Brightwater Care Group CEO Jennifer Lawrence joined Business News for lunch at Julio’s to discuss some of the challenges facing the aged care and disability services sectors.
Aged care and disability services are going through a fundamental shift across Australia, most notably in how organisations receive their funding and how clients choose their care.
And while Jennifer Lawrence expects the changes, driven largely by the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, will lead to innovation and better outcomes, she is all-too aware of the potential for upheaval, in the short term at least.
She grew up on a farm near the rural town of Wellstead, on the south coast of Western Australia (between Albany and Esperance).
“Dad was an Army man, got a soldier grant and worked hard to clear the land,” Ms Lawrence told Business News.
“He had sheep, cows and a canola crop. I learned a lot about community, and the power of doing things with other people.”
Ms Lawrence was one of the first students in the first primary school in Wellstead, which her father and some farmers helped build. She was one of only 12 people in the school. Aged 13, she was packed off to boarding school, at Presbyterian Ladies’ College.
“It was terrifying, there were all these girls everywhere,” Ms Lawrence said.
“But it was a great way to learn independence quickly. I loved English literature. We had an eccentric teacher, Mrs Marsh, who brought the subject to life.”
Ms Lawrence’s parents were keen to foster her interest in the arts, too, and she remembers driving up to Perth to see Rudolph Nureyev perform with the London Festival Ballet in the 1970s – a rare opportunity to see such a world-renowned talent.
A self-proclaimed ‘sciencey’ person, Ms Lawrence completed a medical science degree at Curtin University, after which she worked at Royal Perth Hospital during the 1980s in various departments as a haematologist.
She found this very exciting, particularly as she could see how she was making a difference in people’s lives.
Ms Lawrence had three boys during the 1990s, moved into a private diagnostic pathology practice and then into management. She was there until 2003, working continually during this time apart from having one year off with her first child.
In 2003, Ms Lawrence saw a job in the paper for director of care services at Brightwater.
“I had worked with Peter Flett, and he’d told me about his amazing wife, Penny, who was running Brightwater,” Ms Lawrence told Business News.
“I was ready for a change, and aged care appealed.”
Although Ms Lawrence has only worked at three organisations since 1979, she has undertaken many different roles.
Funding model change
Her move into the top job at Brightwater has come at an interesting time, as the aged care and disability services industries are going through massive change.
“We are experiencing the biggest change, probably in our lifetime, with the introduction of the NDIS and the consumer-directed care initiatives in aged care,” Ms Lawrence said.
“It moves the control and decision making back to the consumer. This is a huge change.”
In the past, organisations like Brightwater would get the funding directly, the client would come to them, and they’d provide the care. In the future, the client will be allocated the money and the client will decide where they go.
“I expect (this) change will be for the better, and over time we will see more innovation,” Ms Lawrence said.
“WA has been behind in the number of residential beds and facilities, but more supply is coming on board. I’m glad to say that Australia has one of the best (aged care) systems in the world.”
Brightwater is a sizeable not-for-profit business with a history dating back to 1901.
“Brightwater has been around a very long time and the average age of our 2,100 staff is 45, so getting young people in is fabulous,” Ms Lawrence said.
“They have a different view of the world, they think outside the square. We also bring young students in to work with older people; they bring their energy and positivity with them, and the older people love it.”
However, Ms Lawrence acknowledges that, as committed as Brightwater workers are, the group found it difficult to retain staff during the mining construction boom.
“We lost a lot of good people, and our turnover was high,” Ms Lawrence told Business News.
“Now, that has settled and turnover is low, which is good.”
Although demand for services is rising all the time, challenges remain, she said.
“We’re dealing with governments that are looking to save money. There are fewer grants around for innovative things in aged care,” Ms Lawrence said.
“Governments are looking to claw back money and spend the minimum amount.”
The key for Brightwater, Ms Lawrence argues, in a deregulated market where the consumer has more choice, is to make sure its business models are relevant.
Ms Lawrence describes her leadership style as collaborative, honest and direct.
“I have built a new executive team since becoming CEO in March. They have skills matching the more deregulated market environment,” she said.
“I like to think I am collaborative and work with my team. It’s important to place myself in other people’s positions before making decisions.
“I’m open, honest, direct and considered. I’d suspect people would say that is just what I am like. I respond to clarity, that’s who I am.”
In terms of advice for those looking to climb the corporate ladder, Ms Lawrence suggests they keep an open mind, and follow their heart.
“For me, following what I thought was interesting gave me the best chance of success. You can move within industries and organisations,” she said.
She also firmly believes in the value of diversity if organisations are to make the best decisions.
“It’s important we have gender, age and multicultural diversity among our people,” she said.
“Brightwater employs 70 different nationalities. You also want diversity in the boardroom, so people add value by presenting different positions.”
Another change to the traditional business models in aged and disability services was coming via a greater role for technology, she said.
“Technology can make a difference. We don’t need to bring everyone into the same room to be trained anymore,” Ms Lawrence said.
“Everyone has a mobile phone, so it’s easier to roster and get in touch with people these days. There are also new sites that review aged care providers, a bit like TripAdvisor, that we have to respond to.”
As for social media, Ms Lawrence felt inspired by the example of former chief scientist Lyn Beazley, who she describes (in a positive way) as a ‘grand Twitterer’.
“I tweet, as myself, and am learning,” Ms Lawrence said.
“Lyn Beazley does a great job in spreading the word about science using Twitter. I am on Linkedin, and find that a good way to keep abreast of all relevant postings.”
As for getting away from it all, Ms Lawrence likes to take active holidays.
“As my partner and I are in our 50s, we decided a while ago to make sure our holidays had an active component, such as a walking or cycling,” she said.
“I also go to the gym a lot, with a personal trainer. I find the personal trainer makes sure you do different things, rather than the same exercises you might do if you were on your own.”
Ms Lawrence also makes time to keep up to date with podcasts, journals and book reading.
“I love Richard Fidler’s Conversations podcast (on ABC) and I create some space to catch up on the Harvard Business Review when it arrives,” Ms Lawrence told Business News.
“The last book I read was The Good People, a recent novel from (Australian author) Hannah Kent, set in Ireland in the 19th century, which is not a particularly happy book, but beautifully written.”