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For this CEO - Klara Henderson - blog image

For this CEO, it’s a matter of life and death

An interview on leadership with Klara Henderson, CEO of Australian Doctors International

(Klara Henderson pictured far left)

Imagine the angst of sending your team to work in a remote and rugged area, probably without running water, electricity, lights, reliable communications, or even roads.

This is the job of Klara Henderson, CEO of Australian Doctors International (ADI), a charity made up of Australian volunteer doctors working with Papua New Guinean health teams to treat and train on the front line.

Founded in 2000 by former MP and general practitioner, Dr Peter Macdonald, ADI last year treated more than 19,000 patients and trained hundreds of health care workers.

Klara Henderson shares how her team makes it all happen despite funding challenges, and what keeps her awake at night.

What’s an experience on the ground in Papua New Guinea that’s stayed with you personally?

Hearing the story of a mother who lost her life in labour because there was no fuel available for the ambulance. This is utterly tragic. ADI cannot necessarily change the lack of fuel, but we can equip the healthcare workers to feel skilled and empowered to assist in emergency obstetric cases,  and so lessen the need for referrals. And this is exactly what we are doing this year – running training courses on emergency obstetrics.

Would you tell us a powerful story that illustrates well the work of ADI?

Last year, one of our doctors visited a remote health clinic in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The ADI doctor arrived to find a mother progressed in labour, but the baby in an unusual position and in distress. The doctor assessed the options:
A) wait until daylight to then journey back to the urban hospital by boat – unlikely the mother and baby would survive for the 12 hour duration
B) assist the woman to give birth there – with limited equipment, and assisted by two healthcare staff with limited clinical training.

After consulting with the obstetric doctor by phone, the ADI doctor decided that to save the life of both the mother and baby they needed to assist the woman to give birth there. The ADI doctor and the village clinic healthcare workers successfully assisted the mother to give birth, even improvising to create a mask to fit the baby to resuscitate it. This also provided a great teaching opportunity for the PNG healthcare workers who assisted. It was a great example of ADI’s work both being in the remote location to save lives and also building local clinical capacity and working as a team with the healthcare workers on the remote frontline in PNG.

Tell us about the contrast between Australian health services and those offered in the areas in which you work?

Many healthcare clinics in rural and remote PNG are simple structures – without running water, without electricity and lights, without reliable communications, without roads connecting them to a network of better equipped health centres. They are staffed with hard-working healthcare workers who thrive on the opportunity to learn more to better serve their communities, yet they are constrained by the very low-resource setting in which they operate.

When and how did you become CEO of ADI?

I first worked for 3 years on ADI’s Program Committee, working to assist the Program Team on the implementation of programs within the different remote locations where ADI works - they assess potential partners, new locations and programmatic directions. I also undertook an evaluation of ADI’s work in New Ireland during this period. In January this year I started as the CEO at ADI. Taking on this role has allowed me to build on my internal knowledge of the health and development not-for-profit sector gained through my time with the Program Committee, combining it with my public health background, and years of experience working at the international health and development level with organisations like WHO, Gavi, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Bank.

You’ve worked in other NFPs, what are a couple of commonalities in the challenges you face at any NFP, and what are some of the unique challenges as CEO of ADI?

Other NFP work I’ve been involved in has shown me the challenges of what it means to provide access to health where there is an absence of the right health technologies – vaccines for malaria, TB drugs that are effective over a shorter period of time than 6 months. All NFPs are always watching where funding is coming from next – there is no shortage of work to be done to lift healthcare to the targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goal 3.  

What’s your leadership style? And how did you develop it?

Consult -> Decide -> Make it happen.

Connected with that is the building of a common goal, having expectations, and the team coming together to make it happen. I take responsibility to fill team skill gaps as needed.

I’d say I developed this through project management experience, working with many different teams with people from diverse technical backgrounds and cultures, and importantly learning from mentors and others I admire. As you move through your career you try different techniques and build on what works and discard what doesn’t.

What’s the hardest thing in your job?

Finding enough funding to do all that ADI aspires to do - but that probably applies to any not-for-profit working on health or education issues. There is never enough funding to tackle the inequities and disparities on these basic building blocks of life across the globe.

When do you feel uplifted?

When I hear about a life changing experience the ADI team has facilitated - whether that be literally saving someone’s life, educating a community on family planning options or providing a community healthcare worker with deeper skills on emergency obstetrics.

What’s your most important job as leader?

To see hard problems through to a good outcome with the team.

What aspect of your role would inspire other CEOs to improve what they do?

I’m not bold enough to tell others what to do. But one aspect of my job that I decided was important to do that may differ to others is that I provide my personal contact details to each staff member we have placed in remote locations in Papua New Guinea. I also offer that they can give my details to their mum and dad, brother or sister. This speaks to my desire to be accessible and available to people working for ADI in challenging and isolated situations, and to be a point of connection, safety and support.

How do you bring your authentic self to work?

This is a great question. To me being authentic is acknowledging skills and experience of my team, combining that with my own, overlaying it all with shared values and principles, and within that striving together to do the best job we can. I had a great conversation with a mentor recently and we discussed what it means to be authentic. We acknowledged it’s very important to be not only authentic, but to combine it with a growth mindset and seek out learning opportunities. It would be an error to be authentic to the point of narrowing one’s view.

What keeps you awake at night?

Working in Papua New Guinea comes with challenges and risks especially because we put our teams in remote locations. Concern for the safety of my team is what keeps me awake at night. We put in place safety protocols and procedures to minimize and prevent safety incidents from occurring and if they do occur we have good processes to respond.

How can other leaders be of help to you?

I acknowledge that I have much to learn from other leaders in the Australian business community, and international health and development sectors. I want to learn how to inspire people to make change, to do the best they can, to improve themselves and, therefore, go beyond the average, not be daunted by challenges. Especially to be part of a network of peers who are willing to share know-how.


Book you’d recommend?

Dr Hans Rosling, Factfulness. It’s insightful, inspiring and a must read for anyone who is curious about the world.

If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would they be and what’s the book title?

Dr Fiona Wood, Work ethic + optimum potential.

Best advice you’ve received?

It’s more rewarding to take the road less travelled.

Do you have a daily ritual?

Carefully preparing an espresso using my 10-year old Italian stovetop coffee pot.

What’s been your lowest moment, and how did you recover from it?

Lowest moment too private to say, but these moments come along in life and they stay with you, you don’t forget them, and they remind you you’re not invincible.

What’s something about you we don’t know?

I have very high expectations

What’s the secret of success?

Gaining the best (life) education you can, followed up with tenacity and grit

What’s a prediction for 2025?

We’ll see today’s teenagers equipped with an amazing knowledge and thirst for action, and with that combination they’ll be equipped to implement the changes our generation has been too timid to.

Thanks Klara

For this CEO - Klara Henderson image2 - blog

And, if you’re interested in hearing more from leaders involved in frontline humanitarian aid, members of The Growth Faculty can watch our gripping interview with Linda Cruse, author of Leading on the Frontline, this Friday October 19.

Not a member? Join now and get discounts to LIVE events hosted by The Growth Faculty.  


Christine Kininmonth is a journalist and former panellist on ABC TV’s The New Inventors.  An avid reader herself, Christine believes reading is essential to business success. She presents The Growth Faculty’s Business Book Club each week.