Question: Tell us about your current role and what you enjoy most about it?
Answer: I am currently the Chief Finance Officer (CFO) at Imperial College Health NHS Trust, one of the largest acute teaching hospitals with a big focus on R&D. Before Imperial I had worked in smaller non-acute organisations covering commissioning, MH and community. What is different about Imperial for me is one it is an acute Trust, provides very different services to the ones I was familiar with, it is a £1.4bn organisation that is way more complex both in terms of size and the services we deliver, has a huge education and research agenda, and a pace at which colleagues work and the decisions we make way made outstrips anything I have been familiar with. The best thing is I am part of a great Trust and the people that come to work here are phenomenal, if anyone knows our estate they will appreciate it is not the best and the resilience of our staff is amazing.
Question: Can you describe your career story?
Answer: I would be classed as a NHS lifer! During university I worked in a retail role which I continued to do after leaving for about 18 months before switching to Customs and Excise working in VAT registration and the recovery department getting to grips with the Bailiff process. The latter was the hardest as the personal stories of those being asked to settle debts was on occasion very upsetting. I fell into the NHS by chance and joined a Trust when providers and commissioners were first formed back in 1992/93. As others may have heard before, I started as a data entry clerk and then worked my way through lots of different finance roles, departments and bandings before getting my first opportunity be to be Finance Director in 2015, some 20 years later. Upon reflection the journey was long, I had no aspiration to be a FD, there were no familiar role models until a lot later in my career, there was no one that could guide me outside of work, and so I just ‘muddled’ my way through and was happy to do a good job no matter what the role was.
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 had never really understood what a role model was, I had no coach or mentor and found these terms a bit alien if I am honest. With hindsight, I would say I probably had informal mentoring as I went through my career. I say this because I was lucky to have had some really good managers who by offering me different opportunities were developing my confidence and allowing me to stretch myself and exposing me to new challenges (even if I was a bit naïve to realise it at the time). The first person that really made me think more consciously about what I should be doing next was my ex-FD Ben Travis. Ben was not prepared to take ‘no for an answer’ and pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and I joined a FD development programme run by Deloitte at the time. The programme was great it made me realise that being a FD isn’t about your technical abilities it is more about your contribution to the wider Trust, your gravitas, your softer skills in influencing, collaborating, innovating and building and drawing on relationships, etc. Was the programme a game changer – yes – but it was also a bit scary as the immediate worry was how do I demonstrate all these other attributes and if I cannot will I ever be ‘job ready’! I was very lucky to be able to test a FD role out when Ben became acting CEO as it allowed me to step in as acting FD at Oxleas on what I now refer to as “try before you buy”! It was the best thing I ever did as it gave me the confidence to think maybe I could do this. So I will always be very grateful to Ben for not allowing me to be complacent and giving me the ‘kick’ I needed! Then I met an amazing lady in Ann Johnson who when giving me feedback challenged me realised I was a ‘glass half full’ when it came to my abilities only looking for where I had not done well rather than focussing on what I had achieved and was capable of achieving. I was then given the fantastic opportunity to be interviewed for a secondment at imperial and I remember pinching myself for days afterwards wondering how I had got here. In summary my career has all been about brave people giving me a chance and me proving I was capable of stepping up.
Question: What are the top 3 behaviours you value most in a role model?
Answer: Kindness (it doesn’t mean you do not have the difficult conversation) but doing it in a kind way I find helpful as a lot of things that escalate too quickly is because the right conversation in the right way has not been had in the first place. The next one would be collaboration as I firmly believe we are only as good as the people we work with and to get the best outcome we have to work together, consider diverse thinking and having empathy to seeing things through different lenses. The last is listening and giving people the space to talk, make contributions and have their thoughts considered. We may not be able to take account of everything but if we do not listen then we will remain ignorant.
Question: What barriers have you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
Answer: I’ve been really lucky – I haven’t had many barriers professionally. I have been very fortunate to work with supportive people who wanted to develop staff and offer opportunity. The only barrier and hence why I suppose I took so long to step into a Board leadership role was my own psychology of not being good enough, not having role models in my family and friends who could guide me. Being the first to go to university in my family I suppose I was going to pave the path for others and so it was difficult to navigate my career – I naively did not even know what a professional accountancy qualification was and which one to do!
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: Firstly leading is different from managing, for me you lead by example – it’s about behaviours, what you say, how you say it and following through. The biggest leadership trait for me personally is authenticity and staying true to my values. Working at Imperial as our values are ones I absolutely can and do live – collaborative, aspirational, kind and expert. If I try and ‘blag I’ I’ll just get caught out so I would much rather say ‘I do know but will find out’ as it is it is ok to not know everything – something I would not have appreciated earlier on. Balancing the needs of a modern leadership role I think can be hard as we all have lots of personal responsibilities we have to pay attention to e.g. for me this has been children, being there for my in-laws and my mum etc. but the key is how we are supported and support when help/flexibility if required. Modern leadership does require self-resilience and so it is important we look after our well-being and acknowledge you need to look after yourself to be best version of you and not forget about this while you focus only on others. Modern leadership is for me leading together.
Question: 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: Recognising the talent that women have and nurturing that talent without the preconception of what their life might be like and so what investment do you make e.g. a woman coming back from maternity leave can I think still be ‘boxed’ into a particular place. There is a lot going on to open up minds, expand options, offer flexible solutions but I think there remains a biased view as to what someone can do, the contribution they can make etc. We should be encouraging women back to the workplace and supporting them to make that it happens. Women wanting to come back to the workplace should be viewed as a positive rather than seeing it as a negative situation to ‘manage’ – it’s an opportunity, the different lived experiences, thoughts, views can only make the thinking and outcomes better.
Question: What advice would you give to finance staff in furthering their careers and becoming leaders?
Answer: Always as part of your PDR/supervisions discuss your development – talk to your manager about where you want to go next, how they can support you, what opportunities can they help you seek out; to make sure you are supported and getting ready for the next role. I would expect managers to be focussing on this in any case but as it is your PDR be brave. Getting noticed is important and it does take effort to yourself known – in this day and age do the things I missed and was blind to – get a mentor, coach, sponsor and offer to go above and beyond and ask to be volunteered for additional work/projects but make sure you speak about how you are supported to do this, the worse thing is for anyone to set themselves up or be set up to fail. This aim is to nurture the talent and allow people to test themselves out as this can also help to solidify what you want to/not want to do and shape your next steps. I would always say remember getting on is not a race and if you are content to be where you are for a period of time and it works for you, that is just as great an outcome/decision. In fact it can take a brave person to be comfortable doing this when others are seen to be progressing.
Question: have you been interviewed/does your organisation interview explicitly use a value-based approach below executive level?
Answer: Yes. At Imperial we have being reviewing our interview recruitment processes and our application/interviews have an increased focus on values. We recognise the technical abilities / qualifications have a place and these need to be verified but what the values questions tease out is what you are all about and does your thinking, approach, views chime with the Trust culture and it wants to achieve. Proper examples of where/how a candidate has demonstrated the Trust values is key. Ultimately the aim is that the people we are recruiting fit the organisation and the organisation suits them – if they live and demonstrate the values in all we do our patients, staff and others will all benefit.
Question: What do you enjoy doing outside of the working week?
Answer: I like to do anything that doesn’t require me having to use my brain! So physical exercise (even doing housework!), reading, films are my release – they all bring a welcome relief allow me to recharge the batteries and be ready for the Monday. I love to cook, entertain and socialise and the one place I get to do all three is in my volunteering role at my local Sikh Gurdwara – it’s a wonderful uplifting experience to go and join likeminded people who want to support the community – cook, clean, feed and its bring me joy to see what we achieve each week. The hard work is absolutely worth it!