Medical Leadership Series: Dr Alice Seabourne, Medical Director, Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS FT

To introduce our new medical leadership interview series, Leading Healthcare spoke to Dr Alice Seabourne, Medical Director and Responsible Officer at Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (GMMH). In this interview Alice shares with us some of her key learnings, experiences and challenges which have constituted her leadership journey, and shares some advice for aspiring leaders.

Hi Alice, could you tell me about your role at (GMMH)?

I have been Medical Director since October 2019, so I was a fairly new medical director by the time the pandemic hit. I suspect there were lots of medical directors who took on roles just when the pandemic hit, so things have not gone entirely to plan, given the pandemic started four months after I joined. Certainly, that changes the way you imagine how you might develop as a leader.  

I’m a key part of the Board, the Executive Management Team. We have a robust medical leadership team as well, and over the last six months we’ve been changing the structure of the tier below me. We’ve got some new associate medical directors: I think the medical director’s role is, in part, developing those leaders and developing new roles.  

I’m an old age psychiatrist – that’s my background – and through being rooted in multidisciplinary team working, you’re used to working with lots of different people within the organisation, but externally as well. I’m involved in North West Mental Health Medical Directors Network – I think that’s been great for support over the pandemic. 

Also, within Greater Manchester there’s an executive medical directors network. Learning how acute trust partner medical directors work has been really important, so having those professional networks outside the trust, as well as robust working within the trust, has been really vital to me functioning.  

I also have a role in patient safety within the trust: I chair the Serious Incidents Review Panel and we’ve been changing our processes for dealing with serious incidents over the pandemic.

What are you most formative experiences working as a medical leader? 

There are a number of people that have been inspirational or that I have learned from along the way, and I think that’s one of the great things that we can offer other people: offering our expertise and experience. So, having those leaders and role models that I have followed has been really important in my development. 

Listening is really important too – really consciously listening to what people are saying, learning from other people and being kind. Not being kind in a sentimental sort of way but in a thoughtful, “thinking about other people” sort of way. Learning from other people’s experience – be it good or bad – is important. 

The best leaders, that have helped form me, have been fair and balanced and take their time to think about things and are able to bring in evidence from other people – to be thoughtful and caring about what they’re doing.  

What change has the role brought about within yourself, both professionally and personally?  

You can’t do everything yourself and you can’t be perfect – none of us are perfect, are we? One of the things being a leader during the pandemic has taught me is that being good enough is sometimes all you can be. We have to be kind to ourselves, as well as trying to be kind to the people around us. 

So much has changed over this period. If you were writing a policy pre-pandemic, you’d have wanted it word perfect and would have buffed it within an inch of its life. Now, it’s just got to be good enough, I think. As people, whilst we might all strive to be as perfect as we can be, being good enough and knowing that there will be times when other people will have to take things up is really important. These are tiring, hard jobs to do.

What motivates your efforts at the trust on a day-to-day basis?

I want to be a part of making this trust a great place to work and making it a great place for patient care. I want to support other people to develop. That’s developing other medical leaders, that’s developing non-medical leaders, it’s helping service users develop, isn’t it? We need to be there to be kind, tolerant, developing, nurturing leaders working within a system. You want it to be a better place to work.

What advice would you impart to the medical leaders of tomorrow? 

I suppose I never planned to be here, and there are people who have a five-year plan, or a 10-year plan, or a 20-year plan. I never really had a plan and I don’t think either option is right or wrong – having a plan or not. People need to take their time and listen and learn from other people and know that they’re not doing this by their self – they’re part of a team. You build your strength by building other people’s strength.

It’s okay to say I don’t know how to do something. It’s okay to ask for help because you might not know how to do something but it’s likely there is somebody else who will. If they don’t, they will know somebody who might. Asking for help outside organisations is good, too – networks of people who are like you. It’s important to learn from people out with an organisation as well. 

There’s something about doing uncomfortable things and challenging yourself and pushing yourself with support, which I think is really important. So, if somebody gives you an opportunity to try something out, try it – even if it might feel bit uncomfortable at times. 

There’s something about being prepared. When I come into work, I don’t know what the day is going to bring – there is often a surprise along the way. So, being prepared for the day going slight awry is important. Bring a packed lunch with you; make sure you’ve got your supplies. 

For leaders of the future, it’s okay to dip in and dip out of leadership. There isn’t one trajectory for people; there are lots of transferable skills people can have. You can be an educational leader and move into other organisational leadership roles. People pacing themselves along the way and developing those transferable skills is really important. Also, have other things in your life. It’s work, isn’t it? Your team keeps you going when times are rough, but things outside of work keep you going when times are rough as well.