'Dream bigger' – the power of a mentor

Wisdom from two Christian CEOs

“Dream bigger. You can do more.”

“Take a risk. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“If porridge is good for your kids for breakfast, then it’s also good for dinner.”

These pieces of advice were passed on from Melissa Lipsett to upcoming leader Clare Steele.

Today, both Clare and Melissa are CEOs of Christian social justice organisations – Melissa heads Baptist World Aid Australia, while Clare leads Compassion Australia.

One of the reasons why Clare ended up in this position, she shares, is through Melissa’s influence as a mentor.

Melissa played a key role in encouraging Clare to first step into organisational leadership while Clare was working for Anglican Deaconess Ministries (ADM), a Christian women’s foundation in Sydney.

“Melissa and I met when I was working at ADM. I started there installing some computer systems,” says Clare on the latest episode of Eternity‘s Run Like a Woman podcast.

“When I got the Chief Operating Officer role at ADM, that was partly Melissa saying to me, ‘There’s more. You can do more and dream more. How do you want to use your gifts and skills?'”

“I love learning new things that help you solve a problem in a better way.” – Clare Steele

For Clare, who had studied engineering at university, her gifts and skills lie in problem-solving. And since becoming CEO of Compassion Australia in January 2020, she is now utilising these skills in helping to address some of the “most complex, biggest problems” facing the world – those caused by poverty and injustice.

“What I love is learning new things that help you solve a problem in a better way, and bringing people together with different voices to solve the problem in the best way,” says Clare.

“… So that’s what I love about my role. Now, it’s not only bringing the voices of people in Australia together. It’s hearing from children living in poverty what their dreams are.”

Melissa notes the impact that mentors have played in her own life and career progression.

“Mentors have helped me enormously. I’ve always had mentors,” she says.

Melissa left her childhood home in country Victoria at age 17 and “ran away” to join the Royal Australian Navy. There she came to faith in God after a navy chaplain “convinced me that I wasn’t who I thought I was, but I was who God said I was. That was a revelation,” she says. “It changed my life and has continued to change it ever since.”

“There is a humility that’s necessary, that says I’ve still got a lot to learn.” – Melissa Lipsett

Another “amazing man” later called Melissa into church ministry.

“I fell into pastoral ministry. It certainly wasn’t what I meant to do. It was really an amazing man, who went on to be my mentor for over a 20-year period, who called out what he saw as the gifts and graces within me for pastoral ministry … He was incredibly important in my life,” she shares.

After almost two decades as executive minister of Newlife Uniting Church in Queensland, Melissa went on to become Chief Operating Officer at Bible Society Australia for nine years, before joining Baptist World Aid and becoming CEO there in November 2021.

During later years, Melissa says she had a number of other mentors. And even now, with all her leadership experience, she is still actively seeking mentor relationships.

“Just recently I’ve approached somebody and asked them to mentor me in this role. Somebody who’s done a role like this, who knows the sector more than I do and is, quite frankly, more experienced than I am.”

She adds: “I think that there is a humility that’s necessary, that says I’ve still got a lot to learn. If somebody says I’ve got nothing left to learn, then I would really worry about that person.”

“Even now I have a coach … to make sure that I’m leading out of humility and self-awareness.” – Clare Steele

Clare agrees that humility and self-awareness are two key components that mentoring – and in Clare’s experience, coaching – relationships offer to leaders.

“I had an amazing experience for a year when I was at Anglican Deaconess Ministries of being coached by an amazing woman,” says Clare.

“I had 26 sessions of 45 minutes with her. She did not answer a single question I asked her! But every week I had to reflect on my life and my work, and whether I had achieved what I wanted to do …

“And that just gave me the space to really journey along a year with another woman who would encourage me to think more deeply about, or to even call into question, some of the narratives I had in my head about myself.

“So I found the coaching relationship really important. And even now I have a coach in my role who asks me similar difficult questions, just to really be able to reflect and assess, and to make sure that I’m leading out of humility and self-awareness.”

“Melissa has always been one to say, ‘Take a risk. What’s the worst that can happen?'” – Clare Steele

The encouragement of Melissa and other mentors has also enabled Clare to boldly follow God’s calling on her life, she says.

“There’s stats that show that a woman won’t apply for a job unless they can prove that they can do 100 per cent of the role. That’s how I lived my life,” Clare admits.

“I’m very low risk. And so Melissa’s encouragement and others’ encouragement to take risks were really important …

“Just having other people say, ‘Actually, what you do is bigger than what you think you do, and your potential is bigger than what you think it is. Take a risk.’

“Melissa has always been one to say, ‘Take a risk. What’s the worst that can happen? You get a no, and really that’s not that bad.’ So that was was part of my learning.”

Passing on the wisdom she has learnt from others, Clare adds: “As Christians, we know the end of our story. We know that Jesus is coming back, that he’s bringing a new creation and we’re part of that. That’s your story, it’s written.

“And so the rest of the story doesn’t matter as much. You can take a risk, you can fail, because you know he’s coming back and you know the world is going to be new again. And so what risks can I take today for his kingdom and for his people? Those steps may feel really scary to me, but in the bigger picture they don’t need to be.”

Season 1 of Run Like a Woman has launched on the Eternity Podcast Network – subscribe today

Listen to Episode 7 of Run Like a Woman – ‘Give the Girl a Hand: Leadership & Mentoring’ via the link below:

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