One of my heroes recently died

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

January 11th 2008 was a really sad day for me as one of my inspirational heroes died that evening.

Many people may never have heard of Sir John Harvey-Jones but he was the man responsible for me becoming an NHS manager. He was the Chairman of ICI and did a TV series called Troubleshooter where he went into companies and organisations and helped turn them around.In 1990 I watched an epsiode of Troubleshooter on the NHS and decided there and then I wanted to be an NHS manager.

I can still remember the episode as if it was yesterday and somewhere in the attic I have a well-worn VHS video of that episode. It was in the first year of Maggie's NHS internal market and he visited a Trust and looked at the management and the staff of the hospital. The Chief Executive lived behind his desk, communicated with his staff through memos and was obsessed with cutting costs and government targets. Sir John spent a lot of time with nurses, care assistants, porters as well as the management and was bitingly scathing about the way the hospital was managed. He said that the core business of a hospital is providing patient care and that the role of managers was to support people delivering that care to do the best job they could. The Chief Executive argued that he "probably communicated too much with staff" and Sir John replied that if the staff could not repeat his message then he hadn't communicated at all. He showed the Chief Executive and Chair to be incompetent bureacrats who had no understanding of care, had completely flawed priorities and were completely removed from the core business of the organisation, which was the provision of care.

That programme had a profound effect on me.I felt that it was scandalous that idiots like that were running the NHS and believed I could do a much better job. At the end of the episode the Chief Executive and Chair were both removed and I almost jumped up and cheered. Sir John emphasised that excellent management was about undertsanding your core business, supporting the people who deliver that business and solving people's problems. He described management as an act of service to people not an act of control or domination. He totally understood money (he turned round ICI from a loss-making organisation into generating £1bn in annual profits) but explained that money was a tool not something to be fixated over or worshipped. He was the personal embodiement that management was an honourable profession, that it's focus was to serve and support others and that it could change care for the better.

As a 1st year student nurse, telling people that I wanted to be a manager was greeted with scorn, derision and plenty of insults. Everyone thought management was about egos, ambition and earning lots and people laughed when I said I wanted to make the NHS better and management was the way to do it. Many of my fellow students used to insult me and referred to me as "the manager". Interestingly I had many similar reactions from managers when I said that I thought management was about supporting clinical staff, making care better and trying to make the world a better place.As a staff nurse I remember never seeing the Director of Nursing or Chief Executive on my ward ever and when I became a manager I made sure that I visited every single clinical area I managed every single day. The ward sisters soon got irritated with seeing their manager every day (especially as I always ate a chocolate) but I made sure I knew exactly what their problems were and every problem that they told me about I tried to sort out there and then.

Even as a Chief Executive, Sir John's lessons always stayed with me and I often thought "what would Sir John" do and tried to live up to his message and example by seeing my role as supporting all the clinical staff within my area and trying to help them do their job better. It was also great that he was a jolly fat bloke with outrageous ties who never took himself too seriously :)It feels to me today like an era has ended and I wish I had written or said this to him directly. I once bumped into the Chief Executive from the episode at a conference and I nearly went up to him and told him that he inspired me because he was such a crap manager (but I didn't quite have enough bottle).

So that night I opened some wine and toasted the memory of the man who showed me that management can be a powerful expression of service and that good management can make a real difference and improve the lives of patients and staff. He probably should have the last word so I would like to sign off with one of his better quotes:

'Leadership is the priceless gift that you earn from the people who work for you. I have to earn the right to that gift and have to continuously re-earn that right.'


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