A Picture of Leadership with Ann Johnson

Former Regional Director of Finance, London

Question 1. Tell us about your current role (please provide your job title) and what you enjoy most about it?

Answer: I’m the Regional Director of Finance for London. My role is to help deliver the London Vision for the health of the population we serve within the resources that we have, and to develop our people. I enjoy that no day is the same, that I work with amazing people and that I can see a direct link between managing the finances well and impacting frontline services. Most importantly, I have a really dedicated, hard- working team who like to have a bit of fun too.

Question 2. Can you describe your career story?

Answer: I’d describe my career as unplanned, or meandering. I’ve always sought out work that interests me and working people who are like minded. I’ve gravitated towards roles that involve analytics and problem solving, which is perfect for a CFO. Half of my career has been in the private sector and half has been in the NHS. It has taken twists, turns, ups and downs, and I’ve learned so much from every job I’ve had…. especially those that didn’t go so well!

Question 3. Were there any role models who gave you a sense of what it is to be a leader or helped you on your journey?

Answer: My mam is my main role model. She brought three of us up on her own in the 1970s, and worked hard doing multiple jobs cleaning houses, washing dishes, and working in a canteen to support her family; and was positive and cheerful throughout. She’s 89 and still cleans my flat (sorry about the oven, Ma) when she comes to see me and stands up for the old people on the bus. Her work ethic and kindness are second to none and that inspires me every day.

I have two work role models:

  1. An unnamed CEO who gave me incredibly tough feedback, changes I needed to make that lots of people had observed but no one had taken the time to tell me. It was hard to hear (I seem to remember there were tears) but it helped me grow and improve. I try to model my approach to performance management on her three rules of feedback: is it true, is it kind, is it necessary? As a leader it’s my job to be honest with people when it can help them grow.
  2. David Sloman (Chief Operating Office for NHS England) is incredibly focussed, he gets to the heart of the matter very quickly, and every decision is about what is best for patients and the service. I learnt how ‘tell the story’ clearly and concisely, without jargon.

Question 4. What barriers have you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

Answer: Sexism, classism (I’ve got a strong northern accent), my own limiting self-belief, and not being heard (please look up ‘Punch cartoon Miss Triggs and you’ll see what I mean).

The biggest barrier is lack of self-belief, alternatively known as Impostor Syndrome. I’m afraid I don’t have a magic answer to this other than experience and taking every chance to speak up and say what you think – practice makes perfect. I also sought out feedback and have had a coach for the last fifteen years. She keeps me sane, keeps me positive and she really challenges me to grow and accept myself.

Question 5. How have you balanced the competing needs of a modern leadership role? How would you define a modern leadership role (e.g. what skills are required)?

Answer: I believe a modern leadership role requires:

  1. knowing when to delegate;
  2. empowering your team; and
  3. sharing your power and wisdom,

You cannot do it all, other people very often have better ideas than you.  Support your team to fly. I once appointed a CFO who was nervous about taking on their first Board position. My advice to them:  go for it, fly, and if you fall, I’ll be there to catch you. Guess what? They’re soaring and are now the Deputy CEO in addition to their bean-counting duties.

Some people see sharing your power as weak, I think it shows strength and faith in yourself- you have to be confident in yourself to do it well.  It’s everyone’s responsibility to develop the leaders coming up behind us, and people need to practice in order to grow. You have to accept they’ll never do it your way, they might even make mistakes, but they will likely get the same if not better results in the long run.

Ultimately, I think modern leadership is not ego driven.

Question 6. The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias, if you could change one thing to help achieve that objective what would it be?

Answer: I’d make all leaders empower and support women to take more risks and use their voices. I’d encourage everyone to listen to each other more and create space for those who are less confident or talkative to be heard.

Question 7. What advice would you give to finance staff in furthering their careers and becoming leaders?

Answer: Take chances. Make sure that you are heard and seen. Build your networks and work on influencing.  Be kind to yourself and be authentic in the workplace.

Also, learn when to take a break and when to ask for help. Paul Baumann and I were pretty much working round the clock when we were setting up NHS England a decade ago.  I smoked and had three chest infections in 6 months. I needed to make a change and overnight, with Paul’s blessing, I switched to 50 hours from 90 hours a week.  What happened?  Our productivity went through the roof, my team loved taking charge of many things that I’d held onto to save them the work (!), and I was far more effective once I was getting more rest and my head was clearer.

…it took another year to give up smoking, but that’s ok!

Question 8: What are the top 3 behaviours you value most in a role model?

Answer: Integrity, positivity, delivery, kindness, humour (Editor’s note: Ann says sorry she can’t add up and that’s more than 3)

Question 9: have you been interviewed/does your organisation interview explicitly use a value-based approach below executive level? s

Answer: Yes

Question 10. What do you enjoy doing outside of the working week?

Answer: I love going to fitness retreats (I’m thinking about taking up boxing again), laughing with my mates, going to the theatre, cooking and playing with my family.