As CEO for the McGrath Foundation, Kylea is responsible for ensuring all the foundation’s activities continue to work towards the founders’ original visions for providing support to women with breast cancer and their families across Australia and for increased breast awareness in younger women. Here Kylea talks about her career journey and what inspires her to get out of bed each morning.
Leaders in Heels is a proud partner to the McGrath Foundation.
Q1. Working in the past in PR and with strong male personalities, how best did you handle it?
I don’t think I’ve ever thought about there being a distinction between me and someone I worked with based on whether they were male or female. I’ve had some great mentors from both sides and have always been grateful for the support and advice. Working in PR was incredibly challenging and required you to be on 24/ 7. I travelled a lot for work and it was a short day if I was out of the office before 9pm. I guess that worked for me as I’m sort of person who is constantly thinking. I’m renowned for starting my conversations with “in the shower this morning” or “last night as I fell asleep I was thinking”!
My employer in PR was incredibly supportive of me for a very long time – I was offered the Managing Director role here in Australia when I was 3 months pregnant with my second child and given a seat on the Global Healthcare Executive Team. At the same time, I was the only female MD on their Asia Pac leadership team for a while and one of the only MDs globally that worked 4 days rather than a full week but it was very much reciprocal – when I was there I was there and I gave it my 100%.
The crunch really came for me after I had my third child and I realised that, while I loved what I was doing, I wanted to be more present for my family and so that was when I made the decision to pull back. Amazingly, my firm gave me 2 years maternity leave to see if I would “get it out of my system” but then I found I was needed somewhere else – the McGrath Foundation. I do wish I could have whispered in my younger ears to take more confidence and trust in my own ability. I think I’ve spent a lot of years feeling like maybe I wasn’t quite enough and it’s only now that I’m starting to understand that I am exactly what is needed
Q2. What important skill (s) or experiences did you bring to McGrath Foundation when you joined them?
I had experience in both running, driving and building a business, and an understanding and expertise in developing and delivering compelling communications campaigns. When Jane passed away in June 2008 there were only 3 ½ staff here with 4 McGrath Breast Care Nurses around Australia. Something wonderful had been started but it was still very early days. I’d gone there to help out as a volunteer to provide as much support as I could in those first few chaotic weeks.
But then, having spent that time here, I couldn’t help but feel that I had some responsibility to stick around and help. I knew I could do what they needed and, as Glenn himself put it I “ wasn’t doing anything else at the time” (other than raising 3 young kids under 4 and managing my wonderful husband – ha!). Still, it just seemed the right thing to do and everything has grown from that.
Q3. What are some of the bigger challenges you deal with in the big picture for McGrath?
Ultimately, the Foundation is much like any other business. The challenges relate to ensuring you are delivering the best possible service to meet the needs of those that have expectations of you. In the early days it was all about trying to find the people and build a team that could get us closer to our ultimate goals. That said, and while this may sound strange, every time I did hit a wall where I wasn’t sure where the next person was going to come from, or I didn’t think I could push through further personally, the right person would suddenly show up!
It might be at a set of lights (which is where I literally found our beautiful COO when we started small talk about why I was looking so stressed) or through my lovely friends who I had worked with in various roles before (be they PR or media). I honestly believe that at that stage and even today the “Universe” has had our back and tried to help us when needed.
The thing that sometimes keeps me awake is the knowledge we have such a big responsibility to so many people. Not only do we need to raise enough money to continue to create new McGrath Breast Care Nurse locations (we need at least 150 McGrath Breast Care Nurses spread nationally to ensure every family in Australia experiencing breast cancer has access to a nurse where they need them, when they need then, regardless of their financial situation) but we also need to raise the funds necessary to keep those positions that we have already created going (there are currently 87 McGrath Breast Care Nurses spread right across Australia providing support to over 21,000 families nationally completely free of charge). When you consider that it costs on average $370,000 for one new nurse over a three year period, we’re talking about a lot of money.
Still, I absolutely believe we can achieve our end goal of a better future for families experiencing breast cancer in Australia by sticking to our path, so no matter how stressful that gets, it’s hard to believe I could ever turn my back on it.
Q4. Is there a memorable experience you’ve had while working for the foundation?
There’s been so many! From that very first Pink Test match in Sydney in January 2009, when many said they couldn’t see how it would work or what impact it would have, to the first time we gathered our McGrath Breast Care Nurses together for our annual meeting and actually saw 44 of them sitting in one place. To receiving our funding renewal from the Australian Federal Government earlier this year, to having Glenn and Tracy laugh at me in the context of a cricket match when I have no idea who we have just spoken to or what an amazing cricketer or important person they were.
Even recently travelling to the Pilbara to meet the team on Yandi mining site where they had literally bulldozed our logo into the red sand is something I will never forget because both the people and the country were just so spectacular.
Each time I meet someone new or hear a person’s story I’m inspired to keep going. Even on a smaller scale, we recently had a Signature High Tea in Perth and at the end of it, a lovely lady came up to me and simply said “I want you to know you made a difference today … a real difference to me”. She was going through breast cancer herself and hadn’t actually heard about our McGrath Breast Care Nurses or the work they do and so, while sitting there at our event, she had literally picked up her mobile and called. By the end of the lunch she had connected with her nearest McGrath Breast Care Nurse and had a whole new source of support and was already feeling stronger for it.
Q5. If you could go back in time, is there anything you’d change professionally?
I won’t say it has always been easy. There have also been some really dark times, whether that’s been trying to manage the fall out of some completely misreported fact or the loss of another friend to a disease. I don’t think there is anything I would change because I couldn’t be guaranteed that if I did, I’d end up here and now.
I do wish I could have whispered in my younger ears to take more confidence and trust in my own ability. I think I’ve spent a lot of years feeling like maybe I wasn’t quite enough and it’s only now that I’m starting to understand that I am exactly what is needed.
Q6. What do you see for the foundation in future?
It’s more about what I hope the Foundation can achieve in the future, rather than how it will look as an entity. At the end of the day we are irrelevant if we can’t bring about major change.
I look forward to knowing because of the work we have done, every family experiencing breast cancer in Australia has access to a breast care nurse where and when they need them (regardless of their financial situation) and that every person living here, regardless of age, sex or background, has an appropriate and adequate level of breast awareness. Because of those two things I look forward to a country where people and families move through a breast cancer experience easier, healthier and with less time wastage and get back to their lives in a better state.
I also think we have an obligation to help others by sharing our learnings and I hope we’ll have played some role in enabling other specialist cancer nurses both here in Australia and internationally. There will be other things for us to contribute and I guess that’s also the exciting bit – the unknown. But as long as we are a force for positive change I will be happy.
Q7. Are there any initiatives you’re currently excited about?
We’re about to head into our 6th Summer of Cricket with Cricket Australia, and it’s great that it’s the English team that’s back as last time they toured here it was electric. Amazingly the tour should also coincide with the creation of our 100th McGrath Breast Care Nurse location – a number that I used to feel was a very long way away. Straight off the back of that, we roll into Pink Stumps Day nationally which is when it becomes the communities turn to host their pink cricket matched wherever they like and I love that time of year as you see people achieve some amazing things.Focus on doing good work and the money will take care of itself
Q8. The best advice you got and would give to someone else?
“Focus on doing good work and the money will take care of itself” – my first CEO in PR consulting actually said that to me in the early 90s. The reality is the advice has been just as appropriate here. I find that when we get stuck looking at where the money is going to come from, we lose our focus on just doing really good work that engages people. The other one I love and continue to say How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time
Get to know Kylea:
1. What your best ‘switch off’ strategy?
My kids – I am actually a serially busy person. I am my own worst enemy when it comes to taking time out and will often find that when I have “down time” I just find something else to put in there (be that coaching a kid’s team, coordinating something through their school, or helping out on other projects). But when my kids sit on my lap, tell me a joke or put a performance on for me I am forced to stop.
I also read – I love it. I honestly have been to some of the most amazing places without leaving my chair and for me there is no substitute for the feel of those pages in your hands. And finally loud music – I can’t imagine what my neighbours think of me (and I shiver to imagine what they may have seen as the kids and I have jumped around the lounge room!). I have honestly had some of the best stress release just from completely letting out to a favourite song. Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves will always lead to open doors and windows!
Q2. What is your favourite holiday destination and why?
I love Huskisson on the South Coast of NSW. The Jervis Bay area is simply stunning and we always have such a fantastic kick-back experience there. West of the Blue Mountains is also another favourite destination. I grew up in a small country town in Coonabarabran NSW and my husband says he actually notices a change in my breathing pattern when we cross the Blue Mountains so definitely country air, clear starry nights and warm dusty days is something I love.
Q3. If you had one wish, what would you ask for?
I’d ask for a more tolerant world. It makes me sad to see people spend so much time focusing on our differences. My hope in gaining more tolerance is that we would then pull together to face some really tough issues that are coming down on us whether we like it or not (like climate change). That of course assumes that I could just wish for another 3 wishes!
To donate to the McGrath Foundation or hold a fundraiser please visit https://www.mcgrathfoundation.com.au/Donate.aspx