The CEO of HammondCare and former NSW premier Mike Baird has faced some challenges in his working life. But working on the floor in an aged care facility left him humbled and exhausted, and changed the way he saw his team.
Baird began his tenure as CEO of HammondCare in early 2020, a time we all remember now as the early days of the pandemic. In his first months in the role, Baird began a ‘strategy review’ of the organisation, sending surveys out to residents, families and staff. The company received a high 30-35% response rate from staff.
It took him days, and was “sobering”, he told attendees at the ‘Above + Beyond: Leading in a time of crisis and complexity’ webinar.
The webinar was in recognition of HammondCare’s receipt of Voice Project’s ‘Employee engagement specialist’ award.
HammondCare is an independent Christian charity providing aged care and health services, particularly to those living with dementia. It cares for 34,000 people in nearly 100 locations around Australia and employs nearly 5,000 staff.
In the wake of the strategy review, HammondCare’s mission remained unchanged: to improve the quality of life for people in need.
But the organisation set new “aspirational” goals – delivering relationship-based care and increasing care for those who other organisations “can’t or won’t” care for, for example delivering care in remote regions where it is not profitable to do so or caring for those with complex dementia needs.
Baird said the staff’s comments were “incredibly informative”. The survey revealed a “deep disconnect” between leadership and front line care staff and people in the organisation didn’t feel valued.
Low pay was a significant factor in the discontent. Staff were also given little direction or vision, which meant “they didn’t know where we were going and how we were going to achieve what we were hopefully going to achieve”.
There were also limited career pathways or training opportunities for staff, and the organisation was working in silos, not as a single team.
“If your employees and staff do not feel valued, it’s very hard to implement or execute any strategy or the best possible care,” Baird noted.
With a deeper appreciation of staff’s challenges, Baird and his managers set out to experience the issues first hand. Management were teamed up with nurses to spend ‘buddy shifts’ working on the floor. Baird was paired with Louise, a nurse with a decade-long career with HammondCare.
Baird experienced the heavy “demands” of the job. “I was exhausted,” he admitted. After the shift, Baird wrote a list of urgently required changes.
More recently, the leadership team has also done a series of night shifts “to see, to hear, to feel what it is our staff are doing and how we can help them”, Baird said. Baird himself has worked in-home care, pharmacies, hospitals and in residential care.
Managers can’t simply be “distant” and “read reports on your services,” Baird said. “You need to roll your sleeves up and get out there. I think it’s appreciated by the team but it’s also very, very instructive and informative.”
Baird admitted the last 18 months have been “unbelievably tough”.
The pandemic was a “distressing” time for HammondCare staff who were “terrified” they were going to bring covid into aged care homes. In the last eight months, the greatest challenge has been staff shortages. There simply have not been enough staff to fill shifts.
Earlier in the pandemic depression was an issue for residents, now that is “shifting” to staff, Baird observed.
He recalled being out in an aged care home “in the middle of January in full PPE, next to a staff member who’d just done three double shifts in a row. She was exhausted. On my right was another care worker who had done a triple shift.
“I’m in awe of what they’ve done. It’s been the toughest six to nine months they could have faced.”
Baird concluded with some general comments on leadership through the dark and challenging times of the pandemic.
“I don’t have all the answers”, he admitted. “I don’t pretend to be the oracle.” HammondCare still faces “significant challenges.”
Leaders have to “feel connected” to staff and “speak plainly and honestly… Be as simple and clear and transparent and as authentic as you can be,” he said.
Staff appreciate an “honest dialogue” when things are difficult, and it’s possible to speak with them “like you’re talking with a friend, like you’re talking with your family”.
However, Baird recognised it was also acceptable for leaders to “have fun and laugh at yourself”, and to be their authentic selves. “You can’t be who you’re not,” he said.
“Authentic leadership is what people respond to,” he said. It’s not necessary to adopt a “rigid corporate ease”.
“When we were in the midst of the pandemic and it was incredibly dark and challenging, there was no point pretending that everything was alright. It wasn’t, and it was hard.”