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There are a million ways to foster positive change in the world. Through her work with Diabetes Research, Sherl Westlund awards early to mid-career funding for research projects. Supporting these projects has been life-changing not only for the researchers but for her and everyone involved.

“I’ve learnt that by supporting these researchers and enabling them to continue in their chosen field they’re able to contribute to the next big discovery that not only saves lives but improves lives both physically and mentally.”

Meet Sherl in her own words….

I’m an outrageously optimistic woman with an insatiable curiosity. I believe there’s a solution to almost everything waiting to be found. I’m a proud mother and doting grandmother, a lover of family, nature, good food and great coffee. I try to live a balanced life but one that has enough adventure to keep me excited and interested.

I believe we all have a story to tell, one that has impacted and modelled us. I also believe we can view our story from an alternative perspective which allows us to grow and live how we choose. I believe in people and see qualities often hidden deep within. I pride myself on being able to suspend judgement, offer acceptance and help people see with a different lens.

I guess it’s no surprise then that I’ve dedicated the majority of my career (over 30 years) to the not-for-profit sector. It’s where the good stuff happens, where change occurs resulting in improved or saved lives and it’s where we connect deeply to what’s important.

I’m the Executive Director of Diabetes Research WA, an organisation determined to build a world without diabetes and where we make sure the next talented and dedicated researchers get a guernsey and a leg up. I’m also co-chair of the 100 Woman Grants Committee where I’m bringing a team together to help navigate potential growth, expansion and support of projects that empower women and girls, and I’m an NFP advisor for Blue Dot Army who aims to improve the experience for people on a cancer journey.

I also mentor women to build confidence and self-belief in all walks of life. You’d be surprised how much weight we carry around that limits us so I help find ways for people to look deeply at this and see if they can put it down and see what happens. The changes are remarkable. I do believe the best is yet to come. Yes, I can hear how corny that is….when I’m a little over-optimistic or stuck I head into nature to connect and for a good ole cup of reality.

It’s important to me that I stay grounded. I come from the country where I rounded up sheep on horseback and learnt the power and beauty of balance in nature. I learnt to be self-sufficient whilst connected to the wider community and how to dust myself off, get back up and try again. I’m so grateful for these teachings and have come to realise they’re my superpower. I sure have needed it. I’m now an expert in dusting myself off, soothing my wounds and moving on when I’m ready. So, you could say my purpose is to grow myself so that I can grow others. I am a very proud humanitarian.

Tell us about a project/cause/organisation you’re involved with and what you’ve learnt about creating positive change?

Every year I get to lift young researchers up by awarding early to mid-career funding for their projects. I’ve seen how important and life-changing this is as they bring in new understandings of diabetes and grow their talent and ability leading to long-term fulfilled careers. It’s a win-win situation. Not only for them but also for the wider diabetes community. I’ve learnt that by supporting these researchers and enabling them to continue in their chosen field they’re able to contribute to the next big discovery that not only saves lives but improves lives both physically and mentally.

What was the first step you took to build your leadership or create change?

Many years ago I came across a small asthma resource centre in Midwest WA as I had an interest due to my children living with asthma. It was languishing and looked about to fold. With a new baby in tow (#4) I decided to get it happening as it was desperately needed. I embarked on a fast-paced learning curve with Asthma WA where I studied and networked and built this educational and supportive service up to include children’s camps, walking groups, visitation rights to the local hospital and connections to both Aboriginal and Vietnamese communities. This led to being appointed as the Clinical Coordinator of the Northampton Asthma Health Care service where I worked closely with the local Dr running a clinic and educating outer lying ambulance and SIlver Chain services. I loved every minute of my time here, it is, without doubt, one of the most fulfilling journeys I have undertaken. The change it made to so many people’s lives, learning to live well with asthma was astounding, from young newlyweds to older folk enjoying a stroll on the beach.

What is an important leadership lesson you’ve learnt along the way?

Bringing people in your team along with you as equals builds trust and connection, belief and ownership in the cause, projects and outcomes. I’ve never thought I was much different from anyone in my team and believe we are all capable of so much more than we know. Having someone believe in you is the kickstarter we all need.

Tell us about a mistake or a failure that’s helped you understand something about leadership or making an impact?

Owning my mistakes, being vulnerable and showing how much I care helps others bring more of themselves to work. When my mother was very ill I took some time out to be with her until she passed and I returned to work thinking I was ok to get back in the saddle. What I didn’t realise was how powerful and all-consuming grief can be and how this impacted my attention to detail. I missed some important emails that could have led to a major problem.

One morning I woke up and could hear a wailing sound only to discover it was me. In that moment I realised I hadn’t given myself permission to grieve and I had been so fearful of it. So I set about welcoming it in and in a way, I felt I was honouring my mum. It was also in this moment I realised I’d gone back to work too soon and decided to check I hadn’t missed anything. And sure enough, I discovered I had missed a few emails. I was horrified and quickly set about owning it and correcting it. Grief and I are friends now and I’m so thankful for it showing up, it saved me (or was that mum?). Oh and I implemented another process to ensure this didn’t happen again.

Tell us about a moment where you were really brave and why. What do you learn?

I think the above recount is my bravest career moment when I admitted to my work colleagues I had missed something. The guilt and shame I felt soon fell away with the offer of complete understanding.

What reflective practices help you stay resilient?

Nature, time in nature.

Walking and sitting in nature is a gift that keeps on giving. It doesn’t really care about my time schedule or my plans, it just is. I connect deeply to nature and always feel refreshed.

Tell us about a leader who inspires you and why?

Erica Smyth – the most wonderful, talented down to earth woman I know. Erica became Chairman of Diabetes Research WA in 2007 and we started our next 10-year journey working closely together. The first thing she did was tell me I could work things out for myself when I asked her for advice. Talk about stopping me in my tracks quickly followed by clanging fear. As it turns out, I did work most things out and learnt back myself. She now tells me all she did was take the reins off but it was so much more than that, she believed in me. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned and I continue to pay this gift forward.

What habits, mindsets or behaviours help you be the best person you can be?

Feed my love curiosity and build it in others, accept my optimism and bring more of me to the table.

What’s the best book you’ve read that’s helped you in your leadership journey?

Humanise – why human-centred leadership is the key to the 21st Century by Antony Howard.

How do you take care of yourself?

Time alone in nature, meditation, reflection, reading and deep conversations with a psychologist.

What’s next for you?

10 more years of lifting the NFP sector to build a better world, mentoring women to believe in themselves, spending time with family and in nature and growing my hidden talents. And some wonderful journey’s to unknown places.

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