We spoke to Jo Smith, Group Chief Informatics Officer (GCIO) at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust to discuss her career, leading technical teams and formal qualifications.
Jo’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.
Jo left school at 16 and, after a 5-year tenure in banking, started working in pharmaceuticals. Here she would move through project management and broader IT management roles before landing her first big informatics role at Roche as the Head of Informatics for Sales and Marketing in 1999.
From there, Jo would move between other global and regional roles before landing a Director of IT role at the Japanese company, Takeda. This would pave the way for Jo’s entry to her CIO roles, with her first at the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust in 2013.
After a few years at Sidra Medicine in Qatar, Jo came back to the UK at the end of last year. Now she is the interim CIO at MFT, with responsibility for technology in the widest sense and also patient services, health records, clinical coding, and all of Information Services.
With Jo taking many international roles across different geographies, she’s no stranger to risk. For Jo, who spent 26 years at Roche, the biggest risk she’s taken in her career was leaving the relative comfort of that position.
“I had a good position. Lots of autonomy and flexibility. But I didn’t like the way the role was going.”
Jo, who had a 10-year-old child at the time, decided it was now or never for a move.
“I just woke up and thought: if I don’t take control of what’s ahead of me, I'll start to lose control and my age will work against me.”
It took Jo almost two years to get herself ready to negotiate her exit and chose to leave with nothing to go to when, at the time, she was the primary income provider for her household.
“It was an example of something where I thought ‘if I’m not happy, I’m not prepared to turn into someone who is going to become miserable. So for me, I had to take the risk and it’s a risk I've taken quite a few times in my career.”
There’s a lesson here for anyone viewing their current position through a critical lens. Settling for less may be the safe option, but is the safe option always the best one? For Jo, risks have been part of an incredibly successful career.
Leadership, regardless of the industry, requires a smorgasbord of complementary skills and experiences that can take decades to define and hone. Leadership in technical circles is no different.
For some, one of the non-negotiables for leading technical teams is a technical background.
For Jo, it’s not as simple as that.
“I don’t think you have to be a career techie but you do need to know what good looks like and how you can make that happen. So you need a broad understanding of how things work so you can credibly challenge and interact with your technical people.”
Otherwise, you can end up struggling to match up your instincts to the rest of teams with the wool being pulled over your eyes. The key, for Jo, is a focus on the environment you find yourself in.
“If you go into a very mature and settled technical environment that wants business transformation, then you need to understand that tech understanding is perhaps less relevant because the environment is in a steady state. If you’re going somewhere that has been underinvested in, I'd suggest you need more of a technical grasp because you’re going to help pull technology forwards.”
For Jo, who has a very successful career in digital transformation and informatics, the key to succeeding in a leadership role within the NHS starts with being brave.
“I think you've got to tap into what really works for you, what really wakes you up and gets you excited and jumping out of bed in the morning. And go for it. I just focused on doing what I really enjoyed and I tend to believe that if you do what you really enjoy, usually you'll do a good job of it and I think people notice that. But if they're not noticing it or you've got a blocker, then as a state, you've got to be brave.”
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