Leadership Series: Neil Pease, Chief People Officer, Nottingham University Hospitals

We caught up with Dr Neil Pease, Chief People Officer at Nottingham University Hospitals who focused on how his experiences as a domestic and then Healthcare Assistant in the NHS continues to provide a solid grounding in his current role.

Neil also shares his learnings during the past year and provides his four ‘mantras’ for those aspiring to become NHS leaders.

Could you tell me about your current role and your path to that role?

My current role is Chief People Officer at Nottingham University Hospitals; it’s multi-dimensional and involves creating strategic plans and a lot of problem solving!

A lot of time is spent on the recruitment supply chain, where we recruit people from and how we recruit them, and also what we can do to keep people; how we can be innovative in terms of retention and building flexibility in to jobs.

I am heavily involved in organisational development – it’s my job to create a workforce strategy to bring everything together to optimise the people experience. I’m also spending a lot of time on the health and wellbeing of staff, especially as we are hopefully moving to the recovery phase post peak rates of covid infections.

I’ve been here for a year now and prior to this role I was at University Hospitals of Derby & Burton. I worked at Derby Teaching Hospitals when it merged with Burton Hospitals. This was a massive undertaking from a people perspective. Merging organisations is obviously a huge undertaking but then to also merge cultures and sub-cultures is an extremely complex process. The hospitals are geographically only 14 miles away but each was different in terms of identity, history and culture. 

I suppose my career path is slightly different to other peoples in that I never intended to work in the NHS; I left school early with no qualifications whilst growing up in a deprived part of Doncaster. The demise of the industries in Doncaster in the 1980s meant there wasn’t a great deal of opportunity, although I was offered a job when I was 15 working on the markets in the town. I worked for a family business with people from Manchester who travelled around various markets in the country, Doncaster being a mainstay. Each week I would travel to Birmingham, Hereford and Kidderminster. I joined the NHS in the Christmas of 1992 as an ‘as and when’ service assistant, which was a combination of portering and cleaning – my first job was cleaning paediatric outpatients at night. 

There were two things that really grabbed my attention whilst working in the NHS: one was the camaraderie and teamwork, and the other was all the opportunities that the person on the street does not know about. We associate hospitals with doctors, nurses, physios, pharmacists, and a few other roles but there are actually so many people working in the NHS, over a 130 different professions. The range of possibilities blew my mind. 

I then applied for a job as a healthcare assistant which I did for around 10 years or so across various departments.  I met a junior doctor when I was working in surgery in 1993 who became a friend and one of the most pivotal people in my professional life.  He was from a working class background in St Helens, and he said to me “why don’t you do something like this?” I replied “what me?!”, to which he said “you’ve got the skills, but just a lack of belief in yourself”, which really struck a chord and I started night school as a result. 

From this point on, I started to accumulate qualifications, and went on to study Sports Medicine at Glasgow University. I considered continuing to study medicine but due to my age (31) and having a family who had already suffered 4 years of me travelling to Glasgow every week, I just couldn’t afford it. In my final year at uni I did a project on employee led rostering for HR and really enjoyed it, so I graduated in 2002 with a degree in sports medicine, a bit of HR experience, and also a massive dollop of luck in that the NHS were setting up one of the first clinical simulation centres in the UK within Doncaster. There were only 4 other centres of this kind in the country at this point and Doncaster had the only centre in the north of England. This was helped through funding by Fred and Anne Green legacy. Fred Green was a local businessman who had died and left his estate to the hospital. Fred was one of the founders of ASDA and left around £8million to the trust. When Walmart took over Asda the estate doubled in price. The trust was looking for someone to set up and run the centre, and my experiences and qualifications fit the role. This was my first real foothold in NHS management.

What have been the challenges of your role in 2020?

Viktor Frankl, Austrian neurologist, coined the treatment ‘logotherapy’, which encouraged people to think of the future, and the key challenges this year have been trying to get people to think beyond the here and now; history tells us this will end, it won’t be forever. 

I don’t think I’ve had a year with such worry about people’s wellbeing; we’ve got 18,000 staff and I worry about 18,000 people in terms of their mental health and their physical wellbeing. Working in public health in Hull for so long, I also worry about the wider implications to the community where a lot of our staff will be married, in a relationship etc with somebody who is losing their job, struggling to find work and the knock-on implications of that. 

It has been frustrating at times as you want to help people more but everyone is spinning so many plates.  I’m very much a people person but with social distancing and mask wearing it is really hard to utilise those preferred communication styles. 

What technologies do you use in your role and have been crucial this past year?

I was in an educational meeting earlier last year, and there was a paper to be presented by a senior clinician on critical care. He was able to go into an office, present his paper over MS Teams to 15 people, have a really good discussion and Q&A, and then go back to his day job. In the old world, that doctor would have to go in-person to that meeting with all that wasted travel time which got me thinking why we didn’t just do this earlier. 

There are a lot of people who feel guilty for talking about the positives that have come out of Covid, but flexible working through technology has got to be the biggest positive. Pre-Covid we used to have 10 to 15 people per day logging on from home, whereas now we have 1,500 to 2,000. The evolution of conferencing software has to be the most crucial technology adoption and development.   

Can you share any learnings that you have acquired from a leadership perspective over the past year? 

Visibility of leadership has never been so important. I spoke to someone I know in a senior position in a different sector, and told me they had not been in the workplace for 5 to 6 months; I do think if you have responsibility for teams of people, you do have to balance risk with presence. NHS staff have always appreciated someone coming to see them from a senior executive level and one thing I’ve always tried to do is a shift per month back as a healthcare assistant, so rather than just visit an area, I’d rather go and work in an area alongside people. That presence in the workplace and the importance of it is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt this year – so valuable. I used to take ‘exec on call’ every Monday at Derby and have a wander around and talk to people, visit A&E on Monday night and so on, and the relationships this builds with people is invaluable where problems can be shared and understood between both parties.  

What advice would you give to those that are aspiring to become leaders?

I’ve got four mantras: 1) relationships are everything and not disposable; I still appreciate those relationships I made as a healthcare assistant; it provides such a good grounding in how you treat and deal with people. 2) Being a problem solver; some of the most influential people are those which see a challenge but also see an opportunity. 3) Keep learning and keep being interested – don’t assume you know everything. Finally 4) take opportunities when they present themselves; there are so many people who say to me “it is not the right time”, but some of the major catalysts in my career have been taking opportunities even if they seem like a stretch, and having that belief that I can do the job and be good at the job – just go for it.