Important career lessons of a CEO

22 Oct 2018

Paul Ingle, CEO HardyGroup met with Professor Cath Stoddart in Darwin this month. Cath spoke about important lessons she has learnt during her career.

Paul: How did you get started in the health sector and what drew you to health?

Cath: I probably came through the traditional route which is nursing and apparently it was what I wanted to do since I was 13. It was obviously in me, but I don’t think it was specifically nursing; I think I was always destined for human services and health fills that role.

I’ve obviously had a career that’s gone up and down, and roundabout and I’ve done diverse things since, but it was definitely the sense of contribution that I wanted in my career.

Paul: Some leaders have careers that appear to be made up of very intentional choices while for others it can look a little more organic or opportunistic. How would you describe your career?

Cath: Mine has been a bit of both really. In the first few years I didn’t think I was inherently ambitious although I did want to influence healthcare so I think I took opportunities as they arose. I moved into a project manager role pretty quickly after I was a clinical nurse manager, around building a health facility, and as a result of that I did a master’s in project management. So it was about taking an opportunity and recognising at the same time I needed the education base to support my choice so I wasn’t talking rubbish.

I had what I call a significant fall from grace, as some executives do, and it certainly makes you humble. Mine came mid-career. It was at a time where I probably lost my way a bit too so I had career coaching to help me plot my course, to give me a plan b no matter what else was going on. That made me more intentional and since then I have always had a plan b that has definitely helped me chart my course. My one recommendation for people is to definitely get career coaching.

Paul: What was the pull factor that saw you leave Australia and take up a senior leadership role with Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust?

Cath: That was really interesting. I had grown up and worked in WA and this can be a risk for people across Australia where you spend your career in your own jurisdiction and can get a bit typecast. I’m making an assumption, but people can start to assume your skill base, based on what they’ve seen of you, and because you make mistakes as you go, and everybody sees that while you’re making them, it can be harder to reinvent yourself. So, I made a conscious choice to reinvent myself in Oxford, which was very specifically and intentionally choosing to be the Deputy CEO.

Paul: What drew you back to Australia and specially the Northern Territory?

Cath: That’s pretty easy, it was the indigenous health component.

I had spent five years in WA Country Health, some of which was in the Kimberley, so I had some sense of the disparity already. And going back to my career goals, one of my goals was to work in a developing country which I had to chance to do in Tanzania.

While the work I did in Tanzania is in a completely different setting there’s a clear link here for me in terms of the health disparity that exists in vulnerable communities and groups and that’s what drew me back.

“There’s a clear link here for me in terms of the health disparity that exists in vulnerable communities and groups and that’s what drew me back.”

I don’t think I would have gone for the position so whole-heartedly, so actively in another jurisdiction, if it weren’t for that indigenous health component. I was looking because I was also ready to come home. I think the 3-5-year mark in any role is a big determining factor and I had hit that mark.

Paul: Can you say some more about your work in Tanzania?

Cath: During a difficult period one of the WA CEO’s suggested I get career coaching. When I did it I realised I wanted to do something along the lines of CEO of an international aid organisation.

Fast forward 5 years where I had made more active choices including volunteering overseas and had become the Chief Nurse; the opportunity came up with the Minister of Health to create the Global Health Alliance WA and in the Tanzanian context, in the form of a health organisation that provided educational training support for all health professionals in Tanzania.

We also negotiated for our WA health professionals to work there on an immersion project for 2 weeks per year. Participants were required to commit to the organization for a set period, so it was a very effective initiative all around and the employee loyalty it brought was huge.

One person is assisted to go to a developing country such as Tanzania or Timor L’este and everybody feels fantastic about it when they come back and present on it.  The evidence suggests that staff think wow, what a fantastic organisation to support you to do that. You get this lasting flow on effect.

So, I’m keen that leadership development programs should have an emergent opportunity whether it’s in an aboriginal community or the kid’s hospital in another country. It really adds value.

Paul: For others just starting out on their career they will regard you as having reached the most senior levels in healthcare. What advice would you give?

Cath: I think you need to spend time getting to know yourself and to decide what your personal negotiables and non-negotiables are. I see this as so important as there will be plenty of times in your career when you are asked to do things or make decisions that may require compromise.

I learned a really important lesson during one episode of my career where I was influenced by someone who said, “this is how I should talk, how open I should be, how long I should stay at work each day” and I changed my style to fit that. It was a disaster. You’ve got to be true to your personality. You have to modify things of course, self-moderation is extremely important, but you have to be really clear that you are being true to your own set of values.

Professor Catherine Stoddart was appointed CEO of the NT Department of Health in December 2016. Prof. Stoddart has worked as a senior executive in the health sector in both Australia and the United Kingdom. Having started her career as a nurse in Western Australia, Prof Stoddart went on to be appointed Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer at the WA Department of Health, Regional Director Health – Kimberley and Executive Director Nursing at the WA Country Health Service and prior to her current role, was the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust in the UK.