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  • April 12, 2021
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In Conversation with Helen Seth, Executive Director of Business Intelligence and Provider Management at NHS Arden and GEM Commissioning Support Unit


We spoke to Helen Seth, Executive Director of Business Intelligence and Provider Management at NHS Arden and GEM Commissioning Support Unit to discuss her career to date and her advice for future NHS tech leaders. 

Helen’s story is part of a series of articles highlighting the careers of female tech leaders within the NHS. We’ve brought together these stories in an effort to prove that the route to leadership is never a straight line. 

First joining the NHS over 30 years ago as a radiographer, Helen spent five years rapidly progressing from newly qualified to ultimately leading services across Essex before deciding to get married and move to Leicester where Helen hit the ground running. 

Very rapidly, Helen was engaged with implementing one of the first digital radiology services in the NHS. When the three NHS trusts merged to form the University Hospitals of Leicester, Helen was asked to go into the General Management, to lead the integration of radiology services across Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. Helen accepted that role and her remit quickly shifted from front line clinical technical skills to continuous service improvement involving significant process redesign. Helen’s transformation work during this time put her in a position to take up the position of Deputy Director of Ops with a focus on trust wide and system wide transformation, (including long term condition management and pathway redesign).  

At that point, Helen had worked in NHS provider sector for a long time and was looking for something different. That’s when she was asked to consider the Associate Director of Business Intelligence at Arden and GEM. This meant stepping away from her clinical background and provider experience and stepping into a very technical discipline.  

And to say it was a steep learning curve was an understatement. But it wasn’t just about getting the technology right, it was also about having the right people doing the right things and adopting the right processes. So, I was asked to come in to lead the Business Intelligence service, from an adaptive leadership perspective.” 

Now in the role of Executive Director of BI at Arden and Gem, Helen retains her passion for transformation through the delivery of BI services countrywide, supporting the unique needs of NHS commissioners  and providers, on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Developing Personal Resilience 

With such a varied and diverse portfolio of experience, Helen is no stranger to the odd bump in the road. For Helen, the definition of personal resilience is seeing difficulties as learning opportunities.  

“It may not feel like it when you’re in the middle of it, but it will be a learning opportunity. It’s okay to accept that things may not have gone to plan. It’s about how you learn from it and how you develop as the result of it that matters.” 

Stepping into leadership positions throughout her career, Helen has also experienced firsthand how that ‘always developing’ mentality can translate effectively into a leadership methodology that promotes the development of those around her. This is especially important when working in transformation when you are, in effect, redesigning processes that people have developed, owned and built habits around.  

How can we look at situations not in a way that may be seen as critical and threatening to some peopleyou know, trying to engage people in redesigning a process that maybe they’re very invested in. And being able to do that in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re doing it to them but instead gives them some sense of control and engagement in that,helping shape what the new process looks like and owning it. To me, that’s one of the most rewarding things.  

The NHS is always changing, especially so during the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, those who operate in a transformation position in the NHS must grow accustomed to a constantly shifting remit.  

“I guess the longer I’ve been in the NHS, the more mature your response to circumstances becomes. Seeing things that didn’t go well as opportunities for disruptive innovation. If I think about what we’ve done most recently, around COVID. Some of my teams werasked on a Friday to develop a data capture toolBy Monday, they’ve done it. By Tuesday, it’s being rolled out across NHS trusts.” 

People, Process and Technology 

One of the amazing parts of doing a series like this is the sheer range of people I get to talk to on a daily basis. Despite the changes in their expertise and experiences, they’re all leading teams at the highest level of the NHS. 

With that in mind, I’m always keen to hear what our contributor’s thoughts are on what skills are needed when it comes to leading technical teams – specifically, how important technical knowledge is to the leading and management of technical professionals. 

For Helen, a technical background certainly helps but it isn’t an absolute requirement.  

“You’ve got to put the time in and do your own research to understand the implications of a new technical solution. But, for me, the space we work in is done through people, process and technology. Having the technical skills without adaptive leadership caility bap will stop you from flourishing in this environment.”  

But you can’t be an expert in everything, you need a team around you who each contribute their own skills and expertise.  

“Rather than each individual needing to have the nth degree of qualifications in that specific technical discipline, so long as you’ve got talented, multidisciplinary team around you who are encouraged to play to the respective strengthsyou can bring the right team to the table. 

Like Rebuilding a Plane In-flight 

Transformation projects thrive on trust. Building relationships between those providing the solutions and the end-user is so important that almost all of the product owners and managers we recruit for, list relationship management and communication as a top-tier skill.  For Helen, building trust is an iterative process. 

“I describe my experience a bit like rebuilding a plane whilst in flight because you’re often bringing existing services (or solutions) together. When working with end-users, I often play back what I heard and say, I think you said Xif this is correct this is what I would say are the potential options. It is through this type of iterative process that strong relationships are built and trust grows.” 

Recalling previous projects, Helen commented that trust was built and enhanced through mutual respect which in turn supported the delivery of solutions quickly, helping users navigate their issues at that time. Spinning a lot of plates and having to learn an awful lot in a short period of time is was it takes. That said, Helen commented. 

I wouldn’t want ambitious women to be put off, because they don’t think they know enough. The reason that I never quite feel like I know enough is usually because I am trying to cram in too much detail – because you kind of want to show people you know what you’re talking about. My advice, keep communication as simple as possible and don’t apologise for it being simple. 

Just Do It 

For those looking to follow in Helen’s footsteps and move into a transformation role within the NHS, Helen has this advice:  

“Just do it. If I had over analysed all the barriers, I’d never have come into the job I’m doing now. In fact, I’m at a stage in my career where it has actually reignited my passion and my energy but in a completely different direction.” 

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