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7 Questions on Leadership with Mark Lawrence

Name: Mark Lawrence

Title: Chief Financial Officer

Organisation: Western Health

I have over thirty years’ experience in finance, the last 22 years as a CFO. A career that started in manufacturing in one of Australia’s leading multinationals, then to Aged Care working for a large Not-For-Profit and currently in the public sector working for a major metropolitan public health service. Consequently, I have covered the entire range of commercial to public and gained the insights of seeing exactly how these vastly different industries work. Prior to working in finance, I held positions in purchasing and warehouse management.

I have worked in the industries of vehicle modification, paper manufacturing, packaging, recycling, aged care and public health. Currently I am the Chief Financial Officer, Chief Information Officer and Chief Procurement Officer for Western Health. I also have carriage of all capital works. Western Health is the largest employer in the west of Melbourne servicing a catchment approaching one million people. With four hospitals and a staff of around 12,000 employees Western Health provides a comprehensive, integrated range of services from its various sites; ranging from acute tertiary services in areas of emergency medicine, intensive care, medical and surgical services, through to subacute care and specialist ambulatory clinics. Western Health provides a combination of hospital and community-based services to aged, adult and paediatric patients and newborn babies.

I am currently a Board member of the Victorian Hospitals Industrial Association which represents the industrial interests of members and associate members throughout Victoria. VHIA is the designated body for negotiating enterprise agreements with most employee groups in health. I am a past Board member of HFMA the peak industry body for public health finance professionals. I have been a committee member and office holder for many organisations. I am a regular speaker at HFMA events and other conferences.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Mark's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

Managing people is always the hardest part of any role. The technical requirements of any job are going to be within your reach but people are complex, emotional and driven by their personal circumstances. They are not the same as you. As an employee I am focussed, demanding and I have high expectations of my staff.

So when that is not delivered or not delivered as I want I immediately feel frustrated and annoyed that I now have to ask for it again. The challenge is to not let the frustration show, to not make those requests in an angry manner but to calmly and clearly explain what was missing and coach my direct reports such that next time I get what I need. Don't get me wrong - I have great staff.

They are dedicated, hard working and intelligent people but they still need me to guide the outcomes. This is not saying I must have all the answers - no manager has that. I rely on their expertise but I have to judge if they are delivering what the organisation needs and if not reshape their work. I will restate this as the most challenging part of being a leader is managing myself. Not being reactive, not being intimidating or otherwise being a person my staff and peers are not comfortable working with.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

Being willing. I have never had a career plan nor set goals. But I was always willing to take on new challenges if offered. I was willing to apply for roles and then work hard in them. I had no career that called to me during high school. I have learnt since what my skills would probably be best directed towards things other than accounting but I didn't know it then.

My father was a teacher and the trades didn't seem to be a thing he thought I should consider. The only career advice he ever gave was to consider teaching. It didn't particularly appeal to me and I didn't pursue it. I vaguely thought I'd do something in business and ended up doing a business degree. I had a family when I was very young so the driving motivation was to be employed, support my family and pay the mortgage. I noticed there were lots of jobs for accountants and very few for supply managers which is where I was at one point so I switched to accounting. It was not a natural fit for my personality but I adapted to make it work.

An example of how it doesn't fit me is that I cannot make myself read an accounting standard and my opinion of them is very low. Many academically inclined accountants have spent a lot of time working on them, I couldn't bear it. So how did I become a CFO? I worked hard, I delivered on what the organisation needed, I used the skill I did have - communication - such that I could make the numbers and the story intelligible.

Bottom line is that I was smart, let's say highly intelligent, so I could see my way through issues, solve issues and deliver what was needed. All the while I had no great love of accounting and still don't. But then as a CFO I don't do journals or create spreadsheets I work on strategic decisions and Board level issues. Summary - step forward, apply for that next role, demonstrate you can do it and then go for the next one.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I don't.

I do check the diary the night before just to see when my first meeting is. If it's an early one I set the alarm accordingly. If not then just the usual time of 7.30am. I am not a morning person so even 7.30 is a challenge. I normally go to bed around mid-night and I do that because I have to get up at 7.30.

If I don't have to get up, say I am on holidays then I get later and later, maybe out to 2am before going to bed. That doesn't work when you're employed so I make myself go to bed and force myself out in the morning. I don't eat breakfast but always have a mug of tea in the car on the way to work. Yes, I drink and drive. The diary dictates my day. I might be reading papers for a meeting, I might have to write a paper for a meeting. There could be catch-ups with my direct reports.

There will be the endless emails asking for something. I guess the key is knowing what is important that I must pay attention to and what might be left and even ignored. You really have to have a sense of what is important. But the day has no structure other than the diary for the day. I'll finish when I finish. I often find the quietest time of the day is after 5pm when other people start to go home and I can work uninterrupted on something. I always have after work things to do.

The gym twice a week, the driving range to work on my golf game a couple of times a week, A tennis match on Monday nights during the season. I go to the theatre and other theatrical events a lot so many nights will have an event in the diary for the evening. I'm never home before say 7.30pm and often it's later. My children are all grown up and gone so it is just my wife and myself. Generally no fatherly duties although with four children and eleven grandchildren there are plenty of birthday parties to get to.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

You're never invisible. It's hard to remember but you are always on display and people will note how you behave. Every meeting, every event, every interaction, you have to demonstrate the qualities you wish to see in everyone else. That they listen, that they value you, that they care. I'll put all the time in the world into a staff member who shows me they care.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I don't read books on leadership. At one time I dabbled in a few, I couldn't name them now. I guess I learned my lessons the hard way by making a lot of mistakes. I think the last non-fiction book I picked up was an autobiography of Hans Christian Anderson. I haven't finished it yet. The interest was the story of the ugly duckling.

The gosling raised by a family of ducks who saw itself as a very ugly duck but of course grew into a swan. This is how Hans Christian Anderson saw himself. The allegory is interesting to me. I do collect stories about people, particularly those that have gone through extraordinary personal events.

There are things to be learnt from how they dealt with things. I have many of these and occasionally deliver brief presentations about these people. As an example there is Charles Proteus Steinmetz - the man who said "There are no foolish questions". Another totally different example is Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Look them up.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Difficult situations will arise. When that happens ask yourself "What would leadership look like?" It is picturing yourself outside of that situation looking in and trying to visualise what leadership would look like if you were to observe it. Then - do that.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

Feedback is rarely sort because it is confronting and you risk being told something you didn't want to hear. But I have never forgotten the one person who took me aside and said that my reactive, slightly angry responses to things was difficult for staff and was counter-productive. I didn't enjoy that, but I needed to hear it and I actively modified my behaviour afterwards.

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