From a childhood in the small town of Boort – where life revolved around sports and everything closed at noon on Saturdays – to the bustling corridors of hospitals and the dynamic world of IT, Fi Slaven’s life is a story of continuous growth and adaptation. Born in Kerang and raised in Boort and later Benalla, Slaven’s early years were marked by a love of learning and an insatiable curiosity. Despite initial uncertainty about her career path, her journey led her to remarkable achievements in nursing, IT, and beyond.

Slaven’s first memorable job was in the Intensive Care Unit, where the high-stakes environment and the chance to care for critically ill patients captured her heart. This passion for healthcare led her to specialise in spinal cord injuries and even undertake international medical retrievals, including a whirlwind trip to Turkey. However, her career took an unexpected turn when she transitioned into IT, a move that brought new challenges and opportunities, ultimately leading her to her current role as the first Operational Partner/COO at William Buck.

In this Q&A, Stories Ink delves into Slaven’s journey, unveiling a dynamic leader whose transition from nursing to IT, alongside her commitment to diversity, innovation, and community service, underscores her exceptional capacity to thrive and innovate across varied domains.

Quick timeframe of where you were born, raised, schooled. Tell us a bit about your: 

Birthplace/Upbringing/Childhood

Born in Kerang, but most of my primary school was in Boort. A very tiny town, where there were two pubs, a few stores and a bakery. Everything shut on Saturday at 12 noon (strictly) as we all had to play sport, either in town or a neighbouring town. It was a very competitive environment. So sport and school were my worlds. I have two sisters and my mother was university educated and my father was not. However, he was the main breadwinner and Mum drove to Bendigo one day a week to work at Peter MacCallum, as she was a radiographer.

We moved to Benalla for secondary school because of Dad’s work and my love of sport remained, but this town was much bigger and had a picture theatre, drive-in, shops and even had some traffic lights!

Schooling

I went to Boort Primary School and Benalla High School, which is where I did my HSC (showing my age now). I loved school and I still love learning. I think I would be a permanent student, if I could afford it.

Growing up, what did you want to be?

I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, but not a teacher as both my older sisters picked that profession. Mum suggested medicine or nursing because I was always interested in this area and also loved horror movies, so I had a strong stomach. I said that nursing was probably for me as it was only three years of study not five or six. One of my teachers had also told me that I wasn’t suited to an office environment (she was a typing teacher), and so I thought nursing was a great alternative. Funnily enough, I spent far more time at uni than that, but really happy with my decision at the time. Oh and I work in an office just fine and my typing may not be pretty to watch, but that’s all I do now.

What were some of your first and most memorable jobs?

In my third year of nursing I did a two-week stint in the Intensive Care Unit and I knew that was for me. I loved all the action and adrenalin and taking care of the sickest of the sick. I also loved all the machines, and so as a graduate, I convinced the Austin Hospital to let me do half of my graduate year there (first time this was allowed), and then I went on to complete a Critical Care Course and Grad Diploma of Critical Care.

I specialised in spinal cord injuries when I was in ICU and so I then eventually  moved to the Spinal Unit at the Austin Hospital for several years, before moving into administration.  I know they are both tough areas, but I have so many fond memories and friends for life from that time. Only these people know what you go through.

I was also fortunate enough to do a couple of international medical retrievals for Australians that were either injured overseas or were returning home hurt. I had a very memorable trip to Turkey (with three others) to bring two Aussie girls back to Perth, who were injured in a bus accident. They had suspected spinal cord injuries and so I was asked to assist. A whirlwind tour of five days, including a Lear jet from Turkey to Germany. It was a great outcome for the girls and their families, and shows the importance of having travel insurance.

How did your journey lead you to William Buck?

I was actually working as a Director of Nursing and doing my MBA and met a woman who needed a business analyst for a hospital group. So I applied and got the job. Six months later, I became the IT Manager for 54 hospitals, which was a very steep learning curve.

So I stayed in hospitals and studied more to increase my IT knowledge and then realised that I was playing it safe. The friend that had encouraged me into IT had since left and was working for William Buck and said they needed consultants with health experience. So I applied and got the job; however unknown to anyone else, they actually hired me to do the merger of William Buck (Vic) with Grant Thornton (Vic) and so I project managed that transition. I was now with GT (Vic) and did some consulting externally, but was asked to run another internal project to bring all the GT offices (6) together in relation to IT, which became GT Australia. After this project, I was offered the role as the first CIO from GT Australia and got to be the first Australian and female representative on the Grant Thornton International group IT committee. It involved significant travel and initially was fantastic, but after several years of continual travel and projects, I was ready for a change.

I was approached about a General Manager role at William Buck (Vic) as a new group had taken on the name. I was keen and the rest is history.

Can you tell us a bit about your current role, and vision for the future?

I have since become the first Operational Partner/COO for the firm and get to share my love of technology and innovation with all. My areas of responsibility are IT, P&C, Marketing, Finance and Administration – so a great variety of work and experiences, which is terrific. I’m forever pushing the digital-first agenda and we’ve achieved some great things in all of the areas.

The future is really exciting because we’re very keen to adopt greater technologies and the firm is very supportive to do this. The great thing is that innovation comes from everywhere and all can be involved and so initiatives are being suggested and occurring throughout the practice. In the olden days, people were waiting for IT to lead, but now there are so many alternatives, which is really great. I believe that if we can continue to progress, this will keep the services we provide our clients extremely relevant and it also keeps the work engaging and fun. A win/win for all involved.

You wear many hats, and are involved in so many worthy causes – from Vic ICT for Women to Crime Stoppers Victoria to The Spinal Research Institute? Can you tell us a bit about these passions of yours?

I’ve been on the board of Austin Health for six years now and I really enjoy the complexities of governing one of the largest teaching hospital groups in Melbourne. It was a huge challenge during COVID, but not many people have that on their CV! I was very fortunate to be appointed to Austin, as I had worked there as a nurse, but so much is new. It’s funny to have the mix of the new and the old, as there are still the same buildings when I was there and many people that I worked with originally. The culture is fabulous and it’s an opportunity to give back.

I was asked to join The Spinal Research Institute, initially as a representative of Austin Health and because I had worked with the founder, Associate Professor Douglas Brown, who is inspiring. Obviously my history with spinal cord injuries helps, but I also have several friends who have lived experience. It’s an incredible honour to be the chair of the board and to work with all those passionate to improve the lives of those with a spinal cord injury, through research. I’m constantly learning and the people who are involved and support the SRI are amazing.

Currently I also sit on the Crime Stoppers Victoria board and this involvement has given me a far greater insight into the challenges we have in the community. This group provides an anonymous place to report crime related or suspected information. I love the line, “if you see something, then say something,” because that’s so important. It is another form of including and supporting all within the community.

Lastly, I did work on the Vic ICT for Women board for six years and was the Director of Go Girl Go for IT, which encourages school girls into a technology career. I am passionate about diversity and inclusion and this group helped me to take action in this space.

I really enjoy all of the boards that I am on because they give me an opportunity to make a difference, learn new skills, meet new people and share knowledge that I have.

What are the biggest tech/business changes you’ve seen in your career – and what are you most excited about?

When I was at school we had one computer for the entire high school and so the changes have been monumental. I love how people are so engaged with technology now and just expect things to work or are constantly searching for better ways. It really is fun sitting with people and comparing some of the apps that you use, and hilarious when you are showing much younger people alternatives they don’t know about either. Mind you, this comes back ten-fold as well. I’m keen to give Co-Pilot a go, as I’m a regular user of ChatGPT. I really can’t imagine what more there is to come; I just know, I’m up for it.

Can I add though, I do worry about security and the pressures that come from online accessibility. For all the highs, there are many lows and we haven’t got this right yet. There is much to be done to help protect and also prosecute.

Have you had any mentors along the way?

I’ve had several mentors along the way, and have actively sought some out to assist me. I wanted people who would both challenge and guide me and I’ve been quite fortunate. I did,  however, have some knock-backs because mentoring is not always for everyone and it’s a time commitment. But it’s always worth asking and many organisations can assist with helping you find a mentor. I do this regularly and believe I get as much as I give. This reverse mentoring is invaluable.

Mum was also a key influence as she always said we could do anything as long as we worked hard. This is not actually correct, but she encouraged us, as did Dad. He had three daughters and so waiting for a bloke to help, just wasn’t an option.

Can you highlight some of the coolest/funkiest projects ever undertaken?

They aren’t going to seem cool or funky now, but bringing six offices together on a national WAN – standardise their hardware, software, services – whilst restructuring the IT department to do this, was an amazing project that took over 12 months. I really enjoyed this because of the people involved.

Mainly I love activities or projects where you can get in and make a difference. You know the moment that people involved really believe it is going to happen and then it does. It doesn’t have to be huge or expensive, but just better. Once you’ve had that rush of innovative adrenalin, you want it again!!

List some of your main achievements/milestones in your career thus far?

– Australian ICT Woman of the Year in 2014.

– 2019 went to MIT in Boston and undertook a Strategic Innovation course, with 54 others, from 48 different countries and it was wild. There were four Aussies in total and all of us were women and still stay connected today.

– I think my main achievement is moving from nursing to IT. It wasn’t easy, but I was determined. I know many people think it doesn’t make sense, but I went from machines that go ping and save your life to machines that go ping and don’t! I think I have probably another career in me, just not sure what.

What’s a fun fact or something people don’t know about you? 

I once did a furniture making course at Heidelberg Tafe with a girlfriend because I couldn’t find a TV stand that I wanted. So I did the course and built my own. Antiques made to order!

Have you had many challenges or hurdles to overcome? 

Absolutely, these few paragraphs do not give the true hardship that change entails. There have been many tears, frustrations and no’s along the way. That is why I’m so passionate about diversity and inclusion because I don’t want others having to go through the same things.

Attitudes can remain frustrating, but I am at that stage of life where I call them out. I won’t walk past things that are not acceptable or equitable. I’m more comfortable in my skin.

What’s the term leadership mean to you – and what type of leader are you?

I think leadership is such a collaborative term. You are forever involving others, listening, seeking feedback, guiding and directing. It can be all of those things and a hundred more and the challenge is to do the right thing, at the right time. I really enjoy working with people and I want them to have fun, be challenged, succeed and thrive. So I’m part of a fun, driven, pain in the butt team, who cares and delivers.

What are your top priorities for the next 12 months?

We’ve got a few big projects scheduled and I really want them to be successful for the team and the firm. I also want to ensure I continue to positively contribute to the boards I work on, whilst also having a great home life. So basically I want it all!

Looking back on your career, is there anything you’d change?

No. If I changed something, I might not be where I am today, like the Butterfly Effect. I have certainly learnt some lessons and I haven’t repeated my mistakes (genuinely – unless it involves chocolate). I probably wouldn’t recommend you do an undergraduate in Nursing to become a CIO, but it worked for me!

What are some of your passions in life? Favourite things?

I love camping and the outdoors and a recent trip to Antarctica really highlighted how fragile our world really is.

I’m also a passionate cook and love feeding people and eating. A great way to spend time with friends and family and they seem to enjoy it too.

And finally, what do you wish to achieve moving forward?

I’m keen in the future to expand my board roles and keep making a difference where I work or contribute. Ultimately though, I want a fun and fulfilling life (the same as everyone I suspect).

I would also like to study again overseas – just not sure what yet.

Do you know of a worthy ‘Close-Up’ contender? Get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer@storiesink.com.au to get the story captured.