Women make up 70% of employees in the health and aged care sector, yet they comprise just 13% of c-suite executives.
Dr B Anne Brand didn’t let the daunting statistics dissuade her and scaled the career ladder with tenacity, grit and a sense of humour.
Anne’s experience precedes her, having served as interim CEO for the Tasmanian Health Organisation and Deputy Secretary of Hospital and Ambulance Services at DHHS Tasmania, among other senior positions in the Australian and South African healthcare sector.
Very familiar with the day-to-day pressures faced by leaders, she has successfully designed tailor-made leadership development and assessment programmes based on action learning principles for senior, middle and junior executives/managers.
In an exclusive interview with us, Anne reflected on her journey and shares key strategies women can use to step into the fore.
You’ve led a very successful career as a leader in healthcare, can you tell me about the biggest lesson you learned on your journey?
The biggest lesson has been to trust my intuition. Whenever I find I haven’t trusted my intuition, that’s when things have gone pear-shaped and I’ve had to do a lot of work to solve a problem that I could’ve just not stepped into in the first place.
Does a particular instance jump to mind?
One of the instances was interviewing somebody for a senior role and my intuition said there was an issue, even though in the interview, in the reference-checks, all of those things stacked up and unfortunately I’d organised a committee that was mostly male-orientated. The candidate was a male and they all loved him. And there was nothing I could find that would sensibly say ‘no, I don’t think this person is the right person.’ But I just had this gut feel and it panned out at the end that it was not the right person at all which caused a lot of problems.
So I think I would’ve pushed harder if I’d trusted my intuition. But I kind of went ‘I’ve done all the checks, I’ve done everything I need to do, you’re just being silly about this, move on.’ And it was a mistake.
What are some of the challenges unique to women working in the health and aged care sector?
The biggest challenge there is to find a balance between giving the time for best care and managing the human resources and financial constraints. I think that comes from the caring side in women who really want to make sure the patients are looked after. They’ve got ageing parents potentially. Working in aged care, you really want to make sure that the client there gets the best care, but there are financial constraints.
It’s harder to actually not get burnt out by being too empathetic, rather than just being compassionate about things, and being able to just really step back a little bit from getting sucked into deep empathy. Then you really struggle with having to make the cuts you need to make, particularly in health and often with financial stuff. Making the right decisions [is hard] because you get sort of pulled into, ‘I want to make sure that the client’s looked after the best that I possibly can, and so therefore everything that opens and shuts should be provided’. And you have to find a balance in that otherwise you just burn out.
Are there any strategies women can employ to prevent that ‘emotional burn-out’?
I think you’ve got to develop a lot more self-awareness and you have to put your needs ahead of others. If you don’t look after yourself you’re not going to be able to look after everybody else. So it’s really important to have that self-care built in and be able to step back and just kind of be compassionate, don’t be empathetic. It sounds terrible saying ‘don’t be empathetic’, but you can’t afford to keep on getting sucked into the feeling. So it really is about that self awareness as to being able to keep that distance between yourself and what’s actually happening in the situation.
What advice would you give to a woman having trouble moving up into leadership? E.g. She has been passed over for promotion despite being with the organisation for a lengthy period and being a conscientious worker.
First of all I think you need to look at yourself. You need to do a 360 on yourself to make sure that you don’t have some blind spots, because often I’ve found leaders build up a lot of confidence, you have to exude all of that, and you’re not always 100% about how you’re coming across. Often that is because their seniors may not have been as upfront about performance managing them or giving them feedback as to how they’re coming across. I think a lot of people fudge that part of the process. So you’ve got to get some real feedback about how are you coming across. You’ve got to go and ask a lot of different people or you can do a 360 feedback process. But often it’s just a matter of going to speak with a variety of people within the organisation to find out how you’re coming across. And you need to work at those blind spots.
Find yourself a mentor, I think that’s a really important thing. Someone who can help you to see opportunities, give you some guidance, give you the support you need when you need it. It’s always good to have a good support team, particularly when you get into really senior positions. It can be quite isolating, so you need to have somebody that you can actually trust and work with.
Then step up into your power. A lot of people don’t back themselves, and are reluctant to- what I call step into your power- of actually taking on the role and the status that goes with the role and the power- not in a negative way, but just the ability to make the decisions that you can make in those positions. Because if you’re not doing that, not taking the risks, not building your teams around you, you’re not doing a really great job and then you can’t move forward. It doesn’t help to be a wallflower if you’re getting into leadership positions. You’ve really got to step up. But step up in a way that’s not going to make people think you’re aggressive or nasty or anything like that, but step up as in take responsibility.
Where is the line between being seen as aggressive and responsible?
I think that’s where you’ve got to be really self-aware and present. If you’re present in the moment and you’re actually watching peoples’ responses to you in terms of their body language, you’re actually listening to what they say, instead of going in with what appears to be ‘I’m making all the decisions’ mentality. It really is a lot about being aware of how people are reacting to you. And if you tune in you can usually quite quickly pick up whether you’re rubbing people up the wrong way and it may be just because it’s their perception, their background, their beliefs, which are colouring that. It’s not necessarily something that you’re doing, but that’s where you might need to shift the way you deal with certain people. Some people do the same thing regardless of who they’re dealing with, instead of adjusting the way they’re behaving or coming across to the person so that that person will feel comfortable in your space.
What are the most important skills for leaders to harness?
People skills, that’s the most important thing. If you can’t get on with people then you can’t work with them or bother to be a leader, in my book. Unless you’re working as an anaesthetist when you don’t really have to talk to the patient because they’re asleep most of the time. They are your greatest asset, and if you can’t grow and empower them, then you’re not actually doing your job.
The thing I find a lot of leaders struggle with, particularly as they’re coming up, is having the biggest picture strategic view of what is actually going on. A lot of people just look at their little area, so if you say the Head of the stores and the admin section, you’re just focussed on your little world and you don’t really understand how your particular area is interacting with the rest of the bigger organisation. Then you don’t react quickly enough, or you’re not actually proactive about what’s happening in the bigger world. So it’s really having very much more of a strategic view of the business, the big picture, understanding your stakeholders, who they are and what their motivations are so that you can actually work with them in the right way as well.
And then I think the other thing is, if you don’t have a sense of humour you are gonna burn out quick.
You’re currently an Executive Coach and run your own consultancy, Chameleon Leadership, what do you love the most about what you do?
I like the variety, particularly in the consulting business, you’ve got different challenges. I like to have different things on the go. I feel like I’m continuously learning because you’re interacting with different people in different areas.
And the other thing I really like is when people or teams actually have that ‘aha’ moment of ‘wow, I didn’t think of that’, you know that little insight that just kind of careers something that leads to a change. That’s really where you get a kick because you see it almost in their body language.
If you could impart a piece of wisdom to your younger self, what would it be?
That would be to have more fun, because I was a real workaholic. And the other side is to ignore your inner critic and I think a lot of women are very critical of themselves. They need to actually understand that they’ve done a jolly good job and taking a bit of time out to pat themselves on the back.
I just think that anybody that works in the health and aged care sector is doing a great job under often very difficult circumstances and they really should all get a medal and be much more recognised than what they are. It’s not an easy gig, a lot of the time. And there’s a lot of pressure, particularly as you’ve got a lot of difficult stakeholders. So hats off to anybody who hangs in there.