Zac Lewis of Western Chances helps young people of western Melbourne excel in their chosen field, and his MBA studies have supported Zac to excel in his.
Agile is a word that’s thrown around a lot nowadays; we all want our organisations, teams, and ways of working to be agile. While the term may be a buzzword bandied around without much substance, for those guiding organisations through the pandemic agility has never been more essential.
Zac Lewis was not only new to executive leadership when the pandemic hit but also had to head up an organisation that relies on teachers’ input at a time when schools were closed and donations at a time when philanthropy was falling.
“The last 18 months have been incredibly challenging but I’ve loved every minute of it,” says Zac of his role as CEO of Western Chances, a well-established not-for-profit that provides scholarships to help talented young people in Melbourne’s west fulfil their potential and overcome barriers to success.
Agility in leadership during the pandemic
Just before joining Western Chances, Zac applied for and was granted a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Kaplan Business School through the Australian Scholarships Foundation.
“The opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time,” he recalls. “Covid has applied tremendous pressure on the not-for-profit sector, which must now adapt to a new ‘Covid-normal’ business as usual. This requires innovative leadership and strategic business skills. One of the biggest things that I took out of the course was how to deal with challenging circumstances.”
While Covid has certainly created challenging circumstances for leadership, for those able to adopt strategies to address such challenges, it can also be used as a launching pad for assessment and future planning, says Zac.
“Covid is forcing everyone to think differently and to challenge the assumptions about how they deliver their services, what services they deliver, how they meet the ever-changing needs of their community, and how they can continue to develop a sustainable funding model. So learning skills and practical frameworks to approach this strategic piece has been super important.”
For Western Chances, one of the ways Zac ensures agility in mission is by consulting with a Board subcommittee, called the Scholarship Team for Advice and Review (STAR), that’s made up of current scholarship recipients and alumni.
“You’ve always got to be adapting in the way that you support community because there’s no use just delivering something because that’s what you’ve always delivered. It has to be for their benefit and their needs may change over time,” he says.
“So we take a lot of information about what we’re doing in our programs to the STAR committee to make sure it’s still relevant.”
Empowering staff through Covid
Zac also had to ensure the wellbeing of his team during Melbourne’s lengthy lockdowns.
“We took it pretty seriously because our staff work so hard looking after our community – and the needs of the community have risen during the pandemic,” he says.
The hands-on CEO dropped hampers around to the homes of staff and offered health and wellbeing leave as well as extra leave over Christmas, so the team could have a decent break from work. “Working from home can be good but the risk is you can just end up working around the clock – there’s no separation.”
Thankfully helping the staff to feel empowered was easier in an organisation with empowerment at its core, says Zac.
“I think the whole organisation is genuinely committed to that value of empowerment. And working here and being a leader here is also incredibly empowering because we’re helping people identify their ideal pathway and how they’ll achieve that.”
With 130 different nationalities in Melbourne’s west, speaking 148 different languages in the home, it’s no wonder Zac and his staff maintained their sense of focus and meaning through the trials of lockdown.
Looking to the future
Zac has now put a five-year strategic plan in place with the goal of engaging alumni to create networks for their scholarship recipients, and growing Western Chances’ scholarship program to 1000 scholarships a year. It’s a worthy ambition, with every one of those scholarships impacting the face of multiculturalism and disadvantage in Melbourne.
“Melbourne’s west is one of the most culturally diverse areas in the country, with 130 different nationalities. Our recipients will go on to be in boardrooms, making decisions and bringing their diverse perspective into the ways that organisations are run in the future,” says Zac.
“Our view is that education transforms the life of the person, but also their family and the community around them, for the better.”
Zac Lewis joined Western Chances as Chief Executive Officer with Western Chances in December 2020, after more than 12 years working across the not-for-profit and government sectors. Previously he was Food Programs and Partnerships Manager at Foodbank Victoria. He is passionate about tackling social challenges and is committed to ensuring that young people facing financial, social and cultural barriers are given opportunities to fulfil their potential. My Big Dream is to be a positive force in ensuring that everyone has access to education, regardless of their background or circumstance.
Zac was a scholarship recipient of the Kaplan Business School 2019 Master of Business Administration. Read more on the scholarships offered by Kaplan Business School in 2022.