CEO Series: Glen Burley, Chief Executive of South Warwickshire NHS FT, Wye Valley and George Eliot NHS Trusts

In our most recent edition of our CEO Series, we speak with Glen Burley, CEO across three NHS trusts: Warwickshire NHS FT, Wye Valley and George Eliot NHS Trusts.

Glen described his entry to becoming a CEO, how his leadership style has changed and adapted during the pandemic, as well as offering his advice to aspiring CEOs.

Can you tell me about your path to becoming a CEO?

I don’t want to sound too boring, but my path was through being a finance trainee, and I joined the NHS from school as a matter of fact. I wasn’t all that academic at school, but I was good with numbers. Just by chance, there was a training scheme available in the NHS – which is why I was drawn to the health service, which sounds pretty unimpressive I must admit, compared to other people who were drawn to the NHS who I now work with.

The NHS trained me, and then I realised that I had joined something really special; you’re not just being any old accountant, you’re actually helping the NHS to work. I moved up to being a Finance Director at a relatively young age, and wanted to be a CEO, so I switched over to being an Operational Director in a large trust and then became a CEO through being a deputy from an operational background. Unusually, I have been a finance director, operational director, and CEO at board level which I think provides a depth of insight when I now ask questions of directors.

How has your leadership changed over the past 6 months?

I like to think I’ve adhered to some of the principles that I have always implemented, in that I believe in allowing people to get on and do their job. One of the things I’ve noticed with Covid-19, is a lot of CEOs are rolling their sleeves up and getting involved in aspects of work that they would have normally let other people do.

One of the things I’m very conscience of, is that through having three of each type of director in ops, nursing, and medical, a lot of what I’ve been trying to do is not being different in this period by trying to think I can manage each of their departments for them, allowing them to carry out their role, but actually trying to help free up their time and deal with more of the external issues.

There has also been a different way of communicating with staff, reassuring staff, and stakeholders in this period, from an NHS perspective we have been very ‘here and now’ and less strategic, but I think it is still important to do the strategic aspects alongside the here and now otherwise we will really get ourselves into a pickle! I have been trying to support those people who do it better than me in terms of responding to what has been an elongated major incident.  

Have you witnessed staff that have previously worked unnoticed, come to the fore during this crisis?

Absolutely, I have been reflecting on this. We have been doing work across the three trusts work on what went well during the period and trying to keep some of the innovation. From a leadership perspective, what has helped is having a single uniting purpose. As a consequence, some of the clinicians who were previously not putting themselves forward to be leaders, were leading.

In all three trusts, clinicians without a highbrow job title were just stepping up and doing what was required. Talking to them, they’ve found it reassuring to work alongside managers who perhaps they would have previously thought “what were that lot doing?” – it has bound the teams together both in a clinical and managerial way, and it has been great!

I knew these people had it in them, but they have just stepped up and done it because they understand the importance of what it was all about.

Do you think the definition of what a frontline worker is has changed due to the pandemic situation?

We’ve had many staff who have taken on different roles; all trusts have; but all of a sudden, you’re talking to your speech and language therapists who are now working on wards almost doing the same job as a surgeon’s assistant. It is like that whole ‘NASA thing’ with everyone playing their part in getting a man on the moon type scenario. We’ve crept away from talking about frontline versus non-frontline because if you were working in supplies during that PPE problem for example, you were very much frontline.

What technology do you think has been the most useful over the past 6 months?

MS Teams was one of those programs which used to load up on my computer and be instantly closed down again, but now it is a familiar friend; the way our group is configured where Hereford is a 2-hour drive from here, and George Eliot a 35 minutes’ drive from here, I suddenly actually felt closer to much of what was happening in the group thanks to digital tech.

We had used video conferencing before for outpatients and MDTs; talking to some of our pathology consultants, who were using video tech for MDTs and being able to screen share and show images – they found this method more preferable than using cramped rooms. Supporting home working, and the productivity of home working has been proven to be really effective. Also, the breast-feeding clinics being conducted via Zoom, amongst other departments, has been very innovative.

We’ve been able to link up clinician’s stories regarding patient care between the three trusts using MS Teams, which has been really effective. We’ve been doing leadership briefings between teams using Facebook Live, which has attracted a much larger audience than previously when asking people to attend a physical room. I see a lot of digital tech sticking, and actually I hope for its continued acceleration. We’ve got a digital hub which is about to launch in our Stratford-upon-Avon site, which will be where we will get clinicians and industry in a room testing out new solutions to how we manage patient care; the pandemic has brought to the fore the embracing of digital technology.

Are there any learnings or advice you would like to share from your experiences over the past few months?

There are fundamental things like learning how to chair meetings on Teams, to tell people they are muted and so on! There has been some interesting human behaviour I have noticed over the past few months, both at local and national level, where people have used Covid as a cover for doing things that they have always wanted to do (some good and some bad), so there has been a bit of opportunism going on, and I’ve had to keep an eye on that.

Otherwise, I have learnt about some of the other individuals in the team and the traditional leadership hierarchy in terms of how you get things done; that wider engagement where people understand what you’re trying to achieve. We need to make sure we do other things of importance with the same level of clarity so everyone gets behind it like they have done in this current period.

Also, thinking about where I have previously wasted time which will definitely not happen in the future; going in to London which takes 2 hours travel time, to attend a 1-hour meeting, and having that take up the whole working day. Also, some meetings having to say “no” to due to the time that individual event will take out of the day.

What have been some of the personal challenges that you have had to overcome in your role as CEO?

For me, it has been around ‘visible leadership’ particularly around the end of April with the peak, where clinical staff were really at the frontline, you want to go there and show them that you are there for them, but you really shouldn’t due to protecting our patients and them, adhering to the guidelines and showing that you are a role model of those guidelines.

Senior clinical leaders have had to find ways of being visible to their staff safely; I have been creating videos and putting them up on the trust website to provide reassurance in letting them know you are here; oddly, I’ve been coming into the office every day when I could have worked from home. I’m at the corner of the Warwick site, and I felt like I needed to be here even though I’m not on the clinical frontline. The hardest part was showing you are there for them without actually physically being there.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and those aspiring to take on the role?

Being a CEO in the NHS is an absolute privilege; it is a fantastic job and sometimes there’s a tendency for us all to moan and state how difficult it is. Take someone with my background, there are some boring old jobs that I could be doing as an accountant, but to be able to be involved in the world’s best health service is fantastic. I would encourage people to aspire to what they can be, and not be put off by some of the media you see around it, because on the whole it is really rewarding and really enjoyable. I’ve been in the NHS for 37 years; I’ve been a CEO for the last 14 years and I wouldn’t choose to be anything else – except for perhaps a striker for Man United!

The advice I would give is that it is the teams around you and the diversity of your teams that really make the CEO role in the NHS a success or a failure. I learnt early on that if you appoint people solely in your image, you just end up with a bunch of mini me types around you; what I’m keen to do is to ensure we have different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, and also different personality profiles – we do a lot of the insight  stuff around this. It is about bringing the wisdom of the crowd, and as such, in the NHS we have such diversity that there has never been a problem we have faced where we haven’t got someone who has already experienced it.

Finally, the authenticity of leadership – don’t try to be someone you cannot be.