with greg layton

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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, we speak to Grainne O'Loughlin, CEO of Karitane, on parenting for executives and the vital first 2000 days of a child's development, and the inspiring legacy she is building.

Grainne was born in Northern Ireland and has over 30 years’ experience in the public healthcare sector in the UK and Australia.

Before becoming the CEO of Karitane in 2014, she held a variety of senior health executive roles, including Director of Allied Health at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Health Network.

Grainne started her career off as a qualified speech pathologist. She then completed her Masters of Business Administration in 2011 through the University of New England.

She is currently President of the NSW Health Services Association (HSA), and a Director on the Australasian Association of Parenting and Child Health (AAPCH), and the National Ability Roundtable.

In this episode we talk about:

  • The fundamental societal shift on inclusivity and parenting
  • Why early intervention is crucial in the trajectory of a child’s life
  • Managing a passionate workforce while still being commercially-minded
  • How being a collegiate CEO will drive better, longer-term outcomes.

Connecting with Grainne O'Loughlin

You can connect with Grainne via LinkedIn.

Books and resources

How every child can thrive by five – by Molly Wright


“We've seen a societal shift on inclusivity and parenting and there's no magic bullet. Every family is quite different and unique.”


On early career lessons

  • The kids were brought and dropped off and you did therapy and you returned them, but I didn't know the parents. I didn't know what their situation was and we never really engaged the parents at that time like we would now as a function of early childhood education. The system was much more siloed at that time. 
  • I do remember thinking, “Am I making a difference for these kids? Is an hour a week or two hours a week of seeing me going to change this child's outcome at school?” You never knew because you didn't stay in touch with them. They came, stayed for 12 weeks, you did treatment, you think they improved in your room, but you never got the outcomes.

On the first 2000 days

  • That really got me thinking about how you shape and change a child's life trajectory and what influence and impact you might have in those early years. That was probably way before we've got the evidence that we've got now about the importance of the first 2000 days and the hard-wiring of the brain and what happens in early infancy and early childhood development; it actually does shape the trajectory, so if you can get in there with early intervention and prevention, you actually can help a child get that best start in life. It was something intuitive for me at that stage, that we should help early, but that's been borne out now by much more robust research.
  • From antenatal to five is called the first 2000 days. We (Karitane) are known more broadly for things like helping parents with sleep and settling and early nutrition and unsettled babies with perinatal anxiety and depression.

On shifting society's attitudes on parenting

  • You don't have to be the perfect parent. Society's attitudes and beliefs used to be that you had to be the perfect everything; you have to have it all. There was a huge focus on mothers. It's all about moms, stay-at-home moms, can you go to work and be a working mom and be a good mom?
  • But in fact, over the last five to eight years, we recognise that blends of families exist. There are also single moms, single dads, foster carers, adoptive parents, and rainbow parents. Families don't come in any particular shape or size anymore. We have had to really work to open our minds to the versatility of families. We started off by looking at partner-inclusive practice and engaging dads. There's often two people involved in parenting, but in some more culturally diverse families and our first nations families, extended families of grandparents and the community also engage and it is often said that it takes a village to raise a child.
  • The workplace in itself has become part of that village. Employers have become much more sensitive around parental leave, around gender equity, around workforce participation of women, and how dads can take parental leave as well.
  • I think generally, society is arriving to that point that parents are parents. It's not a mum's job to raise a kid by herself. 
  • There is also an emergence around social isolation and studies around loneliness and the impact of social isolation on families. I think today, many families have moved away from their village ie. moved away from their families.

On what children need from parents

  • Love, affection, engagement with your child, eye contact, communication and play.
  • A secure attachment, and that can be a broad range. It can be with a parent or a grandparent, but as long as the kids feel that attention, love and that sense of security as they're growing up, that is very important. 
  • But we do see people get very distracted. We've got devices that rock babies' cots now while you're busy. We've got things that will sing a baby to sleep and rock it to sleep, but it's not a human anymore, whereas we used to sing lullabies and do that rocking and that's all part of that bonding with your kids and playing and stimulating and reading.

On early intervention

  • The key thing is to connect families into a system to say, “We've got you.”
  • Early intervention and prevention is really critical so early screening and identification is key, and that takes a whole system approach.
  • Certainly, we have had increased perinatal anxiety and depression. The statistics are generally 1 in 5 moms and 1 in 10 dads will suffer adjustment perinatal anxiety and depression. I suppose it's only really in the last three to five years that dads even got a look in that they could be feeling overwhelmed. And any sort of stress that was seen as a hormonal imbalance in moms, they would get postnatal depression.

On the challenges of running a not-for-profit

  • I don't do it alone. I have a very dedicated, committed executive team around me and a very dedicated, committed and supportive board.
  • How does a bright idea become an innovation? Or how do we make a courageous decision? We know that funding in the whole of the sector, whether you're health or social services, are quite small, being a not-for-profit charity. So we achieve results through hard work in diversifying funding revenue.
  • How do we make ourselves sustainable? What parts of government are interested in funding what parts of the expertise and service we can bring? So we go into the philanthropic world where we can drive commercial partnerships, donations and grant-writing.
  • And we do all of that with quite a small team. I've worked in big health services as a director of allied health where you'd have $2 billion budgets and all the rest. To shrink it down and become a first-time CEO in an organisation that has got a massive amount to offer, but a workforce that is very lean was quite a challenge. You’ve got to do it well without burning out your staff, burning out yourself and delivering something that's of high quality. That's been an ongoing balancing act and certainly times when it's been very, very challenging and a lot of time and effort.
  • We say to our parents it’s “the struggle of juggle” and I've experienced that. I've experienced long hours and deadlines that won't wait, orders that close up for funding submissions that don't really care how tired you feel that particular day.
  • Teamwork, collaboration, and smart partnerships as well. So we look at organisations where we can integrate our services and bring the best of what we both offer to a better place for parents and services. I think there's a fair amount of investment in the sector in early years, but it's still quite fragmented across the service system. I've been particularly interested in trying to get those service systems better to work together in a more integrated way.

On being a collegiate CEO

  • As I was finding my feet as a CEO, I learnt things like emotional intelligence and started asking myself, “Do I have to be tough to be a CEO? Do I have to be a bit brutal and a bit aggressive?”
  • I realised in fact, that's not who I am. That's not how I operate. In fact, it’s better to work in a collegial team where you support them to grow and develop and you're all bringing a more harmonious rather than a dogmatic, directive, transactional style of leadership.
  • I've observed and I've been managed that way myself, and it wasn't a great experience. You can certainly get people to do things for you if there's a highly directive, authoritarian style of leadership, but you'll never get the buy-in and you'll never get the goodwill and the return if you don't treat your team and your colleagues in a very respectful way.

On her first 90 days as CEO

  • I got to know who's in the team and where they're at and I took stock.
  • Then I set about setting the strategy and vision, getting the board lens, and then that informed us who outside we've got to speak to or engage with. Obviously, the government relations piece as funders was a given, but who else is interested in what we do?
  • I went too far outside and some things happened inside and I actually had to step back in because some operational things weren't going as smoothly. Sometimes, and particularly during the pandemic, you just have to be on the ground.

On her leadership style

  • How can we care for the health and wellbeing of our staff? If you don't have a workforce that can give to parents, you don't really have anything. Working virtually has enabled us to do that; you can really stay in contact via these sorts of calls and just do a 10-minute catch-up with colleagues.
  • We do daily planning. Who's in? Who's covering? What's our contingency plan? Just a lot of good communication.
  • My favourite interview question has got to be around cultural fit and leadership style. We've had people who can be very technically knowledgeable, proficient on paper, but if we don't have that leadership that fits the culture or drives the culture, it can be absolutely devastating.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • Dream big. Be aspirational. Surround yourself with courageous mentors and be true to who you are. You have to lead with the style that is within you. You've got to fit somewhere that values your leadership.

Stay epic,