Ultra marathon runner and Aged Care Plus chief executive officer, Sharon Callister, talks to Domini Stuart about her diverse career and how best to manage a public relations crisis

    When Sharon Callister GAICD accepted the role of chief executive officer (CEO) at The Salvation Army Aged Care Plus she knew she had a massive task ahead of her. 
“The board had made a very courageous decision in employing me,” she says.

    “All of my predecessors had been ordained Salvation Army Officers but the trustees recognised the need for someone with enough experience to lead the organisation through a complete transformation.”

    Seven years on, Aged Care Plus has gained a reputation for providing excellent residential aged care, retirement villages and home care services, and Callister’s achievements as a leader were marked by her inclusion in the list of 100 Women of Influence in the inaugural Westpac - Financial Review Awards and the finals of the NSW Telstra Business Woman of the Year Awards.  

    “I feel very blessed by the opportunities I have had throughout my career, including the challenges,” she says. “I have always used challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow so that I can be an even more effective leader the next time I’m in a similar situation.”

    A crisis management lesson

    Callister’s career began in the busy and complex operating suite of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, first as a registered nurse then as a nursing unit manager.

    She studied part-time for a degree in health administration and a masters of business administration which facilitated her move into a middle management role with the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and then a more senior position in aged care.

    “This felt like the next logical step,” she says. “It was perfect for me because I had always enjoyed the caring element associated with healthcare, but I also wanted to use my leadership experience and qualifications to make a key difference.”

    However, she was about to face one of the most significant challenges of her career. “I was CEO of a major not-for-profit (NFP) aged care provider when a tragic turn of events evolved into a major public relations issue,” she says.

    “As well as our internal stakeholders, numerous stakeholders from the community and the government were involved and the issue attracted significant and intense media coverage. It was a very, very demanding time.”
    As the crisis began to unfold Callister quickly learned the importance of having clear disaster management and crisis communications strategies.

    “My staff found it very confronting when they read about their organisation’s alleged failures in the newspapers, so it was important for me to reassure them regularly about what was happening and the direction we were taking,” she says. “I also had to do a lot of work with residents, their families, volunteers and our community partners to restore confidence in our team and our organisation. It was critical that I worked closely with our executive and board and that we were all committed to being very open and transparent.”

    Over the next six months, Callister revisited every aspect of the organisation’s performance and, with the board, developed a strategy to put it on a much stronger footing. “I learned more from managing that crisis than I might otherwise have learned in a lifetime,” she says.

    Skills put to the test

    Callister’s skills were once again put to the test when she took on the role of CEO for humanitarian mission services at The Salvation Army.

    “We had an 18-month contract to provide welfare and support to asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus Island,” she says. “This was one of the most challenging leadership roles I ever held and it was also very humbling.”
    During this period changes in government policy had a significant impact on the stability and wellbeing of the asylum seekers. There were riots in both locations and during one on Manus Island an asylum seeker died. Once again, Callister was called on to lead an organisation through a crisis and the associated media storm.

    “Managing the public crisis years before had helped to equip me to deal with this kind of high-pressure situation,” she says. “I also had an excellent board helping to guide and direct me and the support of an excellent executive team.”

    Sustainable aged care

    As CEO of Aged Care Plus, many of Callister’s current challenges are associated with changes within the NFP sector and, more specifically, the changes in aged care that will also affect for-profit organisations.

    “A lot of reforms were implemented last year and, as an organisation, I think we have been at the forefront of managing them,” she says.

    “Significant changes can be daunting but we have embraced them and used them as an opportunity to improve our systems and processes and, ultimately, provide better care and services to our clients and residents.”

    Continuing reform is inevitable in any society with an ageing population. “As the demand for aged care continues to grow so does the economic burden being shouldered by the government, which currently pays almost 70 per cent of all aged- care costs,” says Callister.

    “We are very strong advocates for people in marginalised groups and we believe that, as a country, we need to be sure that we can look after those most in need. I think that, in future, people who can afford to pay for their own care will have to accept responsibility for making an appropriate contribution.”

    Looking to the future

    Some of the most gruelling challenges in Callister’s life are self- imposed. She runs marathons and ultra-marathons in her spare time and she is participating in the 2015 Big Red Run to help raise funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. This involves a 250 kilometre race across the Simpson Desert – the equivalent of running five marathons in six days.

    “You really need mental toughness as well as physical fitness to take on runs like these,” she says.
    “As so much of my job is about being mentally strong and well-prepared, there are a lot of synergies and I think this is why I’ve become so passionate about running long distances. As I move into broader management and governance  positions I will be drawing on this mental strength to help individuals and organisations achieve successful outcomes.”

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