Interview with Samantha Bowen of The Acorn Network
Samantha Bowen is the Founder and Managing Director of the Acorn Network in Australia. She is an international presenter on inter-generational engagement and a strong supporter of mentoring as a capacity building tool. In April of 2018 she attended the Ageing in Common Conference in the UK (supported by the Commonwealth Association for Ageing), becoming the first Australian delegate selected.
Australian social care is facing great change at present, with new regulatory systems being implemented in the wake of some high-profile care failings. In this context, it’s refreshing to speak to an innovator so full of energy and positivity, determined to change the narrative and introduce young people to the rewards of a career in care.
Insequa: You are passionate about mentoring young people so that they recognise care as a serious career opportunity, succeeding in leadership roles in the Aged Care Industry. In the UK and Australia, the existing care workforce is getting older. How does the Acorn Network work to attract younger talent into the sector?
SB: Acorn Network highlights the current and emerging leaders in our industry by sharing their journeys (through our Podcast – Grey Revolution), connecting leaders with their tribe (through our mentoring programs and online communities), and advocating/challenging established elder social care leaders to step up and support clinical and non-clinical leaders of tomorrow (through conference presentations, workshops, and consulting).
Young people are ready to be part of our industry’s challenging discussions as we want to ensure the leadership legacy we inherit from the encumbents is a positive one.
Insequa:The core focus of the Acorn Network is to grow supportive connections between people in an industry where often people don’t necessarily have the time or opportunity to connect with others in the same situations. Is it harder in the care sector to make these sorts of connections than in other professions?
SB: It can definitely be challenging. Often we are overworked, overwhelmed and under-resourced. This creates a lot of stress and anxiety so networking can be the last thing on our minds. But imagine if you used networking to build our tribe – people who support your passion, hear your frustrations, and help us work together towards a solution.
On top of this, networking in social care is very divided by professions – nurses talk to nurses, business services stick to business services, executive leaders stay within their executive levels. Rarely do we have opportunities to talk with different leaders and professionals outside our organisations. THIS is what I have loved about Twitter, creating my own events, and travelling the world – interacting with people at different stages of their careers who have such a strong passion for elder social care. I learn so much, hear different opinions, learn about new resources, and am inspired every day by the people who give so much to the carers and nurses who support older people in our communities.
Insequa: Digital technology makes it possible for us to speak and connect with you in Australia so easily. How does the Acorn Network function in practice? Are a lot of your connections digital, or do you hold events where people meet in person?
SB: Acorn Network uses tech in so many ways. I must say I’m trying to reduce my tech consumption, but I just love connecting with people so much!
Our mentoring program creates partnerships between middle managers and CEOs across Australia so technology to us is incredibly important. We use skype, online communities, build online eCourses and use social media to spread positivity and awareness about the amazing leaders (young and established) in our workplaces. It’s amazing.
I use Skype for the Grey Revolution Podcast, and one of the Government Boards I’m on uses conference call software. Being on top of tech really helps me get involved in so many ways (I live almost 4,000kms from Sydney – so tech is vital for my work).
We also have run networking events and workshops, plus I’m a presenter in Australia and internationally on leadership, mentoring and intergenerational engagement in our aged care industry. So that’s a lot of travel – but I love my tribe. The stories and experiences they share make my job so worthwhile and inspires me to continue to think outside the box.
Insequa: The care industry is full of opportunities for the career minded. There is a recognisable career path, but many choose not to follow it. How can this be fixed?
SB: For many, recognisable career paths mean being a nurse to progress into management. Which is great if you’re a nurse.
Think outside this. Find what inspires you. Is it customer service? Developing and testing new businesses and services? Accounting? Or implementing great systems? Or even building great age-friendly towns/cities? Throw out the notion that there are career pathways.
I’ve talked to ex-NASA employees, cruise ship chefs, young entrepreneurs, and clinical nurses about their passion for our industry. The ‘traditional pathway’ needs to reinvent itself. That’s the beauty of our future. We can create and nurture our organisations to think differently and build new opportunities for us all.
Move sideways. Retrain in what sustains your passion for supporting our elders. Connect with a leader or mentor who can help you find ways to become the leader you have always wanted to be.
Organisations and Industry Peak Bodies must help promote different careers and engage people outside social care – connect them with our vision and bring them into our workplaces. By sharing our passions, hearing the different way people find their way into elder social care, and connecting with new ways of thinking, we can only build on our workforce’s strengths.
Insequa: Is it largely an image problem? We know how damaging and eroding negative press can be, be it lazy imagery used (wrinkly hands) or hysterical reporting of minor incidents, depressing stories of neglect and loneliness. The media does a lot to damage the image of the Aged Care sector – what could it do to actively help the Aged Industry become a more tempting option for younger people?
SB: In Australia, we are just about to enter into a Royal Commission on abuse and neglect in aged care. We will need to build resilience and surround ourselves with people who actively listen to all experiences so we can move forward and learn from these experiences.
To increase our profile we need to enter into places we never thought about going. And do it well. If you’re trying to attract young professionals, talk to them at primary school, secondary school, and in universities. There are strong studies that show young people (and their parents) form strong opinions about careers in elder social care. It’s time to break the stereotypes beyond nursing and care workers. Showcase these important frontline workers and those that support the amazing work they do! By opening ideas about what’s possible, and highlighting the different career opportunities in front of us we can ensure all ages can be inspired to support our workplaces.
On top of this, our organisations use outdated (and obvious) stock photos of older people. We can’t only blame the media, when our websites, brochures, and social media continue to support negative and outdated stereotypes we all suffer.
Insequa: What would you say to a care worker who loves what they do, who really wants to stick in the industry and make a difference to those they care for – but who isn’t sure how to take the next step in their career?
SB: Find your tribe. If you are keen to become the best care worker possible, then connect with others outside your organisation and industry for new ideas, best practices, and support others to be inspired by the amazing work you all provide.
If you’re looking to progress into a new role then see if you can take on projects outside of your comfort zone. Can you support an IT project (become an advanced user and be the go-to problem solver?), or even do a short secondment to another department to learn new skills.
Plus widen your professional networks. I love seeing people reach out to leaders and executives (they don’t bite!) to ask them for advice, and maybe even job shadow them for a day. Think, learn and grow with support from a tribe that is positive, and open to supporting new ways of thinking.
I’ve found mentors, professional connections, and new friends through Twitter, LinkedIn, and at conferences. For me, Twitter and LinkedIn have been the best place to learn about what our executives and influencers are saying and provide my own opinion. They do listen! Maybe something you can try today?
Insequa: Finding and keeping care staff is a massive headache for UK care providers. Does the Acorn Network play an active role in either of these areas? (Recruitment and retention), either organically or in an organised way?
SB: We support people in management roles to find the support they need to succeed. Through networking events, online communities, and our mentoring program.
Organisations invest large amounts of money in our managers (easily over $20,000 each) through training, induction and more. Keeping their skills and experiences in our industry needs to be a priority. In Australia, 38% of aged care clinical leaders are seeking to leave aged care in the next 5 years leaving us with a dearth of talent. Managers are huge influencers of organisational culture, and communicate our visions to teams who interact with your elders every day. It’s time Governments, Peaks Bodies, and organisations invested in middle managers as without them we can’t support carers and nurses to deliver the services our elders deserve.
Get in touch if you’re keen to learn more about what Acorn Network does.
Insequa:What excites you most about the future of Aged Care and community care in Australia?
SB: The Federal Government has just released their recommendations for an Aged Care Workforce Strategy. It calls into account everyone in our industry to support each other in building a better-aged care future for our elders. I’m very positive about what can be achieved and am working on projects right now that promote more workforce positivity, implementing new projects, and challenging our CEOs and industry leaders to step up in new ways – stay tuned!!
Insequa: When are you coming over to the UK again? I think we could learn a lot from your approach.
SB: I love the UK and am keen to return. I always learn so much about the great work everyone is doing. Challenges can be overcome, it just takes tenacity and persistence. I know you are all achieving so much.
I’d be happy to visit again if there’s an opportunity!