Reflections on My CEO Sabbatical, by Phil Hayes-Brown

In August 2019, I left my role as CEO of social purpose agency Wallara Australia in Melbourne for a 6-month sabbatical in southern California with my wife and 2 kids.

The main reason was to help our 19-year-old son settle into US College. He was very fortunate to be offered a basketball scholarship with University of California Riverside (UCR), which is about one hour east of Los Angeles. However, it was also 10 years since I took on the role of CEO of Wallara and I had been toying with the idea of using all of my long service and annual leave on a sabbatical whilst in my mid-50s, rather than ‘banking it’ until retirement.

Trust me, it was a daunting decision. My wife is CEO of a national non-profit agency and was fortunately able to continue doing her job from our US base. Our daughter, 18, has an intellectual disability and was in the middle of her school year. After careful consideration, we felt our family might never have another opportunity like this to spend quality time together experiencing life in another country. The call to adventure was too loud to ignore.

With support from our incredible employers, we packed our bags, pulled our daughter out of school, rented out our home and boarded a plane for California.

Six months have flown by, and we’re now back on home soil. I have four main reflections from the experience that I wanted to share:

1.      From a family perspective, our experience has been fantastic. Our son has really settled into US College life which we’re very grateful for as these transitions are usually the most difficult during the first year. He will stay behind when we leave in a week, and we can’t wait to see him when he returns home for his summer break in June. Our daughter, aged 18, has thrived in the different setting and has grown through close contact with all of us. Acting as her primary carer was a strong reminder for me how important, challenging and often lonely it can be as a carer, and how crucial high-quality staff are for any support provider. When I return as Wallara’s CEO it will be to an organisation with fantastic staff, so I am very fortunate.

2.      From a professional perspective, it was terrific to be able to reach out to others in the sector in the USA via LinkedIn and other networks and simply ask them how it works here. I ended up speaking at conferences in New Mexico and Idaho, and have met some fabulous people with broad and diverse perspectives. Disability rights, diversity and inclusion are all high-profile issues here in the US, and the disability rights movement actually started in California so it was wonderful to get a feeling for that campaign and how it might impact on Australia in the coming years.

3.      My third reflection is how important and unique it is that Wallara has evolved its mission from a service provider for people with disabilities to a social change agent with a key focus on educating the community. While we pride ourselves on providing innovative support to our clients, we challenge ourselves to do that in a way that engages partners and helps educate the community because this is how we change the landscape and drive greater inclusion. That’s why we created WallaraTV, it’s the philosophy behind our partnership with Monash University to raise the capacity of tomorrow’s teachers, and it’s why we set a goal to make Sages Cottage farm Australia’s most inclusive farm.

 4.      My final reflection is about the importance of personal choice. My son was lucky to have the choice to attend a US College and we hope that experience is life changing for him. My daughter will return to her special school for another year when we return to Melbourne and we hope that is also life changing for her. Our family’s choice to take this sabbatical together has also had a profound benefit. People with disabilities overall have far fewer life choices than the rest of us. It’s no different in America, and that’s why raising awareness and education are such important aspects of Wallara’s mission, because we want to drive that change. I encourage all providers to make this social change component a key part of their mission. People with disabilities need to have the same choices as everyone else and their choices should be respected.

In closing, a huge thanks to the Wallara Board for allowing me this privilege, as well as to our talented COO Taimi Clinch who stepped in as Acting CEO while I was away and all the other amazing staff who supported me during my absence. As I said, it’s all about talented and committed staff, and I am excited about returning home to join them and keep pushing forward with our social change mission.

If you get the chance, I’d strongly encourage you to consider a sabbatical instead of banking that long service leave until retirement. I have no doubt my time in the US has made me a better leader, and a better parent.