Talking Courage with a CEO

(~6 minute read.)

Deb T

Deb Tsorbaris is CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare. The Centre is Victoria’s peak body for child and family services. Deb has worked in health and community services for 32 years, holding executive positions in organisations working across youth services; disability, drug and alcohol support services; and employment programs.

Deb provides policy leadership to state and federal governments and is a strong contributor to the child and family services sector. She was the spokesperson for the “Australians for Ending Homelessness” campaign and she is currently serving on the boards of Kids Under Cover and the Child and Family Welfare Association of Australia.

Throughout her career, Deb has been instrumental in working collaboratively across department, government and community sectors to develop and implement service reform objectives.  Deb is driven to ensure the implementation of evidence-based approaches and is a passionate advocate for Victoria’s vulnerable children, young people and families.

Join us as Deb shares her passion for taking action on worthwhile issues.

How would you describe workplace courage?

Workplace courage means saying the things that need to be said that other people are either afraid to or lack the confidence to say. For example, “Are we doing the right thing?  Do we have to dig a bit deeper?” In a conversation where we’re focusing on kids, parents and families, you have to name the problem and come together to find a solution.

People don’t always agree with you, so having courage in the workplace may mean feeling foolish sometimes, however the older I get the more able I am to say things that need to be said.

What is it about being older that enables you to say things that need to be said?

I think that as a younger woman I would find a way to say things without saying things … so just maybe people would get the hint, they would understand what I was saying. They would just do what I needed them to do. Or they would just volunteer. Or people would step up.

We actually need to act with a bit more urgency. So, I’m probably a bit less worried about what I say.

What are the benefits of doing so?

You don’t agonize about how you’re going to say something. I always speak with kindness, but I spend more time on how we’re going to solve a problem and how we can engage people.

As you get older we realise that time is fleeting.  So, it’s about doing things that you really love and things that matter and being almost forensically focused on making a difference.

What does courage look like in your workplace?

In this workplace, it is about saying what needs to be said – loudly and clearly. Being able to say, “that’s not working for me” or highlighting something which as a sector we might not be doing so well is always tough, but if you build up enough credibility you can do it, and it’s really important to do so.

I ask my team to take risks every day to deliver projects. I need them to not be afraid and to keep being brave.

I need my team to think for themselves and give me their brightest ideas. That does require courage in the workplace because people may just follow the leader only.  I’ve quite often said, “Please don’t be afraid to try new things and put ideas on the table because that is really important.” There are certain things that I need the team to do, and I need them to want to take the odd calculated risk … and I think they do.

The stakes here are really high.  We are trying to get improvements for children; we’re driving change. For a lot of people here the risk is worth it. But for some people who are a bit more wary, it’s about bringing them along with you on that journey.

Sometimes I need to say things to funders, stakeholders and departments that they’re not ready for.

I try to be really fearless when speaking to people who can make changes and don’t. I’m pretty fierce when it comes to those things.

Deb T deb_ball_706


Photos from the 2017 Out of Home Care Debutante Ball.
The OoHC is hosted by the Centre every 2 years for young people in care or those who have recently left care. The Ball celebrates the journey and achievement of the young people involved.

Deb T deb_ball_740






Please describe 1-2 examples in which you have been courageous.  What did you do?  Who/what enabled you to be courageous?  What was the outcome?  

There are always the personal stories, aren’t there?

I used to be an incredibly shy child. Even as a little kid, I thought,“This is terrible, I can’t be like this all my life; this is horrible, excruciating.” That requires serious self-awareness, the courage to acknowledge it and the courage to do something about it.

My family migrated from the UK when I was 14 years old. I found school in the UK to be pretty awful. Humiliation was used regularly by teachers. One day I decided that I was never going to be humiliated again by this particular teacher. I would spend my weekends and school holidays studying so that I would know the work before I entered classes.

When we moved to Australia I was still quite shy. It was pretty tough, leaving everything you know; to come to Australia where to begin with we lived in a migrant hostel. I think it strips everything back and you then have to survive. So, I decided to become a nurse which I knew would be an occupation which would push me to be more outgoing; dealing with people all day.

I have learnt a lot about myself and I have learnt a lot from my kids.

I’ve also learnt that you can’t do everything – I’m not good at physical sports nor can I  speak another language – things I would love to be able to do; but I am resolute and strong, and that’s what my sons have seen and learnt.

To what extent do you think our Australian Leaders are leading with courage?

The short term-ism, that doesn’t always show leadership. There are some great smart, measured policies that some politicians have which exhibit leadership, but for the most part, it’s sometimes hard for the public to see good leadership. Part of the problem with social media is that people are quite uncomfortable about giving you a sense of who they really are. I think that’s why people are so cynical about politics.

I think that some of the Aboriginal leaders in this country are the people we should aspire to be more like. Here in Victoria we have the Treaty Commissioner and a number of other leaders around the state leading Aboriginal organisations and they’re phenomenal. I look at them and think, “You are amazing. I want to be like you.”


They have dignity. Their culture is the oldest in the world. They know who they are, where they belong, that this is their land, that can’t be taken away.

They have presence and dignity, and they ground themselves in the land, knowing that we are mere mortals and will leave this earth, but their land will continue.

I’m just starting to understand what Aboriginal leadership really is and what makes it uniquely different.

I feel so lucky to even be in the room with some of my Aboriginal colleagues. I just think, “Wow.” There’s layer upon layer of responsibility that they have for their community, for an organisation that they might be running, for family and friends. In Victoria there is a revolution happening because we know that Aboriginal people can care for their children much better than we can. They understand belonging, culture, and mob in a way that we don’t.

Deb can be contacted at :

DEb T Wungurilwil Gapgapduir5

Deb, Minister Mikakos, Muriel Bamblett from VACCA & Karen Heap from BADAC signing the Wungurilwil Gapgapduir Aboriginal Children & Families Agreement

Deb’s commitment to community is evident in every interaction. She describes herself as “pretty fierce” – I describe her as passionate, authentic and having a clear, strong moral compass.


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