Ready now – Developing diverse leadership

15 January 2020

Paul Jenkins, our Chief Executive, blogs about his reflections on diversity after a conversation with a colleague. 


Like other Chief Executives, I have been concerned about how we can do something meaningful to create opportunities for BAME staff to fulfil their potential and reach senior positions of leadership in the NHS. Particularly in London, despite our collective efforts, we are not yet doing well enough.

In this area as in others, I have long believed that, as well as statistics, we need stories to create the case for change. It was therefore really helpful to spend some time recently with Tosin Bowen-Wright, one of my own Trust’s emerging BAME leaders, who is also participating in the NHS Leadership Academy’s programme for senior BAME leaders, Ready Now. Hearing Tosin’s experience at first hand and comparing it with what had made a difference in my own career offered some real insights into the barriers BAME staff can experience.

In looking at my own career and observing those of others I think there are three ingredients which make a difference to how someone progresses. Those ingredients are talent, luck and confidence. Talent is, in my experience, pretty evenly distributed across gender, race and social background. Luck and confidence may not be.

To be successful we may all need a bit of luck. The key break in my own career came when I was appointed as project manager for NHS Direct. This was early on in the life of the Blair Government. At the time NHS Direct’s significance as a flagship initiative for the NHS was not totally visible and I secured a role for which, a year later, there might have been a lot more competition.

The role gave me an opportunity to lead a high-profile policy implementation. It gave me exposure to senior leaders in Government and the NHS, it allowed me to transition from being a civil servant to operational roles in the NHS and voluntary sector and was significant in my eventual journey to becoming a Chief Executive.

Clearly you have to make the most of your luck and performance and delivery are crucial but those moments where you are given a special opportunity are often key to how careers turn out. Are we confident that staff from different backgrounds would be considered for such a break in the way I was for that role in NHS Direct?

Gender can also play a role. I have never worked so hard as I did when I was setting up NHS Direct and I also had a young family. I am very conscious of some of the sacrifices my wife made to accommodate that pressure and the long-term impact that has had on both of our careers. Some of what I heard about Tosin’s experience reminded me of the continuing challenges women can have in progressing their careers in that critical phase of life where family responsibilities and career opportunities intersect.

Confidence is a big ingredient in successful careers and is probably the one which existing privilege can most reinforce. It took me a while in my career to develop a genuine sense of confidence. Doing an MBA, and the opportunity to benchmark myself against a diverse group of talented individuals, was a big boost. However more than anything, the feedback and support of managers and senior leaders who have taken some genuine interest in my career and offered me feedback and encouragement has been crucial. In particular, I think of the support I received from such individuals, not just when my career was flourishing but at those times when things were going less well.

Again, listening to Tosin’s story made me think that this may one of the areas where staff from BAME backgrounds may be most at a disadvantage. Being made to feel different, whether in an overtly hostile way or otherwise, can have an impact on one’s sense of confidence and self-worth. The situation of being the only black kid in the class, which I have heard a number of BAME staff relate, can leave a lasting impression and this can be reinforced by many other experiences in life. Sometimes the experience of being an outsider can reinforce someone’s determination to succeed, but for many it can undermine their confidence.

BAME staff may also lack some of the formal or informal networks which, as I have highlighted, can be so important in helping to get noticed or acting as sources of advice or encouragement.

While there’s lots we can do in other areas such as training and recruitment policies, it is in this area of developing and supporting BAME staff that we can make the biggest difference. A greater and genuine focus from senior leaders, the investment in leadership programmes such as Ready Now, opportunities for mentoring and other support, all have a role to play in raising the profile of talented staff from BAME backgrounds and building their confidence in where they can go and what they can achieve.

Tosin Bowen-Wright comments: “I really do believe that support from senior leaders across the NHS to develop inclusive leadership that represents the communities we serve only leads to a better NHS and ultimately, better care for patients. I am thankful to Paul for taking the time to promote courses like Ready Now. Personally, it has helped me think about my own role and responsibility in creating opportunities to fulfil my potential.”

We can meet this challenge. With the right support and investment, we can nurture a generation of BAME leaders who can ensure that NHS leadership reflects the diversity of the population it serves. To fail to do so would be bad news, not just for those individuals, but for all of us who want the NHS to have access to the very best leadership talent to help it meet the challenges it faces now and in the future.



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Paul Jenkins