The Minister for Health sat stony faced. This was clearly not a social call.
“Last. Last! You should be ashamed, Carol. You’re the CEO but you don’t seem to know what’s happening in your own health service!” The minister pointed past Carol. “Look at what’s going on under your very nose!”
Carol Mathewson stared out the window of her office at the sparkling new inpatient building opposite. Hundreds of doctors, wearing identical white coats, poured out of the sliding-glass doors and down the street in military formation. Like the water-carrying brooms in Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, their march was relentless and apparently endless.
The minister gazed at her severely. “So, what are you going to do about it? Don’t give me excuses. I’m looking for a solution!”
Carol woke with a jump from the dream—or nightmare—that had disturbed her every morning that week, feeling a mix of relief and frustration. Relief, because who wants to be stuck in a dream like that? And frustration, because she wished she could hear her own answer. The minister may have been a dream, but her concerns reflected stark reality. She did need solutions, and fast. In fact, a little sorcery wouldn’t go astray right now. Carol had worked in healthcare all her professional life, and disgruntled doctors were not unusual. But her health service being on the bottom of the state “league ladder” for both consumer and staff satisfaction? That was a new experience and she had no intention of getting used to it.
Carol glanced at the clock and summoned her willpower for an early-morning workout. She would need all the strength she could muster to face the challenges of the new week. As she approached her fiftieth birthday, she was working hard to get her health act together after a few years of hit and miss, and she enjoyed feeling strong and fit again. But she did not enjoy getting out of bed before dawn. She dressed quickly in the gym clothes she’d left out last night to nudge her good intentions into action, pulling her shoulder-length grey-blond hair into a ponytail as she descended the stairs.
As always, the silence of an empty apartment caught her by surprise. She hadn’t lived on her own for fifteen years, until a few months ago when she and her partner ended their relationship, and she hadn’t yet fully adapted to the change. Not that she didn’t have more than enough going on in her working life to keep her occupied. Carol had been the Chief Executive Officer of Kinsley Valley Health Service (KVHS) for only a few weeks, and it was already clear that the hours in the day didn’t quite match the demands of the role. But the mornings and evenings on her own were still tough.
She shook her head impatiently. No time to wallow. She filled her water bottle, grabbed an apple, and headed out the door. Her neighbour across the street greeted her with a happy “Morning!” as Carol threw her gym bag in the boot of the car. He smiled broadly and pointed to the front page of the local paper he held in his hand. Carol couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. It sounded like “bad day at the office,” but it couldn’t be that, could it? She waved cheerily at him as she drove away.
A couple of hours later, Carol was typing furiously on her computer when her Executive Assistant, Rosie, poked her head around the door. Rosie had looked after five Kinsley Valley CEOs, and had mastered fierce protection down to a fine art, albeit camouflaged in a sweet demeanour. Although planning her retirement, she showed no signs of slowing down. Her back was as ramrod straight, her wit as sharp, and her dedication to her job as strong as ever.
“Professor Yang would like to see you—now. I told her you were busy, but she won’t take no for an answer.”
Carol looked up from the Board Quality and Clinical Governance Committee papers. Although Rosie’s tone was light, she was shaking her head decisively. Carol smiled inwardly. If Rosie was saying no to this meeting, she was probably right, and Carol’s initial reaction was to protect her quarantined committee preparation time. But a quick mental application of her consumer rule of thumb made the decision for her.
“Ask her to come in please, Rosie.”
Professor Yang was the hugely influential Surgical Unit Head. Short, feisty, and endlessly on the move, she talked in short, sharp dot points that often left her listeners breathless. Encounters with Professor Yang were more like speed dates than conversations, and she was commonly known around the health service as the “pocket rocket.” Carol braced herself and stood up.
“Nice to see you, Lian,” was the last complete sentence she managed to get out as the professor charged past Rosie and into her office.
Fifteen long minutes later, she stalked out. Rosie’s head appeared around the door again, this time accompanied by her hand holding a mug of coffee.
“Thanks, Rosie, you’re a lifesaver.” Carol smiled gratefully.
“I don’t know why you agreed to see her.” Rosie picked up a pile of papers from Carol’s out-tray as she scolded. “She didn’t have an appointment, and you know she’s on the war path.”
“Well, in these situations I apply a little consumer rule of thumb I’ve developed over the years of dealing with healthcare egos—including mine!” Carol laughed at Rosie’s polite confusion. “Yes, I’m happy to admit that my ego is healthy. It’s hard to get to be a CEO without it! It’s managing my ego that’s the issue. I apply the same rule for others as I do for myself: what’s best for the consumers affected by this situation? In fact, to be honest, what I really think is, what would be best if my mother were affected by this situation? When I look at it that way, it’s better to see Prof now when she’s between surgery and clinic rather than later in the afternoon when it suits me but will make her patients wait. If my mum were one of those patients, I wouldn’t want her waiting longer than she needed to because the CEO pulled rank on a doctor.”
“Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful,”1 Rosie recited, as she refreshed the water in the vase of wildflowers she brought in for Carol every week.
Carol nodded. “Yes! Something like that. And some challenges are best addressed head-on and then done with. As you well know, there are some pretty damaged bridges with the doctors here that I need to repair. Prof Yang had a point today, even if I didn’t enjoy her delivery. It seems that lots of decisions have been made over the past couple of years without involving the doctors. She’s particularly cross about the new operating room booking system that was implemented without her input, which she now says doesn’t work the way the surgeons need it to and is reducing patient flow and throughput rather than increasing it. I’ll talk to Kristen about it.”
“Did she threaten to defect to the new private hospital and take all the other surgeons with her?”
Carol’s eyebrows shot up.
“Oh, yes, that’s the word around town,” Rosie continued. “The docs are saying that if ‘management’ doesn’t start listening to them, they’ll all walk out, and then you won’t have a hospital. Of course, they said that when Seb was the CEO, too, but he didn’t take any notice. As far as he was concerned, the clinical staff did their job and he did his and never the twain shall meet. Unless they wanted to spend money, of course. Then he couldn’t wait to meet with them to tell them they couldn’t. That was before there was a shiny new private hospital, though. Now if they walk out, they only have to go five hundred metres down the road to a new job!”
Carol had a mental flash of marching lines of white coats. She shuddered.
“Are you okay?” Rosie peered at her. “You look like someone just walked over your grave. You’ve certainly had a good old-fashioned Kinsley Valley baptism of fire. Not helped by this, I expect.” She laid today’s edition of the Kinsley Valley Leader newspaper on the desk in front of Carol. The headline yelled, NEW CEO NOT UP TO FIXING KVHS.
Carol was momentarily speechless. Her neighbour had not been kidding.
“They’ve been at us ever since the deaths on the medical ward were made public,” Rosie explained with a grimace. “But this is the most personal rubbish I’ve seen so far.” She paused while Carol scanned the article, which was a collection of unnamed “sources” criticising Carol’s leadership style. “Still think you made the right decision?”
Carol swallowed. “I can’t deny that there have been moments. I do love a challenge —and I’ve certainly got one.” She took a sip of coffee, staring at the headline, and clenched her jaw into a determined line. “But we can’t let this sort of thing distract us. I’ll have more trouble than this if we don’t get these Board Quality and Clinical Governance Committee papers to the Chair today. I’ll have them done by lunchtime.”
Rosie left, closing the door behind her, and Carol attempted to refocus on the committee agenda with little success. She glanced at the article again, then sat back and looked around her office. Administration was in the “old” hospital, and although the CEO’s office was the largest in the block, with enough room for a small meeting table and whiteboard, it was hardly palatial. However, a fresh coat of cream paint, Rosie’s wildflowers, and bookcases filled with leadership and healthcare management books, topped with some photos, created a pleasant space. Her PhD certificate sat on the wall alongside a couple of leadership awards and enlarged aerial before-and-after photos of the KVHS building works. As in her dream, Carol’s windows looked across the road to the new inpatient building. There was a corner office available there, with commanding views over Kinsley Valley township, but Carol had decided that its current function as a meeting room made more sense.
Rosie was right: her first few weeks had been a baptism of fire, with Prof Yang just the latest in a succession of angry people who’d confronted her since she’d started as CEO. Although unpleasant, the reaction to her as a new CEO wasn’t surprising. Carol had worked in healthcare all her life and she knew the ups and downs. And Kinsley Valley Health Service had been in a long “down” over the past couple of years. A damning accreditation result and an external review of long-standing poor patient care on the medical ward had attracted both bad press and community anger.
A major move into the new building and an organisational restructure, not to mention a new CEO and Board Chair, had left the staff and community anxious, frustrated and unsettled. Carol wouldn’t admit to Rosie, or anyone else, that she was struggling to find her feet under the weight of the problems, not to mention the staff hostility. She was feeling it all more than she had expected to.
She stood, walked over to the window, and looked out at the busy comings and goings. Overcoming challenges does make life meaningful. But how much meaning can I handle?
Carol had spent most of her time so far observing and listening. She was in the fortunate position of not having to make any immediate decisions as the urgent medical ward and accreditation “rescue” work had been addressed, and the hospital move completed, before she started. But the memories lingered on, and there were many issues to sort through. Coroners’ cases on some of the patient deaths were proceeding and likely to drag on for years. Staff morale was low, patient complaints were high and KVHS was at the bottom of the state-wide results for both. Internal quality and safety metrics also indicated that suboptimal patient care wasn’t confined to the medical ward, with problems scattered across the organisation. Besides that, the community trust in their health service had plummeted over the past couple of years, and there had been little consumer input into improving KVHS services. As demonstrated that morning, the local newspaper loved to fill column inches with the latest KVHS bad news story; supplied, Carol suspected, by disgruntled staff, as well as unhappy patients and families. She hadn’t expected it to be a picnic; she’d done her due diligence on KVHS and knew the story. But the depth of the negative culture had taken her by surprise.
Carol picked up the photo of her farewell from the city hospital she’d left for KVHS. How she missed it! If she could have, she would have brought them all with her. How much easier this role would be with her old team around.
As always when she felt herself slipping into nostalgia for her old job, she reminded herself that she was there for a positive reason that outweighed the negatives. When Carol’s father died just over a year ago, she’d had some big decisions to make. Her mother was too unwell to remain living alone in Carol’s rural hometown, and she soon moved to the local aged-care facility. After a few months of driving or flying the eight hundred kilometre round trip to visit her every second weekend, Carol knew it was time for a decision. Her mother needed her to be closer and Carol realised that she wanted to be. She loved her job as the Chief Operating Officer of a large metropolitan hospital, though, and wasn’t ready to give up her healthcare career just yet. So she kept an eye out for jobs coming up in the major regional centres around her hometown.
Carol couldn’t believe her luck when the position of CEO of KVHS was advertised and, after a rigorous selection process, she got the job. Kinsley Valley was a beautiful area about forty minutes’ drive from her mother’s aged care facility. Carol knew it well as she had attended high school there and worked her way up to Chief Physiotherapist at KVHS before leaving for the city. Twenty years had elapsed since then and Kinsley Valley town and health service were unrecognisable. A new university and research precinct ensured there was plenty going on in a growing population of mixed cultures and ages. The coffee was as good as she needed it to be, local wineries produced very drinkable drops and provided great places for a good meal, and the agricultural sector had found some lucrative niches which kept employment ticking along.
Carol sat back down at her computer and drank a long gulp from her coffee cup, frowning at the amount of work it was taking to craft a Board Quality Committee agenda and papers that actually warranted a meeting. Her eye was drawn to a report from aged care showing significant improvement in dementia care, and she smiled. It wasn’t all doom and gloom! Despite its problems, KVHS had a lot going for it. The new and impressive two-hundred-bed inpatient building had opened six months ago without too many disasters, the finances were stable thanks to the previous CEO’s focus—not perfect, but manageable—and the Board had turned over several members and was now equipped with what looked like a useful set of skills. The KVHS residential aged care and community services seemed to be running well and gave Carol hope that all was not lost.
From her first few weeks’ observations, she could see that, like most organisations, there were pockets of brilliance, some things that desperately needed fixing, and some solid mediocrity in between. The CEO she’d replaced had been an infrastructure and numbers man, and, whilst he had produced a new building on time and budget, he’d ignored the creeping decline in staff morale and standard of patient care while his attention was “up and out.” Not long after the new building opened, he was gone, along with the Board Chair, as the enormity of patient harm in the medical service and accreditation failure became apparent. The publication of the first set of state-wide results for staff and consumer satisfaction—showing KVHS languishing at the bottom of both lists—was the final straw.
Clinical governance warning bells had rung in Carol’s head since her first walk around the health service, as obvious risks (some of which had two legs, two arms, and a head) stared her in the face. One of those risks was her Executive Team, who bore the scars of the past year and clearly hadn’t quite recovered from their previous CEO’s sudden departure. Carol believed there was a lot of potential to be unleashed if she could just pull the right levers. She secretly relished the workout her skills and experience would get.
Little did she realise she’d be flexing her leadership muscles in earnest the very next day.