'I failed to prepare World Vision for the 21st century'

I made mistakes, but have no regrets, says former CEO

Former CEO of World Vision Australia, Philip Hunt, begins his new book with a great big spoiler:

“The short story – of my failed attempt to prepare an international aid for the 21st century – can be told quickly,” writes Hunt in the opening chapter of Leadership and Me – Wisdom and Life Lessons of a World Vision Australia CEO.

However, this is not the only story that Hunt – who was CEO of World Vision Australia for seven of its formative years, from 1989 to 1996 – wants the reader to hear. As he writes, “There’s not much to learn from it apart from my own follies and misreading of the tea leaves.”

Instead, Hunt invites the reader on a hefty, eight-part journey that spans the decades of his career, with particular focus on his 24 years at World Vision Australia. His aim is to share with budding leaders the lessons he learnt the hard way.

“Leadership is difficult. It’s not all roses and achievements.” – Philip Hunt

“I thought it would be useful for people who were developing their own skills in leadership, probably in middle management at the moment, or those who have aspirations to lead an organisation,” Hunt tells Eternity.

“… I was trying to say to that leadership is difficult. It’s not all roses and achievements. It’s about struggling as well.”

Hunt drip-feeds the wisdom he gleaned from mentors, managers and from his own experience and mistakes. He opens up about his humble beginnings in a bank, as a radio announcer and then about his years at World Vision – first in communications and then in management in Hong Kong, Australia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

He shares candidly his intense frustration during his time as Chief Operating Officer at World Vision Australia, as he longed for the authority to make innovative decisions that would move the organisation forward.

He reveals the inner workings of World Vision Australia’s leadership during the 80s and 90s. And he dissects his own failure as CEO to engage the Board with his big, change-making vision for World Vision Australia: to diversify operations by moving away from child sponsorship as the only fundraising program; and to decentralise the management of its operations, by creating closer connections with its overseas counterparts.

“I don’t have regrets about any of it.” – Philip Hunt

Yet while reflecting on the shortcomings of his career, 73-year-old Hunt – now retired – tells Eternity he has no regrets.

“I don’t have any regrets about World Vision not becoming the organisation that I envisaged because it’s still doing terrific work, and I got to do other things,” he says.

“I don’t have regrets about any of it. It’s like feeling, ‘Oh, I regret I didn’t win the gold medal and I only got a bronze’ …

“I participated in the game. Did I win the game? Sometimes. On the occasions when I could have made a bigger difference and I didn’t, well, that’s how it goes. I enjoyed playing the game with everybody.”

It’s certainly true that Hunt did achieve many great things during his time at World Vision.

He’s often credited with being “the guy who invented the 40 Hour Famine” – a belief that Hunt debunks by saying, “not even close to the truth. I think World Vision Canada invented it, but they may have borrowed it.”

However, it was up to Hunt to put the idea into action for World Vision Australia, and he did this remarkably well. By embracing TV advertising – and using an endorsement by then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser – Hunt helped the 40 Hour Famine go national. And by the late-1980s, the previously obscure American Christian charity World Vision had become a household name in Australia.

Other successes for Hunt include helping to establish a successful World Vision headquarters in Hong Kong; creating a strategic vision and values for World Vision Australia and helping to grow the organisation to a team of 400 by the time he left; and making the controversial decision to purchase the building where World Vision has made its home for almost 30 years.

“My primary task was to just help people to do their best.” – Philip Hunt

But it’s the intangible achievements that Hunt focuses on most in his book – like building a team culture and getting alongside staff one-on-one.

“My primary task was to just help people to do their best to give what they have,” he says.

” … In other words, giving space to people so they can express what they’re really good at, and then managing the organisation in such a way that they’re supported in the things they’re not so strong at. That comes from a heart to want to get the organisation to be the best it can be.”

Hunt was known at World Vision Australia for having lunch in the staff room, wandering around the office to touch base with colleagues and for leading “Big Devos” – weekly staff devotion times.

“I’m naturally introverted,” he shares, “so it didn’t come naturally to wander through an organisation with a few hundred people and to try to have casual conversations. But I recognised that it was important, so I did that intentionally.

“Over time, I found I could relax into that and I learned to do it better and better as I practised it.”

Hunt continues: “I liked to be in informal situations with staff, as well as formal business situations, because I would hear how they were feeling about something.”

He also practised an open-door policy, and positioned his office furniture so that staff would stand beside him rather than in front of a desk when they entered his office. These behaviours which communicate mutual respect (although Hunt doesn’t directly identify this) are particularly important “when you disagree with [staff] or they disagree with you”, he says.

“Would Jesus have done it? Probably not, but I’m not Jesus.” – Philip Hunt

Hunt’s personal leadership style innately stems from his values as a Christian, as well as from the influence of one of his key mentors, Lewis Born, who taught a teenage Hunt in the Queensland Methodist church.

“I felt cared for by Lew,” Hunt reflects. “He cared about the young people … And he was a guy who loved the fun of it all, and that was infectious. You caught that infection and you wanted to do well for him.”

Like all aspects of his life journey, Hunt is honest about the moral challenges he faced as a Christian in leadership. One of the examples he writes about is the question of whether to accept an invitation to join the elite Qantas Chairman’s Lounge.

“The CEO of Qantas at the time gave it to me after we’d met. He just signed me up. I didn’t ask for it, it just happened,” Hunt qualifies.

“Obviously it was convenient for a frequent traveller, so I didn’t begrudge it. I didn’t think it mattered much. Would Jesus have done it? Probably not, but I’m not Jesus.”

On more important and clear-cut issues, Hunt made counter-cultural decisions to fit with his Christian beliefs. In a progressive move for the time, as CEO he worked one day a week from home in order to better support his family.

He has also incorporated prayer into all aspects of his life – including work – “without ceasing”.

“I’m not a pray-er like John Wesley, who gets up at four o’clock in the morning and prays for an hour,” Hunt admits.

“But I try to remain conscious that I’m not living this life alone – that God’s at work in my world. I look for where that’s happening, or I look back and [try to] see it.”

“If God has a plan for my life, then I just better get on with it. And it’s not up to me if things don’t work.” – Philip Hunt

This is just like the experience Hunt has had as he’s reflected on his life to write Leadership and Me – a project that took several years.

“I think I see God’s leading [to World Vision] in retrospect. I see it looking back. I didn’t have a road to Damascus experience. I followed the things that I felt I could do or wanted to do …

“But looking back, it’s like that [Footprints in the Sand poem] about walking along the beach and seeing another set of footprints, then sometimes there’s only one set. So I’m walking along with my set of footprints. And then when I look back, I say, ‘Oh, look, there’s someone else walking with me.’

This is a key reason why Hunt has stayed positive and holds no regrets despite the challenges and, as he deems them, “failures” in his career.

“Early on I got the notion that God has a plan for your life. Well, if God has a plan for my life, then I just better get on with it. And it’s not up to me if things don’t work – if somebody closes a window and a door opens somewhere else,” Hunt explains.

“So I didn’t let the troubles get me down because I figured I’m part of a much larger activity here – it’s the working out of the kingdom of God in the world. And the fact that God invites us into that process is liberating because you’re not on your own.

“First of all, you’re linked to the divine who’s wanting to reveal himself, through his kingdom, to the world. But also all these other people are travelling that journey with you.”

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Leadership and Me

Philip Hunt

Available from Koorong

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