Health

Safeguarding vital youth mental health services during a time of global crisis

The Link reached out to us during an important and sensitive transition period for their organisation. Their former CEO, who had been with them for more than a decade, resigned – right in the middle of lockdown.

Robert Meredith, Board President at The Link was already familiar with the work of The Project Lab, so when they made contact, things happened very quickly. The Project Lab helped appoint an interim CEO who managed day-to-day operations during a period of peak demand, improved oversight for the board, and helped facilitate a smooth transition to new leadership.

About The Link

The Link provides free and confidential health and wellbeing services for young people aged 12-25. Their base on Liverpool Street in central Hobart, provides a safe space with access to essential facilities like a washing machine/dryer, shower, mail service and food.

The Link also offers a range of direct, clinical services through headspace Hobart – a National Youth Mental Health Foundation, where young people can access counselling and direct clinical support.

They also help young people with free sexual health and reproductive health services, alcohol and drug services and other clinical referrals. Their life-changing service is powered by a team of 35 dedicated staff and overseen by a volunteer board.

"One of the classic problems for Not-For-Profit boards is that you have volunteer board members who are typically engaged in their own work outside of the organisation. So, it's very difficult to get a lot of time commitment from them. When the former CEO left, having someone on the ground who could work with us to provide a plan around strategic risks and issues was really crucial," says Robert Meredith, Board President, The Link.

The situation

The outgoing CEO had been with The Link for a long time and seen them through a period of intense growth. Their operations had expanded organically from a single drop-in centre to a fully-fledged clinical service provider with 35 staff delivering diverse services. In that time, they had also undergone a fundamental shift towards clinical services that require higher levels of governance and risk-management.

The Link was clearly having growing pains and strategic planning and reporting had taken a backseat to the urgent daily challenge of meeting peak demand for youth mental health services.

"We had nearly twelve years of legacy knowledge walking out the door... In that time, we've grown from a very hands-on drop-in centre to a substantial organisation. A lot of essential processes and organisational knowledge wasn't well documented and there wasn't really a proper handover. The Project Lab had to work hard to come up to speed quickly and manage our operations." Robert explained.

The departure of their long-standing CEO left the board feeling concerned about their level of visibility over several important aspects of operations. So, instead of moving to immediately recruit a new CEO, the board decided to harness this changeover period as a time for reflection, innovation and learning.

The changeover in leadership was challenging, but it also presented an opportunity for the organisation to reflect, update their approach and set themselves up for future success.

The challenge: To provide a complete, 360-degree overview of operations, continue to meet surging demand for youth mental health services during COVID-19, and facilitate a smooth handover of leadership.

The Project Lab was engaged to appoint interim leadership who would resolve pressing issues, collaborate with staff to create the right environment, structure and plan for the organisation, and help the future CEO succeed in the role.

Having resources on-site immediately with direct connection to the board, enabled The Link to quickly pivot their operations and focus on what mattered most:

  • Projects and services that had been impacted by the pandemic and the departure of the CEO were quickly prioritised and outstanding issues could be resolved.
  • The Project Lab was able to quickly establish rapport, trust and transparency and embed a new, more transparent and co-operative approach to problem solving.
"Mariae Leckie came in, and between September and December of 2020 she worked with us to really identify the areas that needed change and that could use better frameworks and structure. She gave us a full 360-degree overview of operations and suggestions for change, to help us operate safely and deliver on our strategic plan. When the engagement first started, I think we didn't realise the extent to which parts of the organisation had grown stale and needed to be refreshed. It turned into a bit more of a mountain than any of us were expecting and [The Project Lab] handled it really well with clear timelines and systems for capturing all the issues and providing recommendations. It has allowed us to have a really detailed and effective handover process for our new long-term CEO when they were appointed" Robert said.

Boots on the ground

With Mariae at the helm, the first step was to identify and safeguard critical programs and services. To do this, she worked closely with The Link leadership team to understand the full gamut of their offering and double-checked the essential details of funding contract compliance.

Establishing a safe base line was absolutely crucial to ensure their ongoing ability to service the surge in demand for youth mental health services. New reporting systems improved line of sight for the board, managed risk and kept them up to date on progress:

"I don't know what I would have done without The Project Lab's assistance. Without Mariae stepping in, getting boots on the ground to help run the organisation, it could have been catastrophic. The way they handled everything was very smooth - the whole time we were getting really good communication, insight and feedback about what was happening inside the organisation," Robert says.

Building trust and transparency

During explorations with staff, it became apparent that Program leaders hadn't previously had any insight into organisational finance and operating models. Open communication empowered the organisations already highly engaged and responsible staff members with more autonomy.

Taking a more transparent and collective approach to identifying risks and implementing solutions resulted in a positive cultural shift as well – staff engage with a new, more unified and innovative problem-solving culture.

Empowering staff with more autonomy led to a culture of accountability as well. Better reporting and understanding of risk reduced the organisational risk profile significantly, and this boosted staff and stakeholder confidence as well.

When staff were given a voice and empowered with institutional knowledge, positive culture, transparency and trust flourished:

"As a not-for-profit, most of our funding comes in the form of government grants that are tied to specific services that we're required to provide and report back on. One of the most significant issues that Mariae identified when she came in was the need to review and overhaul our financial systems, to improve visibility and transparency between management and the Board. The Project Lab put us in touch with BDO Australia who reviewed our systems – and outsourcing our financial operations to them has led to a significant cost saving ($50,000 per year) and better transparency that reinforces the trust we have with our grant providers,”Robert said.

Transparent operations and empowered staff have set up The Link for a bright and sustainable future helping the young people that need them.

Fundamentally, implementing new reporting systems has reduced risk and helped ensure that the board always has a clear line of sight with reporting that is accurate, relevant and timely. The Link can now more easily show grant providers that they are delivering on their promises and doing so in a sustainable way.

Delivering the 360-degree overview

In addition to having leadership on the ground to help see the organisation through the daily challenge of COVID-19, the work that The Project Lab did culminated in the form of three specialist reports covering key issues identified during Mariae's immersion in the organisation.

The reports covered ICT (Information Communication Technology), Finance and Organisational Governance and a Development Roadmap outlining the steps they could take to improve various aspects of their operations.

Findings were delivered in a range of formats including formal communications, spreadsheet analysis, PowerPoint summaries and face to face meetings. Artefacts and communications were easy to understand and well received by both the board and staff members who were deliberately invited into the conversation.

Mariae also helped establish a new framework for staff training to help them identify and develop capacity and capability in key areas that would be necessary for the growing organisation.

"Leading up to the time that The Project Lab finished, we had this big review. Mariae gave us a set of really great recommendations with a roadmap for how to address all the problems we were facing and helped us put plans in place to address all those issues… It was really great - our risk was significantly reduced because the board had proper visibility, and the organisation had a clear plan. I have recommended The Project Lab to other organisations and will continue to do so." Robert added.

Key outcomes

The last few months of 2020 were a very important period of transition for The Link and the changes they have made in partnership with The Project Lab will have far-reaching impact for Tasmanian young people and their communities for years to come.

The Project Lab have helped The Link to:

  • Embed youth-led service planning in their delivery model.
  • Improve their compliance, reporting and transparency for governance that will help ensure continued delivery of the life-changing services they provide, and
  • Empowered staff to get on with the real work of helping a record number of Tasmanian youths access the support and mental health services they need.

If you’d like to talk to us about our Interim CEO services, get in touch here.

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