From hurricanes to healthcare – leadership in HealthTech during COVID-19

11 Sep 2020

From hurricanes to healthcare – leadership in HealthTech during COVID-19

In conversation with Andy Thorburn, CEO of EMIS Group Plc

Speaking to leaders about their experiences of steering organisations through the challenges of COVID-19, we’ve seen strong links between a company’s preparedness, culture and agility and their success to confront the challenges and transform for the longer term. For the most successful leaders, it has meant embracing the opportunity for an organisation-wide reset, not just to ‘weather the storm’. For Andy Thorburn of EMIS Group, weathering storms has taken on meaning both figuratively and literally.

We spoke to him about his transition to the helm of one of the UK’s leading health technology and solutions providers after a senior career in the technology and telecommunications sectors. He explains how he and his colleagues have led EMIS through the recent months of COVID-19 and their plans for the longer-term transformation of the business.

Waiting for hurricanes

It’s not every day that one meets a leader who has led an international telecoms business through the annual onslaught of the Caribbean hurricane season. Living outside of his comfort zone appears to be something Andy Thorburn does really well.

Thorburn spent a number of years in the Caribbean with Digicel, one of the region’s leading mobile network and entertainment providers, as head of their Jamaican business and then across the region. Not only was he responsible for commercial and operational performance, but he also had to ensure that Digicel’s people, systems and processes were robust enough to cope with five months of seriously troublesome weather conditions.

“Every year, hurricanes come in June and end in November, with the worst arriving in September and October; so you get used to planning for extreme events”, says Thorburn, reflecting on the professional challenges he faced as CEO of a business providing critical services to communities across the Caribbean. But by listening to the experts, preparing for the unexpected and building agility and responsiveness into the fabric of the organisation, Thorburn and his colleagues were repeatedly able to take fast decisions and mobilise emergency operations, so that service disruption was either avoided or minimised for their customers. If we look at his experience through the lens of the current crisis, the leap from hurricanes to healthcare isn’t so great. Indeed, Thorburn seems to have translated his experience into the healthcare world with success.

Preparing for the storm

He and his colleagues “saw COVID-19 coming from a long way off”, comments Thorburn. Because of EMIS’ position as a leading provider of GP, pharmacy and emergency care systems, the business constantly follows trends in public health and analyses the potential impact of local and world events on the health of the UK population. This is about making sure the products and support they provide to healthcare professionals across the country, including during crises like the current pandemic, are updated and effective when they are needed most. In fact, EMIS made the necessary system changes well ahead of the point at which the virus was upgraded to a pandemic and we all realised it was something to be taken seriously. Not only were they able to ensure complete continuity for their NHS customers, as a business they also had the agility and confidence to move most of their 1,500 employees to home-working two weeks ahead of the prime minister’s lock-down announcement.

 “The answer is COVID, so what’s the question?” was a mantra Thorburn used with his senior team to focus on taking the right decisions. Indeed, since the explosion of the pandemic, EMIS has had to balance new COVID-19-related activity that it hadn’t planned for with supporting customers using existing products and services and development of the future product set,  and yet they have not placed a single staff member on furlough. For Thorburn and his colleagues, it was about “doing the right thing for customers and colleagues, and never about making money from COVID”. That said, the business has maintained strong performance and has clearly reinforced its well-earned reputation as an essential part of the NHS fabric. Thorburn and his colleagues should rightly feel confident about the future of EMIS, building further on the strong ethos of partnership and collaboration that so clearly drives the organisation and its people. “The heroes of this situation are the people of the NHS, not EMIS. Our role is to make sure they have the support they need.”

Leading an evolution

Andy Thorburn’s focused and empowering leadership style has clearly stood EMIS in good stead during what has been the most challenging phase of its story so far. But when you talk through these challenges with Thorburn it is clear that as a CEO he has taken this in his stride. Not only has EMIS successfully transitioned into a home-based organisation for the duration of the lock-down, but he and his colleagues are also clearly treating the crisis as a golden opportunity to transform for the future.

Learning from recent experience and from the findings of a staff survey, Thorburn and his colleagues are taking some bold decisions. “EMIS will now be a  flexible -working organisation,” says Thorburn. “Work is underway to transform our larger office spaces to suit a more modern, flexible style of working. For most of our 1,500 staff, the office will become a place for team meetings, collaboration on key projects and knowledge sharing.”

How can he be so confident that this is the right course of action for the future and not just the influence of shorter-term factors?

“We’ve got to know our people much better in the last few months through all of our VC meetings,” says Thorburn, having had a more direct window into people’s home lives and personal circumstances. Thorburn feels he has understood better how people need (and want) to work in the future and understood how EMIS can enhance how it engages with its teams and with its customers. Becoming a flexible working organisation is one major step and as part of this, Thorburn and his colleagues will also introduce more flexible working hours to accommodate those team members who now this to fulfil their roles and have balance in their lives. When EMIS surveyed its staff the results were conclusive - 96% of UK staff were happy With new flexible working arrangements.

EMIS seems to have gone the extra mile to maintain the engagement of their people through this pandemic, organising such events as an online seminar with hostage survivor John McCarthy on how to cope with the isolation and restrictions of lockdown. There are regular ‘Ask Andy’ sessions, a forum through which any member of staff can pose questions to the boss, and also, remembering that employees have interests and responsibilities outside work, lots of things to engage all family members such as poetry, painting competitions and quizzes.

But beyond these initiatives, all of which speak to the values and culture of EMIS, Thorburn feels that their strong engagement is down to an organisation-wide belief in the work that they do to improve healthcare for communities around the UK, particularly during this time of crisis.

Lessons in leadership

There are undoubtedly many lessons to be learnt from the EMIS story. Thorburn says that “as a leader you have to see early, plan early and take decisions fast.” In the same way he used to plan for the arrival of hurricanes, he and his colleagues at EMIS saw COVID-19 coming early, they made a plan and acted fast. And by being sincere, communicative and ensuring that the organisation understood the plan ahead of time, EMIS was able to achieve a transition in a couple of days that many other organisations are still struggling with four months later, and the impact will be long-lasting as they define the future blueprint of the company.

Thorburn is passionate about communicating openly with his teams. Over many years he has learnt that “you have to listen to people, ask the right questions and give them the platform to contribute”. So far, this approach has worked well for him, but he also accepts that good timing has played a small role in achieving EMIS’s strong position. Last year, they sold off their specialist and care segment an area of the business that may have been heavily impacted by the pandemic. The decision to sell was taken as part of EMIS’s strategy to focus on, and invest further in their core services, and whilst the timing has worked out well, this is an example of the value of good judgement and strategic insight. Having a plan and acting on it.

Thorburn is a gracious CEO. He values the expertise and the contributions of the people around him and makes regular reference to them. When he moved to the wind-swept Caribbean to run Digicel, he was neither an expert in mobile telephone networks nor was he a meteorologist. Equally, he joined EMIS with limited knowledge of the healthcare sector but with a clear mandate to drive change and growth across the organisation. Many leaders will talk about the need to hire strong people who bring insight and challenge to the table, but not all will do it. By working with the experts, Thorburn has translated his leadership skills into very different environments and succeeded. He attributes some of this success to being unhampered by a detailed knowledge of the sector, and therefore focusing on the big picture. Looking forwards, he feels this is something business leaders need to do much more, particularly “giving themselves time to think, especially in a crisis. Step back and look at the macro.”


What about self-care? A nice phrase of the day and, thankfully, something we are all being urged to take more seriously. Surely no senior leader who has taken an organisation through the last few months would ignore the direct correlation between good physical and mental health, and one’s ability to perform well under fire. Andy Thorburn certainty wouldn’t. As with his approach to leading organisations, he has learnt a good deal over the years about how to protect and maintain his own personal performance. For a start, he is disciplined with his schedule and has a blanket rule of no meetings between 6 am and 10 am. “This is my time for emailing, personal work and it means I’m available to make instant decisions,” he explains. After a structured but nevertheless intense workday, Thorburn then has a strict stop at 6 pm, after which his time is for himself, family, fitness and other things that help maintain the balance. It’s hard to imagine somebody in his position not checking their emails late into the evening, worrying about all the plates they have spinning. But Andy Thorburn convinces that he has the confidence, strength of character and trust in the people around him to pull this off. Most days, at least.

Keeping time in the diary to think is also really important and is often neglected by leaders who get caught up in the weeds of their organisations. For Thorburn, it is about remaining engaged with the bigger picture, understanding the developing world in which EMIS operates and making sure he and his team are prepared for the next hurricane or, dare we say it, the next pandemic.  

Final word

We asked Andy Thorburn for one final reflection on his organisation’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. This is what he said: “The team could not have done better. There’s not one thing I would change”.

How many of us will be able to say that when this is all over?