‘I’ve never had a conversation like this in 30 years as an NHS CEO’

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A dozen NHS trust chief executives came together to explore how leading a trust through the NHS’ greatest emergency had affected them on a personal level. By Alastair McLellan

“I’ve been a NHS trust chief executive for 30 years and I’ve never had a conversation like the one we’ve just been through in the last hour and a half.”

This was how David Loughton, CEO of Royal Wolverhampton Trust, summarised the discussion between a dozen NHS trust chief executives brought together by HSJ to discuss the personal and organisational impact of the pandemic. The CEOs were all drawn from HSJ’s list of the service’s top 50 trust chief executives published in March and the full, unedited conversation can be read here.

The long-serving Mr Loughton remarked how different the conversation was from the one that the group would have had before the pandemic in which the chiefs would have been “competing with one another [to show that] my organisation’s doing better than yours.”

Instead he had witnessed his peers “share their weaknesses, their fears, their own feelings.

“We’ve changed as a group of chief executives”, he claimed. “And I don’t think we will ever go back because of the experience we’ve been through.”

Fittingly it was the man placed number one in HSJ’s list of top 50 chief executives that got the ball rolling.

South West Yorkshire Partnership FT chief executive Rob Webster said he had only realised how much the pandemic had affected him when he tried to take a break from the pressures of the job.

“I try and keep well by going out for a run. Running is a great way to do nothing in a world in which you’re not allowed to do nothing. But there were times when I’d be crying while I was running, though I didn’t realise it at first”.

One of the themes of the wider conversation was that the pandemic had seen NHS staff become “kinder” to each other, and Mr Webster resolved to be “a bit kinder to myself” and to “recognise that actually I’m not super human”.

Sherwood Forest’s Richard Mitchell agreed: “We’ve been through a huge amount of trauma over the last 12 months, and to look after others we also need to be looking after ourselves.”

This theme was developed by Frimley’s Neil Dardis, who reflected on the “personal challenges” of having to admit that he did not “know the answers” to many of the questions that the pandemic asked of the NHS in its early days.

“I’d never quite taken such an open-ended approach to my leadership”, he recalled.

This approach extended to being more forthcoming to colleagues about the difficulties he was facing in his personal life.

During the pandemic the Frimley chief lost a friend he had know since 11 to cancer. Mr Dardis said he “would never have probably shared that with the organisation”, but that the challenges of the pandemic had made him “realise we’ve all got things going on, that we can’t just leave at the main entrance.”

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Source: HSJ