We spoke to Zona Marshall, IT Program Manager at Arden and GEM CSU to discuss balancing work and life, imposter syndrome and the constant pursuit of knowledge.
Zona’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.
Starting her NHS career just over 18 years ago, Zona had taken a seven year gap to raise her children before returning to work as a receptionist and outpatients clerk in mental health services.
After several years of moving up through the mental health services ladder, Zona moved to a Multi-site Acute Trust to take the role of Operational Manager covering all sites within the Trust being based in the Lincoln area.
“One of the projects I worked on during my time as an operational manager was centralising services. I managed all the referrals coming into the trust and cancer services – which, at the time, were going to different teams at each site who worked slightly differently. We used the tech we had available to centralise those services.”
While leading this massive project, Zona completed a post-grad certificate and diploma and MA in professional practice. After completing her MA, Zona could feel herself being tugged towards change and set her sights on project management.
Securing a role in the IT Services Department in the Acute Trust, Zona had three project managers but managed, as a programme manager, multiple projects. Staying there for 5 years, Zona took a sidestep to move to Arden and GEM looking to broaden her already expansive knowledge and experience towards the unique challenges the CSU has.
Now providing IT support through the CSU across three different organisations in Lincolnshire, Zona leads IT projects for each of the customers in the area from Windows 7 to 10 upgrade to network and server infrastructure.
I’ve had the privilege of speaking to many courageous women on the course of this series. Women who have juggled full-time jobs while raising children and continued to go from strength to strength.
As a mother myself, I’m filled with pride to listen to these stories but also reminded of my own challenges around returning to work.
For Zona, who returned to work after a seven-year gap, confidence was hard-fought.
“My confidence was at an all-time low and I still feel that at times now. But I did have people around me who supported me.”
Coming back to work on half time so she could still drop and pick up the children from school, Zona worked with another Lady who shared the load with Zona – taking shifts Zona couldn’t do while Zona stepped up in times like School Holidays. This was great for the practical element for returning to work, but Zona’s confidence was still shot.
“I loved staying at home with my kids but there were days where I wouldn’t talk to another adult for days. I’m already a natural doubter so my confidence was at rock-bottom.”
But the days kept coming, and so did the work. Between the support Zona had at work and at home, Zona was able to progress – even doing her first post-grad certificate through Lincolnshire Hospital.
“I left school as soon as I could, at 16, so I was understandably hesitant. But my Manager at the time was amazing and encouraged me to go for it.”
Unfortunately, her next manager wasn’t as supportive. Totally self-funded, Zona studied in her annual leave and spare time due to the fact her new manager wouldn’t let her study in work time. When it came round to doing her masters, Zona was really strapped for time.
“I was spending weekends and holidays studying. I felt guilt. Guilt I was missing out on being a Mum.”
Now completed and being applied to her day-to-day role, Zona isn’t looking back.
“We should all carry on learning and never stop learning. It’s that valuable.”
Zona, who never likes to remain stagnant, has worked hard with each new challenge she has sought. Along each step of the way, Zona has made seeking mentors, advocates and allies a priority – but she’s also been the first in line to offer her guidance and support.
“It’s an important skill to share. If that first manager of mine hadn’t recognised my potential, I’d probably still be doing that outpatient role now. Because of that, I’m always available to share my experiences and recognise talent.”
Recently having been approached to mentor someone else through a project management degree, Zona is excited to gain a new experience while supporting someone else through a similar challenge she faced earlier in her career.
“I think sometimes it’s as simple as recognising someone's strengths – then they can go on and develop that.”
Good mentors can be pivotal during major junctures of your life, both personally and professionally. They can steer you clear of disaster, provide prescient views of the future that you can’t see, and give you support when you need it the most.
Everyone can find mentors. It’s up to you to cherish the relationships you have, cultivate new ones, and never take for granted the people who can help you. Above all, you must recognize that mentors can be everyday people, who have extraordinary advice. They don’t have to be superheroes or millionaires or big CEOs.
“Sometimes it’s a colleague who you can have a simple chat with. Or it could be someone who is quite far down their career path. It’s about the type of personality.”
Recognising talent can go one of two ways – someone can encourage and nurture that new talent or see it as a threat to their role and try to hold them back. Zona experienced both sides to this story during her career.
“I got away from the person holding me back as soon as I realised what was happening because it did nothing for my confidence. People should want you to progress and be the best you can be – that’s a good mentor.”
We all have moments of doubt. These moments either come from within yourself, or as a result of external influence.
Resilience, a core skill for NHS leadership, has been highlighted by many of the professionals we’ve talked to throughout this series.
For Zona, who has taken lots of risks in her career and been rewarded for her determination, the key to getting past moments of doubt is to focus on consistency.
“Have the consciousness to deliver everything you do and remain true to yourself while you do it.”
Similarly, Zona believes in a focus on continual development.
“Make sure you’re always learning – especially if you’re in technology. You don’t need to be tech-focused, but you do need to be an excellent leader and work on your communication and negotiation skills so you don’t get taken for a ride by the techies.”
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