from comms officer to ceo - one year on - top tips.png

The original was one of the  most read guest posts of 2019. So it’s fascinating to hear about the latest steps and learning on this upwards journey.

by Laura Skaife-Knight

It’s a year since I left my role as Director of Communications and External Relations at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust – after a fantastic 12 years at a very special Trust – to take up the role of Deputy Chief Executive at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn NHS Foundation Trust (QEH).

And one year on, I wanted to share my thoughts about how I’ve found the transition and my advice to others who are contemplating a similar move.

In summary – all roads lead back to communications.

Being completely honest, when the opportunity arose, I was in two minds for a number of reasons. Firstly, I questioned if I could do it, second, my ambition had always been to be a Director of Communications and I really didn’t know what was ‘next’, and third, it would mean relocating and leaving a life we very happy living in the East Midlands to ‘start again.’

But in the end – after much pondering – I bit the bullet and went for it, knowing it was a risk worth taking. Why and what were my main motivations?

1. I had been in my Director of Communications and External Relations role and in the same organisation a long time and in hindsight (as much as I loved my job and the organisation) it was too long and this didn’t look good on my CV. There’s a point you become too comfortable in an organisation and are ‘part of the furniture’ – and if you want to be ‘at the top of your game’ you need to mix things up a bit and get different experience and be constantly challenged, never allowing yourself to standstill. If it ever gets too easy, it’s time to move on

2. I have predominantly worked for high-performing organisations over the last 16 years – so ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Trusts – and the prospect of working in a Trust in ‘special measures’ presented a completely different challenge for me and one which I relished, knowing that with my experience and passion, I could make a positive difference and help improve patient and staff experience at QEH

3. I have had the privilege of working with and learning from some of the very best leaders in the NHS in my career which has shaped my thinking today (including Peter Homa and Danny Mortimer to name a few) – and my move to Norfolk would give me an opportunity to work with, and learn from one of the very best in Caroline Shaw, as CEO. These opportunities don’t come up very often and I believe in ‘seizing the moment’. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go for it

4. We have talked for a number of years about moving to the coast – and the move to Norfolk gave us the opportunity to try a different lifestyle, with nothing to lose.

And I haven’t looked back. This move was the best decision I’ve ever made. It was the right role, and the right move, at the right time in my career.

Lots of people have asked me how I’ve found my first year. So I thought now was a good time to capture this in a blog; which I hope will help others considering a similar move or career path.

The last 12 months have been the toughest yet most rewarding of my career to date, for a number of reasons. I’ve almost always been out of my comfort zone, I’ve challenged myself, I’ve had to reset myself and learn a whole new health and social care economy and erase all I knew over the last decade whilst settling into a new local community in West Norfolk; one we are now very proud to call our home.

My portfolio as Deputy CEO at QEH is varied and arguably unusual, and includes strategy, digital, transformation and improvement, culture, communications and external relations, staff engagement, fundraising and Governors and Membership, as well as deputising for the CEO. I’ve learnt more in the last 12 months professionally and about myself than I have in many years, perhaps because I’ve been quickly getting to grips with my new role and portfolio and in doing so living through unprecedented times as the NHS has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The task ahead of me when I started my new role seemed daunting and some days still does. To help me to get focussed and make the role manageable, I’ve set myself short-term goals.

What did I want to achieve in the first six months?

So my three goals in my first six months were:

  • develop and launch a new 5-year Corporate Strategy

  • put in place a staff engagement programme

  • further improve relationships with external partners and stakeholders – three areas in our 2019 inspection that the Care Quality Commission said needed attention.

Six months on – I’m proud to say there are improvements in each of these areas, with more to do, and now I’ve moved on to my next three priorities to make the next six months feel achievable and manageable

  • improving our digital maturity

  • reviewing our Information Services and Performance functions and

  • ensuring we have a PMO and approach to improvement and transformation that is fit for purpose for the future and supports an organisational culture of continuous learning and improvement.

Compassionate leadership and consistently ‘living the values of our organisation’ have never been more important. You really are always on stage when you’re a senior leader and role-model, and consistency of behaviour is key. I don’t profess to always getting this right – but this means being thoughtful, caring, considerate, listening, and focusing on the small things that really make a big difference. I always say, what you say, don’t say, do and don’t do, is noticed – and never has this been so true.

Did I feel at times that I wasn’t worthy of my role because I was a Director of Communications? Yes I did,  but in reality, in any walk of life you have to prove yourself and deliver and this is exactly how I’ve approached the last year. You earn respect in life and I am a firm believer in ‘if you work hard you get results’ and believing in yourself on the basis that having respect for others stems from having respect for yourself.

So what’s different in the end between my Deputy CEO role and a Director of Comms role?

1. The level of responsibility (when the CEO is on leave – it’s me – and this is a whole different level of responsibility)

2. The breadth of my portfolio

3. The criticality of appointments you make are even more relevant. You really are only as good as your team – appoint people better than you and surround yourself with the best (over the last 12 months I’ve appointed a Head of Communications and Engagement, Head of Staff Engagement, Head of Culture, Head of Digital and soon a Head of Planning and Performance and Director of Transformation and Improvement)

But fundamentally – however which way you look at it – all roads really do lead back to comms. My background in comms has given me a real grounding to do what I do now and in every single thing I do, my comms experience is relevant. Whether it’s writing a Corporate strategy, developing a bid and case for a new hospital, responding to COVID-19 or responding to patient concerns and complaints – my passion is improving the experience of patients and staff and my comms skills are absolutely relevant. Many of these things were new to me and things I hadn’t done before – but actually it didn’t matter. I believe in getting stuck in, learning from others, and importantly from your own mistakes. I happen to be a Director of Communications by background – and the importance of this Director and Board level post is no different to that of any other post sat around the Board table. Trust me; as many know, I regularly debate and argue this case.

My Top 6 take homes

1. Believe in yourself and the experience you bring to the table (as Director of Communications you experience it all so are well-placed to have a view of the organisation that arguably no other post does and you therefore bring a unique and valued skillset)

2. Surround yourself by those who you respect and can share guidance and support (I regularly have guidance from other CEOs, Deputy CEOs and others whom I respect so I can learn from their wisdom)

3. Draw on your experience – as a comms lead, you’ve likely seen and experienced it all – never underestimate the importance or value of this (and trust your judgement)

4. Don’t stay in a job too long

5. Life is too short – make the next move that works for you, your family and loved ones and which ultimately makes you happy (as you’ll all know from my social media posts – living by the coast makes us very happy)!

6. Finally – never under-estimate the importance of comms and what we bring to the table – a helicopter view of our organisations, we hold the mirror up and can say ‘have you thought about/this is/isn’t going to work’, we can create compelling visions and campaigns and can bring a dimension to the Board table no one else can. And as a bonus – we’re pretty good in a crisis, as COVID-19 has shown.

All roads really do lead back to communications, and for this reason communications professions are really well (if not best) placed and equipped to be more than Directors of Communications – if this is your ambition, go for it. There’s not one day in my current role that my experience in communications doesn’t help me. If I can do it, anyone can.                                                                                                                               

Laura Skaife-Knight is deputy CEO at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn NHS Foundation Trust. You can say hello on Twitter at @Laura_Skaife

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