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A Just Work Place

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 08:31

John Ballard, CEO of Mercy Health, talks about the changes they are making in managing a diverse, and overwhelmingly female, workforce.

By Darren Baguley

Ask most CEOs about their role, their goals for the company and they'll talk in terms of being the number one player or doubling the business in five years. They're hard, number related goals.

Ask CEO of Mercy Health, John Ballard, the same question and he starts talking about stewardship and social justice.

"Everything starts with being a good steward in a historical sense, in terms of holding in trust for another," he says.

"My role is to build on the legacy of those who have come before me; previous CEOs, employees and of course the organisation's founders, the Sisters of Mercy.

"My role is [also] to lead, nurture, grow and inspire the 5500 people who provide acute and sub-acute hospital care, mental health services, palliative care, community health care and aged care to 500,000 people every year in Victoria, Southern NSW and the ACT."

Fulfilling that role has its challenges when it comes to the management of people and resources. For a start, Mercy employees have a diverse array of roles with doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, cooks, cleaners, carpenters, and gardeners employed on a full time, part time and casual basis. Mercy also has an overwhelmingly female work force: over 90 per cent are women and a high proportion work part time.

Change management

Ballard received the Australian Human Resources Institute's Lynda Gratton 'CEO of the Year' Award in 2009, however, as with many successes, adversity came first.

"About six or seven years ago our retention rates were falling, sick leave was increasing, and we weren't attracting good people despite advertising all the time."

Ballard and his HR director started to look for solutions.

"To paraphrase Mel Gibson we asked a politically incorrect question 'What do women want?' We had to look at how to change how we managed our organisation. We got in focus groups and very quickly got the message back that it's all about flexible work practices, maternity leave and staying in touch with people on maternity leave.

"In response we looked at how we structure work shifts and moved away from a one-size-fits-all approach. If someone is coming back from maternity leave and they only want one shift a week that's fine, if they want three shifts a week, that's great."

For Mercy, it was also important to stay in contact with women on maternity leave so that they didn't lose their connection with workmates and the organisation. To help, Mercy started a quarterly luncheon for staff on maternity leave where they could bring in their babies. This connection facilitation has developed and now they're using posted notes, email, Facebook, whatever works for each person.

"We now have a 98 per cent retention rate and a 97 per cent return rate from maternity leave," says Ballard.

In a similar vein, Mercy's HR department noticed there was a spike in sick leave during September, a spike caused by school holidays. Ballard's response was to institute a holiday camp program that employees could send their kids to. Sick leave statistics went down.

Staff education

A further component of Ballard's female friendly approach was the issue of continuing education. Job satisfaction is not about 'pay me more', he argues.

"Everyone has a mortgage, a car to pay off and so on, so it's not only about money. What's important is flexibility and education and career opportunities.

"Continuing education in particular is a huge challenge for a 24/7/365 business. We solved that issue by becoming a Registered Training Organisation (RTO). We now run 400 to 500 people through our programs every year and some of those people are external candidates whom we offer a job."

Mercy has also established a foundation to support teaching, training and research through 26 scholarships for staff.

"All of this comes back to Mercy being a service organisation," says Ballard.

"You can provide the best or the worst of care from a brand new building, a not so new building or a tent for that matter; it all comes down to the staff."

Leadership techniques

None of these changes were easy to implement and Ballard and his team used a variety of leadership, management and communications techniques as part of its operations strategy. Right from the beginning Ballard had a detailed and documented change strategy mapped out.

"We also had to negotiate with unions and professional associations," he says.

"Mercy has a strong industrial relations record but we still had to work closely with the unions to get these changes implemented."

A major element of Ballard's ongoing negotiations with the unions has been the establishment of a longitudinal survey, "to show that basically we were using an evidence based approach." Ballard didn't just have to get the unions on side, some members of the executive team questioned what he was doing. 

"Some of my executives kept on saying why are we doing this? Why are you always going on about women?" Ballard is coy as to whether any had to be pushed off the bus but he does admit that, "some executives have left. Some never got it, while others were sceptical at first but then saw the tangible benefits we achieved such as increased retention rates and reduced sick leave."

Creating a climate of success

Ballard underplays the leadership he displayed in transforming Mercy Health but firmly believes that leaders are both born and made.

"Drucker said many years ago that management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things," he says.

"These are interrelated concepts because managers also have to be leaders. Much is said about those distinctions but I think you can teach people because most leadership is around traits: integrity, drive, commitment, tenacity and so on. Traits are innate characteristics so you need to go beyond that and look at what are the capabilities required in a leader.

"They need to be able to communicate, have a commitment to the organisation, be able to create a climate of success, know when to be a team player and when to take point. In management literature there's not enough talk about such capabilities - and others such as the capacity for self-awareness and humility - because as a leader or as a manager you're going to stuff it up sometimes.

"[Being a leader] is active not passive. A leader needs to be very challenging and have some insight and self-reflection. It's not a solo thing, you may feel lonely at times but you're never on your own.

"Ultimately though, people choose to follow you; the office and title only gives degrees of authority and control. Being a leader is like rolling a big mud ball; stand in front of and it will roll over you. You need to have insight to guide it."

According to Ballard, the underlying philosophy, the strand running through all of Mercy Health's changes is social justice. And he believes there is no better place to start than with a just workplace.

"Then we need to ask ourselves, what does a just workplace look like? What do we do well and what do we need to change? These are really important conversations that need to be given space because those conversations help keep your workforce; and it's a conversation that doesn't stop."