A Picture of Leadership with Azara Mukhtar

Director of Finance, Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust

Question: Tell us about your current role and what you enjoy most about it?

Answer: I’m currently the Director of Finance at Oxleas NHS FT. I love that every day is different, and you get involved in everything (workforce/operations) as it involves resources. We have a great Executive team and Board and it’s very supportive – there aren’t the dominating egos that I’ve experienced elsewhere. Oxleas is a stable organisation focusing on mental health, community physical and offender healthcare, and it is massively expanding. The prison portfolio has doubled in 12 months and we are now working with 20 prisons, and that growth has been fascinating to work on. Mental Health Provider Collaboratives, we have three in South London, is also something I’ve enjoyed working on with SLAM and South West London & St. George’s; plus, the pace of change during the pandemic, with huge complexity as a result of covid and the impact on mental health. I like to keep busy as I can get easily bored.

Question: Can you describe your career story?

Answer: I didn’t have a planned career but rather took opportunities as they were presented.  I started working in Scotland and worked for KPMG which gave me a really good grounding on the basics of finance. I finished my three years training and then moved to London and started temping at Westminster Council, but I quickly realised it wasn’t for me. A permanent Internal Audit job at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ (GSTT) came up and I took it, even thought it was less money that Westminster Council had offered, which is indicative of my career choices – It’s not about the money but the role. I joined in 1995 and stayed in the department for 18 months. It was an interesting and good grounding in the NHS. The finance department brought in competency-based interviews, and I was seconded into a Band 7 equivalent financial management role. In the end I worked in virtually every department at GSTT with lots of sideways moves. I was at Barts & The London for 5 years as the Head of Financial Management, then Deputy Director of Finance, and 8 months acting Director of Finance. I moved to become Deputy Director of Finance & Investment for NHS London, working for Paul Baumann. I stayed for 5 years, which gave me a strategic overview e.g. system working, commissioning and provider relationships. I then got seconded into Croydon University Hospital as Interim DoF before applying and being made permanent in 2013. This was a really challenging health and social care economy and it took 6 years to reduce the underlying deficit and resolve the quality issues. When Croydon moved to place based arrangements, the restructure left me on the at-risk register.   Ann Johnson, London Regional Director of Finance helped source a number of different posts I could apply for and in the end, I plumped for a move to Oxleas.  I had never worked in mental health and prison healthcare, and I thought it would be fascinating and different. That was Jan 2020 and I’ve been here ever since.

Question: 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: I don’t tend to role model individuals but rather be a magpie and pick out qualities and approaches I liked or aspired to.  There were never a huge number of female role models in my earlier career as there were so few female directors when I was coming up, Ann Johnson has made a huge impact on appointing diverse candidates during her time as London Regional Director of Finance and I think this does allow people to aspire to more senior roles as they can see themselves reflected in the people doing the roles.

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

Answer:  Values driven, knowledgeable and authentic

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

Answer:  Always felt a degree of ‘other’ in terms of being female and being brown. In my first role in the NHS I was the sole, and first ever, female employee there and my manager said although I was the best candidate technically that I was a less of a fit due to that. I did find the culture laddish, for example I used to be referred to as ‘my dear’ by my manager and endless talk about football and drinking but I kept my head down and just let my work do the talking.

My work on a high-profile audit gave me the opportunity of a secondment into financial management which I had never done before. I had a degree of self-confidence that came from being secure in my knowledge base and I built up my experience through sideways moves when in Band 7- 8B roles. I would go down Person Specifications and identify the 90% I could do (would go as low as 80%, otherwise I wouldn’t apply). I have never gone for something where I knew I met 60% or less of the person specification but those early sideways moves did mean I would go for jobs where I had not got previous experience as I knew I could do it.

I’m single and don’t have children which makes it easier as the work/life balance can be non-existent in senior roles and I don’t know how women, or men, who are primary carers do it. I was a carer for my elderly mum, and I found balancing that during a working week really hard. In the end you had to be both disciplined and flexible in your approach.  We have to got to be flexible and allow people to find their work life balance as long as the job gets done. Recently I’ve been trying to get a better work/life balance and encourage my team to do that as well.

I also used to be very boundaried around my personal life and that held me back when I became an Exec as working at that level is all about relationship building and you need to let people in to do that. It used to take me quite a bit of time to develop those relationships.  I’ve worked on that over the last 5 years and its realising that you can show vulnerability – Oxleas has been great for that, and it has actually built stronger relationships with colleagues during the pandemic.

Question: 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: You need to have an understanding of the technical to support your team, a grasp of the strategic and particularly the wider cost drivers and context as both organisational, place, system and region.  You will always have line management relationships so I carve out time in my schedule to make sure I can do that as well as mentoring. As you become more senior then you end up being more externally focused. Moving away from the technical/operational and moving into influencing other individuals and taking people on a journey through telling a story and building a compelling narrative. As we move into ICBs it is also about bring that context back into your organisation

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: Being brave and speaking out if you see bias.  I think women sometimes think this will make them not liked but actually you are giving voice to others who are hesitant and less confident about speaking out.  Often when you speak out re bias you find that others support you. I have found this to be the case, but it does require courage to be the first to speak out.

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

Answer: Be open to opportunities and new experiences even if you feel you are out of your comfort zone.  Be prepared to find the first 3-6 months in a new role feel like you have bitten off more than you can chew – it’s how you grow into the role, and you will get there.  Find support networks that you help you through this either with others going through the same experience or from a trusted mentor.

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

Answer: Yes, at Oxleas we have a Building a Fairer Oxleas approach which links into our values of “we’re Kind we’re Fair we Listen we Care.  This should lead to a specific question in every interview.

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

Answer: I take pleasure from simple things like walking and taking in nature, reading, going to museums and having dinner with my family and friends. I used to do a lot of travelling pre-Covid and loved seeing other cultures – I want to get back into it.