Leadership and professionalism

By Claire Riley

Strong leadership is transformational for an organisation. Leaders with a clear vision and purpose take their employees on a journey, empowering everyone to work towards the same objectives and helping them achieve their potential. Today in the NHS, teams face big challenges and need champions who recognise and promote the value offered by strategic communications.

You’ll learn:

• That the silver bullet of leadership lies within you
• What you should consider on the road to leadership
• Why we must stop allowing people to refer to the ‘cost of communications’ as opposed to the ‘value of communications’ and collaborate to prove PR’s worth

Aspiring to authentic leadership

‘The role of leaders is not to get other people to follow them but to empower others to lead.’ 

 Bill George, Discover Your True North 2015.

Much has been written about leadership – in fact in 2015 leadership paperback books were coming out at a rate of more than four per day! 

Searching on Amazon ‘leadership books’ will give you nearly 300k options to choose from. That’s a lot of leadership books which will take more than anyone’s life time to read. 

In reality becoming a leader is a journey and not something you can just read in a book. As you move up that leadership ladder, the challenges are more about you as an individual rather than you as a practitioner.

If you are however to read a book about leadership I would suggest ‘Discover Your True North’ by Bill George. This book talks you through leadership and how you really need to understand who you are, your values and the principles you lead by before you can really truly develop as an authentic leader. 

In essence and in contradiction, it demonstrates that the silver bullet of leadership is within you – not in a book. 

Who/what should influence you? 

The facts are we all have opinions on leadership and we have all experiences of the good, bad and the ugly. 

I am lucky to have been and continue to be, influenced by some excellent leaders in and out of the NHS. 

Authenticity is, in my opinion, the most important attribute of an excellent leader – someone who is true to themselves and focused on doing the right thing regardless of the constraints they are working within. 

As examples of best practice I personally would single out two individuals: Jim Mackey, CEO of Northumbria Healthcare and Daljit Lally, CEO of Northumberland County Council and it isn’t just because they are also Geordies.

Like everyone, both have been on their own very different personal leadership journeys. They however remain very clear on who they are and the principles that drive them; their principles, not those created or designed by others. They empower and encourage others to lead and are fiercely determined to ensure their organisation is the best it can possibly be. 

Considerations for aspiring leaders

Regardless of where you are on your leadership journey there are several pointers to bear in mind:

• How to ensure your personal values and deep beliefs influence you as you develop your leadership style and how this influences your own personal brand 

• How you can learn from others (identify those you most admire), but do not try to be someone you are not

• Let your work do your talking – ignore the superficial and focus on the substance

• Less is sometime more – as communicators we are too often on ‘transmit’ mode

• Remember leadership does not equal control – empowerment and supporting others to achieve is key to success

• Be open and honest – when things go wrong tell people, do not try and hide it

• Be resilient – control the emotions

• Maintain integrity and manage your own reputation

Never stop learning

Within the communications, marketing and PR fraternity, not just within the NHS but across all sectors, training and development emphasis is on the ‘practitioner’ element. 

We all must continually invest in CPD - let’s be honest, not enough of us do once we bag the qualifications. 

Very few formal qualifications include leadership development and or management skills yet these are essential for career progression and the successful management of projects and teams. 

You must regularly challenge yourself with the question – when did I last focus on my learning and development? If you struggle to answer this you need to quickly reconsider and take control of your professional goals.

Within NHS Communications

It would be a myth to suggest that communications activity within healthcare in England is something new – yet so many people think it is. 

When the NHS was formed 70 years ago the government at the time embarked on a communications campaign to educate the population on ‘how to access services’. 

Soon after they were educating the public on how ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases,’ subject matters still high up on the agenda for all organisations today. It is hard to believe that there was not widespread support for the NHS when it was formed!

Seventy years on, like all other areas of the NHS, working within communications remains challenging. 

Trying to navigate the internal politics around the NHS system is like watching Elton John in ‘Tantrum and Tiaras.’ 

Regardless, patients are to be cared for, the public want to have confidence in local services and participate in discussions about any changes to services, staff need to be engaged in the priorities of the organisation and stakeholders involved as services evolve. 

All of this is a statutory duty and therefore a must do, not a nice to have.

Whilst individual organisations are labelled with different names, the public only care for one thing – the NHS lozenge and what it represents. 

We all know that communications and wider engagement has a really important part to play in the success of the NHS yet not all organisations invest in communications at a strategic leadership level.

As an example, around 30% of senior communicators are at director level and only 20% are at Board level. 

Whilst the job title is not the determinant of successful delivery, it is a litmus test on how valued the function is within any organisation. 

Is this positioning of communications the fault of communicators, or systemic of the function itself?

Arguably I would suggest the answer to this question is both. As professional communicators we do not always help ourselves. 

Other chapters in this book share examples of the added value communications can bring to organisations yet not enough of us invest time and effort in evaluation of activity. 

From recruitment campaigns to campaigns linked to clinical safety, such as the latest one on Sepsis, there are tangible and, more often than not, cost benefits of such activity. 

But we are poor at promoting ourselves and such positive outcomes.

How many of us allow people to refer to the ‘cost of communications’ as opposed to the ‘value of communications’? Let’s face it, organisations do not talk about the cost of Finance or HR functions in this way. 

Leaders of communications cannot devolve responsibility of the positioning of the communications function to others, we should take control and act together to demonstrate the value the function offers to organisations. 

What can all communicators do to support this?

There is much we can achieve if we collaborate. 

Here is a checklist of actions communicators can follow:

• Plan activity with purpose, tangible outputs and with clear ‘call to actions’

• Do not overcomplicate plans and over design communications activity as if it is art as opposed to a means to an end

• Measure and evaluate work regularly and formally report to executive teams and where possible Boards

• Maintain strong relationships across the whole organisation and ensure you provide a service for all as required

• If you sit at the leadership table ensure you contribute and add value, supporting the development of solutions rather than creating problems

• Understand the numbers and know how to analyse and interpret them

• Work as part of a leadership team not just as a communications team

• Do not procrastinate – deliver what you say and within the time and budget agreed

Finally, let’s stop apologising for working in communications and be proud of the added value and outcomes we achieve. If we appreciate our own worth, others will too. 


Claire Riley is Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and also works nationally with NHS Improvement on the communications development programme. Claire is a qualified marketer and experienced lecturer and has a post graduate diploma in Marketing and a BA (Hons) in Business Management & Organisations with extensive experience in business, marketing and communications across public and private sectors. Claire holds the Freedom of the City of London and is married with two girls. She is a long-suffering Newcastle United supporter and a life-long Wham! fan.

Twitter: @thefourrileys
Online: https://www.linkedin.com/in/claire-riley-94304a9/