A Picture of Leadership with Hannah Witty

Former Chief Financial Officer, Central North West London

Question 1. Tell us about your current role and what you enjoy most about it?

My role as CFO at CNWL gives me the ability to balance a traditional CFO role with several SRO roles that are not within traditional CFO territory. I’ve been a CFO for 5 years now and over time have gained in confidence. I’ve actively sought out and been supported to take on these non-Finance related SRO roles.

My current CFO role includes procurement, business intelligence and a wholly owned subsidiary within my portfolio, as well as being one of three SROs for a mental health partnership programme focussed on repatriating complex patients placed outside the NWL system. The best thing about this project is that it spans three organisations, it has placed many patients closer to home and reduced LoS, and has really taken down organisational boundaries. I also enjoy my role as SRO for the Eating Disorders Provider Collaborative, particularly working closely with clinical colleagues.

CNWL spans three ICSs and the ability to be part of three systems, see the differences and take the learning from each is valuable.

One of my favourite roles is being Chair of the London Finance Academy Board and playing a key role in the development of the finance function across all Trusts. This is where I would most like to make an impact.

Question 2. Can you describe your career story?

Following a degree in English Language and Literature in Leeds I’ve moved around a fair bit. I trained in the National Audit Office where my first role was auditing the United Nations, I’ve never quite managed anything as glamorous since! I worked for a global engineering company for a couple of years and then spent several years in the Civil Service (Home Office, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, Committee on Climate Change). Somewhere in the middle of that I had two children and took a total of 21 months of maternity leave. I moved into the NHS five years ago, initially to RNOH (who I will forever be grateful to for taking a chance on me) and then to CNWL.

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?

Someone who reached out to me early in my NHS career was Caroline Clarke, now CEO of Royal Free. She gave me her time, energy and perspective, and I have tried to do this myself by reaching out to new CFOs in the system to offer my support.

I was also lucky enough to be mentored by Amanda Pritchard, now CEO for the NHS, for a year. She gave me great insight and really challenged my thinking, which I still remember to this day.

I’ve also benefitted from working with two experienced CEOs who have been generous with their time, energy and learning.

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

The biggest barrier, in common with a lot of women, was my own self-confidence. It took me a long time to believe I was capable of the roles I was doing in the Civil Service, even though I was asked to take on some of these roles rather than applying for them. I tended to measure my value through feedback from others, and coaching helped me to re-balance this to measure value through what is important to me.

During a development scheme in the Civil Service I received some 360 feedback, and was devastated by some of the critical feedback, which on reflection was helpful and constructive. Luckily the scheme offered a qualified professional to work through this feedback with me, and she started by taking a highlighter and highlighting all the positive comments, which was about 90% of the total!

The role that did the most for my confidence was as acting CFO for the Home Office. This was my first CFO role, and I’m not sure I’d recommend a highly complex Department of State to anyone else! I learnt rapidly though – about delegation, ruthless prioritisation, resilience, negotiation, flexibility and above all the need for work life balance.

Question 5. How have you balanced competing needs of a modern leadership role?

I’ve focussed with my coach on being ruthless with my time, and only working on things that only I can do. If you are doing what someone else should be, then you’re not adding value. For me, adding value means delivering the best possible care to our patients and service users and developing and looking after our staff.

It has always been important to me to have dinner with my family, my children are 9 and 12. I try to prioritise this, but it isn’t always possible. Sometimes I need to be flexible to manage this, which might mean picking up some work after the children are in bed or reading Board papers at the weekend. I choose to work this way, and it is the trade-off I make to enjoy the flexibility on weekdays. I am however cognisant that I need to respectful about the time I send emails – not a good idea to clear the inbox at 8pm!

From a mindset perspective, I have grown into the role and have learned the hard way that you can’t take everything personally. As CFO, my role is to keep the focus on the medium-long term where possible. The short term may knock you off course, but if you only focus on this the organisation will not progress.

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?

I want everyone in the Finance community to have access to a mentor and/or coaching. A lot of women I come across don’t know how good they really are, and we need a combination of skills and experiences within the NHS so people should be moving around to grow their careers. We need to create space for people to undertake development, whether this is secondments, training, courses, mentoring. When we discuss development, we need to make sure it happens.

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

Finance is the lifeblood of an organisation, and there is tremendous scope within the CFO role if you hold the relevant skills. The CFO is one member of a unitary Board, which means all the members are jointly responsible for the overall portfolio of the organisation. As a CFO you need to understand the drivers of financial performance and how to influence the rest of the Board in decision-making. You need to be aware early of changes that are coming and articulate the financial impact.

As a CFO, the role is much more about leadership than technical ability, although you still need to be competent and credible. There are a lot of skills we are taught as accountants that span professional boundaries: analysing data, strategic thinking etc, and we have a unique lens through which we can permeate the organisation.

I try to read every single meeting paper that is put in front of me, and encourage people to be inquisitive, go out and talk to people, and seek out opportunities for mentoring and career advice from others around you.

Question 8. What do you enjoy doing outside of the working week?

I love reading, heading to the cinema and theatre, swimming, circuits, and acting as a taxi service for my children!