Michelle Aquilina – Former Chief Executive Officer, Primary Dental

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Intro 0:13
Many aspire to reach the upper echelon of the healthcare industry. But few are able to successfully navigate the corporate ladder. As Asia becomes the world epicentre of the healthcare industry, C-Suite Partners sits down with international healthcare executives, asking the tough questions and unpacking the personalities of the top industry leaders. Welcome to the boardroom.

Michael Murray 0:50
Michelle, thank you for joining C-Suite Partners In The Boardroom.

Michelle Aquilina 0:53
Thank you, Michael. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Michael Murray 0:54
I’m very interested to understand your career journey because you’ve gone down the dental path. Could you take us from the very start to where you are today?

Michelle Aquilina 0:55
Yeah, absolutely. So I started as a receptionist in the dental industry many, many years ago, I think 25 years plus, look, it brought me many opportunities. It helped me understand that being in the healthcare industry had purpose and meaning. Through that I actually went on to further study, I completed my Masters, I then progressed to middle management, then senior management. Obviously, opportunities then arose from that perspective, and then went into an executive level management. So it really shaped my career.

Michael Murray 1:35
Wow, did you ever think, when you were a receptionist that you’d ever be CEO?

Michelle Aquilina 1:40
Never, not at that moment. When I was a receptionist, it was really giving purpose and understanding. It wasn’t until I actually had opportunities presented to me, through my career that I actually thought, “Michelle, you can inspire and make a difference”.

Michael Murray 1:57
That transition must have been a little bit intimidating at some point in your career that you could potentially be, and this happens all the time, over promoted. As someone coming through, whether it’s middle management or executives, can you remember a job or a moment or a project that you’re thinking, “Well, I’m out of my depth here.”?

Michelle Aquilina 2:14
Absolutely. You’re never ready. You are never ready to take the next step. And in fact, if you don’t feel comfortable taking the next step, then that is a mindset, as you move forward as an executive, to have, that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Because if you don’t feel uncomfortable, then significant change isn’t happening. I remember several years ago, I was actually promoted to a head of a division. And I never thought I was ready, I felt quite intimidated. I was in an environment where people knew what they were talking about, they were really confident, they were comfortable. I sat here, and when it was my time to speak, I actually didn’t speak with confidence, because I felt quite intimidated. But I actually knew a lot more than everyone else in that room did.

Michael Murray 3:02
That’s interesting.

Michelle Aquilina 3:03
And that’s when they looked at me and actually said, “Wow, you know, Michelle, you can actually bring things to this table that we can’t bring.”

Michael Murray 3:10
It’s very interesting, because in our last series, we had a guest on that was talking about executive presence. And you talk about kind of sitting back in the seat and other people talking. Have you developed that presence over the past couple of years, whether it’s your physiology, the way you’re sitting or standing? Have you noticed that change?

Michelle Aquilina 3:28
Yes, I have actually, I really have. So coming from an environment where I felt that I wasn’t ready, moving into an executive role, to now coming in and embracing collaboration and people. It really has given me the confidence to move forward with decision making. And I think that that does portray in your stance and the way that you communicate, your contact with people and the way that you connect with people at all levels of the business.

Michael Murray 3:55
Do you think, you know, the next three to five years within healthcare, are going to be as challenging as you’re seeing in the media? Everyone’s talking about, it’s going to be very, very tough in the market, or do you see the opportunity?

Michelle Aquilina 4:09
Look, I definitely see opportunity. I think that the healthcare industry is going to be further disrupted in the next five years. I think as executives we can’t be complacent to that. I really do believe that we need to embrace technology, we need to embrace diversity. We need to recruit people that are actually going to support us to deliver good outcomes. Bring out strengths in these individuals that I don’t particularly have in it as an executive. Ensure that I’m recruiting people that can leverage from, you know, my vision, my purpose, industry trends. I think it’s really important to ensure that we are lateral thinkers, we actually have a strong horizon plan. If we don’t think of strategy in a way that is going to take us to a new evolution, I seriously do believe that we question the sustainability of any business.

Michael Murray 4:58
How do you retain staff? It’s so hard, especially within healthcare. There’s so much churn. How do you keep your team inspired? How do you keep them working hard all the time, but enjoying their role?

Michelle Aquilina 5:09
It’s tough. It really is tough. Look, and I think top of mind, people are the core of everything we do. They underpin everything that we do. And I think having someone to aspire to, to have a purpose and a vision, people need to be anchored to something. And I think sharing as an individual, I very much get out on the front line. I feel their pain, when they talk to me, I listen to them. I collaborate with them. If a staff member comes to me, and has an issue or a concern, I hear them. If a dentist comes to me and wants to understand this, they’ve got concerns, I understand them. So I think it’s connecting people to an overall purpose and vision, which is completely something that we should not lose sight of, you know, churn is very evident. It was something that was very evident in an environment that I came from. When you come from a churn rate of 70% to 23%, you are sharing something that they have meaning and purpose, and they’re connecting to that purpose.

Michael Murray 6:10
And what about your hiring methodology? What do you look for? The people coming through? Do they have to be from healthcare? Or do you think they can come from other industries? Where’s your head at there?

Michelle Aquilina 6:22
Yeah, it’s a good question. I personally don’t think that they have to come from healthcare. There are certain traits that I do look for. One of them is obviously emotional intelligence, empathy, perseverance, resilience, character. I think when you’re looking at an individual, you actually have to play to their strengths. You know, as executives, sometimes we can become blinded at the sight that, you know, they have to be good at everything. But in actual fact, they’ve got a strength. They’re not potentially good at everything, but you’re playing to their strengths, to bring out the best in me as an executive, to the team to the business and to actually achieve really good outcomes.

Michael Murray 7:03
Michelle, thank you very much for taking time. I really enjoyed the chat.

Michelle Aquilina 7:05
Thank you. You’re welcome, Michael. Thank you.

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