Making the most of leadership opportunities
by Dr Arrash Yassaee
Since the publication of the Griffiths’ Report 35 years ago, clinical leadership has always been part of the NHS conversation. Recent, unprecedented resource pressures have made it an increasingly priceless commodity. In response, the healthcare system is recognising the value of developing good clinical leadership and there has never been an easier time for early career professionals to gain experience. But with such a crowded landscape and growing interest amongst clinicians, it can be difficult navigating those first rungs on the leadership ladder.
Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work for national and international organisations and have been involved in recruitment and selection for a number of leadership opportunities.
Here are some of my reflections on how early career professionals (ECPs) can get the most from the leadership opportunities now available to them:
Understand your value
Clinical practice can be extremely hierarchical and, as a result, junior clinicians frequently underestimate the value they can bring to organisations and often won’t even consider applying for leadership roles.
Aside from a working knowledge of the healthcare sector, clinical training teaches ECPs with two key skills – the ability to apply evidence to high-stakes, time-critical situations; and the ability to communicate complex information to a lay audience and in emotionally challenging circumstances.
These skills, which every ECP possesses, are the one I have most frequently employed in my leadership roles, whether it was writing clinical strategies, allocating national resources, or presenting proposals to political stakeholders.
Challenge yourself to take the next step
Unless you are able to get paid, protected time for a leadership role, you will need to balance these opportunities with full-time clinical training. This is challenging and requires an organised diary and the use of time management tools that suit your working style (my favourite is the Pomodoro Technique).
Stepping up into novel roles can also be challenging but it’s important to remember that every single leader has had to go through this transition. Anyone who leads a team has had to make the step up from working within one. Everyone who has held a national has had to step up from local and regional responsibilities. Many of the required skills are directly transferable and often the team dynamics and professional challenges are incredibly similar.
Prioritise your training and write a PDP
By definition, any early career professional is far from the finished article. In our clinical roles we emphasise the importance of training, but this is often neglected in leadership settings.
Writing a leadership personal development plan (PDP) has been an invaluable tool to help me prioritise my own development. It enables you to have honest conversations with employers and mentors about your learning needs, helps you decide what opportunities to apply for, and ensures you prioritise your own development in day-to-day leadership responsibilities.
Network and identify mentors
Arguably my most career-changing conversation occurred as a student, when queuing at a conference dinner. By complete chance, I ended up debating child health policy with a recently retired paediatrician and arranged to go for coffee later that year, when I asked for help to organise an elective in paediatric health policy. The next morning I was copied in to 20 emails to senior leaders and as result got to spend several months at research units, think tanks, and at the Department of Health.
Often we approach networking as a transactional activity when instead it should be learning from and sharing ideas with people we meet. Sincerely exploring common interests with a stranger meant that I found a mentor to guide me through challenging career choices and help me find opportunities I was previously unaware of.
Mentors don’t have to be senior leaders. In my current role at NHS Improvement, I work with three junior doctors on a variety of national projects. Most of my learning, feedback and development has come from the different backgrounds and expertise that these individuals bring to day-to-day collaborations.
Plan ahead, keep track of your progress and embed these habits in daily professional life
Planning ahead for major roles can help, especially if job descriptions are publicly available, but there’s always a limit to how much we can predict the future. What’s far more important is keeping track of our own achievements and reflecting on what we’ve learnt and where we want to improve. Clinical specialties have individual curricula, and now ECPs can use the Leadership and management standards for medical professionals, published by the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management (FMLM).
It’s impossible to know for certain what the next leadership role will be, where the best development opportunities lie, or who our next mentor will be. The best way we ECPs can enhance our leadership prospects is to embed positive habits in our working lives, be willing to develop our skillset and approach any role or opportunity with an open mind.
Dr Arrash Yassaee is a National Medical Director’s Clinical Fellow, working at NHS Improvement.