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Vicki Pridmore BreastScreen Victoria

07 March 2011

\"I think I've helped my daughter be resilient. I think all parents should try to do that. It is an achievement on my part.\"

Talk to most women about their careers (and for argument's sake, we're talking women who've advanced along the career timeline to some extent) and invariably you'll find diversity in role and experience. The CEO of BreastScreen Victoria, Vicki Pridmore, is a case in point. From cemetery trusts to breast screening, she's steered organizations through change toward what she believes will be bright, exciting futures.

Vicki began her career as a wood-work and metal-craft teacher (she can tell you the difference between welding and brazing). She then trained as a psychologist; has worked in education in clinical counseling and guidance services, and has had a long and distinguished career in the Victorian Department of Human Services, culminating in a role as Director, Portfolio Services, managing a number of corporate business units and their associated risks. From 2005 until 2008 Vicki was CEO of the Cheltenham & Regional Cemeteries Trust, an organization which \"had been through a protracted period of turmoil\" and which she worked \"to stabilize and move into a more modern way of operating\".

Since 2008, she has been with BreastScreen Victoria reprising her previous role \"on a statewide level, in an area with such power for women and in public health\": all-important considerations for Vicki.

Ingredients of change

\"The role was very prescribed,\" explains Vicki.

\"The organization had had a very stable board and senior management structure for a decade or so, and had then undergone change.

\"I came into the CEO role with a brief to look at the governance and the organization's risk, the structure of the organization, the staff, the service model.

\"My part has been to help the organization open up, to become more open to the outside and to replace or refresh those processes that were outdated.\"

Vicki admits it's not easy establishing new ways of doing. The energy it takes to build the momentum necessary to begin the process of change is substantial. The battle to allay the fears and apprehension of a staff on \"high alert\" is tough.

\"Change involves being a critical friend to yourself. Looking at where you've been and where you're going and analyzing what has and has not worked in that. All of that is very confronting and consuming,\" explains Vicki, who has some very necessary steps she takes to initiate the process.

Firstly, she believes, you need to take the time and make the space to really listen to what people have been through, what they think of the organization and what they know of how it operates. That step will involve questioning staff about their understanding of the issues and where they see the organization going.

Secondly, it's about being respectful. Validating what has been done to date and what has been created.

Then you need to tell a story... and that story needs to be created and told in such a way that people clearly see themselves in its fabric.

Finally, you need to be very clear about – and with – those people who don't want to be part of the future, or who could do well in some other area, and that takes respectful management.

Managing opposition

Vicki confesses this last step is difficult – getting people to understand they may need to be somewhere else and that the choice is an equally valid one.

\"I am very much of the belief that there is a CEO that is right for the time an organization finds itself in. It's very rare that one CEO will be right for an organization at all times, or that the organization will be right for the CEO at all times. It's appropriate to recognize what has gone before to understand why you and the organization are in a state of mutual readiness.\"

Having said that, Vicki agrees that looking back is not the focus. The primary focus is on where the organization is going and how.

\"Ahh!\" she exclaims with a sense of excitement and mystery at this thought.

\"It is a very interesting time for screening. There was a huge national review addressing screening's future, recently. It asked: is breast screening doing what it set out to do?

\"Yes, it is. It is saving lives and it's doing it reasonably efficiently.

\"But, is it doing it in the way we think it should be doing it in the future?

\"That is the question that interests me and exercises my mind and the BreastScreen Victoria board's mind. Is the service model under which BreastScreen Victoria has been delivered for 20 years the service model that will take us into the next 20?\"

At the coalface

And where best to go for answers but to the coalface.

Staff and providers, clients and users have provided fascinating insights. The board and Vicki are now distilling those thoughts and working on a new service model, one which Vicki would very much enjoy having a hand in not only devising and developing, but implementing.

\"I don't kid myself that will be a difficult task, but I like a challenge.\"

In fact, Vicki has history stepping up to the plate. She was the first in her family to do tertiary education, acknowledging that her mother and father, who were not tertiary educated, were incredibly creative thoughtful people.

\"The absolute constant in my life was my parent's belief that you can do anything – 'you are bright you can do anything'.

\"My mum, who had left school at 13, trained to be a nurse at 30. My parents are out there, curious, involved and still learning. Their humility, openness, reflection have been incredibly useful traits for me to model. They offer me a very powerful way to navigate my world.\"

Male-defined cultures

A working world that Vicki believes still has inbuilt obstacles for women.

\"Structurally the world's not set up for women to move beyond that glass ceiling. I look at my friends, many with high-powered jobs or businesses, and there's still the expectation that they will look after the family as well as work,\" says Vicki

Offspring of friends, nieces and nephews reveal to her the belief has shifted a little but Vicki hasn't a sense that it has shifted as far as it could or should.

\"The cultures you are trying to shift are predominantly male and that maleness defines the characteristics,\" explains Vicki. \"So, it may be in a subtle way, or in your face, but as a female you are the odd person, you are the one away from the norm in a male-defined organization or culture.\"

Vicki believes that can be exhilarating and galvanize people or it can be so off-putting women give up and go away.

\"Change won't happen unless you measure it. I think there's some value to imposing measures on business, because when gender balance is an issue – is profiled and captured in a strategic or business plan – then it must be discussed and made legitimate.\"

Challenge the glass ceiling

The ceiling is described as glass for a reason. Culturally and structurally our inbuilt barriers remain because no one notices them. The classic case is the breakfast or after school meeting.

Vicki recounts: \"I was doing work with a youth group and the chair for the meetings was a guy. He set them at very difficult times. I stood up and said I can't do that time, and he said: if you're really serious you'll make the time. I said, I am serious and I can't do a meeting at that time. I was quaking in my boots. There were other women, I'm sure, who were in agreement, but it's easier to say nothing. Things will not change unless they're challenged.\"

Things I've learned

On leading an organization or stepping up to the plate: the place out the front is quite alarming and lonely – particularly when speaking with the media.

You are unlikely to end up in an organization where there is major dissonance between your values and the values of the organization. That leads to unhappiness and frustration on both sides.

Seminal moments: when I realized I could do university and do it well. When I realized other people saw things in me that caused them to believe I should be applying for positions I would not have considered.

You must only do things that feel right for you. It is your life and you can listen to others but you have to live with your decisions.

You must treat people respectfully but that doesn't mean you have to be subservient.

Regret I see as some sort of enduring emotion and my thoughts and self-doubts are not enduring – they don't stay with me. I don't regret things because I see no value in it. If you make the best decision you can at the time then that is it, and if on reflection you've said or done something you don't like, get on the phone and apologize.

Key Achievements

I think I've helped my daughter be resilient. I think all parents should try to do that. It is an achievement on my part.

Personal Passions

I'm an inveterate collector.

I am very passionate about doing well.

Colour: in my environment both metaphorically and literally.

\"I try and maintain strong family and friendship ties. You need them to be healthy. It's so easy to lose sight and track of people if you don't cultivate them.\"

Useful links

http://www.breastscreen.org.au/

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