Dr Bridie O’Donnell is a Medical Doctor and Educator at Epworth Health Check and Breast Care Physician at Epworth Breast Service. While most people polarise themselves into either the arts or science, Bridie is the embodiment of the multidimensional modern women, displaying great breadth and depth across multiple landscapes through her various roles that include: team manager and rider for Total Rush Hyster women’s cycling team; broadcaster; SisuGirls Podcast creator/presenter and Ambassador for Disability Sport and Recreation.
Bridie discusses her unshakeable desire to be exceptional with Dalton Koss HQ.
In May, 2015, during the 2015 Mersey Valley Tour in Tasmania, Cycling Australia delivered a fantastic development opportunity that allowed 13-16 year old young women to have access to professional cycle racing teams. Part of the program saw two young women sitting in the team car with our team director. The program organiser also asked me to talk to the young women on a panel one evening after racing. This wonderful opportunity to chat with these young women prompted a discussion on whether I am a role model. I used to think that to be a good leader and/or role model you needed to have a high level of achievement, for example, be an Olympic or world champion. My thinking on this has changed. I have come to realise that being a good leader/role model is about the choices you make and the learning taken from these decisions.
I am a good role model due to the choices and pathways I have taken. I didn’t choose the easiest paths; there were many negative and hard moments. I became an athlete late in life and I often took guidance from the wrong people in my haste to progress quickly. In both medicine and sports, I do my best to model how to do things, and communicate how to do things. I have high standards of organisation and communication and I know I find it difficult to work with people who are not organised or are poor communicators. I am incredibly clear about what I expect from people in advance. I am consultative, and it is important for me to understand other people’s values. For example, as Team Manager I meet with all the riders pre-race to chat about our tactics and who will be doing what. I also lead by example. I am the hardest riding member of the team. I am modelling for them: honesty, clear communication and commitment to the team not as an individual rider within a team. I can be a workaholic when it comes to team commitment and I am willing to work hard and do what others are not willing to do. As I started my professional cycling career later in life, I have always considered myself to have lower levels of physical talent. I found this out the hard way when I was a professional cyclist in Europe. However, I always move on from disappointment. I always make an effort to understand and take into account expectations from those around me as it can affect team performance, whether it is in sport or medicine.
My experiences in medicine have created a personal foundation for clear communication. Over the years I have noticed that a high proportion of doctors are poor communicators. This is due to the traditional modes of medical education and student selection processes. Of course there are numerous specialist skills but they often exclude being a good listener, empathetic and approaching the patient’s problem from a holistic viewpoint, i.e. what else is happening in the patient’s life that is influencing their current health problem. I see it as my duty to teach mindful listening for influencing behaviour change. To create an appropriate strategy for any patient it requires listening time to develop a holistic approach to address their needs. Generally, doctors are time poor, over worked and resentful, and this influences how they view their patients. This creates poor behavioural models in senior doctors that continue to manifest across generations of medical practitioners.
Personally, there were few opportunities and accessibility to great medical mentors. My behaviour and approach to patients and colleagues has been developed from observations of how not to behave. I try my best to be kind and to pause before I verbalise my frustration with a patient on their unhealthy choices. It is incredibly important that I listen to my patients so I can understand their values. This allows me to assist them in finding different paths to create behaviour change. It is about asking the questions, “Is this important to you?” and “What would have to change for this to become a higher priority / likelihood?”
It is important to acknowledge how lucky we are. I am very fortunate. My parents were educated and employed. They were interested in education. At a young age I said to my parents that I wanted to be a doctor and they supported me. It is a fortunate position to be in and I was very lucky. I went to university, received a top education and probably will never be unemployed. When I took time off medical work to become a full time athlete I didn’t have the disposable income that I was used to. I quickly realised that material things did not make me happy.
Key words I use to describe effective and successful leadership are:
- Action: Always model good behaviour, act on your personal values and what they stand for. In sport there is general hypocrisy, deceit and not honouring the things you promised to do. On a hilly stage of the 2015 Mersey Valley Tour it was my job to get my team leader to the bottom of a major climb in the best position. I was physically and mentally exhausted, but it was important that I acted on what I promised. I dug deep, pushed out the mental blockages and got on with my promise. Acting on this promise provided me with ammunition to prove to my team that I followed up on my deal and highlighted the importance of making a race plan.
- Kindness, thankfulness and gratitude are all required in leadership. Kindness will always be taken on board by the recipient and will influence their acts and attitudes in your relationship with them. However, it is important to be kind and express gratitude when it is deserved and not as a means to win friends.
- Listening and Empathy: If you do not listen and try to understand someone’s perspective you will never get that person on board. Understanding a person’s motivation and perspective is essential for any successful teamwork.
- Honesty: You have to be honest and upfront with yourself and to the people around you.
- Being Tall: metaphorically and physically. Feeling tall comes with confidence and age. Now that I am 41, I find men still tell me what to do, even those with little or no experience in my field. I just smile and say ‘thanks,’ but let them know that I have a plan. I don’t need people to like me anymore. I am better at negotiation and doing what is best for me. Men are usually more assertive as women are taught to be softer in their approach. I don’t care about this anymore and I stand tall for myself.
My biggest challenge was leaving my secure and stable situation in Australia to start a professional cycling career in Europe. Over time I have come to realise that this experience taught me a lot of things. I was stripped of my ability to freely communicate. I was living in Italy and riding for Italian professional teams who spoke little to no English. My Italian was poor and my inability to communicate was stifling, isolating, lonely, disempowering and terrifying. My Intel was at base level with limited ability to ask the important questions such as, “When will I get paid?” and “Where do I go after the race?” I could only connect to others one on one or in small groups. I was living with younger women of different maturity levels and I missed my family. My ego also raised its head; I was grown up, a doctor and I was being patronised by those who were supposed to guide and coach me in this journey. It was also difficult to acknowledge to myself that I signed up for this, placing my strengths on the line. This European experience has become relative to everything else that I have done in my life.
After four years in Europe and year in the USA, I came back to Australia to work in medicine. It was easy in comparison! They paid me to show up….I received good feedback… patients loved that I had energy. What is not to like when I get paid, thanked and appreciated for my work in something I enjoy. It was a breath of fresh air.
It has been a relief that I didn’t need to go down a traditional medical career path. When you do something slightly different from the traditional path it surprises others. It is risky. Medical practitioners are often very risk averse and frequently scared of ‘failing’ when it comes to their ego. We need to fail more to test and push ourselves. It is similar with people in long-term relationships not asking themselves if this is as good as it can be? Could I do a better job as a partner? It is absolutely important to ask ourselves whether we are doing the best job to be our best in our personal and professional life. We all have scope to be our best and decent self and not go down the path of being mean and deceitful.
I am a big fan of change and taking control of my destiny. I don’t fear anymore. I was married, got divorced and I don’t have any major regrets; it was a hard but the best decision. Life is a natural progression; the more skillful you appear, the more maturity you have, the more senior you are. They say courage is ‘feeling the fear but doing it anyway,’ and it’s true: I feel fear a lot of the time but I go ahead and try things anyway. The fear of looking foolish, making a mistake or humiliating yourself can be controlling but it is important to embrace risk. Change is the only way to becoming the best you can be.
What am I successful at? Time management, communication, making mistakes and the ability for self-reflection. As I mature I am being kinder to myself. I even like myself. Being a perfectionist it is not sustainable on a daily level and it is ok to be mediocre some days. It is about how you manage feelings of disappointment, frustration and mediocrity that makes you a successful leader. It is important to acknowledge how you feel, let it sit and watch it. It is about managing whatever you are going through. Having a good coach and/or mentor with realistic goals is really important. You need the right coach when you are an athlete and it is the same for mentors in a business context. We don’t always know what we need from a mentor/coach until we have a bad experience.
Each year in August every professional road cyclist worries about whether they have a contract for the next season. This worry is linked to your sense of self worth and ability as a bike rider. You receive feedback about variables that you cannot control. I see a lot of athletes that end up in crappy teams because they do not want to compromise on their values. People do not know when to quit and when they should compromise. There is a myth in the sports industry that hard work is rewarded. I learnt the hard way that very few people reward you for your hard work. Rather, I witnessed on a number of occasions that selfish behaviours are acceptable and rewarded. Having a small taste of being a high profile person is exhausting and can be quite corrupting if you are young. However, this comes back to being kind and behaving as a role model, but simultaneously being straight forward and honest.
I do something everyday to maintain my mental and physical health and wellbeing. Most of the time it’s riding which makes me feel well, or less tired or just gives me greater mental space. If I don’t do it, I feel subhuman. Part of it is the solitude and my need for time out. It is quite tiring to be a good behaviour change Doctor, a mindful listener and assist patients making decisions, so in order to be at my best I need my time out. At those times, I don’t want to talk or engage with others. I prefer to ride and train on my own rather than engage with bad conversationalists. I enjoy watching great TV series or doing Sudoku; it is not overly intellectual but I am being entertained. I am a big fan of film and watch a lot of movies. Boredom is underrated. Seeking constant stimulation, such as being plugged into social media, is unhealthy. Doing routine work such as cleaning and listening to radio is a great way to disconnect.
Instead of following the pack, it is important to find a sporting club that supports your needs. As a female cyclist it is important for me to be a member of a club that places female cycling at the forefront and that advocates and promotes women events. Currently, I’m coincidentally only working with women in medicine, which is a big change from my former life as an elite athlete where all positions of authority are held by men. I enjoy working with women. Too often I see older men giving unsolicited advice that is laced with discriminatory behaviour to women younger then them. It is fortuitous to work with hard working and smart women. Your working environment needs to be invigorating and supportive and how this plays out will vary with age, your role and where you want to be in the future.
To learn more about Bridie and the organisations she supports, please click on the links below:
Dr Bridie O’Donnell: www.bridie.com.au
Disability Sport and Recreation: http://www.dsr.org.au
Sisu Girls http://www.sisugirls.org