A Picture of Leadership with Caroline Owusu-Bennoah

Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Financial Officer, Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Trust

Q1. Tell us about your current role and what you enjoy most about it?

A: I am currently the Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Financial Officer at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Trust (RNOH).

What I most enjoy about the role is the huge variety that I have within my portfolio.  This includes finance, procurement, private patients, coding and informatics.  This means that no two days are ever the same.

I particularly enjoy the strategic elements of my job, looking at our future role, both within North Central London Integrated Care System, and nationally as the UK’s leading specialist orthopaedic hospital. As part of this work, we are looking at how we can support the musculoskeletal pathway from start to finish.

I also love the challenge of raising the profile of finance within RNOH: working across the organisation to help colleagues understand NHS finances and how RNOH fits into that system.

Q2. Can you describe your career story?

A: I started my career on the NHS National Graduate Management Training Programme.  This was after deferring my masters to get married and then going on to have a child.  A combination of a young family and accountancy exams (along with a husband who was doing his masters) made for a challenging start!

The Training Programme gave me exposure to Mental Health, Primary Care, and an Acute Hospital.  I was then offered job as a Service Line Reporting accountant at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust (BHR). My first year involved a lot of reading and understanding Payment by Results and how it interacts with costing. I stayed at BHR for 5 years, eventually becoming Associate Director of Finance looking after planning, strategy and income.

I then decided I needed a new challenge and moved to Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust (Lewisham).  I stayed there for 5 years and did 2 different jobs, eventually becoming Deputy Director of Finance, with responsibility for contracts, income, costing and financial accounts.

I then moved to RNOH.  This wasn’t something I had planned, but I was encouraged by a couple of my mentors/sponsors to apply.  Their encouragement gave me the confidence to go for it, and I was successful.

Q3. Were there any role models who gave you a sense of what it is to be a leader or helped you on your journey?

A:  I’m lucky to have had several great role models during my career.

Ann Johnson (London Region Director of Finance) who I worked with at Lewisham is currently  my sponsor.  When I first worked with Ann, she gave me so much confidence, one of my colleagues described the transformation: “it was as if your wings had been tied but now they’d been released and you are flying”.  Ann gave me the backing and support to make all the mistakes I needed – all she asked was that I was fully transparent with her, now that is a great boost in confidence!

David Wragg (CFO at Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust) has also been an important influence on my career.  I first worked with David at BHR.  David has a lot of experience and breadth in knowledge and he and taught me the importance of knowing the business.  He can also tear up a set of figures in minutes! You had better get your numbers right before you present them to Mr Wragg!

Q4: What are the top 3 behaviours you value most in a role model?

A: I think a good role model is someone who empowers people to get on and do their job. They give people a confidence boost by drawing out what is good in them and making sure that they are aware of their strengths.

It’s also important that role models promote diversity across the range of protected characteristics.  I think we have made progress on this in the NHS over the last 10 – 15 years but there is still a lot more to do. It’s clear to me that having a range of experience and backgrounds helps bring different perspectives and improves decision making.

Finally, a good role model displays empathy and emotional intelligence. They don’t just care about work; they care about you as an individual.

Q5. What barriers have you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

A: Whilst I may have faced external barriers I have always preferred to focus on internal barriers.

I think the main barrier I have faced is related to confidence in my own ability to do the job.  Research has shown that women are more prone than men to look at a job description and think ‘there is lots here I can’t do’ rather than focussing on the elements at which they would excel.

I have had to push myself to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself.  You also need to be able to sell yourself, one skill that I still lack.  When I applied for my current role I spent a lot of my preparation time focussing on that, including getting external feedback to help give me the confidence that I was ready for this job.

Q6. 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)?

A: I think that increasingly it’s not about your technical skills (which are a given).  The key challenge of a modern leadership role is your ability to influence, whilst interacting with many other organisations.  You also need to be able to develop and empower teams to deliver their jobs.

Emotional intelligence is also more highly valued than it was previously, along with a welcome focus on staff wellbeing – we will always struggle to deliver for our patients unless we look after our own people.

Q7. 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?

A:  I would look to support more people to come out of their shell and recognise their potential.  In my view there are a lot of people across NHS finance who are ready for the next step.  However, they need to be supported to go for roles, in an environment whereby there is a safety net if things don’t always go exactly to plan.

Q8. What advice would you give to finance staff in furthering their careers and becoming leaders?

A:  I would say grab any opportunities as they come as a range of experience will always stand you in good stead.

I have found that the richest experiences are often the ones that aren’t necessarily what you would consider the core elements of a role.  At Lewisham I got heavily involved in bed modelling at one point which I found fascinating!

I’d also say you can’t be fully taught to be a leader – to a certain extent you just have to be your authentic self.

Finally, I’d say always look at an organisation as if it is your own so that you invest yourself in it.

Q9: Have you been interviewed / does your organisation use a values-based interview approach below executive level?

A: Yes, to an extent in RNOH – although I’m not sure it’s embedded throughout the organisation as much as we would like it to be yet.  It was used extensively in my previous organisation, Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust.

Q10. What do you enjoy doing outside of the working week?

A:  Reading is the way that I unwind.  I also love to go walking along the Thames near where I live (and occasionally cycling along the Thames with my husband and son, although they are both way too fast for me!).