BLOG: Leadership needs to be a balance of persuasion and empowerment

I’ve always believed that leaders should know when it’s time to go. It isn’t about feeling somehow you’re not up to it anymore; it’s about having the confidence to say, “I’ve taken this organisation to a good place. It now needs a fresh pair of eyes. It’s time to step back to allow someone else to take the helm”. For me, eight years has always felt like the right amount of time to review, consolidate, grow and evaluate – enough time to make a positive difference.

And what an eight years it’s been for me! Since 2009, Above & Beyond has gifted more than £20 million to improve patient experience in Bristol’s hospitals. That means more than 5 million patients have benefited in a number of different ways from our work. We have evolved into a proactive fundraising and awareness raising organisation, delivering three capital appeals including the biggest in the charity’s history, the £6 million Golden Gift Appeal to transform two vital hospitals in Bristol. Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI) and Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre (BHOC).

Leading this change has been incredible. There are so many things I have learned from the people I’ve met along the way – so many committed, motivated and energetic hospital staff and past patients from across the hospitals and a tremendous charity team of staff and volunteers. It would have been so easy to take a back seat and orchestrate the activity from my office, but I believe leadership needs to be a balance of persuasion and empowerment, with example setting and showing that one can get one’s hands dirty.

So in 2013, at the beginning of the Golden Gift Appeal, I wanted to show that I was prepared to challenge myself in the same way as we ask the public to do. It was with immense trepidation that I put my feet to my pedals and launched the Bristol to Paris Cycle Challenge. When I set off with my husband, not at all sure my knees – or anything else for that matter – would see me through to the Eiffel Tower, I had no idea that it would inspire so many to do the same. The ride is now an established part of our events calendar, raising annually more than £100,000, which has made such a massive difference to patient care in our hospitals.

The other thing of which I am proud is that we, at Above & Beyond, have begun to tackle health inequalities that exist in our health system – a problem which sadly charitable giving can often exacerbate. We live in a society where we are great about giving to children’s services, cardiac, and many cancer areas, however that wonderful philanthropy is not so prevalent in less favourable disease areas. I was determined that we shouldn’t forget them, and we found ways of fundraising or using unrestricted income to support less popular areas, such as our adult cystic fibrosis unit. Young CF patients can often spend up to 25 per cent of their lives in hospital; how can we deny them the very best hospital facilities, treatment and care?

So, where else did the £20 million go and what impact were we able to make? Above & Beyond has created modern and welcoming clinical environments enabling the hospitals to treat patients in greater comfort and privacy. Visitor facilities have also been transformed to allow families to rest and reflect, and continually be there for their loved ones at the time when they need them most. It has created some regional firsts – for example, the first adult bone marrow transplant unit, giving very vulnerable patients a unit where they receive all their treatment in one place rather than having to travel across the country; and the first retinal research unit, which allowed Bristol Eye Hospital to partner with Moorfields, bringing a further £11.5 million investment into Bristol’s eye treatment and research.

With a positive and healthy staff, the hospitals can deliver the very best care to patients so I was proud to drive more initiatives where Above & Beyond could support the development and recognition of healthcare workers. The charity pump-primed the Faculty of Paediatric Nurse Education in Bristol children’s hospital which trains its own nurses as well as nurses in the region and across the country. We have also worked with the hospital teams to create recognition programmes like the Recognising Success Awards, and our Nursing and Midwifery Awards.

The charity has invested heavily in research – not only in large hi-tech projects with the Bristol Robotics Lab, but many small pump-priming projects to leverage more research money. For every £1 Above & Beyond has granted, researchers have been able to raise a further £16, promising to make an immense impact on the treatment of tomorrow’s patients.

National headlines never have much time for positive news stories about our NHS staff but it has been an absolute privilege to work with the teams and individuals at Bristol’s hospitals, and past patients and families, who I have met over the last eight years, who have wanted to express their gratitude for the treatment and care they’ve received. I’ve seen leadership in very different environments; the Sister, Matron, or lead clinician managing a team of staff saving lives, sustaining quality of life or supporting patients and families at the end of life. It is this commitment and passion that has made the difference for me as I worked at Above & Beyond each day.

We have come a long way but I am now excited, as a donor, to see that foundation be further built upon by that fresh pair of eyes, so that Above & Beyond can continue to make a significant difference to patients, their families and our vital NHS.

Sarah Talbot-Williams is CEO of Above & Beyond

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