May 08, 2020

Leadership in the time of COVID-19


Graeme Prior was driven to take up running again four weeks ago. The aged care organisation he founded a quarter of a century ago was fighting a battle with COVID-19, and he wasn’t getting a lot of sleep.

For the chartered accountant who found his calling in aged care, the last twelve months, with the royal commission, bushfires, and now COVID-19, have been exceptionally challenging.

Though he looks back now with pride on the way his staff selflessly and capably managed the outbreak with no deaths, he admits the toll on him personally, and his staff, has been extreme.

A sector in crisis

Mr Prior says Australia’s aged care system is world class, but over the last twelve months it has faced almost overwhelming challenges.

“The build up to the royal commission, the replacement of the commonwealth regulator, the bushfires, climate change in NSW, and the whole aftermath of all of that, and now we’re dealing with the royal commission and COVID-19, it takes a huge toll,” Mr Prior told HelloCare when we caught up this week.

The toll has been especially “extreme” on his staff and management, who are his key priority. “We live together, we work together, we are a team,” he explained.

Working in aged care is a wonderful way to spend your life

Mr Prior began his career as a chartered accountant, founding two chartered accounting firms and working with top international consultancies. 

He discovered his passion for aged care through his accounting work, and in 1992 co-founded Hall & Prior with Michael Hall. What began as a single family-owned aged care facility is now 27 aged care communities all over Australia employing 2,500 permanent staff.

Fighting an invisible killer

Mr Prior remembers clearly the moment he received the call from New South Wales Health authorities to let him know a case of COVID-19 had been detected at one of their Sydney facilities. “It was chilling.” 

“We were all in a management meeting at 11.36am Sydney time on a Thursday, six weeks ago. We had entered lockdown and we had implemented… our pandemic management plan, which meant no travel, isolation, and distancing.

“The phone call came through from the NSW Health authority that there was a confirmed positive case of a 95-year-old gentleman in a home in Sydney. 

“Instantly the management meeting ceased, and we went into immediate action. 

“My office in Perth ran the command centre, but the team in Sydney were exceptional. They went to the site and we all agreed on a plan.”

Two managers stepped into the facility at about 12.30 that day to take control.

“They had a bunker control set up on the curbside. The general manager ran that. I ran my office with a team in Perth to manage the comms and other requirements.” 

After four weeks, the facility had no COVID-19 cases and no lives were lost. 

The team worked around the clock “hand in glove” with the authorities, following the direction of NSW Local Health Area, Mr Prior said.

“We were very calm, we were very considered, we were a team.” 

A team of about 20 managed the situation from offices around the country, six each in Sydney and Perth, the general manager of quality, and six on the ground inside the home. 

“All of us worked together. We were all in charge. We all listened to each other. We were all highly respectful. Everyone stepped up. Everyone leant in.”

“It’s wonderful to sit back now and reflect on the way everyone stepped up.” Mr Prior said no one backed away from helping. They willingly gave their time, they got involved, they followed the plan, despite the challenges and the fear. “Staff were beyond frightened,” he admitted.

“I walk in staff’s shoes”

Mr Prior takes an empathetic approach to managing his staff. “I walk in their shoes. I never ask them to do what I won’t do myself, or what I can’t do. 

“We share the pain, and we share the horror. It’s one team. I’m on the front line.”

So what keeps him going in these tough times?

“There’s so much to do, and there’s so many people to support,” he explained. 

“The commonwealth aged care program is world-class. I’ve worked with them for 25 years now, and it’s evolving and changing, and it really is helping the lives of about one million Australians. 

“It’s a fabulous place to work and to spend your life. I love it.”

Running during the pandemic

And that brings us back to running. 

“In times of crises or demand I start running,” he said. “If I don’t do that I won’t replenish my body, my emotional strength.”

He also gains great sustenance from his family, his wife, Fiona, his five children and his grandchildren.

With four marathons already under his belt, Mr Prior is now in training for the Melbourne Marathon which will be held in October, assuming social distancing restrictions have been lifted by then.

“You’ve got to stay fit. We lose a lot of sleep at the moment, to tell the truth. I have to stay with my family, and run.”

Image supplied. Graeme Prior left.

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