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  • June 23, 2021
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What does it take to be a tech leader in the NHS?


What does it take to be a leader? Resilience? Courage? Empathy? All of the above? For most, leadership isn’t easily defined. Put simply: leadership means different things to different people, 

When your decisions can, quite literally, impact critical care functions, leadership takes on a new perspective. But what does it take to be a leader in one of the worlds biggest employers: the NHS?

We spoke to a range of Tech Leaders from across the NHS to discuss what it takes to be a successful Tech Leader in the NHS. Whether you’re planning for the future, or just looking for some inspiration, these insights are a must-read. 

‘Clinically Driven, Operationally Informed and Technically Supported’

Ayesha Rahim is the CCIO at Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust. With her clinical background, as a perinatal psychiatrist, Ayesha leads digital transformation with first-hand experience of what it’s like to work on the front lines of healthcare. Whereas others might have clinical advisors, Ayesha knows from practice the impact her digital solutions will make. 

“I see the CCIO role as being one of transformation. It’s about change management, it’s about people management, it’s about making services better, and the vehicle happens to be technology.” 

Ayesha has completed a master’s degree in digital health leadership via the NHS Digital Academy. This qualification gave her a grounding but, once again, emphasised the leadership and people side of the role rather than the technical minutia. 

For Ayesha, who uses the phrase ‘clinically driven, operationally informed and technically supported’ to describe the makeup of digital transformation within the NHS, the focus for technology leaders shouldn’t be complicated. 

“If you cannot articulate why, clinically, this is meaningful then why are you doing it? Because we have one job in the NHS and that’s to support the delivery of care for patients. That’s it. That’s all we need to do. So if you’re not sort of having that front and centre of your mind, you really need to sort of ask yourself, are you really taking the right approach?”

“You Don’t Need To Be Super Technical”

With an existing passion for patient care through her background as a Clinician and her interest in driving change through technology, Ayesha had the perfect combination of passions to take advantage of the opportunity to step up into the role of CCIO.

“I’m passionate about delivery of services to patients, and I’ve been on the receiving end of rubbish technology. I wanted to change that.” 

But it almost wasn’t the case with Ayesha taking a leap of faith into a role that she initially thought her lack of technical knowledge disqualified her for. Ayesha isn’t alone in this matter. 

You’ve probably heard the following statistic: Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.

The finding comes from a Hewlett Packard internal report, and has been quoted in Lean In, The Confidence Code and dozens of articles. It’s usually invoked as evidence that women need more confidence. As one Forbes article put it, “Men are confident about their ability at 60%, but women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off each item on the list.” 

“It is a leap of faith. But actually, we need clinicians to step into these roles. Your technical know-how isn’t as important as actually knowing how to manage change and transformation. That is a key skill of a CCIO, and the other stuff you can learn.”

“Be Passionate About Improving Lives”

Although the front-line care workers, like doctors and nurses, deservedly get much of the spotlight, Ayesha is quick to remind us that every member of the NHS contributes to the improvement of people’s lives. Understanding this is critical to climbing the ladder in the NHS and, when coupled with skills like communication, can create a potent leader. 

“The NHS lags behind other sectors in terms of technology. You need to be very clear in how you communicate your vision in a very high stakes context.” 

“You Have to Accept That Nothing Is Perfect”

Phill James is the CIO and Director of Digital at Warrington Together and Halton One. With a career in the NHS spanning 16 years, Phill has played a leading role in the innovation of key systems, like telephony and control room, within the NorthWest Ambulance service before moving into a CIO position. 

For Phill, one of the main skills needed to be a successful tech leader in the NHS, a high stakes and high governance institution, is resilience.

“You have to accept that nothing is perfect and that things change quicker than often you can deploy, it can be frustrating if you want to drive transformation. It’s a different type of tech role.”

Phil, who moved into a leadership position quite early on in his career, believes his move, although it wasn’t actually a conscious one, was something he was building up to throughout his career. 

“You realise you’ve done a mix of leadership and management all the way through your career, and it’s about being situational. So when I’m being transactional, when I really got something to get over the line, that’s management at the end of the day, I’m really trying to convince people to come on the journey to follow to be to be engaged and to want to be part of it. That’s where the leadership kicks in.”

“Patient Lives Play Into Your Decision Making”

Decision making is one of the defining traits every leader has. For Phill, and those taking up leadership positions in the NHS, decision making takes on a new perspective when put into the context of saving patient lives. 

“Somebody asked me the other day, how do you sleep at night, knowing the systems that you’re responsible for are life-saving systems?” 

For Phil, who worked in Aviation Engineering before moving into the NHS and is accustomed to making decisions that will directly impact the wellbeing of users, it’s about keeping yourself grounded and leaning on the team that you build around yourself.  

“Balance your love for technology with patient care needs. So that means you need to listen to the people around you because they’re the people with the knowledge and the experience.”

“Keep On Top Of Things, But In A Friendly Way”

Charlee Martin is a Programme Manager at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital currently operating the Share2Care programme. An NHSx Local Health and Care Record programme, Share2Care spans across Cheshire, Merseyside, Lancashire and South Cumbria. 

A large-scale programme of work, Share2Care aims to produce a persistent care record that follows patients from birth to death. With over 5 years experience in the NHS, Charlee has led a number of digital transformation projects and knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a tech leader. 

“Organisation is a key skill, especially in programme management which can have multiple complex strands. So you need to keep on top of things, but it has to be in a friendly way.” 

The NHS, which is an incredibly high pressure place to work, has plenty to keep you occupied. Motivation, in this sense, becomes another key skill. Motivation means different things to different people but, for Charlee, a decision to abolish meeting agendas for some team collaboration sessions came with a sense of freedom that allowed valuable conversations around the programme at hand.

“Now, that may seem sacrilege in programme management, and to some degree, it kind of gets me twitchy, but the outputs of that have been so valuable, because it’s helped develop a place where we can sound grievances and really problem solve.”

“You Start Getting Twitchy About Solving Other People’s Problems.”

Charlee, who was told it was her time to move into programme management during a citywide EPR roll out, was already demonstrating traits that would set her up for success. 

“You know you’re no longer a project manager, when you start getting twitchy about solving problems that generally aren’t your problem. It’s when you go into your steering groups, and notice no one has written a policy for instance,, and you’re saying to yourself: when are you going to write it?”

Now in her leadership role, Charlee is sharing her experience with up and coming professionals who are demonstrating potential in their early career. 

“I’m really interested in developing people. Especially women who are shining in their early career. I want to be there to coach and mentor them so they can have the confidence to move on to the next stage.”

“Take Advantage of the Personal Development Review”

Charlee, and many of her colleagues, have benefitted from the NHS’s wide array of development opportunities and the formal process built around them: the PDR.

The main aim of a Performance and Development Review (PDR) is to ensure that a formal discussion takes place at a face-to-face meeting between a manager and the member of staff being reviewed. It provides an opportunity to reflect on past performance and should be used as a basis for development and plans to be agreed for the future.

A great initiative that can be used as the springboard for movement into senior positions, the PDR is something Charlee recommends highly. 

“Most NHS trusts offer a lot of great opportunities to take courses which are funded by the trust. You just need to have a clear idea of what kind of projects or  technical work you want to get into. And then from there, they should take all the opportunities you can get in terms of mentoring.” 

“It’s Customer Service”

Gregg Holland is the CIO at Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. With 17 years in the NHS, Gregg knows what it means to a successful tech leader in the NHS.

“I think it’s the same skills you need in any senior tech position: customer service and willingness to deliver. Nobody ever remembers the biggest, the best, the most expensive. What they remember is their experience” 

Being successful in any tech position that is tasked with driving change means winning the hearts and minds of your potential users. And for the NHS, one the world’s biggest employers, funded by the public themselves, change isn’t as simple as flicking a switch. Long governance processes are in place to ensure that every single penny spent is spent on the right things. 

“So you do feel an extra level of responsibility to get it right because it’s public money.” 

“Always Have the Philosophy of Change At The Back Of Your mind”

Arif Patel is the Associate Director of Technology Enabled Care at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust. It’s Arif’s job to provide vision, leadership and strategic direction to multi-disciplinary teams who are operationally engaged in the design, sourcing, build and delivery of all programmes, systems and products in the sphere of technology-enabled care.

For Arif, to be a successful tech leader in the NHS, you need to be a professional who is always looking for constant professional development opportunities while still keeping your finger on the pulse of change. 

“I developed my own leadership skills, by learning on the job and understanding what my team needs. It is very much about listening to the people around you and relying on them for the decisions you then make. You need to be a subject matter expert and have the level understanding, with the philosophy of change always in the back of your mind”

“Build Resilience into Everything You Do.”

Garry Harris is the Associate Director Technology at Wrightington, Wigan & Leigh NHS Teaching Foundation Trust. Starting off as a developer, Garry has been at the trust for 32 years. For Garry, no two days are the same, as he looks after approx. 500 systems on a vast and highly complex technology infrastructure, helping 6500 staff to do their jobs the best they possibly can.

With a vast amount of experience, Garry believes an effective tech leader in the NHS has to be a self-motivator who can quickly understand the unique ecosphere that is the NHS.

‘You have to have self-drive, you have to fully understand the environment and have to understand at the end of the day, everything you do has a direct impact to the quality of care patients receive’

With an eye firmly planted on the future, Gary also places strategic thinking at the core of his leadership methodology.

“You have to understand strategically where the trust is heading, planning from top down to build up a layered digital infrastructure. Building resilience into everything you do is vital and when things don’t go right in the NHS that is when your leadership skills have to be shown, as minutes and hours are critically important to providing safe and effective care”

Garry, who is a firm believer in strength-based leadership, has a team of highly skilled technical staff who can be relied on to do a brilliant job. Trust, a two way street, is importantly reciprocated between Garry and his team. This enables great relationships between team members and front line staff and extends into his relationship with suppliers, who have a critical role in ensuring digital services are delivered to a consistently high standard. 

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