Women Leading in Health Podcast | The Healthcare Consultant

26th September 2023

Listen to all available episodes here.

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.

Caroline Gilmartin has worked in healthcare in the UK for the past thirty years. She enjoyed her time as a clinical nurse, working in acute community and primary care settings before moving into clinical education. From there, she stepped into more focused management roles, using her clinical background to help her identify roles that would add value and improve the healthcare experience of the population. Caroline has worked almost exclusively in the more deprived boroughs of London. She has held senior executive roles, survived many system re-organisations and cherishes the learning experiences that her career has afforded her. She now works freelance with organisations she loves and focuses on delivering a diverse range of projects and programmes that she feels make a difference.

Interview Highlights

Caroline’s defining career moments

“General practice nursing was very different back when I was first doing it in the 90s, practices had one or two nurses but we were a relatively new breed fighting a corner for recognition for education and training, you know, having to be very self-starting. And I loved that, and I found that very refreshing. It awoke my curiosity for education and training and my passion for getting people to work together and share and support each other. But it also awoke in me a kind of a real worry and concern about the kind of situations that people could find themselves in as nurses in a very unstructured, unsupervised environment and the issues that could arise for them as professionals, but actually also the patients, because people were finding themselves doing things that they were not really competent or qualified to do and being expected to do them.

So I wanted to step away and work with what was then called the Family Health Services Authorities and work with people that were operating within that structure to create some sort of safety netting and a hierarchy and pathway through for nurses that we’re entering into general practice nursing. So there was a hang on a minute, there’s a bigger thing that needs to be done here than me just sitting and seeing my patients, I can see that there’s another role. So that was a very defining moment for me, and then moving into something that required me to behave differently, to think differently, to interact with different parts of the NHS that I hadn’t expected to, to be a leader, really, and to boldly go into quite tricky situations and negotiate my way around through them. That was very developmental. And I knew I could never go fully back into clinical practice from that.”

Caroline’s leadership approach

“I have to say that I’ve never lost my clinical core. And I’ve used my clinical skills and expertise and knowledge and understanding about the way professionals work, understanding of general practice on the ground, all the way through. And I think that’s the beauty for me of the career that I’ve been able to build. It was always a building on skills, never walking away, but always taking the next thing in my backpack and taking it on to the next challenge and the next role…The boards that I’ve sat on, they’ve had a lot of clinicians sitting around the table, who are still very much actively in clinical practice. And so I’ve been able to relate very strongly to where they’re coming from at the same time as holding the other, ‘and yet we need to do this’ element in my mind. But I think for me, that defining clinical lens, I think once you’ve got it, you never lose it. I mean, I wouldn’t put myself in front of the patient, but it’s actually a way of thinking and a way of kind of addressing a problem or a set of problems or a set of circumstances in a way that you take with you. And you can speak clinical. And that’s super helpful. You know, you’re never afraid to say “I don’t understand what that three-letter acronym that you just said was, tell me.” I don’t feel stupid asking.”

Do women and men lead differently?

“My preference is always to work with female leaders. I think women communicate differently. I think they can be just as steely, but somehow there is an ability to empathise behind that. For me, it is about preference… I also feel men can be more confident. Women have a bit more of an ability to feel impostor syndrome and to be honest about the fact that they’re feeling impostor syndrome and to apologise for themselves. And sitting around board tables, I’ve found there are times when male voices are listened to or heard more explicitly than the female voice. And I found myself at times having said something and then having it said again by a male colleague and it being heard, but not heard when I have said it, or any of my female colleagues have said it, so dynamic can be quite amusing.”

Avoiding burnout as a healthcare professional

“I think, across the board, the whole health coaching agenda is kind of rising to the top level, which is great because I think it empowers people to own what’s going on for them and think about it. And I think that’s exactly the same when you’re in a management situation. But I think you have to have times when you turn off. And I think you have to put your phone down, I think you have to not look at your emails, I think you need to have very clear boundaries, you need to take holidays, all of the above. And you need to be clear about when you’re getting overloaded and be prepared to sort of say, “Okay, so what is it? How do I deal with this?” as opposed to solely feeling like you’ve got a power through. So I think there’s a multitude of ways that I would now deal with it, but I have had to really learn over the years. And at times, it doesn’t always even feel possible that you can look after yourself. And I’m very conscious of that. I think people working in health and social care services are so burnt out post-pandemic, and actually pulling that back into a place where you’ve lost the burnout, and you can feel the joy again, that means you need help. It’s very, very real, and takes continuous effort to make sure that you are okay, and that you are able to operate at the top of your game.”

Advice for starting out on a career in the NHS

“The NHS is just a fantastically brilliant place and space to be in. There will be endless opportunities for you. And you need to be alive and open to them. Learn from the people around you, find the good people, watch them, get mentors. You know, open yourself up to asking people for help, because they will be really delighted to help you along the way. You’re in it for the long game. And if you’re in it for the long game, that means you need to take your time. Give yourself time to get the expertise that you need at the level that you’re working. Don’t be afraid to step outside of the NHS and go do something else. You can always come back to it and it will welcome you back with open arms.. Sometimes it’s really helpful to get a different perspective and look at something from a different point on the compass.”

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