Business News enjoyed lunch at Julio’s with Michael Stanford, who heads one of WA’s largest employers, St John of God Health Care.
The group encompasses 17 hospitals across three states, including the latest, Midland Public Hospital and Midland Private Hospital, which were opened in 2015.
Educated in the state system, Dr Stanford met his wife, Sally, at a Sydney hospital, and followed her to her home state of Victoria.
“I think it is fantastically rich to live in multiple locations,” Dr Stanford told Business News.
“Every state is very different. When I was first in Western Australia, I met someone whose recent trip had ‘only’ involved 24 hours of driving time. This seemed unbelievable. When I lived in Victoria, Mildura was a six-hours’ drive from Melbourne and considered remote.
“It also serves as a reminder of how hard it is to come up with health solutions for the whole of Australia – the place is so vast.”
Dr Stanford’s future in medicine was set when, aged 10, he visited the family doctor for running repairs on a facial injury. He marvelled at what the doctor and his team did, and how he was helped; it inspired him to view medicine as a job where he could really help people.
After succeeding in high school, where English and history were among his favourite subjects, the budding Dr Stanford was well into his medical studies at university before he decided on his area of specialty.
Invited by his medical administrators to work with them while he made up his mind, he discovered an aptitude for the administration and managerial side, and so enrolled in an MBA course.
He has been in management ever since.
In 1989, Dr Stanford spent a year in UK, working in South East Thames Regional Health Authority, which was within the government’s National Health Service (NHS) system.
“The NHS was frugal, but people working in it were very passionate,” Dr Stanford told Business News.
“In the UK there was a much smaller private system, compared to Australia. The doctors were fantastically skilled, but a lot of the infrastructure was terrible.”
Back in Melbourne he secured a director of medical services' role at a teaching hospital, aged 32. His MBA now completed, and with the overseas post done, he was ready for a CEO position, which came along three years later.
“My first CEO role was to merge two teaching hospitals, Austin Hospital and Heidelberg Repat Hospital, which would be the equivalent of merging Hollywood hospital (before it was a private hospital) with Sir Charles Gairdner,” Dr Stanford said.
“This was an immense challenge. I was told that, being an outsider, I would be a uniting force; when I asked how would that be, I was told that I would unite people, as I’d be the common enemy – they were right.”
Dr Stanford said the management of hospitals, public and private, presented some challenges that CEOs in other business sectors might not come across, particularly in the public space.
In a role in Victoria, for example, he helped turned around a loss-making eight-hospital group in Melbourne, yet was criticised for running a surplus in the public sector. As counterintuitive as such an outcome might seem for many in business, Dr Stanford said it helped galvanise his thoughts and hastened his move to the private sector.
In his current role, there is a public-private relationship with Midland hospital, so he understands the political aspect for administrators and ministers as well as the commercial side of the operation.
Try different things
“I have three kids in their 20s, and what I’d say is careers are hard, but it’s ok to explore,” Dr Stanford said.
“If you are in your 20s and early 30s, you should be doing as much exploring as you can. You should have three significant and different roles in your 20s, then as you move through your 30s you might narrow things down to fewer areas.
“If I’m looking at someone’s CV, I’m looking for diversity. Not someone who has trudged along doing the same thing; even someone who has backpacked for a year, or learned piano to a certain standard.
“You’re not going to ascend to some wonderful job without working at it.”
Dr Stanford believes 50-year careers will become the norm as expectations of workforce participation push out to age 70.
“You don’t have to hurry. Take the gap year, do different things,” he said.
“The chance of doing study later in life, when you have teenage kids, is harder, so why not do this in your 20s and early 30s?”
Dr Stanford argues that the WA economy is still struggling in terms of confidence.
“One would think the health sector was recession-proof, however, more and more people are now buying cheaper and basic private health care, the minimum to avoid the Medicare surcharge,” he said.
“These products entitle people to less coverage, so doctors are starting to have to go out and find work.
“This is affecting the private hospital work on the downside, but in the public sector the reverse is true.”
People are turning up to a brand new public hospital for treatment in higher numbers, rather than fully cover themselves for health issues.
Away from his day job, Dr Stanford recently joined the board of the Chamber of Arts and Culture, which also has crossovers into the medical world.
“What we’ve found is that when you put art work in a hospital, most of which is donated to us, and everyone is exposed to it, it has a calming influence for the patients and improves the work environment for the staff members,” he said.
Dr Stanford is hardly idle in his downtime away from work or his other related responsibilities, saying personal health and wellbeing remain an important part of his weekly regime.
“There is no day that I do not weigh myself – if you don’t measure it you can’t manage it; this morning I did a half hour on the bike machine, listening to the news,” he said.
“I also do brisk four-kilometre walks, and a 30-minute gym session, and play tennis and golf. My mental wellbeing and judgment is not as good if I don’t exercise.”
Dr Stanford describes his managerial style as ‘servant leadership’.
“My leadership is about getting people to flourish around you,” he said.
“Getting square pegs in square holes. It’s often about encouraging and developing them – for example, asking them what course they are going to do in the next six months?”
Dr Stanford comes across as calm and measured. One could not imagine him getting riled or flustered.
“I believe you should treat triumph and adversity the same way,” he said.
“A bad budget result is a bad budget result – there is no need to beat people up about it.”