Moving to the other side, OR NOT

1 January 2010

RUSS MURPHY shares his first-hand experience of life as a health sector manager

When the opportunity of a secondment from the crisis team to team manager of a Community Mental Health Centre came up, it made this nurse consider a change in career path. The thought of a three-month trial to see if it was something I wanted to do and conversely see if I was what the organisation wanted had great appeal. Thirty years of roster work had taken its toll, especially with away-from-work friendships, not to mention the family that I seldom saw.

I applied for several reasons. The initial reason was to normalise my life style, but also a chance to follow my ambition to lead a team. For most of my working life I had been one of many within a team and with no real ability to put my leadership skills (if I have any) to the test. Three decades in the industry would indicate that I have learnt something along the way. Without the opportunity to disseminate these ideas and skills and develop and nurture a work ethic within a team, these thoughts generally stayed personal to me.

I applied and was appointed to my surprise, so the opportunity had arrived. After a short but comprehensive hand over by the service manager I ventured out to see what was in store for me. I had no intention of changing the shape of the wheel or making any dramatic changes in what worked for the team I now led, however, I was keen to see if I could streamline some of the processes and address some of the long-standing issues that all the CMHC experience.

I adopted an open door policy from day one as I knew full well how frustrating it can become not being able to access the team manager. I do not regret this decision but I must admit being this available did hinder my ability to get some of my core responsibilities completed on time. I have a table in the middle of my office and a chair on wheels by my desk. The carpet was in pristine condition on my arrival but alas it now has clearly defined wear as the wheels on my chair have permanently etched their mark between desk and table.

It soon became apparent that no orientation could prepare you for the role. It was so vast and varied that I can recall no day that did not feature my standard response “what do I do here”. I was introduced to a role within the DHB that I knew very little about yet had a genuine interest in finding out about. My new peers made themselves accessible and always offered support when I needed it. I often struggled to meet deadlines and complete reports. Best laid plans were often foiled by an unexpected event requiring me to reschedule my already busy day.

I can recall most mornings sitting at my desk, computer on and attempting to cull the huge volume of emails. I was no stranger to abundant email traffic in my role within the crisis team, however the sheer number of emails in my new role was staggering. I would endeavour to chip away at them in the most methodical way possible.

I would firstly put them in some sort order so as to prioritise them. This well-meant plan was destined to fail from the outset as no sooner had I responded to an email, then several more would pop up to replace it. I would shrug my shoulders, take a deep breath and start again. The email quandary became a little more tolerable when I became best friends with the ‘delete’ button.

Meetings were another challenge. As I was brand new to the role I had little experience with managerial meetings. Another manager may ask, after an extensive discussion, my opinion. My standard answer initially was “sorry I can’t comment as I have no idea what you are talking about”. Things did improve and as I became more confident in the role I began to contribute to discussion with some of my thoughts and ideas. I could see issues that prior to this role I had little to no way of addressing. Now I could advocate for the often unheard voice of the worker and suggest ways to improve situations by wearing my worker/manager hat.

Another unsung hero is the office administrator as without their guidance and support the initiation to team manager would have been even more arduous. Many of these people have a fantastic overview and a great understanding of where to access information. I believe that the reason I am now only partially grey is as a direct result of the support from my admin staff. Those people that have put their hand up and taken on this position need to be commended. The role is often thankless, always challenging, frequently frustrating and seldom provides a sense of completion.

My time is drawing to an end and begs the question – does this ageing nurse see himself as a team manager? The simple answer is, unfortunately, no. Do I admit defeat? No. I have enjoyed the experience and am grateful for the opportunity, however I also enjoy going home of an evening knowing that my job is done. I have an intimate understanding of the role and now appreciate what is required to be a manager. These qualities include passion dedication, and the ability to multi-task beyond the call of duty. I also congratulate Counties Manukau District Health Board for their innovative way of giving staff the opportunity to experience life on the other side. So to all you managers out there, I take my hat off.

Russ Murphy, interim team manager, Manukau Community Mental Health Centre.