2 December 2021

College reboot changes the game


The RACGP’s new CEO has taken less than two months to turn the college, its member proposition and its Canberra role on their heads, most likely in a good way.

At 8.30am on Tuesday we received an invite from the RACGP’s press person to join a half-hour press conference with the new CEO, Paul Wappett, at 10.10am.

This was unusual in a whole lot of ways for the college.

The CEO doesn’t really ever talk directly to the medical media. 

Two CEOs back, Zena Burgess actually had a rule about the CEO never talking to the medical press, for which she had some logic that I can’t recall other than it didn’t seem to make any sense. 

Then when she started her own media unit with newsGP I guess she didn’t see a need to talk to us again at all. 

newsGP still promotes itself with the tagline: newsGP is the most-read daily news website for Australia’s GPs. It reports general practice news as it happens: it does not chase clicks, it deals in facts.”

Guess who they were implying chases the clicks and doesn’t deal in facts? 

It was all a very clear sign to us (the media) that the college didn’t get media at all, which of course is not a good sign for an organisation that wants to advocate for members as a major part of what it does. 

Media aren’t easy to deal with but any CEO or manager who thinks they can just not deal with them at all is usually putting their inexperience and naivety on show.

When Burgess was replaced by Dr Matthew Miles just over a year ago, he initially promised he would talk to the medical media but never really did (he took, to the best of our memory, one call from one of our journos after a few months of us trying but it was a highly structured call and he didn’t say anything we didn’t already know). He sort of then disappeared into covid and lots of other issues he seemed to be pretty taken aback by (we got this anecdotally), and only emerged to resign just short of a year into his contract about six months ago.

So, after maybe 12 years of having an informal policy of never talking directly to a CEO, we get a 90-minute early morning warning call of a press conference with the new CEO, with no agenda and no rules laid out for us.

Let’s all just get on a call together for half an hour shall we? (Australian Doctor was invited and attended as well).

Wappett was signalling to us something pretty different about the college by calling this presser so casually, but we weren’t entirely sure what, so we all dropped our other work to join the call.

The immediate reason for the call was a heads up on what looks like the biggest shakeup in the history of the management and structure of the college since it nearly went broke nearly 17 years ago (how times have changed).

It’s based on a review that was under way in September, so he can’t take credit for instigating it – that may have been the work of the chair, Christine Nixon – but he probably can take credit for taking seriously what it found and doing something about it pronto. 

This shakeup includes a massive executive restructure whereby the college will simplify its divisional structure from nine divisions into three – standards and education, member engagement and advocacy and policy.

Several managers will be leaving before Christmas and two new ones, a chief operating officer (COO) and chief of staff  (COS) are being recruited as I write.

The COS role is a particularly interesting and perhaps the most telling appointment of Wappett’s intent. 

The main function of the COS according to Wappett is to make sure that the executive is in good alignment with the president and the board (which we are going to translate here and say, really, in alignment with the members). 

That’s signalling something that should be very dear to the hearts of members: that the new CEO sees the executive as a vital bunch of full-time professionals that serve the members, so he’s appointed someone to ensure it happens.

He’s also signalled that the current executive isn’t up to what he thinks needs to be done, so he is getting in some new blood and restructuring the existing crew.

This is not at all like the past where the executive kept running off and doing their own often empire-building type of things, which the executive thought was good for the members, but which the members never got a say in and which usually didn’t end up being anything the members actually wanted at all or needed.

It must have been five minutes into the call that I realised the college has changed.

That quickly.

Wappett was clear, concise and transparent in his communication to us. You don’t actually have to do that all the time with media, because the press is a tricky animal these days. 

But this was the right time to do it.

He took open questions from us all on everything tricky we thought the college was facing in the next year or so (answers in our news story): 

  • was the college behind the president’s call to ending universal bulk billing in the lead up to an election?
  • where did he sit on the college now having to compete more fairly for members as a result of the opening up of CPD?
  • what did the college make of the Department of Health splitting the tender for training up late in the day into training and workforce management, with the latter possibly now going to be run by a different entity to the colleges?

And so on. Lots of important issues.

We didn’t ask the JobKeeper question, but this was a call where we were sort of sizing each other up for a new type of relationship, and if Wappett is smart, he’ll do something about that issue anyway.

He answered each question with a lot of seeming transparency and cleverly. 

It’s not the sort of thing you see from any politicians these days and only some really clever corporate CEOs.

It’s disarming if it’s done well, and he did it well.

If this had been a first date (a Tinder date obviously given the very short and random invitation to go out together), I’d have fallen in love with Wappett at the pre-dinner drinks at the bar.

But was I simply being seduced by a smooth-talking, charismatic and smart operator here? 

I don’t think it matters.

That he’s that smooth talking, and has worked out a few basics like, have a channel to the independent media always, be transparent where you can to engender the trust you need to get stuff done, and work the media, don’t work against it, is what was important about the call.

He was setting a style of management and tone.  

In this new approach he was declaring a whole raft of likely changes, all of which, if he succeeds, will go to the culture of the organisation.

He’s going to give one thing an almighty shove and he’s clearly got the management, communication and political skills to maybe pull it off: listen to the members regularly and properly and work for them in achieving what they collectively want and need.

That’s not easy because sometimes what the members want and what they need are two different things. It takes a lot of smarts to bring the two together. Hence perhaps the new and important appointment of a chief of staff.

What are some other signs that Wappett might actually be that attractive a first date?

Immediately I got off the call I rang our editor who was also on the call and asked:

“How long has this guy been in charge?”

“Surely it’s at least a few months …”

Nope, he started in October and we aren’t at the end of November. 

So in less than two months, he’s sized up the biggest issues, convinced the board in one board meeting to let him rip, is already restructuring everything to make it a lot more efficient, and, in doing so sending a mild but necessary shock wave across the organisation to signal to staff get ready for change.  

It’s management 101 if you’re going for a radical culture and organisational change but I’ve been to a lot of press conferences with new CEOs in my media career (I’ve done one or two myself) and I’ve never seen one done like that.

From an out of the blue “hey you guys, can we get on call later so I can let you know about a few things?” like we’d always been best of friends – que? what about the last 12 years? – to a casual but well presented outline of what he was doing and why (he was announcing some big and difficult stuff including senior staff departures), and then talking directly to difficult questions off the cuff, and managing them all without making a single gaff, or putting himself out there too much with Canberra or other key stakeholders.

He was disarmingly frank about the levels of bureaucracy in the college: “I’ve encountered already an environment of excessive red tape, and particularly in some support functions. And it’s hard to get things done inside the RACGP. So I want to make sure that we change that right away.”

He said one thing I possibly wouldn’t have because as a boss you never want to be signalling the idea verbally that there is going to be culture change, even if you obviously (to us media geniuses) need it. Quote: “And it’s also really important that we make some changes to the RACGP’s culture, and the way that we work together and the way that we work with members, and so I’ll be focusing a great deal on that underpinning way of work and cultural mindset, too.”

But culture is what people do, especially leadership, and then what others do in response.

Culture needs time.

Wappett of course is going to need some time.

But he’s starting the journey of culture and organisation change the way you need to: clear articulated logic , proposed direction, precise decision making and bringing those stakeholders with you that you care about and need.

This call was about bringing the independent medical media along the journey.

We aren’t the number one stakeholder in any respect, the members are; but that he got to us, and mesmerised us in just a few minutes, means he’s working every angle for his number one set of stakeholders in a pretty neat manner.

There’s a long way to go, but that was one impressive opening manoeuvre he pulled on us, and a pretty good outline of his plans for the near term.

Things might actually be going to start changing at the RACGP, to members’ benefit.

Something to say?

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8 Comments on "College reboot changes the game"

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Tom Wenkart
Tom Wenkart
8 months 7 days ago
Wacko, a real sea change. Yes George was right or was it Joe who said Harry would be smiling down now.! As a member for over 50 years I have been a second rate citizen as a GP. The College never has understood why! Every other medical College has put status and fees front and central of their existence since day 1. The RACGP has never recognised this fundamental fact since it started. Thus General Practice has had leaders who avoided talking about money in a way that has worked to our detriment. Now with Paul Wappett as CEO there… Read more »
Margie Gottlieb
Margie Gottlieb
8 months 8 days ago

Awesome – I can’t wait. The college has ignored it’s member’s needs for years and needed a bomb put under it’s entrenched self-serving hierarchy a long time ago. That old saying about eggs and omelettes is often true. I’m not calling the new CEO a terrorist or a breakfast chef but if he is going to bring about a change in the college’s culture in terms of supporting and defending the rights, values and place of general practice in the current changing face of medicine in Aus that would be terrific. This is exciting news!

Dr Louise Holliday
Dr Louise Holliday
8 months 8 days ago

When the college reduces the CDP fees I shall start listening.

Peter Bradley
Peter Bradley
8 months 8 days ago

Indeed, the proof of the pudding…as the saying goes…

Joe Kosterich
8 months 9 days ago

‘Tis the season of miracles. My dear friend , the late Dr Harry Nespolon, laid the initial groundwork for this. He will be smiling from above.

8 months 9 days ago

Jeremy — this article is a Great summary….looks like the new CEO is starting to turn the ship around and head in the right direction ….