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Meredith is one of Australia’s leading emergency assistance executives. Starting off her career as a Registered Nurse, she is the current CEO of one of the largest and most comprehensive aeromedical organisations in the world, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (QLD). She has provided leadership to some of the most reputable global healthcare and assistance organisations including the Cover-More Group, part of Zurich, and Allianz Global Assistance.
Can you discuss making the transition from clinical nursing to leadership?
I started my nursing career, like many nurses, after completing my hospital training. From there I quickly gravitated to critical care, emergency and retrieval nursing. Afterwards, I worked my way into management roles within hospital settings, and it was during this time that I undertook an MBA.
Looking back, this wasn’t a planned path. As I progressed through my nursing and management career, opportunities presented themselves, and career progression really began to interest me. After working in a hospital management situation for some time, a colleague suggested I consider moving into the international retrieval section and financial services with an insurer, running their APAC business.
It was this switch that developed into a real interest in business and the commercial side of organisations. Having both a healthcare and commercial background, I believe, is a great skillset to possess which allows me to make balanced, commercial decisions in a healthcare environment.
My career progressed quite rapidly after stepping into financial services and international roles, and again I base that on opportunity, working hard and the combination of commercial and clinical skills.
How has Covid19 impacted you and the RFDS provision of care this year?
I’m incredibly proud of the way the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Queensland Section) has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and managed to continue to deliver the same level of world class healthcare we are renowned for.
The RFDS has been taking measures to prepare and ensure delivery of COVIDsafe healthcare since February this year. So far, the RFDS has transported more than 700 patients suspected of having COVID-19, with 32 of those cases being in Queensland. In saying that, we have had to pivot to some degree, using technology such as telehealth to deliver both GP services in some communities, and to a greater degree, mental health services in the central and southern parts of the state.
What we’ve taken out of this though, is the opportunity for us to embrace the changes we have had to make with our workforce, with people working from home, our expansion of telemedicine, and the increased collaboration with health service providers across the state. I really would like to extend a massive thank you to our teams and staff.
They have worked, and continue to work, extremely hard in the face of this pandemic – whether that be our clinical teams ensuring both our patients and staff are safe, our pilots and engineers who have not faulted in their professionalism in ensuring we can get everywhere we need to be, and our support staff who continue managing everything behind the scenes to help ensure our medical and aviation workforce can carry on the vital work they perform. I could not be prouder of how the entire workforce has stepped up in these uncertain times.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a leader in 2020?
One of the most biggest challenges for any leader is uncertainty. I am certainly not alone this year in leading a company or organisation that is preparing for the unknown and not having an end point around that uncertainty.
To manage this, I believe it is important to view these challenges as opportunities. During the pandemic, we have had to remain agile in order to ensure continuity of our services. The changes which we have experienced need to be embraced and embedded in our service model moving forward. For example, telemedicine services were rapidly developed this year, successfully allowing us to connect with our community and patients. It is important we
continue to develop our telemedicine capabilities in order to reap the benefits post-COVID-19.
I also believe it is important to pace your response to a challenging situation such as the pandemic. While the issue evolved quickly, it was vital that the steps we took to ensure the safety of our staff and continuity of service, were done so with careful consideration. As the pandemic continues, we will continue to carefully manage our teams through what is an unpredictable and unique period.
One of the greatest challenges we faced as an organisation this year was the protection of our staff and the communities we serve, particularly those in remote locations. We listened to the concerns of the communities to which we were travelling and adapted our delivery model accordingly.
The RFDS has spent more than 92 years building trust in rural, regional and remote communities right across the country and we had to rely on that trust to ensure we could continue to deliver vital healthcare services to these areas in a time of tremendous uncertainty.
What makes aeromedical and midwifery so rewarding in your view?
It’s quite simple really. You have a fantastic office in the skies, you get to see some incredible parts of this wonderful country, and most importantly, you genuinely get to make a difference in people’s lives.
What does a typical day look like for you as the CEO?
There really is no typical day in my role, and I think that’s never been clearer than right now as we deal with the pandemic. The one constant, however, is staying connected with the RFDS team.
It’s this part of my role that I find most rewarding – sitting beside a pilot for a shift, or in the back of the aircraft with the doctor and nurses. While it’s not happening as much right now, I really love travelling across the state and hearing of all the amazing stories people share about their experience with the RFDS.
I like to stay connected to the staff, I think that is extremely important as a leader, and being out and about helps do this in an organisation that is so geographically vast. But of course, there is also necessary office time, and there’s so much to keep on top of across the organisation in relation to aviation, fundraising and philanthropy, clinical development and training, and finances.
I always make sure we have a clear operating rhythm within our team to ensure structured communication and information to set a clear vision and increase productivity – it is the clear bridge between strategy and execution.
What is your governance structure?
Our governance structure is quite significant within the RFDS in Queensland as we are operating in two heavily regulated and complex industries – aviation and healthcare. Fundamental to our governance structure is a clear line of reporting. Key for me, and I am very fortune in both the healthcare and aviation sides of the business, is to have experts in their field advising me. At the end of the day, the responsibility of the business falls on me, so, it is essential the advice and information I am receiving from the experts around me is clear and timely.
What advice would you have for nurses wanting to pursue a leadership/management
If you work hard and stay true to your values, opportunities will present themselves so make sure you’re ready to take them.
Remember that the skills you learn in nursing have you well positioned to be a leader – strong communication skills, time management, emotional intelligence and the ability to make decisions under pressure.
What is your leadership style and what do you think makes a good leader?
My style is one of being open, honest and collaborative. I believe that people want to be heard and to know that their opinion counts. The solutions to most challenges in an organisation are held by the staff undertaking their roles. I always encourage managers to ask for clarification or to suggest ideas. While we can’t always say yes, we will always listen and consider ideas on merit. I believe people understand and respect this.
Emotional intelligence is a key skill that all leaders should nurture and develop. While some people naturally have it in spades, I do think it is something that can be cultivated and improved over time.
For me, high EI is more about listening than talking. It’s about picking up on non-verbal cues, anticipating reactions by putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, and knowing what response will motivate your team or leave them feeling unempowered.
As the world of work continues to change rapidly and uncertainty becomes the norm, understanding how your employees are feeling and appreciating their differing responses to change will be key to knowing how to get the best out of them. When you’re in tune with staff and the culture, you can anticipate reactions and responses and you can also motivate by tapping into people’s key drivers. But most importantly, it helps you treat people with respect, no matter what the conversation or decision.
As with integrity, respect is a cornerstone of effective leadership. Integrity and respect go together, you cannot have one without the other. Organisational culture that is built on respect and integrity has far fewer hurdles to overcome when it comes to performance. This is particularly true for organisations such as the RFDS where both of these attributes are inextricably linked, and it becomes self-evident at the frontline of service.
What does the RFDS look for when recruiting for clinical staff?
We are a values-led organisation, and at every opportunity we are asking our staff to call out those staff that in their everyday life, are displaying our values. It is important that staff that join the RFDS, are aligned on our values of being open and transparent, collaborative, proud and passionate, commercially astute, have a mutual care and respect for others, and always strive for safety and quality. This applies to all staff regardless of their role within the organisation.
A tip I always share for anyone looking to take a new leadership position is to make sure your values and the values of the organisation align before you take the role. It should be a key part of your decision-making process. If your values are compromised, you will find it very difficult to act authentically and with integrity.
One thing you wish you would have known before you started nursing?
That nursing provides a platform for so many opportunities, and to be aware of that as you progress through your career so you see all the options that might present themselves to you.
What is your favourite aircraft in the RFDS and why?
Being purely diplomatic, my favourite aircraft is the aircraft best suited for the purpose. For us we need an aircraft that can land at Brisbane International Airport in the morning, and an outback road or dirt strip that evening. While there might be a more shiny or comfortable aircraft out there than our Beechcrafts, our aircraft are workhorses, and truly built for purpose.
In saying that, development in technology and aviation has been happening at such a rapid rate that it is important that we always keep abreast of this. If only Reverend John Flynn could see the development we’ve made in the 92 years since he took to the skies in ‘Victory’, the very first RFDS aeromedical aircraft!
What are some of the great resource that have helped you along the way in your career?
The First 90 Days is a book that I read before I start any new role. It emphasises the point that the most important thing you can do is unite your team around the vision of your organisation. If people are clear about the organisation’s goals and its direction it will give them a sense of purpose. People must be able to see themselves in the vision, so find out what motivates your people, then give them the opportunity to follow their motivations.
Don’t be afraid to adjust roles or add in elements that play to a person’s strengths. Make sure their efforts are always aligned to the vision. That way they know their contribution is important. Also, be open to new ideas. Empowering people to think for themselves and solve problems creatively is the greatest way to encourage your team to build a future for themselves and the organisation.
And the best way to do all of this is to lead by example and remain highly visible. Leaders must lead from the front and serve from the back; this way people will feel both inspired and supported. Oh, and make sure you have some fun along the way!
Who are the three people who have been most influential to you and why?
I’m fortunate to have worked for, and with, some great leaders. I think it is important that you take every opportunity to learn something from them all. You should build or develop your own unique style as a leader, you need to be your own version of yourself. I have learnt from amazing nursing leaders, business executives and from my peers.
For me, as I have made my way through my career, I have made a point of capturing those important points to reflect on. In my current role, of course, John Flynn is a key influential figure. I often say that he was innovating and driving a vision before we were all talking about innovation.
If you could turn back the time and talk to your 19-year-old self, what would you tell her?
Work harder at school! But also, to not worry so much about the future, as it pans out well if you work hard and take opportunities.
What is your vision for the future of the RFDS in Queensland?
I joined the organisation about two years ago, and just prior to commencing, I said to all staff that we will need to challenge ourselves as we move forward to ensure we remain sustainable.
I spent time learning the organisation and confirming the five-year strategy the organisation was already on, and then shared the need to think further ahead as we drew nearer to a century of operation for the RFDS. We have now launched the ‘Towards 100 – Getting Future Fit’ long-term strategy for the organisation. This is about being clear on our 10-year strategy for aircraft, infrastructure and our people and having clear goals and capital investment for the investment that this will require. My vision is to leave a legacy that ensures RFDS is fit for the next 92 years of operations
and continues to deliver on John Flynn’s mantle of safety.
The RFDS has been saving lives in regional, rural and remote Australia for more than 92
years. In addition to the 24/7 aeromedical retrieval of the critically-ill or injured, the RFDS also
delivers a broad range of essential primary and preventative healthcare services, including
telehealth, mental health, oral health and chronic disease management.
Established in Queensland in 1928 by the Reverend John Flynn, the RFDS has grown to
become the world’s largest and most comprehensive aeromedical organisation, comprising a
fleet of 75 aircraft, the operation of 24 aeromedical bases and six remote primary health care
Today the RFDS delivers more than 370,000 episodes of patient care across Australia every
year – equivalent to assisting someone every two minutes.
In addition to assisting rural and remote Australians, the RFDS also delivers critical support
to those who live in urban centres. This includes the regular transfer of patients to interstate
hospitals for life-saving surgery such as organ transplant and heart surgery on newborn
Services are delivered on a day-to-day basis by six RFDS operating sections – Central
Operations (serving SA/NT), Queensland Section, South Eastern Section (serving
NSW/ACT), Tasmania Section, Victoria Section and Western Operations (serving WA).
The RFDS is a not-for-profit organisation. While supported by Commonwealth, State and
Territory governments, the RFDS depends on bequests, fundraising and donations to bridge
the gap in operational funding and to finance its capital-raising program for the replacement
of aircraft, medical equipment and other major capital initiatives.
The RFDS has been voted eight times Australia’s Most Reputable Charity by the Reputation
Institute Charity Reputation Index.
In Queensland, the RFDS provides healthcare services over an area of 1.73 million square
kilometres. We operate a fleet of 20 aeromedical aircraft from nine strategically located
bases across the State – Cairns, Townsville, Mount Isa, Charleville, Longreach, Roma,
Rockhampton, Bundaberg and Brisbane.
And with some of the world’s most highly trained and skilled aviation and medical staff,
including 88 nurses, 66 pilots, and 60 doctors, the RFDS in Queensland is incredibly well
positioned to uphold our promise to deliver the finest care to the furthest corner of the
In Queensland, we treat on average 250 patients each day, including flying 30 patients per
day to specialist care. Since 1995, we have proudly partnered with Queensland Health to
transport more than 230,000 patients through the inter-hospital transfer service.
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