Reinforcing community health

Mike Wilson

Last month, CBE alumnus Mike Wilson OAM was awarded with Australia Day Honours for his service to community health, particularly in the area of diabetes research. Mike is the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of JDRF Australia, a not-for-profit supporter of type 1 diabetes research.

In an interview, Mike shares his insights on the low level of collaboration between research and industry, the need to bridge the gap between science and business, and why it’s an exciting time to be part of the country’s not-for-profit sector.

Q. Who are some of the influencers that have shaped your thinking about community health?
The most important influencers for me are the families who live with health challenges, in JDRF's case, type 1 diabetes. Too often, the discussion about community health descends into demarcating disputes at different levels of government, finger pointing between suppliers and providers, or some other blame games that reflect the challenges the system faces. Such responses are discouraging and disheartening for affected families. So many stakeholders ultimately need to work together for the health system to do the best for our citizens — medical researchers, universities, private companies, governments, medical and allied health professionals, regulatory bodies, and more. Sometimes we collectively seem to forget that the purpose of the health system is the health of the patient. Hence, I am most strongly influenced by affected families, and trying to make their tomorrow better than their yesterday, every day.

No longer is being a great scientist enough – leaders in this space need to understand the needs and motivations of a complex range of stakeholders.

Q. What is your assessment of the leadership in the health and medical research space in Australia?
We are fortunate in Australia to have some of the world's best leaders in health and research. Our universities and medical-research institutions are highly regarded in many fields, as are those that work in them and lead them. Unfortunately, the support for early stage companies and the progression of the best ideas generated in this academic environment is less developed, and Australia's level of collaboration between research and industry is low in comparison with many other countries. Many are working to address these challenges, but it remains an opportunity for improvement for Australia with fewer established and successful leaders in this area.

We also need to look to the next generation of leaders and invest more in the breadth of their skill development for the future. No longer is being a great scientist enough – leaders in this space need to understand the needs and motivations of a complex range of stakeholders that exist across health and medical research including governments, venture capitalists, private companies, health administrators, regulators, and more. As their careers advance, they also need to manage budgets, resolve conflict, build teams, and be well-rounded executives, not just scientists, and we need to help them develop these skills. 

(In the not-for-profit sector) there are waves of change coming, with increasing expectations of transparency.

Q. You were a member of the Not-for-profit Sector Reform Council in Australia. How do you anticipate this sector to develop in Australia over the next decade?
It's a very exciting time to be part of the Not-for-profit (NFP) sector in Australia. There are waves of change coming, with increasing expectations of transparency and efficiency by donors, a growing need to collaborate rather than compete in non-profit service delivery, and demands for measurement of impact and outcomes, not just activities and inputs. An NFP organisation today needs to have several approaches – a clear strategy, a well-defined plan, deep and diverse external relationships, strong financial and risk management disciplines, a great proposition to attract and retain talent, and staff with the support, technology, and feedback that helps them succeed and keeps them accountable. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for NFP-sector leaders, and I think we will see more and more people realising the NFP sector can be a diverse and rewarding career choice. Add to that the benefit of a connection to the cause you work for, and I think we'll see more movement of talent between sectors at early career stages. The professionalism and complexity of NFP organisations will also develop to levels akin to any good business.

The pathway for a scientific breakthrough to make an impact on patients at scale is through business.

Q. How did your degrees in economics and science at ANU prepare you for your career?
When I studied a joint Bachelor of Economics and Bachelor of Science degree at ANU in the 1990s, it was a very new course option. They have proven to be different but very complementary disciplines, and it has been very helpful to have exposure to both disciplines. The scientific method is a particular approach to problem solving and knowledge development and is quite different to more economic-type analysis. It was valuable to be able to look at challenges through both lenses, as we did in management consulting in my early career. My current job in medical research with JDRF Australia is very much about bridging the gap between science and business. The pathway for any scientific breakthrough to make an impact on patients at scale is eventually through business, so they are essential together. Hence, having these two degrees helped me right from the beginning in consulting, and remains beneficial 20 years later in a different role. 

When someone drops the ball, ask yourself first "How could I have passed it better?"

Q. With experience in management consulting and the not-for-profit industry, what are some of the pivotal career lessons you have learnt?
Ask questions of those who have done more than you have – it is less painful, and faster, to learn from their mistakes than creating your own.
Seek feedback whenever and wherever you can, and learn from it whether you agree with it or not.
When someone drops the ball, ask yourself first "How could I have passed it better?" before you ask, "Why did they drop it?”

The ANU College of Business and Economics offers an extensive range of specialised programs in Economics.