How Alison Van Wyk rose to the challenge of becoming a CEO
When Alison Van Wyk became CEO of Access Community Health, she had tremendous support – but it wasn't enough to prepare her for this new chapter.
"I took the chief executive officer role because of the challenge," Alison says.
"It put everything on the table – my love of leadership, of people, of making a difference – but while I felt tremendously supported, I wanted to work with those who specialised in what I was going through."
Alison found that extra support in Melbourne Business School's Advanced Management Program, a 12-day course designed especially for senior executives.
"In my case, it was two weeks away in Australia from a New Zealand-based business, which meant I'd be away from my team and family," Alison says.
"But once I committed to it and then saw the leadership profile and met the group coach Mark Grant, I knew that I absolutely made the right decision."
As CEO, Alison is responsible for leading Access Community Health as a division of Green Cross Health New Zealand, a publicly-listed health care organisation. It was important she went into the course focused on the responsibility she had as the leader of a national provider of community care and support.
"First and foremost, Access Community Health looks after the care and support of some of our most vulnerable people across the community," she says.
"We have 4,000 team members, and my role supports those who support the care of our most vulnerable and ensures that we deliver a quality, sustainable service.
"If I didn't go into it focused on that, I wouldn't have grown in the way I have since then."
Alison was surprised by what the course had to offer and grateful for it – even when it became challenging.
"It's a very confronting course that does a deep dive into your psyche. I must be honest, I really enjoyed it," she says.
"It forced me to look at what was really holding me back and equipped me on how to deal with navigating the challenge of being a new CEO."
Part of how Alison expanded her knowledge was by speaking with fellow course participants, who offered significant insight and experience, as well as guest speakers.
"I found it phenomenal with the external speakers that came in to talk with us and the real-life experiences they had, which were not dissimilar to what I was going through as a new CEO," she says.
"There was one gentleman who shared his journey in his first CEO role and had experienced so many challenges beyond his control.
"His resilience, his gratitude, his empathy and compassion for his people when he had to deliver some pretty tough news. I tell you, that completely resonated with me."
But the turning point for Alison wasn't the leadership techniques, it was when she listened to Professor Jill Klein, a world-leading resilience expert who presents on the course.
"Jill Klein on resilience had a profound impact on me – she opened my eyes," she says.
"She brought her father into the presentation via Skype, who shared on his time in an Auschwitz camp. That was absolutely phenomenal, listening to this man with no anger who embodied a clear purpose and focus to stay alive.
"It showed how not everybody shares your way of thinking and the need to practice tolerance and understanding to get the best out of people. It was a key factor that taught me how to be present, objective and the importance of leading through leaders."
After completing the Advanced Management Program, Alison felt better equipped to trust in her own abilities while also trying new approaches.
"The learnings that I'm applying are most certainly around understanding my leadership profile better and what I need to work on," she says.
"It's about what I put into practice everyday, talking to my team, sharing and thinking about what works while empowering people to do their jobs and to get out of the way and let them do their jobs.
"That is absolutely critical for the culture of our organisation. If you don't have a culture of compassion and empowerment , I think that you will struggle to be successful. It adds up to making a difference with them and the community."