Want To Be A Better Leader? Lead With Empathy, Says Kate Quirke
The CEO of Alcidion, Kate Quirke, is a values-based leader. She talks to Susan Armstrong about challenging the male-dominated tech industry while paving the way for future generations.
Kate Quirke CEO Alcidion
Spend any time in the company of Kate Quirke and you know, almost instantly and instinctively, the kind of leader that she is. This is someone who fully understands the importance of human-centered leadership. Of course, there are the many, many responsibilities that come with being the CEO and Group Managing Director of Alcidion Group Ltd, but you get the innate feeling that these come (a close) second to the care and consideration Quirke takes in ensuring the people around her flourish.


“You know, as I’ve matured, done this role for longer, and been a leader for longer, I’ve really learned it’s all about people. It’s not about you – it’s about the team you lead, how you can develop and mentor them, and the values that you apply to that leadership. To me, staying true to a set of values, no matter what happens, will always guide you and your team to where you need to be.”


Quirke talks a lot about values – empathy, in particular. It’s one of the three words she uses to describe herself – the other two are “driven” and “goal-oriented” – and she, quite rightly, believes it’s where all great leadership starts. In fact, without it, leaders are almost doomed to fail.


“The future autocratic decision-maker at the top of the tree will not be able to survive in the world that is continuing to emerge,” she explains. “The world is changing, and the people who are working for us are changing. We’re no longer a patriarchal society. The people we are hiring now have not been raised by fathers and mothers in traditional roles, so they actually expect their family life to be reflected in their working life. If you can’t put yourself in other people’s shoes, you cannot see where they’re coming from, and then you cannot create an environment in which they will want to work.”


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A Champion For Women

As one of the very few female CEOs on the All Tech Index, Quirke is determined to not only provide an inclusive and attractive environment for the younger generation, but particularly for young women. She’s challenging herself to do better to champion them in STEM. “I am very happy that I lead a company that chooses to challenge the status quo of the tech industry to be male-dominated. However, we can always do better and, while we have very good female representation, it is not consistent across the company.


“Instilling a more supportive, flexible and inclusive culture in health and IT companies can help to attract more female talent. The tech industry has been historically male-dominated and there are fewer female role models which means women have lacked sponsorship opportunities and support for professional development, as well as clear pathways for promotions. There are also misconceptions about a career in technology, including that you need to start with an established skillset or technical background, or that it’s not creative. Our business is all about finding creative ways to solve real problems in the healthcare industry and we need a whole range of skills to do just that.”


Good Healthcare Changes People’s Lives

It’s clear Quirke is incredibly passionate about the industry she works in, and has been for some time. “From an early age, I cared deeply about how good healthcare changes people’s lives. My single mother was a cleaner in hospitals and had great ambitions for me to become a doctor. I took a slightly different path at university, drawn more to the business side of health and landed my first role as Chief Health Information Manager at Caulfield Hospital. I was thrown into the politics of the health system very early and was often viewed as being too young; too fresh out of university for such a role. This only served to make me more resilient and determined, and to use my insecurity as a source of strength.”


Quirke needed to tap into that resilience reserve, once again, when she was offered a position in a different industry – the energy sector – and in a leadership role of a strongly male-dominated industry. She cites it as one of the greatest learning experiences in her career. “It was hard, but as we built a cohesive team and turned the account into a profitable one, I learned that creating teams and leading them to a better place was a strength of mine.”

Looking back, Quirke can identify other strengths. She says there were a couple of things that gave her upward mobility in her early career. “First, the value of education and constantly learning. Beyond a degree, education helps to understand the world around us and how to sustain it for future generations. It certainly opened my eyes to new possibilities and new ideas for transforming healthcare. Second, taking career risks early. My willingness to take career risks gave me the responsibility and expertise that have made me stand out from the crowd.”


Putting People First, Always

These days, Quirke is focused on ensuring Alcidion continues to build an environment where people not only want to work, but want to stay and grow, particularly with the worldwide challenge companies now face regarding staff.


“The pandemic impacted everyone in different ways. However, the one consistency was the impact it had on staff, and how they felt about their roles versus the opportunities that were ahead of them. It’s something we’re still dealing with now, two-and-a-half years later. I talk to leaders in all sorts of industries and there continues to be a movement of staff that we hadn’t seen pre-pandemic; so higher attrition rates and people re-evaluating their lives.


“This continues to be very challenging for companies, particularly if they’re not used to a high turnover. Of course, it also presents opportunities for businesses to have new people with new perspectives join, but this leads into another issue and that’s access to talent. Many sectors, but particularly technology, are continually challenged as we struggle to attract talent from overseas.”


Quirke believes, to attract and then keep good staff, it’s a combination of things. “We have a real focus on people, place and culture. I think we’ve been particularly positive in supporting people when it comes to flexible working arrangements. It was always unspoken that people could take a bit of time here and there, but now they can actually organise their life around a hybrid working environment. During COVID-19, we really had to look at our policies, and we continue to evaluate them to attract and maintain staff. Fundamentally though, as an organisation you need to stay true to your purpose-driven values because that’s how you differentiate yourself. When people join, they feel aligned with your purpose.”


A Greater Purpose

As for Quirke’s purpose, “it’s multifaceted”, she explains. “At a very high level, it’s to be kind; to be the best person you can be and to leave a positive impact on the earth – and reduce your negative impact as a human. As a mother, I have a very strong purpose to bring children into the world that are going to equally have a positive impact and reduce their potential negative impact on the world.


“And when it comes to work, while we have a purpose for the organisation, which is around health and healthcare, my real role is to be a mentor and a support to the people in my team who work for me. They’re the ones who are producing, selling and delivering the goods, and they amaze me every day with their imaginations, and their efforts and determination. They drive me to try and be a better leader for them. I’m really here to guide them and help them do their best in the easiest way possible.”


Quickfire Round With Kate Quirke

What’s your secret weapon to get you through life? Lots of energy but always take self-care seriously.

Who do you turn to for advice? My husband, my leadership team and our Board.

What can women learn from men? Not to undersell themselves – there is evidence that women are less likely to apply for a job than men if they don’t feel they have all the necessary skills.

What can men learn from women? To listen more and try and look at a problem empathetically.

How do you measure success? By setting a plan and delivering against it.

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? To move to Sydney in 1994 – then back to Melbourne in 2004.

What’s the worst decision you’ve ever made? To move to Paris for three months and start an immersive French speaking course. I lasted about a week in the course. Paris is for fun…

What’s the biggest assumption people make about you? That I am tougher than I probably am.

Favourite quote? Everyone needs someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to.

Which women inspire you? Michelle Obama, Julia Gillard, and my mum.


Like what you’ve read and want to read more? We can recommend our exclusive interview with Adore Beauty CEO, Tennealle O’Shannessy. She reveals her greatest strength, the one thing about her that would surprise people, and the big, hairy, audacious goals that keep her motivated You can read it HERE.