Brianna Casey’s Journey from Interim CEO to Leading Foodbank Australia

When Brianna Casey was asked to ‘keep the seat warm’ as interim CEO of the Queensland Farmers Federation (QFF) at the tender age of 23, the last thing she expected was to hold that place for the next six years. But the leader with a preference for leading collegially “from the side” has found herself front and centre of some big organisations and large responsibilities. 

The Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) has helped the current CEO of Foodbank Australia hone her impact and handle centre-stage. 

“I didn’t know a thing about being a CEO, but I was supported by the board of QFF to take that on,” Brianna says. “I knew some very strong advocates of the ARLP. Andy Monk was on the QFF Board, and he had just done Course 9. He tapped me on the shoulder.” 

Brianna applied to be a part of Course 10 and was sponsored to take part by Telstra. 

“I was massively nervous about whether a sponsor would be prepared to invest in me … I was a generalist – very young – and a bit of an unknown quantum,” Brianna says. 

“I needed a sponsor prepared to take a risk and see something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself. To have the support of a company as big and bold as Telstra shocked me a little, but once I got past that, it gave me huge confidence. If they saw potential in me, it meant that I could dive in with both feet.” 

That ‘dive’ is an experience Brianna credits as “a huge turning point in terms of personal values and curiosity and career path and how best to have a meaningful impact. 

“Going into the program, I wanted to understand my vulnerabilities and what it takes to demonstrate leadership on behalf of rural, regional and remote communities.” She says. 

Originally from the Northern Rivers region of NSW, and currently Sydney-based, Brianna was apprehensive about being a rural advocate living in the city. 

“I definitely had impostor syndrome. I also knew that I was not good at asking for help, developing networks, or building the relationships I’d need to truly leverage my impact.” Brianna says. 

Having started with QFF in an environment policy role before stepping up as CEO, the young leader assumed the required style would be “to lead from the front and drag people along behind,” she reflects. 

“My natural style is to bring people alongside, and the ARLP helped me challenge my assumptions about the conventional image of a leader.” 

Brianna also embraced the ways her cohort pushed and challenged her. 

“That experience of being surrounded by different opinions and ways of doing stuck with me. You need people who make you question your assumptions and spot what you’ve been missing.” she says. 

“The wonderful thing about the ARLP alumni is that almost twenty years post-graduation I can pick up the phone to my cohort and other graduates. Whether I need a ‘wake-up’ or someone to wrap an arm around me, they’ll do that. They’ve got my back, and they always see the real me, whatever issue I’m grappling with. That’s invaluable. I’ll never be able to repay that debt.” 

After completing the ARLP, Brianna continued to lead QFF for several years before accepting the role of Policy Director with NSW Farmers. 

“It was a time when the millennium drought meant farmers were struggling with mental health; social issues and the mining and coal seam gas debate was creating lots of angst and tension,” Brianna says. 

“I was incredibly passionate about pursuing better outcomes for farmers and communities, as well as being a good mum and partner. I was trying to be all things to all people.” 

Grappling with burnout, Brianna stepped away from her farming advocacy role, and embraced a leadership change as CEO of the Australian Childcare Alliance NSW. 

In 2016, opportunity knocked again, this time to become the head of Foodbank Australia, the largest hunger relief charity in the country. 

“It was all of my worlds combining at once,” Brianna says. “Celebrating the role of farmers and regional and rural communities, as well as contributing to feeding vulnerable people.” 

Brianna immediately saw the potency in telling Foodbank’s inside story. 

“It was about acknowledging that it was this amazing resource supplying food directly throughout Australia … It was important to highlight that farmers are pivotal to the work we do. Farmers donate milk, grain, dairy, eggs, but they are also the beneficiaries of food relief. 40 per cent of total food relief volume goes back into regional, rural and remote Australia.” 

Since taking on the role, Brianna has seen the true meaning of agility borne out in the way Foodbank has responded to the transport and logistics challenges thrown up by COVID 19 and a slew of natural disasters. 

“We don’t have a supply chain, we have a surprise chain,” she says wryly. 

“When there is a drop in supply or availability of food, and a spike in demand, we have to use every network and relationship we have to get the balance right. We have long, healthy relationships with farmers, manufacturers, retailers, the transport industry, the general public and corporate Australia,” Brianna says. “The quality of reputation we have is invaluable. Last year we came in fourth on a list of most-trusted charities in Australia. That is everything.” 

As her resourcefulness is challenged daily, Brianna regularly reaches for the ARLP as a touchpoint. 

“We are so lucky in Australia to place real value on investing in people. I love the work we’re doing and its connection to rural, regional and remote communities, and for me the ARLP is a course every Australian interested in leadership should be thinking about.” 

Applications are now open for ARLP Course 31 for more information and to apply visit here. Applications close 2 July 2023.

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