Dr Michael Biggs OAM is one of Australia’s leading neurosurgeons, who treats patients with excruciating neurological conditions. Through a La Trobe online MBA, he made the leap to medical management at the top of his career.
In his 27-year career as a neurosurgeon, La Trobe alumnus Dr Michael Biggs OAM has performed over 10,000 operations. He’s treated patients with extremely painful disorders of the brain, spine and nerves, working long hours with his surgical team to complete life-saving surgeries. At the same time, he’s established himself as a leader in the business of neurosurgery.
When Sydney’s North Shore Private Hospital opened in 1998, for example, it was Michael who established its first-class neurosurgical department. As founder, chair and departmental head (1998-2015), he grew the private unit to become the largest in Australia.
“At the time, there was just myself and one other neurosurgeon. Since then, we’ve grown to 11 neurosurgeons and we do upwards of 1,600 operations in the year,” Michael says.
On top of his busy neurosurgical work, Michael also took on roles as chair of the hospital’s Medical Advisory Committee; founder and chair of its Patient Care Review Committee; director of the Neurosurgical Society of Australia; and as co-founder of The Brain Cancer Group, a charity that’s raised over $15 million for brain cancer research, education and patient and carer support.
It might come as a surprise, then, to discover what Michael did next.
Having excelled as a neurosurgeon for over two decades, Michael upskilled at the top of his medical career. In 2015, he enrolled in an online Master of Business Administration (MBA) at La Trobe – and swapped his weekends for study.
When medicine meets management
The impetus for Michael’s MBA was a new appointment in a management role. In April 2015, Michael was appointed the inaugural Director of Medical Services across three of Sydney’s busiest hospitals: North Shore Private Hospital, Castlecrag Private Hospital and Hunters Hill Private Hospital.
“Up until then, I didn’t have a lot of experience in management beyond chairing committees. I felt that if I was to continue a career in medical management, I probably needed to learn something about management. An MBA seemed like a reasonable thing to do,” Michael says.
So began one of the busiest periods in Michael’s career. While studying, he juggled his new managerial role and continued his clinical work, squeezing five days’ work into three.
For Michael, having his family’s support while studying was vital.
“I had to spend about 18 hours a week on each subject, so that pretty much occupied my Saturdays and Sundays. I’d like to acknowledge my wife of 30 years, Ros, who not only managed to keep me fed and watered, but also managed all the household duties and running around with the children while I was studying.”
The La Trobe MBA’s high global ranking and online delivery mode were two things that led Michael to choose La Trobe.
“Firstly, I wanted an MBA that was highly regarded on both the national and international stage. Secondly, I was looking for an MBA that was entirely online. La Trobe’s online MBA program ranked very high – it’s currently the 3rd-ranked online MBA program in Australia,” he says.
Discovering ambition through personal challenge
Michael’s drive to continually advance his career reflects a strong sense of ambition. It’s a quality that was tested early on, as he faced stigma as a young man.
“I’ve had a speech impediment my whole life, as do one per cent of the adult population. I had to put up with ridicule at school, and perhaps that made me stronger,” Michael says.
Back in 1988, in his first year as a neurosurgical trainee, Michael was told bluntly by a senior neurosurgeon to pick a different career.
I remember it distinctly. He took me aside and said I should go and find something else to do, as I’d never make a decent neurosurgeon with a stutter. It was like a red rag to a bull.
“I was never going to let an old, ignorant sexagenarian tell me what I could or couldn’t achieve in life. And while I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I later came across a great quote by Bruce Willis, who also has a speech impediment. He said, ‘Never let anyone make you feel like an outcast, because you will never be an outcast.’ And that’s exactly what I thought when that senior neurosurgeon challenged me.”
From Michael’s perspective, some of the most successful people in history have experienced a speech impediment. In addition to Bruce Willis, he cites actors and performers Samuel L Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and naturalist Charles Darwin. Alongside them are political leaders from all over the world: George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lenin and, of course, King George VI, whose struggle with stammering was the subject of the 2010 film The King’s Speech.
For Michael, bringing this kind of perspective to his speech impediment has been key. These days, he’s confident presenting a conference paper in front of a thousand colleagues. And while he still notices occasional imperfections in fluency, he’s dialed down his inner critic.
In sharing his personal challenge, Michael hopes to inspire others to draw on their own inner strength.
“I hope that somewhere out there, a young student at La Trobe University who also has a speech impediment will read this. I want them to know that they can achieve whatever they want.”
Launching a business and receiving an OAM
Since graduating, Michael has applied his MBA by establishing his own successful business. After wrapping up his managerial role in 2017, he seized the opportunity to build his own brand as a sole trader.
“My neurosurgery business has gone incredibly well. I credit a lot of its success to lessons I learnt from my MBA – particularly regarding leadership and marketing skills. Learning how to position myself within a competitive neurosurgery market has been a great advantage,” he says.
Fortunately for Michael, the support of his family has continued beyond his MBA. His wife and daughter are now employed at Biggs Neurosurgery as executive assistant and practice manager, respectively.
“Not only are they highly skilled in their respective roles, but they’ve brought so much to the business, driving revenue and slashing our expenses,” Michael says.
It’s showed me the importance of having people in your business who not only understand the stressors and pinch-points you’re going through, but who have skin in the game. People who aren’t just interested in their fortnightly salaries, but who are also focused on making the business succeed.
Michael’s family were also right beside him when, in 2019, he received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to medicine as a neurosurgeon.
“Being awarded my Order of Australia was a great honour. It not only recognised my work as a neurosurgeon for 30 years, but also as a medical administrator and philanthropist. I couldn’t have done it without the great support of my family – my wife Ros, my daughter Meg and my son Adam.”
Leadership that inspires
Among many things an MBA teaches you is an understanding of your personal leadership style, strengths and gaps. A leadership approach that comes naturally to Michael is his ability to genuinely inspire others. Nowhere is this more evident than in his passion for using cutting-edge technology in the operating theatre.
“I’ve always been very keen to embrace technology that reduces risks and adverse patient outcomes. But I’ve also had to motivate people to invest in it, by pointing out the advantages, as some surgeons are very fixated on how things are done and they don’t like things to change,” he says.
Indeed, it was neurosurgery’s disruptive potential that drew Michael to it as a career.
“I went into neurosurgery because it was the one field of surgery, above all others, that was new. Neurosurgery only began in the 1920s in the US. When I started my career, I was part of the third generation of neurosurgeons in Australia,” Michael says.
Every day something new was discovered about the brain and what surgery could achieve. Things in neurosurgery have changed and improved at such a pace, and I find that exciting and fascinating.
Throughout his career, Michael has witnessed an ‘explosion of technical advances’ in neurosurgery, across both imaging and surgery. CT scans were introduced in the 1970s, followed by MRI scans, with the first machine installed at Royal North Shore Hospital in the late 1980s.
Surgical techniques changed rapidly, too. Improved microscopes provided better illumination and magnification during operations. Then, in the late 1990s, came a huge development: neuro-navigation systems.
“Neuro-navigation systems are basically a small version of a satellite navigation system within the operating theatre. They’ve allowed us to operate with millimetre precision anywhere inside the brain,” Michael explains.
Today, that technological precision is advancing again, with arrival of the robotic era of surgery.
“Robotics are going to play a very big role in how we do our spinal fusions. When you do a fusion, you have to place a number of screws in the spine, and when you’re placing a screw there’s an inherent risk that you may misplace it and injure a nerve,” he says.
“Now, prior to surgery, we can plan on a CT scan and define exactly where we want to place our screws. And a robot can place itself exactly at that point where the screw should be inserted. It removes any margin of error. We’ve just installed a robot at North Shore Private Hospital and, outside the US, it’s the most-used robot in the world.”
Advice for first-time leaders
As tech disruption and digital health advancements abound, being adaptable has become a critical skill for leaders in medicine and beyond. For those going into a leadership position for the first time, Michael has three further tips.
“The first thing is: listen, listen, listen. Whether it’s leading a team of surgeons through a complex operation, or leading a department of 11 neurosurgeons, applying effective listening has helped me make effective management decisions. Remember that every team member – in theatre, ICU and nursing and paramedical staff on the ward – has important information to purvey,” he says.
“Second: lead by example. I try to role model openness and clarity. After I’ve listened to my team, I strive to be transparent about the decision I’ve made. That way, I’m able to say with confidence, ‘This is what we’re going to do’.
“And finally, consider doing an MBA at La Trobe University. I wish I’d done mine 30 years ago – it would have been very useful throughout my career!”
Last updated: 28th July 2020