Women Leading in Health Podcast | The Chief Executive

21st July 2023

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In this series of podcasts, we explore the skills and mind-set required to lead in the world of health and medicine. Through conversations with women from a range of leadership roles, we cover everything from career pathways and leadership style to defining career moments.


Preeti: Welcome to another episode of Women Leading in Health. My name is Preeti Minhas, and I’m the Assistant Director of Clinical Learning at Education for Health. 

For those of you who have been listening to this episode, you will notice that it’s normally our Chief Executive, Dr. Linda Edwards, who has been exploring the skills and mindsets of women who are leading in the health and medicine arena. But today, it’s a little bit of a different episode, because it’s not every day you get to interview your Chief Executive. 

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce our guest for today, it’s our Chief Executive, Dr. Linda Edwards. 

Welcome, Linda. 

Linda: Thank you. 

Preeti: So, tell us a little bit about your career pathway. 

Linda: Yes, well, where to start, really.

I have not had what you might consider a traditional career pathway. I started my clinical career as a podiatrist back in the days when very few of us were podiatrists, most people were chiropodists. And so I was one of the first people to qualify in surgery. 

I then became what we call the District Chief Chiropody officer or Podiatry Officer for Hillingdon Health Authority. And it became very clear to me that there was something much bigger that we could be contributing to, and that piqued my curiosity.

I ended up doing a series of roles. I became a General Manager in Community Services and an Operations Manager, I did lots of clinical roles then in the hospital. And then I thought, actually, there’s something a bit more interesting in primary care and explored FPCs, I think they were called then, yeah, Family Practitioner Committees, and I spoke to Julie Dent who featured on this podcast before, and she said to me, ‘What on earth are you doing this for? You’re far too overqualified to work in primary care.’ And that really caused something to shift inside of me, I thought, why should it be different in primary care? And of course, I applied for the job and I was successful and the world of primary care opened up to me. And that is where my passion lies, because we can do so much in that arena. So much so that I became a Chief Executive of a couple of FHSAs and then went on to be a Regional Director of Primary and Community Care in South Thames, where I was very fortunate to work with somebody called Chris Spry, who was the Regional Director at the time. And he gave me enough space for me to be able to do things in a creative and innovative way. And that opened lots of thoughts and ideas and doorways for me. 

But once I knew that regions were going to be incorporated into the civil service, I thought, I can’t do that. I can’t be constrained by the framework of civil servants. So I decided to resign and set up my own business doing consultancy, coaching and development work, which I did for 13/14 years alongside doing my PhD, which was in Leadership in Diverse Cultures. 

Part of my time then with that I spent three years living in the United States where I had the privilege of working with a lot of the Native American elders who were amazing teachers and taught me so much about myself. And then when I eventually had to come back – and it was a had to because my husband became acutely ill – I didn’t know what to do. And I thought, where do I go now? Do I go back to the health service? And I thought, no, actually, I’ll try these charities out because I want something will get me closer to people with the conditions and help me understand what we could do and what the health service could do to improve those health outcomes. 

I want something will get me closer to people with the conditions and help me understand what we could do and what the health service could do to improve those health outcomes

So I spent a bit of time at Asthma UK as the Director, where I had the heady title of Director of Nations Regions and Services. And then I went to Diabetes UK where I set up the Quality Service Design Consultancy, and then eventually came to Education for Health.

Preeti: Oh, that’s brilliant. So I guess your career has really taken a portfolio approach, not only in very different roles, but also in very different geographical locations as well. 

So tell me a little bit about a moment or the moments that have really shaped your career or an outstanding moment that you’ve had in the course of your career.

Linda: Probably quite a few of them. 

Actually, this is a little bit tangential, but it did teach me quite a lot. When I first came back from the United States, while I was looking to go back into mainstream employment, I got myself a job as a Saturday girl at the local estate agents. And that taught me so much about how things work differently in different sectors. And I think I was a little bit taken aback because some of the systems weren’t working particularly well, so I wrote to head office and made a suggestion or two about how we might be able to change some systems. And they refused to talk to me because I was a Saturday girl. 

And that taught me something about how important it is to respect people in your organisation, no matter what role they have, because we don’t know their life story. And actually to dismiss somebody because they were in a Saturday girl role, or the receptionist role, or whatever it might be, that really resonated with me about how you need to respect everybody for who they are.

That taught me something about how important it is to respect people in your organisation, no matter what role they have, because we don’t know their life story

Preeti: And take everybody’s contributions into account as well, isn’t it, irrespective of their level or the position that they hold.

Linda: Yes. And another was when I was actually not successful in getting a job. I think that was one of the most significant times, and actually, a point of learning for me. It was when I was at Avon FPC, and it was when it was becoming a family health services authority. They’d brought someone in to take on the General Manager role, and I was applying for the deputy role because that’s the role I’d had as an FPC. And I wasn’t successful.

I had three rounds of interviews in three days in three parts of the country. I was unsuccessful in my current organisation and moved to Hampshire in the end, which was the biggest FHSA in the country. And that taught me something about when you make assumptions about being the right person for a role, circumstances around that are usually quite different from what we understand when we’re an applicant.

For me, it was the best thing that happened, because Hampshire FHSA was a much bigger area, I was able to go from there to be a Regional Director.

Preeti: And those moments that you’ve had, do you feel that they’ve really helped to shape the type of leadership approach that you take today in your role?

Linda: Absolutely. I always believe that everybody we encounter has something to teach us and we have something to teach them. Sometimes, some of the lessons are bigger than others.

Preeti: So going on from your leadership approach, what would you say your leadership style is?

Linda: I hope I listen to people so that I can better understand where they’re at before jumping to conclusions, and really acknowledging that everybody’s different, and everybody needs something different from their leader. 

So to try and adapt so that people get what they need to enable them to do their job effectively.

Preeti: Yeah, no, definitely. It’s definitely something that I am sure all of us who are in the organisation can certainly describe your leadership as that of one that you listen, and resilience, I think, is one, because there’s certainly been quite a few challenges that we’ve had along the way, not to mention the COVID 19 pandemic. 

How do you keep on bouncing back?

Linda: Resilience is interesting, isn’t it? Because I don’t think you realise you’ve got it until it’s tested. The way I tend to approach knock-backs in life, because it’s in life as well as work isn’t it, is what was the purpose of that? And what can it teach me? 

So when these things happen, it’s what is the purpose of this happening right now, that allows me to stand back and view the bigger picture and track away through without getting too emotionally involved. I think when people get very emotionally drawn into situations they can’t see and the key is always to be able to step back, see the bigger picture and then plot away way through it.

Preeti: And I guess it’s those moments where you have to step back and look at that bigger picture and then work your way logically through that scenario, and actually going and communicating with others. 

So we’ve talked a little bit about your leadership style and a lot of this podcast is around women leading in health and medicine. So do you feel there is a difference between I guess, women leaders or men leaders? Or is it just all a smokescreen?

Linda: It’s interesting, isn’t it because I think there’s less of a gap in some instances now because it’s more acceptable for men to not have to be the leader out there in front, which is what the old style of leadership was all about. So I think men have adapted as well as women. 

I think women do see it differently. You know, we tend to listen more, although not exclusively, I know a few women who don’t listen at all. But we tend to listen, we tend to orchestrate, and that, I think, enables us to accommodate other people’s needs a bit more easily than some men can. But having said that, I know some excellent male leaders who listen, and I’ve worked with a few too. 

So I think we just approach it a bit differently. It’s a bit like parenting, isn’t it? You know, women and men approach it slightly differently. But they both are equally as good at it when they’re good parents.

Preeti: And it’s about using those strengths that you’ve got, isn’t it and actually working on your development, it’s critical for the role that you’re in. 

So you’ve had lots of different roles in your career. And for those people that are up and coming in their career, and particularly women that are in this pathway and don’t really know where to go, what other key pieces of advice would you say to them today, based on what you’ve learned throughout your career?

It’s about understanding that every experience that we’ve had until this point of time has a value to us.

Linda: It’s about understanding that every experience that we’ve had until this point of time has a value to us. So I will often talk to people or coach people who say, ‘I couldn’t take on a leadership or a management role from here, because I don’t have the experience’, but they have got life experience. And it’s about helping people to understand that experience counts. 

And they’ve been managed, well, they’ve probably been managed badly. And to use all of that experience to go, ‘Well, if I was a manager, this is what I would do. If this is the leader, these are the skills that I would aspire to’. And if we model ourselves on those people who are particularly good, we gradually absorb those skills, and they become who we are. 

I mean, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great leaders, who’ve really helped me see these different aspects of myself. And, you know, I’ve worked with some leaders who are really awful, but actually, they helped me because they showed me how not to do things. And so I would always say, seek out what you can gain from the people around you in terms of the mirror, they reflect back to you and their experience, and have a go at things. If you don’t get the job does it really matter? It probably wasn’t the right job for you. There’s another job around the corner that may be even more suitable. It’s about releasing the judgments on ourselves and just saying, give it a go see what happens.

Preeti: And it’s how you take those failures, or whatever you want to call them, that really helped to shape you as a person. You could either take it as ‘Oh my God, I didn’t get the job’, or actually, what I’ve learned from this process and how I can take that forward into other opportunities that I might have. 

So you briefly talked about a couple of leaders that have really helped to shape your career and some leaders that have helped you to shape it by potentially what they didn’t display. Talk to me about a leader that you feel has been really influential in your career.

Linda: Yeah, I think the standout person would probably be Chris Spry, who was the regional director in South Thames. And Chris had the confidence in me to allow me to go out and do deals basically, and work with the district health authorities to enable them to support primary care in their areas. 

We did one deal which was around GP fund holding, and GPS will give them budgets and it came out of the district health authority budget. And so the district health authorities really cross about that to say the least. And so what Chris and I agreed that I would do would be set up boards across each of the local health areas where the GP fund holder and health authority would get together and they would agree how they would assign the budget. 

So he and I thought this was a good idea. We talked to the district health authorities and the FHA chief execs and Chairman and they all agreed to it, and then took it to the NHS England, it wasn’t called the NHS England in those days, but the version of it. They said, ‘That seems ridiculous. If it’s successful, all credit to you. If it’s not, all the blame goes to you.’ So they said, ‘We’re not going to implement it nationally, because it’s far too risky.’ And Chris did by me every step of the way. And we proved them wrong. We got it right.

Preeti: That’s brilliant news. And I guess there’s probably another outstanding moment in your career as well, isn’t it? 

So obviously, you’re the chief executive of a charity and you do consulting and development. What do you take the time to just have a balance between work and life?

Linda: Well, I think I need time for me. I tend nowadays to get up at six o’clock and go out in the garden, whether it’s raining, or whether it’s beautiful and sunny, as it was this morning, and just sit, contemplate, maybe meditate occasionally, and just let everything kind of drop into place. And then I feel good and ready for the day. And likewise, at the end of the day, of course, I’ve got a very noisy little puppy, which you may have heard in the background as we’ve been doing this recording, he keeps me real. He can tell if you’re not in a balanced mood, because he misbehaves. And so he is an excellent barometer for telling me I need to go and chill out somewhere.

Preeti: Funny how dogs can read you, isn’t it? 

You know, I know, you’re always encouraging all of us to make sure we’re taking our annual leave and getting some time for ourselves. Is that something that you do throughout the day? And when you’re on holiday as well?

If something’s bugging me, and I can’t see my way through it, and we get quite a few of those, I can just have a little walk around the garden and it clicks into place.

Linda: Yes, if there’s an odd day where I haven’t been able to do that, I really feel it during the day. If I can get 10 minutes just to go outside, I’m very fortunate I’ve got a great big garden so I can go for a three or four minute walk around the garden. If something’s bugging me, and I can’t see my way through it, and we get quite a few of those, I can just have a little walk around the garden and it clicks into place, I then can see my way through something. So I find that very powerful.

Preeti: It’s getting back to your creative space, isn’t it? Actually getting away from the desk where it almost feels restricted sometimes. 

So I guess that brings me to the last question of this podcast today. What would you like to be remembered for?

Linda: Helping people to be the best they can be. Even if it’s only half a dozen people, that would be what I’d like to be remembered for. 

Preeti: That brings us to the end of this podcast today. Certainly a moment that I’ll remember because it’s not very often that you get to put your Chief Executive in the firing line, so thank you for giving me the opportunity. 

So, thank you very much, Linda. 

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