from comms officer to ceo.jpg

I’ve always believed that the skill set and qualities needed to be a really effective CEX/CEO and a great Director/Head of Comms are actually very similar. Yet so few senior comms people end up in the very top jobs, So it’s great to see one of our own do just that…

by Laura Skaife-Knight

So how did I do it and what path did I take?

The short answer is: I had an ambition to be a Director of Communications in the NHS. I didn’t set out to be a Deputy CEO – but events and circumstances over the last few years have led me here.

The slightly longer answer is: I’m a print journalist by background (BA in American Studies; Lancaster University – including a year at the University of Virginia in America – followed by an MA at the University of Sheffield; and 7 years later an Advanced Certificate from the CIPR). After two years working for a busy daily paper in Northampton, I developed a passion and love for health stories. After many months of rejection and not being shortlisted for jobs, I finally got my break in NHS comms in 2004 as a Communications Officer at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, and 2-3 years later moved on to Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust (NUH) as Media Manager.

Always striving to improve, learn and embrace every single opportunity that came my way, I moved on two years later to become Head of Communications at Derby Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, where I had the unbelievable experience of supporting the move into and opening of the new Royal Derby Hospital and relocation of the city’s Emergency Department and of course the rebrand that came with this. Within eight months of being in Derby, I was headhunted back to the place where my heart always was in Nottingham as Assistant Director of Communications  – an organisation that matched my own ambition and personal values  and now I was one step away from the job of my dreams.

Within a few more years, this dream had become reality and by my early 30s, I’d become one of the youngest Director of Communications in the NHS. Over the last 6 years, I have gone all out to raise the bar year-on-year in communications and engagement, push the boundaries, and invest in the next generation of communications leaders; with some success.

And, in October 2019, 15 years since I became Communications Officer in Leicester, I am preparing to take on the biggest challenge of my career, as Deputy CEO at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn NHS Foundation Trust.

Fundamentally, the reason I am where I am today can be boiled down to 3 key reasons:

  1. My unwavering desire for continuously improving the experience of patients and staff (and increasingly influencing positive change beyond my communications and engagement role)

  2. Having the privilege of working with, being given opportunities and receiving support and guidance along the way from some fabulous leaders and people, including Peter Homa and Caroline Shaw (sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time and seizing every single opportunity along the way)

  3. Working incredibly hard, and putting in the graft (often at a cost to my personal life, which has been a lesson to me, especially over the last five years)

My lessons, advice and reflections…

· Never compromise your personal values

· The chemistry with whom you work with and for is really important – so choose wisely

· Work with people whom you respect & can learn from

· Never underestimate the importance of every interaction – and the positive impact you can have on others (every conversation and action matters, including saying ‘thank you’ and giving credit, praise and feedback, where it’s due)

·  Be brave – seek forgiveness not permission and don’t be afraid to take measured risks (as my present Chief Nurse Mandie Sunderland says:  “If it’s not illegal or immoral – let’s get on and do it” and how true this is (let’s not let endless process and bureaucracy stifle innovation and creativity)

·  Appoint people better than you and with a blend of strengths that differ to yours – diversity of thinking is really important – and never appoint if in doubt (your instinct is usually right)

·  Surround yourself with people who inspire you, bring positivity and joy into your life – don’t let the negativity of others drain yours

·  Work hard – and in the end you will get what you deserve

·  Know what makes the best you & gets the best out of you – and never stop striving to be a better version of you

·  You need to work with a team who you can trust and rely on; and you find out the most about those you work with when the going gets tough

·  We work in environments that can be stressful and full-on – but this doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and a place to have some fun along the way

·  Our job as leaders is to bring out the best in people and help people to reach and see their true potential

·  Never ask a member of your team to do something you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself and never stop asking for feedback so you can become a better leader tomorrow than you are today (as one of my mentors says: ‘you live life forwards, but understand it backwards’)

Naturally as I move out of a full-time comms role and into a Deputy CEO role (though I still have comms and engagement in my portfolio!), I’ve thought lots about what makes a really great Comms person, mindful there are lots of schools of thought on this and for me the ingredients are a combination of these things:

· To truly do great communications you need to understand how hospitals and health systems work and know how it feels on the shop floor (knowing the heartbeat of the organisation is crucial)

· Gone are the days of working in a Comms Team that sees its primary role as a press office. Comms is about adding strategic value – so align everything you do to the Trust’s overarching strategy and if it isn’t important to the organisation – you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s that simple really. And share your progress with your Board regularly – take your communications and engagement scorecard to show how you are adding strategic value

· Internal communications and staff engagement should come first – always (most of your time should be invested here). If you get this right, the rest will follow

· Being well-connected (internally and externally). You have to invest time getting to know the movers and shakers, building their trust and confidence and when you really need it – you’ll be able to ‘cash in’ on these relationships

·  Part of our job is to be ahead of the game and one step ahead of what might happen next…….whilst work-life balance is important, to be really great in this field, you do need to a certain degree to enjoy ‘living and breathing’ what you do

·  The best in this field can comfortably work strategically and operationally when needed and can switch between both modes quickly and with ease

So, in conclusion…

I recently spoke at the Cohort 6 for the Postgraduate Certificate in Health Communications. And these were the headlines I described as what makes the best very communications professionals as ‘take homes’ (some are worth repeating from above in my opinion):

1.      Seize every opportunity to get different experiences, to step out of your comfort zone and to learn (including from your mistakes)

2.      Be open, honest and transparent (consistently)

3.      Be brave – take measured risks & seek forgiveness not permission

4.      Be persistent – and don’t give up if you believe in something and it’s the right thing to do (notably to make things better for our patients, their families and staff)

5.      Be politically savvy/astute

6.      Be smart – and always one steps ahead

A summary of my proudest moments

Successfully leading prime-time documentaries, as follows:

o  BBC2: ‘Hospital’, consolidated viewer figures of over 15m across six episodes

o  BBC1: Keeping Britain Safe, 7.7m viewers

o  BBC 2: The Golden Hour, 3m viewers

o  Sky News Live 24 hours in A&E (national award-winning broadcast), 2m viewers globally


· Successfully facilitating the creation of new vision, values and long-term strategy for an entire Trust, holding innovative engagement events in portable outdoor venues for 15,000 staff to shape changes required by challenging finances

· Contributing to the strategy that sees NUH having one of the best recruitment rates for nursing in the country

· Leading the digital strategy that has resulted in NUH being the most active NHS trust in the country on social media

· Managing a number of high profile press conferences, including the launch the campaign to find Madeline McCann

· Developing innovative ways to engage local communities – including being the first Trust in the country to enter a unique partnership with our local newspaper Nottingham Post and tram company, Nottingham Express Transit on a Nurse and Midwife of the Year Awards

Laura Skaife-Knight will soon become Deputy CEO at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn. You can say hello to her on Twitter at @laura_skaife

Image via Nesster

Original source – comms2point0 free online resource for creative comms people – comms2point0

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