Be the change we want to see

Sam Allen

Samantha Allen, chief executive at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, shares experiences from her 21-year career in the NHS and her vision of leadership in 2017 and beyond.

I joined the NHS in 1996.  It was the start of what I would call an ‘accidental career’ – one I hadn’t planned but one I absolutely love.  I was in-between jobs when the chance to temp in a community mental health team came up.  Looking back, I can see this is where my love affair with the NHS started.  The opportunity to be part of a team, playing a role in supporting others and putting them in touch with people that could help their recovery, was rewarding. 

I quickly realised the NHS is like a family but made up of lots of different parts that work in different ways.  It took me a few years to fully understand it and as soon as I did it all changed again!  Change is something I have learnt to manage over the years. It can be positive - if everything the NHS did worked perfectly for patients we wouldn't need to change a thing – but it can be stressful, costly and ineffective if mismanaged.

I joined the NHS with personal experience of working in a different industry where I found myself on the receiving end of gender discrimination.  That was tough and gave me insight into how this feels.  While I've never experienced the same level of discrimination in the NHS, I know that is not the same for everyone. There is more for us all to do to ensure leadership is diverse, inclusive and representative of the people and communities we support.  

My career wasn’t planned, there was no clear route to a NHS board position and I quickly learnt to put the work in to develop and learn.  A critical ingredient along the way were the people who supported me. Whether that was in the funding for a leadership course or encouraging me to do an MBA – they know who they are and I will be eternally grateful.  They taught me three lessons. 

1) As a leader (whatever level / role) your job is to grow more leaders.
2) Don’t rely on others – seize every opportunity you have with both hands and keep learning.
3) Build a network and make it diverse, and that's not just the people who work in the NHS, we also need to look outside for ideas and creativity.

I think of the NHS as very hierarchical; the values we espouse aren't consistently evident in our actions and behaviours – the lived experience in some areas is, in fact, quite the opposite. The kind of behaviours which become manifest in a controlling, hierarchical culture can cause stress, stifle innovation and, most importantly, affect patient experience and safety.  But, when times become tough, organisations (whether provider, commissioner or regulator) can all too easily default to traditional 'command and control' mode where blaming, broadcasting and sometimes bullying become the norm. There's a wealth of research which demonstrates how this can damage staff and patient experience; and that's certainly something we've been trying to take on board at Sussex Partnership in our work on organisational culture.

I therefore see my role as a leader in helping to create a psychologically safe culture and to nurture people with a growth mind-set that not only want personal development but will be those who also guide, enable and deliver OUR NHS.  I aspire to a culture where staff feel safe and embrace speaking up but equally are supported to make the changes necessary.  Traditionally, power is measured by job titles. But I believe the only way we can sustain an NHS free at the point of delivery is by enabling NHS colleagues (whatever their role, profession, band or title) to make the changes they want for patients, carers, families and themselves. We will only do this if we free up control and reduce bureaucracy. 

So, in summary, my journey from receptionist to chief executive has, and continues to be, a journey. I am a new chief executive. I started on the 1 March 2017 and I’m not bringing any magical potion with me to the role. I will simply bring myself to work every day, smile and treat others how I wish to be treated – this is my guiding personal value.  All chief executives are leading in a new context in 2017. Some say these are the toughest jobs out there – I feel like I have the best job in the world and I know it is tough, complex and will be challenging. I will hopefully do it for as long as I can make a difference.

Learning is boundless and like each of you reading this blog, our job – my job - is to listen, lead, learn and be the change we want to see.  As the mother of a young lady who died under our care several years ago said to me recently: “It is never too late to start listening.”  This has been the best advice I have had since starting the new job.

If you would like to hear Samantha Allen share her story in person, along with four other recently-appointed chief executives, register for the free HSJ Women Leaders Network event, The new vision of NHS leadership,  on 13 June 2017 at the ACC Liverpool. 

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