Paul O’Sullivan has been executive director of Red Cross in New South Wales since February 1999. Before joining Red Cross, he had a career in the army that included service in Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Britain and the United States.
AIM: After a long career with the military, why did you choose to go to Red Cross?
O’Sullivan: It is a similar commitment in a different field. Red Cross is in the business of serving the interests of other people, and I felt comfortable about that. And, as most military service people do, I had had a lot of dealings with Red Cross throughout my service career. So, it seemed pretty comfortable and natural to be able to continue with them.
AIM: How have you found the transition to a not-for-profit organisation?
O’Sullivan: Moving into an organisation with an ethos of service made the transition much easier. I didn’t have that steep a learning curve. I was able to step in and get on with it straight away.
AIM: What management skills are needed to run a not-for-profit organisation?
O’Sullivan: Broad general management skills, because you are dealing with an extraordinarily diverse workforce with diverse functions; from social workers and psychologists, through to the creative, communications, fund-raising, marketing-type folk. So, you need good people-management skills. You also need to be able to communicate, because the position involves a lot of public-relations work representing the organisation.
AIM: How have you found working with volunteers?
O’Sullivan: That is certainly one area I had little experience of. You need to listen to your volunteers and your members. They invariably have devoted years of their lives to the organisation, and you can learn a lot from them.
AIM: Can not-for-profit organisations be run like a business?
O’Sullivan: I think it is essential. If you look at all the different functional departments that I run here in New South Wales, they are effectively business units, and you need to run them in an efficient and effective manner.
AIM: What are the challenges for not-for-profit organisations like Red Cross?
O’Sullivan: The biggest challenge is to remain financially able to provide our community services. In Australia, as generous as the population is, there is a huge demand placed on the charity dollar.
AIM: What needed to be done in reforming the NSW division? Was the reform more difficult in a not-for-profit organisation?
O’Sullivan: There needed to be some rationalisation and reorganisation in the way that the staff departments and regional offices were structured. So, essentially, I restructured the corporate headquarters in New South Wales and better aligned functional responsibilities. Was that a challenge more so than elsewhere? I don’t think so. Although it was painful for some members of staff, and there were some redundancies, we ended up with much better work practices in departmental structures.
They were much more efficient and effective, and employees were much more content after the turbulence of the changes to be able to get on with their jobs. I am happy to say that, with the exception of some tweaking here and there, those structures are still in place.
AIM: What lessons can business draw from the military?
O’Sullivan: If you look at the revolution in management theory and practice after World War II, it was the Western military forces that were the leaders in management practice. But, having recognised the benefits of the functional structures and chains of command, and the communication and accountability issues, the corporate world outshone the military as the tertiary sector picked up on management education and provided leadership for changing the way corporate structures conducted their business.
I think the defence force in this country lagged behind for a while; but it is now very much on a par with the corporate world. We both use the same management practices and principles. But I think there was a lot of learning one from the other for several decades.