In the context of an ever-changing landscape – and a “bruising” few years for aged care – we sat down with Linda Mellors, Regis Managing Director and CEO to discuss the role of adaptive leadership, purpose and her hopes and ambitions for the sector moving forward.
Since joining Regis in August 2019, you’ve confronted a number of challenges which have caused great change and disruption for your organisation and residents. Can you describe this?
I joined Regis in the middle of a Royal Commission; which was extended twice because of the COVID pandemic. I’m a scientist by background – with a pretty strong maths bent – so I know an exponential growth curve when I see one, and I knew very early on that the virus was actually going to be much worse than people were realising. So, we took swift action in March; putting our homes into a period of restricted access.
On top of this, we faced a cyber security attack, awful media security [related to the pandemic] and the bushfires. We didn’t have to evacuate, but residents and employees could see the fires in the distance out of the windows, and we were working with other aged care providers in those areas, in case we had to take their residents. Then there were the floods, which impeded some staff’s ability to get to work to care for residents. So it’s been incredibly difficult.
What tools have you used to help guide Regis through these challenges, and what role has adaptive leadership played?
I think one of the most important things I ever learnt as a new manager is ‘situational leadership’. For example, I don’t like ‘command and control’ leadership. I prefer to empower people – giving them guidelines, setting expectations and showing them where we’re going; but allowing them room to apply their own adaptive leadership to come up with how to get there.
However, when you’re in an emergency situation you often have to use a ‘command and control’ leadership style, appointing people to take charge – just as we appointed our Executive General Manager Clinical and Care Practice, Melissa McDonald, as our Incident Commander for our COVID response. This is another important thing as a leader – to put the right person forward for each role. And it’s not [always] me; it’s someone with the appropriate area of expertise.
Around this, people were adapting all over the place; accomplishing things that would normally take years in days and weeks. For example, our IT team worked day and night to get iPads out to every one of our homes across Australia, so that residents could communicate with their families face-to-face virtually whilst we had restricted access. And this included training our staff to be able to help them do that.
Part of being adaptable in your leadership style is knowing what to prioritise. We had a whole lot of things that we were going to do in the first year after I started, and we had to put half of those things to one side because we’re living through a history-making global pandemic – and that’s where our focus needed to be.
How important is adaptive leadership today?
There’s always been a need for it; though complexities are increasing. The learning aspect of adaptive leadership is important; as that’s one of the things with a new virus, we don’t have all the information. We’re getting new information about COVID and its variants every day, so you have to be adapting your strategy to that. Being a former scientist, that process of hypothesising, testing and improving comes quite naturally to me, but we’re seeing that all leaders need to adopt this style, and foster it in others as well.
For those wanting to adopt adaptive leadership, how easy, quick or comfortable is it? Any tips?
If you’ve got a high level of self-awareness, and you understand the motivations of others and what’s going to inspire them to get where you need to go, it is easy and it’s quick. This will be different for different individuals and employee groups, so finding a common purpose is helpful; and a pandemic prompts that. Our common purpose is to keep everyone safe physically, mentally, psychologically and spiritually. That’s what we’re all here to do, and when we rally around that people can adapt quickly, and they come up with solutions that are extraordinary.
Also, when you’re on a exponential growth curve [COVID cases] you don’t have the luxury of time, so you have to back yourself and use the best information that you have available to make decisions. You might get new information in a few hours and have to adapt, but it’s important to make that okay for people, and avoid a blaming culture. You have to nurture that learning mindset for people to feel safe to test and evolve.
How important is having a clear purpose, and how is it formed?
Purpose is really critical, and it’s something we talk about a lot in our sector – that we’re all here for the same purpose, which is to look after older people and give them the best final years that we possibly can. Our purpose is also guided by the feedback that we get from our residents, and the issues that they’re concerned about.
For example, the residents who live in our homes talk about their concerns for future generations [in the context of climate change] and they’ve designed lots of projects around recycling or planting vegetable and herb gardens etc. There’s a beautiful example in our work with ‘kidpreneur’ Ned Heaton and his company The Turtle Tribe. Ned contacted us a few years ago to say ‘we know you have to provide toothbrushes to all your residents, and they have to be replaced every three months. We understand that you’re using plastic toothbrushes and we’d like to work with you to provide residents with bamboo toothbrushes’. And so we trialled it, and our residents loved that the toothbrushes could be composted afterwards (with the bristles removed). We then told The Turtle Tribe we need a really easy way for us to check the toothbrushes have been replaced, where we’d normally use a different colour (for each quarter). So Ned and his Dad worked out how they could colour code the toothbrushes. And then we collaborated on the packaging – to make it as limited as possible.
Finally, what are your hopes and ambitions for aged care moving forward?
I moved very deliberately into aged care. Aged care really needs more people looking at it to help achieve systemic change. And with such an ambitious national reform program, what better way to contribute than to lead one of the biggest providers in the country, which already has a history of leading from the front and can-do entrepreneurial attitude?
Keeping that focus on purpose is really important, because it’s easy to lose it when you have all these external factors beating you from side to side. We then want to attract people who share that purpose – and these people are worth their weight in gold. Some forget these workers are also living through a global pandemic, and they’re still showing up every day to care for other people’s loved ones as if they were their own.
I feel a strong sense of protection over these wonderful people. So, what I’d love to see for aged care is that the broader community values the aged care workforce; and really comes in to support it and grow it.