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3 reasons to sign up for a professional SAGE international study tour program

S Cornelissen Jan 2018

Interview with Stephen Cornelissen Group CEO of Mercy Health

Stephen Cornelissen has been the CEO of Mercy Health, a large not-for-profit health and aged care organisation since July 2011. The CEO Magazine’s 2016 CEO of the Year is passionate about improving and redesigning aged care to create a better ageing experience for more Australians. One of the secrets of his dynamism and innovative spirit: professional study tours. He tells us why health and aged care executives should sign up for an international study program.


1. To foster your creativity

The aged care sector is changing fast. Executives must keep ahead in order for their organisation to stay at the frontline of change. The two study tours I did with SAGE (in the Netherlands and in Scandinavia), allowed me to see different approaches to aged care, their strengths and weaknesses and their potential application or adaption in the Australian setting. It is so much easier to innovate having witnessed practical examples rather than working from theory and assumptions. During the visits, meetings and conferences, you have the chance to dialog with experts and professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds and to figure out how their innovations and programs would translate in your own ecosystem.

At Mercy Health we are implementing a “small community living” model which has been heavily influenced by our Sage experiences. In Scandinavia, my Chairman and I were reminded how important the development of meaningful and fulfilling community relationships is when caring for people.   In Australia, most of our nursing homes are large and impersonal and simply not conducive to the development of meaningful and stimulating relationships between elderly people. With the support of our Board and Executive we have found new and viable ways to provide high quality and meaningful care which fit within the funding and regulatory framework.   With a number of our sites already redesigned or restructured, we are eagerly awaiting our first purpose build small community home where we have the opportunity to take our thinking to another level and in doing so provide our elders with the care, support, relationships and life they so rightly deserve.

2. To create a dynamic of change in your organisation

For an organisation as large as Mercy Health and its 9000 professionals to change, you need to have not only the CEO but also the entire board and management on side. That is why both my Board and I encourage our senior staff to take part in study tours. When the senior members of your organisation understand the range of options for providing aged care on a larger international scale, the ability to innovate and change is enhanced exponentially. Investing time and money in these professional development experiences has allowed Mercy Health to not only fast track its ability to change but enhanced its ability to conceptualise different ways of doing things in the future. People come back from these tours refreshed, stimulated and with a much wider perspective on the possibilities to not only improve the organisation but improve the experience for those who entrust us with their care.

For me personally, some of the greatest learnings have come from tours I have done with my Chairman, Mr Julien O’Connell AM. The joint learning experiences (and intense discussions!) were rich and created a very constructive and stable platform on which to develop strategic priorities for our aged care services. Having a Board Chair who can reflect and advise their fellow Directors on international best practices when considering the governance and strategic priorities of an organisation is just a dream for a Chief Executive. For example our current work on establishing intergenerational communities is something that our Chairman is very supportive of and we are drawing on our international experiences in further evolving this concept and associated programs.

3. To build up an international expertise network

One of the aspects I particularly cherish about international study tours is the collegiality of this professional learning experience. The other participants in the tours are colleagues who share the same experience as you. The brainstorming and sharing of ideas is an extremely efficient way to imagine how aged care can be improved across Australia. I am also very fortunate not only as the CEO of Mercy Health but as a member and Director of Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) and the Global Aging Network to be able to foster the role of not-for-profits as driving forces for innovation in this country.

Thanks to the professional study tours I did with SAGE, I am also able to promote Australia as a country of excellence in aged care. And whilst I wasn’t expecting to develop the lasting connections with colleagues around the world, Mercy Health has been fortunate to build an executive network with a number of colleagues I have met during my tours: we exchange ideas and projects and even organise teleconferences and seminars to share innovations. It is always interesting to hear a new points of view on your issues, be challenged and stimulated and to co-create solutions through fresh eyes and alternate experiences.