*This article was first published by Business Chicks
There are just 11 female CEOs at the helm of ASX 200 listed companies. In 2018, that figure seems absurd, yet here we are.
Sue began her career in nursing in a small town in New Zealand. Working as an operating theatre manager in a highly stressful environment, she experienced the kind of “life-threatening situations” that proved the perfect training ground for her role as CEO of Virtus Health.
How do you think your early nursing experience set you up for your later success?
When I started out as a nurse, I didn’t plan or expect to be in the position I am today. I’ve always enjoyed the creativity, the challenges, the sense of achievement in leading a team and growing and developing a business. I initially commenced my career in the health sector in nursing, and I’ve been in healthcare leadership roles for the past 25 years.
I guess it was those highly stressful and tense situations that have helped me develop resilience and a high degree of organisational and time management skills. As a result of that, I can manage a reasonably heavy workload, and I can have many balls in the air at any one time which, you can imagine, is required in a role like this.
My background in nursing also gives me a very clear appreciation of the day-to-day workings of clinical practice. That helps me understand the tensions and the competing priorities that can occur within the healthcare environment, and it helps me to make decisions that are right for the staff and doctors working at the coalface.
Now you oversee a company that employs 1,300 staff and is responsible for 20,000 IVF cycles globally. Can you pinpoint a time when wanted to become CEO?
When I started my nursing career in the late 70s, career options for women were not as diverse as they are now, so I (at that time) never thought about ever being a CEO. But I’ve always been focused and worked hard, I had no expectations that I’d be a CEO of a public company or even achieve what I have accomplished.
During my career, I spent 15 years at a company called Mayne Health. And in that company, I held fairly senior leadership roles including CEO of Hospitals and National Director of Nursing, and that’s where I developed my strategic leadership and business experience. And that was accelerated in that organisation by the support of quite an amazing group of mature and experienced healthcare leaders. It was working in that large organisation, which was a public company, in senior leadership roles that gave me the drive to aspire to what some of those leaders were doing.
What was your vision when you stepped into the CEO role at Virtus Health?
When I first came into Virtus Health, it was called IVF Australia, and we were just a small group of 12 doctors, 60 staff; we were doing around 1600 IVF cycles a year, and we only had a presence in New South Wales. As I came in, the doctors that I worked with had the vision to create an organisation that would outlive their individual careers; to create and be Australia’s leading fertility provider. So that was a vision that they had, so what we’ve done is we’ve brought together Australia’s leading fertility specialists, scientists, researchers, nurses, counsellors and support staff to provide the very best in fertility care and the services that go with that – that was the collective vision.
And where are you at with that vision now?
We have developed what we set out to do; Virtus Health is one of the most successful medical collaborations in the world. We are the largest network of fertility services in Australia. And it’s that expertise, that combined expertise that we have which is unique. We have a very powerful body of knowledge which, with our specialists and staff, means we can provide new and advanced solutions to achieving success or achieving a baby for patients.
It’s been an amazing journey, but nothing is achieved alone, you need to set a vision, and you need to bring the team with you. And that’s what my role is; to make sure that happens.
What’s your biggest leadership lesson?
Don’t do it on your own. You need to have passion and commitment for what you’re doing, and you need to be able to bring a team with you, and they need to be able to trust you. You need to have a high degree of integrity and honesty in the work that you do. I think people would say that with me ‘what you see is what you get.’ I’m open and honest with the team that I work with.
There aren’t many publicly listed companies in Australia that have a female as the Group CEO, what do you think has helped you succeed?
I haven’t been focused on the fact that I’m a female CEO in a public company, you just sort of get there. What I have been focused on, however, is making sure that our organisation try to create an environment that encourages our team, that provides them with the tools that they need to be able to provide the best service and outcomes to our patients. The fact I found myself CEO of a public company was really secondary to the job that we were doing and the organisation that we were trying to create. I think it’s my ability to listen and take on board what others are thinking and being able to connect to people at the right time that has really helped me succeed.
Have you ever experienced any gender inequality in your career progression?
No, because I work in healthcare where a large portion of the workforce are women. We have a workforce that is over 85% female, and there are a large number of women in healthcare moving into management and are encouraged to do so, so I’ve not experienced any gender inequality or glass ceilings. Many of the males in senior management that I’ve worked with have been incredibly encouraging to me to put my hand up. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t been encouraged by the men in the workforce that I was working in, but I am aware that I work in a fairly unique sector and this isn’t the situation in many other workplaces.
How important do you think it is to be a female leader in a fertility company?
I started my family quite late in life. I was 37 when I had my first child, and I had a number of fertility issues, so I can relate to the extreme pressures and the journey that our patients are on. While we treat infertility, we see one of our most important roles as educators, and not everyone is going to achieve a pregnancy. Our partnership with Business Chicks is important because of the very large number of women that your organisation touches. Women like me, who were focused on a career, financial security and really underestimated the impact that age has on your fertility. This partnership is about informing women and giving them an understanding of what is going to affect their ability to have a family. I think being a female working in an organisation that provides services for infertility, gives me a little bit of an edge over maybe a male being in that sort of role.
You mentioned your own challenging fertility journey, how do you think that experience has shaped the leader you are today?
I’ve been able to build a workplace culture that supports the lives of our staff and families. Because families are important and it’s critical for a healthy working environment to be able to have work-life balance. I was fortunate on my fertility journey. I now have two children, they’re adults now, aged 23 and 25. But not everyone can achieve that goal, and I hope that I’ve been able to create an environment that prepares our patients for a journey without children if they do not achieve the success they desire.
Has there been a time in your career where you’ve lost confidence or questioned your ability?
There’s always going to be times where you think, ‘Oh my God, have I made the right decision?’ Coming from a nursing background, I questioned my ability; when I took on things like private equity and the IPO, they were way out of my comfort zone. And it wasn’t what I was trained to do when I started my career in nursing. You have to have confidence in yourself and be resilient. I bounce back quickly. I think I can move forward quite quickly. If I get knocked down, I just get up and keep going.
What do you think sets great leaders apart?
People want their leaders to be credible and have a sense of direction, be honest and trustworthy, forward-looking, inspiring and competent. And if you have those attributes, people will follow you. You have to be able to listen and take on board other’s thoughts, so if people have a better idea than you, be prepared to take that.
Do you think it’s important to leave a legacy, and do you have one?
Yes, from a Virtus perspective, I’d like to make sure I leave behind an organisation that is the first choice for those with fertility issues wishing to create a family. I want to be the Mayo Clinic of fertility so that Virtus can provide for every aspect relating to reproductive health and beyond – that’s my legacy.
What advice would you give to females around their career aspirations or if they’re the only one with a seat at the table?
Follow your desires, and follow the journey. If you want to be in a leadership position, you’ll get there. And if you’re one of the only women at the table, remember that you’re there for a reason. Your strengths and your ability has helped you achieve a place in that senior leadership position. Have confidence in yourself, stay true to your core values, don’t compromise and use the strengths of the team around you. Make sure you have the right people around you that can back you and be prepared to back them as well.