Personal isolation is a debilitating environment, brought on by any number of reasons. Whether it’s location, history or circumstance, few people choose to have little connection with the outside world.
But for people living with disabilities, it may be their only world. With the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in 2013, Australia began to tackle the enormity of the problems that people with disabilities confront in their daily lives. Its rollout has changed many lives for the better, although there is still a long way to go.
“All of us, regardless of our abilities, need a village around us to thrive. I think people recognise that now more than ever, given the isolation that they have felt through the pandemic. It’s easy to forget that sometimes people with a disability, or different levels of capacity, live with that isolation all the time,” says Jane Kittel, CEO of My Plan Manager, an organisation that provides plan management and capacity building services to people with disabilities who must navigate their way through the NDIS.
It was one of the first independent plan management services and presently Australia’s largest. A little more than a year ago, Jane decided to “make a difference” when she accepted the role of CEO at My Plan Manager.
It’s a long way from her previous career, but she sees a connection between her roles in finance and banking and not-for-profit organisations. “We deal with a high volume of transactions on a daily basis, supporting our clients to access services of their choice. It’s the full range of support,” she explains.
“But it’s also helping build capacity to connect them to providers and navigate the scheme because it’s quite complex. If you’ve never been involved in it before, it’s quite daunting.”
Jane began her career in finance and banking, working at AMP for 10 years while earning two degrees: a Bachelor of Management, Employee Relations and a Bachelor of Teaching, Adult Vocational Education.
She focused her early career on human resource management, change management, and learning and development. She then spent 20 years working in Sydney with the Westpac Group, where she moved from HR roles into line management – everything from the physical security of the bank, business continuity, fraud and anti-money laundering to frontline parts of the bank, including managing the bank’s Pacific region activities.
Jane spent about six months every year for four years travelling to the Pacific Islands, with responsibility for Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands and the Solomon Islands. But then, as a milestone birthday approached, she reviewed her priorities.
My Plan Manager Founder Claire Wittwer-Smith has a career background in special education and disability policy. Claire, a mother of four, devised her concept for My Plan Manager while working at the National Disability Insurance Agency. She is a board member of Disability Intermediaries Australia.
“I decided I wanted to do something different from simply continuing in banking. As part of that, I put myself through the Advanced Management Program at Harvard. I wanted to work for an organisation that had a clear purpose – one where I could feel I was really contributing and making a difference to the community. I had also been involved with a not-for-profit, Catherine House in South Australia, which supports homeless women. Through that I had exposure to the start of the NDIS. I had a phone call which highlighted that My Plan Manager was looking for a new CEO. I was really excited by the opportunity and the difference that the company was making to the lives of people living with disability.”
Jane’s timing was unfortunate. She began at My Plan Manager just as the COVID-19 pandemic struck Australia and the company’s operations had to be restructured immediately to cope. “I was on board for just six weeks and we went into lockdown,” she recalls.
“It was critical for us to maintain service to our clients, so I very quickly made sure that we were in good shape to have our whole organisation work from home. We were able to achieve that.” That rapid adaptation was due in large part to My Plan Manager’s integration of technology to streamline its operations.
In fact, the company won the Technology Female Leadership Award and was second overall on the Deloitte Tech Fast 50 list in 2020. That recognition raised the organisation’s profile, and is also a reflection of its ability to provide the same kind of technology used for personal banking, so that its clients can access their budget the same way.
“I think our success is very much linked to adopting fintech to empower people with a disability. That’s been a real driver for our Founder, Claire Wittwer-Smith, who started the company around her kitchen table in Adelaide in 2014,” Jane confirms.
My Plan Manager introduced the sector’s first app for tracking NDIS budgets, and its investment in technology over the past 18 months developed a customer relationship management solution and cloud-based telephony system to provide real flexibility to its workforce. “We’ve also recently launched a new online platform called Kinora,” she reveals.
“It’s initially a community forum, but as we go forward, it will also implement an e-marketplace for people with disability. It’s the wisdom of the crowd concept, where as a community you can crowdsource recommendations, ideas and new perspectives to solving a problem. We’re continuing to develop the marketplace to connect NDIS participants to providers. We want to bring providers and participants together on our online platform, so we’re really looking at how we can drive inclusion and diversity using technology.”
Assisting the organisation with a customer relationship management solution in Salesforce is Cloudwerx, which is working with the company to maximise the capability of the software so that My Plan Manager can expand the offerings provided to both clients and providers, with the launch of a new provider portal on the Salesforce platform.
All of us, regardless of our abilities, need a village around us to thrive. I think people recognise that now more than ever, given the isolation that they have felt through the pandemic.
“They’ve also helped us in transforming our internal processes,” Jane adds. “With a young company that’s growing rapidly, processes are changing all the time. Re-engineering processes and making sure we’re utilising artificial intelligence and machine learning to drive as much efficiency and seamlessness into those processes is key. Cloudwerx is helping us with that.”
All for one<>
By the organisation’s very nature, My Plan Manager’s staff are predisposed to helping peopl/h2e who need it. It’s a culture that was amplified by the pandemic as everyone went out of their way to keep operations on track.
It’s a significant part of Jane’s decision to join the company, she says, and is only growing as she observes staff going the extra mile.
“One of the things I’m proud of is the fact that we do have a really clear purpose, which is focused on creating a fair and inclusive Australia, where people with disability have the opportunity to achieve their goals like any other Australian. I’m proud of the work that our team does every day to make that a reality. We say listen over talking – that’s really important. Be considerate and show respect for individual human worth, dignity as well as cultural backgrounds. That includes being genuine and honest, and valuing integrity.”
Leading by example
My Plan Manager is reaching Australia wide, growing at an eye-popping 1,600% over the past couple of years as the NDIS gains new clients who need assistance – the scheme’s current client base sits at about 430,000. While that will slow down over the next few years, My Plan Manager has no plans to take a back seat as it maintains its industry leading profile.
How does Jane maintain the organisation’s momentum and motivate her staff of more than 250? “I think it is definitely being client focused, but also being very people focused, and my ability to work with people at different levels of the organisation,” she points out.
“I guess I have an approach that is focused on rolling up our sleeves and getting involved when we need to. So learning the business and learning about the disability sector have been key to my success at My Plan Manager.”
Communication between managers and staff at My Plan Manager is direct and frequent to stay on top of the myriad complex regulations and community requirements of the NDIS. It’s very much a team effort, Jane explains, in order to ensure clients don’t “slip through the cracks” as they establish their presence with the scheme along with their ongoing needs.
I decided I wanted to do something different from simply continuing in banking.
“We just launched an updated intranet site called SID. And, as part of that, I’ve launched Yammer as an internal workplace social media platform. On that, I have an Ask Jane column, so anyone can ask me a question and I’ll respond to it. I also hold regular catch-ups like roundtable lunches, where people have groups of eight to 10 staff, and we have a casual lunch and talk about what’s going on. I’m happy to answer any questions they have.”
Jane’s background in human resources management sets a solid foundation for her in understanding people. In her time at Westpac, she had to deal with about 2,000 people under one roof. It was quite an education, she recalls.
I have an approach that is focused on rolling up our sleeves and getting involved when we need to.
“You essentially come across issues that you’d get in a small town. I do remember when a big tsunami hit Samoa and many of our clients lost their lives and some of our staff lost family members. I visited two weeks after the tsunami hit to provide support,” she shares.
“Frankly, when you experience things like that, it puts everything else into perspective. So I’ve always tried to make sure that I don’t get too caught up. I don’t have a big ego.
I’m pretty down to earth and pragmatic, and can talk to anybody and relate to people from different walks of life.” Of all the people she has encountered in her professional career, it was actually family members who gave Jane the clearest advice.
“My maternal grandfather had the biggest impact on my life and early development. From the age of 12, I used to go to Hawker in the Flinders Ranges where my grandfather had the Mobil service station. I worked in the service station, and he taught me about customer service and what real service is about,” she remembers fondly.
“And my dad’s father also had his own electrical business in Port Augusta in South Australia, which is where I grew up. I learned about business from both of them.”
Jane considers advice from a number of people along the way in her career as foundational to her personal development. The importance of being true to yourself and not losing who you really are stand out as fundamental attributes in her roles over the years as manager and eventually CEO at My Plan Manager.
“It was really about not losing the essence of who you are and what’s important to you because of the environment that you’re working in, especially working in a big corporate, where you can be consumed by the machine,” Jane confesses. “And that’s especially true when you’re a female working in what was very much, when I started out, a male-dominated industry.”
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