, it was only possible because Daniel made a difficult choice at a pivotal point in her career. Stay with her current secure job, which allowed her to pay the bills as a single mother, or follow her heart and establish a crisis accommodation charity, WCS?
Wandering a career wilderness
Before joining WCS, Daniel’s career was on a winding trajectory. She initially followed her best friend into studying law before landing a top-tier law firm’s graduate role. However, she soon realised she was a square peg in a round hole, uncomfortable with the firm prioritising client needs over justice and the greater good.
Daniel returned to the work that had sustained her during university. “Car dealerships, of all things,” she laughs. There, in a stock control role, Daniel successfully spent hundreds of millions of other people’s dollars on importing cars and trying to pick what people would buy. But as she approached age 30, she realised that she wanted a role that leveraged her legal education.
At the federal public service’s Child Support Agency, Daniel was finally able to put her degree to good use. The job also ignited her passion for helping disadvantaged women and children, from witnessing them experience systemic disadvantage and domestic violence. When she later moved to the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, she became further sensitised to issues surrounding disadvantage.
But she found her true calling when a former colleague and friend rang about a leadership role at Elsie Women’s Refuge. “She said, Annabelle, I think this would resonate with you and is work you would be good at,” Daniel recalls.
She was keen to take the role. “It felt like somewhere I could use my skills to make a difference and that everything I had learned to that point would coalesce to me being able to help other people in a really direct way.” She was also ready for the responsibility of running a business by herself.
Women should support other women in advancing their careers. “The way to champion other women is to actively have an old boys network, but for girls,” says Daniel. She believes women should use their influence to enhance other women’s careers, something she tries to do regularly.
The year that changed everything
In 2011, Daniel took 12 months off from her work at the Ombudsman to run Elsie. It proved to be a year of revelation.
On a personal level, it was the year she turned 40 and the year her marriage broke down, leaving her a single mother to two young daughters. There were days when she felt her life was going to hell in a handbasket, but her work, while immensely challenging, sustained her.
Professionally, Daniel was on a steep learning curve at Elsie, where domestic violence was now a living entity. “When you work in a women’s refuge, you essentially have an office in their home,” Daniel says. “Everything is right there in front of you, in the form of real people, not at the end of a telephone or in a letter.”
On any given day, she could be supporting a mother whose child was having an autistic meltdown or another who’d just received a text from her ex, saying if she didn’t come home, he’d find her and kill her.
She also faced the anguish of turning desperate women away from the refuge due to lack of space. “I was playing Sophie’s Choice every day,” she says.
But while some days were despairing, there was also joy. One of Daniel’s best moments was standing on Elsie’s porch, waving off a mother and her three children collecting the keys to their new home and starting life again, having arrived weeks before, terrified, traumatised, and with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
A fork in the road
After 12 months, Daniel reluctantly returned to a role in the Public Service, this time at the Department of Human Services. It was a secure job that meant she could afford to buy a home to share with her children in Sydney, Australia, but it didn’t light a fire in her. Nor did it help the one in two women being turned away from crisis shelters due to lack of space. So, when asked to establish the new Women’s Community Shelters charity as its CEO, Daniel followed her heart.
“It was inevitable. I had to do this because I would always regret not doing it,” Daniel says. “You regret the things you don’t do, rather the things you do.”
There is no perfect time to take a leadership role or change careers. Women, in particular, believe they need to have all the necessary skills and experience before making a move.
“You never, ever feel ready for it,” Daniel says. “You just have to take the opportunity when it presents itself and figure the rest out afterwards.”
“Grab it with both hands, back yourself, then work your butt off.”
Facing down the doubters
When Daniel became CEO of WCS in 2013, she only had a desk, her own phone, and a wealth of determination to succeed. The board initially tasked her with incorporating an existing crisis accommodation shelter into the charity and opening a new shelter.
Establishing any startup business is not easy, but Daniel also faced strong resistance within the not-for-profit sector. Former colleagues, peak bodies and others believed she should focus on preventing domestic violence rather than the “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, as people call what we do – which I find quite insulting,” Daniel says. There was also resistance to the WCS social franchise funding model, which, rather than relying solely on government funding, is a collaboration between philanthropy, government and community fundraising, designed to make it more sustainable.
It took two years of lonely, hard work to achieve the board’s initial goal, only to find industry cynics thought her achievement was a fluke that she would not be able to replicate. They only quieted once shelters three and four opened in 2016.
If you are starting a business or charity and truly believe in what you are doing, commit two years to get it off the ground.
“Actively decide to stay in it for the long haul. It can bring results that you might not otherwise see,” says Daniel. “It can also teach you a lot about persistence, developing grit and resilience.”
Facing down industry scepticism did nothing for Daniel’s self-doubt and confidence. She got through it by taking it one day at a time. “It taught me a lot about just getting up each day and, you know, eating the elephant in small bites.”
But on her 50th birthday, Daniel gave imposter syndrome the boot. “I made an active decision to junk it,” she said. “I’ve got much better at trusting my own judgement… I need to lean into that.”
Using her influence for good
When the going gets tough, Daniel works harder. She learned her work ethic from her grandfather, who stopped working at age 85. He was also her biggest and most influential mentor, stepping into the breach when she was a child and her parents divorced, cheering her on at each stage in her life. “He kept a line of every business card I ever had on his work desk,” she says.
Today, Daniel is WCS CEO and Chair of peak industry body Domestic Violence New South Wales (DV NSW). She is grateful that her leadership position allows her to keep making a difference to those who need it.
“Being able to use your influence to encourage change is one of the best things you can do as a leader,” she says. Of course, there is still so much more she wants to do to protect women and children in crisis. The fight might not yet be over, but Daniel’s courage and determination will undoubtedly make it happen.
Annabelle Daniel’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA.