Hang Vo on effective leadership

What makes an effective leader in social work?

For Whitelion CEO and Victorian Pride Centre chair Hang Vo, great leadership is about toiling at the social work coalface, learning from others – and a stroke of inspiration.

Hang Vo leaning on wall
Vo has a passion for social justice.

It’s difficult to believe Hang Vo doesn’t consider herself a natural-born leader. Articulate, dynamic and radiating the warmth of a supernova, Vo is the CEO of Whitelion, an organisation devoted to helping at-risk young people. In May she became the chair of the Victorian Pride Centre board.

Spend a minute in her company and you’ll be left with the impression of a person with leadership in her DNA. But it was a note on an essay when she was a social work undergraduate at Monash University that first intimated her future career path.

“I’d never really considered going for leadership roles when I went into social work. It was all about making change at the grassroots level."

“I’d never really considered going for leadership roles when I went into social work. It was all about making change at the grassroots level. But my lecturer Max Liddell wrote on one of my essays, ‘You’re a natural leader and I really look forward to seeing what the future holds for you.’”

Coincidentally, on the morning of her chat with Monash Life, Vo had received an email from Liddell, now head of Monash’s -Department of Social Work, saying he’d seen the Pride Centre announcement in The Age and that he remembered her fondly.

“It’s just amazing how there are people in your life who make a comment or observation that you only realise the significance of later,” she says. “Because that one comment on my essay put the idea in my head.”

Life changer

Vo's passion for social justice stems from her personal history: she was only seven years old when she arrived in Australia with her family, among the first wave of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ seeking asylum.

The transition was not without its challenges. Landing in a wintery Melbourne (“28 June 1978”) was a shock for the kid from the Mekong Delta who had never worn socks.

Once she and her family left the Springvale Enterprise Migrant Hostel, they struggled. Their home was furnished gradually thanks to the generosity of strangers, and it wasn’t uncommon for Vo to come home from school to find the electricity had been cut off.

“But we did have an amazing resettlement experience. I think Australians are generous and kind. It’s only as you get into adulthood that the dislocation becomes clearer.”

Arriving at Monash was also something of a culture shock. Vo didn’t see many Asian faces, nor encounter many people sharing her disadvantaged background. And her chosen major of psychology was not what she had hoped.

“Monash always had that reputation as progressive and I liked the multi-faith nature of it as my family is Buddhist, but psychology didn’t align with me. I did some research and social work just spoke to me because it talks to structural and systemic inequities and our role in changing individual lives. The Department of Social Work was also actively recruiting a more diverse range of students. It was when I found my place.”

Leadership calling

After graduating from Monash, Vo went straight to the social work coalface. “Youth housing, supporting people in immigration detention, family violence cases … I thrived. It’s really challenging work, but I took the strength and resilience of the people we were supporting to be my inspiration.”

But as her lecturer had predicted, leadership came calling – or perhaps Vo called on it, actively nurturing the seed that was planted back in her Monash days.

I’m learning all the time. I look for a mentor, I do a course, I read. I really believe becoming a leader is about practice and hard work, looking for talent and learning from those people.

One career highlight for Vo was working with the Red Cross leading teams mobilising in the aftermath of disasters such as the 2002 Bali bombings.

“My role was to go in the immediate aftermath and work with the Australian Federal Police and the local Red Cross to help establish family tracing services. It was about giving an answer to people who had lost loved ones or to reunite families separated as a result of the disaster.”

Source of pride

Along Vo’s trajectory, some of her bigger challenges have been less visible. Working hard to fit in since childhood – ridding herself of any discernible accent, hiding her disadvantaged background – meant that even for much of her professional life, she was not entirely ‘out’ as a lesbian.

That makes all the more significant her role of chair of the Victorian Pride Centre, Australia’s first purpose-built community hub for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender-diverse, intersex and queer communities.

Victorian Pride Centre

In 2017, Australia’s Marriage Act was updated to give same-sex couples the right to marry. “It’s such a privilege and honour to be in the role at this point in time,' says Vo.

"It’s not hard to come out at Monash, but in terms of truly coming out, it wasn’t until marriage equality passed [that I felt truly comfortable]. Before that, I wasn’t closeted, but I was mindful of who I came out to.”

Her advocacy for a safe and inclusive work culture has been a big part of her leadership of Whitelion for the past three years.

“People need to be their whole self at work,” says Vo. “The hardest part of the pandemic for me has been supporting the needs of staff and the leadership team to do that. But I feel like everything I’ve done up to now led me here. It feels right.”

Hang Vo
Becoming a leader is about practise and hard work.