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  • April 23, 2021
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In Conversation with Kamal Bahia Digital Transformation and Digital First at Berkshire West CCG


While completing her Chemistry Degree, Kamal was working as an analytical chemist. After completing her grad programme, Kamal joined GlaxoSmithKline to focus on their quality programme and how they were bringing products into the organisation. After that, Kamal took an opportunity at Mars – a move that came as a bit of a leap into the unknown.  

“I knew nothing about chocolate, but my job there was to harmonise chocolate recipes for Mars across Europe, that sounded like quite an interesting job. 10 plants, different manufacturing sites, people who had been doing it for 20/30 years. And there I was coming in in my late 20s – I’m going to tell you how to make chocolate.” 

A fantastic and formulative experience for Kamal who got to work with suppliers all over Europe in what was an incredibly exciting and unique setting.  

“I remember being asked at interview, ‘how do you think a Malteser is made?’” 

Given the rather flat structure of Mars, Kamal was able to move across the organisation quite a bit. Starting in chocolate production, Kamal moved into training where she delivered ‘chocolate schools’.  

“They would have a mixture of theory and practical. We would get hands-on tempering chocolate, making truffles.” 

From there, Kamal then moved to the cocoa team. On that team, Kamal looked at how the cocoa plants were grown, the origins, the different areas they were buying from how they were training the farmers how they were supporting them. 

You know, at one point I had to look at the flight of a Heron and how that was affecting production.” 

From Cocoa, Kamal moved to oils and fats where she would set up a new vendor assurance programme. You can imagine in a company the size of Mars, setting up a new programme isn’t easy. 

“It was about being transparent and having relationships with suppliers, and not just slash and burn cheap prices. And so therefore, it was understanding what the suppliers margins were, what their pressures were, where they were trying to develop and grow, so that you could actually assist them in that process, and have meaningful relationships.” 

Kamal’s final role at Mars was in Dairy. After that, she moved to Sainsbury’s to work on category management for confectionery and hot beverages. Kamal was instrumental in in bringing over 400 confectionary and sugar products into Sainsburys while also working with the department for trade and Industry to bring products into store that had massive impact on the lives of many. 

“We worked with the Rwandan government and NGOs to bring coffee from survivors of the genocide and roasting it in London with a very small Bistro roasting company. Union Coffee Roasters and they’re still around on the shelf now, so it really is lovely to see things that I had an impact in actually bringing through.” 

No sooner after Christmas was Kamal planning the next one. Her time at Sainsbury’s was full on, but fulfilling too. But with 2 young kids at home, and another one on the way, Kamal found herself taking a breather and assessing what she wanted to do. That’s when her Mars contacts came back to offer her a contract role. While working a three month contract, Kamal was approached by her old line manager from Sainsbury’s with a proposition to set up a new company that would help suppliers get into retail.  

“We were going in and helping with auditing helping them prep for all the standards that they needed to do. And one of the ones that I got involved with was looking at how they were treating migrant workers.” 

After a year of that, Kamal was on to her next challenge. She handed over the partnership to her colleague and focused on her family before joining the NHS.  

“It’s the hardest job I have ever done.” 

Kamal has balanced budgets worth millions and worked on global programmes and projects, yet her first time in the NHS was an unforgettable challenge. Leading a team of 30, and working with 11 practices in her locality, Kamal was tasked with taking the organisation in a different direction.  

“I remember my first practice manager’s meeting. I pitched the idea that we all specialise in one area rather than 11 practices all going away to try and master everything.” 

These specialties could be on generic things, like consumables, procurement or cleaning and maintenance – what Kamal was trying to do was to move away from small-scale thinking.  

“We’re at a point where this kind of small scale, business model isn’t going to be sustainable. And every other industry has moved into this direction, where it’s about using scale where you need it.” 

For the last twelve years, Kamal has been working in digital in primary care. The last four years of those twelve, Kamal has been focusing on getting her organisation involved in a few national pilot programmes including the NHS App, GP connect and more. 

“That then just ignited the fuse. I wanted to do more. And so last year was probably the first year that I spent full time doing digital.” 

Affecting Change at the Highest Level 

Throughout the course of her career, Kamal has affected change at the very highest level.  

From running global initiatives and programmes at one of the worlds largest FMCG companies, to launching her own company to finally leading digital transformation – Kamal hasn’t taken her foot off the pedal.  

We were keen to understand what she believes made her successful at affecting the change.  

“I think it’s about having credibility. I was lucky enough to work for an amazing boss who had complete integrity. And so therefore, I felt completely empowered to go and do what I wanted to do.” 

With the network around to support her, Kamal was enabled to do what she does best – create ideas, magic, and then put that into motion.  

“Don’t be scared of going in and trying things. There’s always somebody there to support. One of the things that I think I’m quite good at doing for other people is asking them to talk to me and tell me what they‘ve done.’ I will write down the things that I think you should be plugging and marketing yourself on. I’ve done that for quite a lot of people. And, and yeah, it’s really, helpful to be able to do that.”  Harder to do for ones self! 

From Private to NHS 

We’ve spoken to plenty of NHS professionals who have made the leap from the private sector to the NHS and can say that the reasons for such a move are always wide and varied, but primarily stem from the basic desire to affect change on a more human scale.  

“I felt quite a strong urge to be the kind of person I wanted my children to look up to. After my third child, I asked myself what was really important to me. There are times that I miss the corporate life. But now, being at the stage that I’m at, in the NHS, I feel like I’m back in it again.” 

With early ambitions when first joining the NHS being centered on being involved in the strategic direction of the NHS, Kamal is now seeing them realised.  

“I did think I’m going to go and dig out my old primary care strategy that I wrote seven years ago because so many strands are now being delivered. And I think this time is the longest I’ve stayed in any job. And so having that sort of 12 years in primary care is phenomenal, because I’m like an elephant. And I don’t forget many things when it comes to work. 

I Need to Work Because That’s What Drives Me 

With three children present throughout her career, Kamal was never entertained by the thought of leaving her career behind. For Kamal, hiring a full-time nanny was one of the best decisions she ever made. 

“The freedom that gave me to be able to not worry about my children.  I didn’t care how much it cost, because I need to go and work because that’s what drives me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be a Mother. I do want to be a Mother; I want to be a good one. But if I can get someone to help me do that then why wouldn’t I?” 

Having diversity of caregivers in a children’s early life is something that Kamal can attest to when she considers her children, now adults themselves.  

“When I look at my children, all grown up, I think they’re so lucky that they had a tribe looking after them and not just me.” 

Cancel Some Meetings and Go to Bed 

When it comes to advice for those who are looking for a leadership career in the NHS, Kamal has this to share: 

Be kind to yourself. If you feel like today’s a rubbish day, and you’re not going to be able to deliver what you’re trying to deliver then cancel some meetings, get in your bed. Recharge for when you’re ready to deliver.” 

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