Stripping you bare to build a greater leader

02 August 2018

Karen OBrien - 375x185.jpg

Karen O’Brien is deputy director of workforce at Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust. Having originally joined the NHS 12 years ago from the private sector, she joined this Trust in 2015 having already worked at Hull Acute Trust and Primary Care Trusts in North Yorkshire. Her role is unique – she’s not a director however she is the most senior HR professional in the Trust – providing workforce support directly to the board, chair, non-executive directors, CEO and directors.   

Joining Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust was a significant step-up for Karen from the perspective of needing to navigate working at board/executive level. As a staunch supporter of the Academy’s work, she discussed her development needs with her line manager. “I needed development which was not the norm and not HR based,” she explains. “I wanted something about approach and behaviours, and not traditionally skill based. Something that would push me out of my comfort zone.” The result was to participate in the Nye Bevan programme for aspirant directors which aims to accelerate individuals into executive roles, helping them perform better at board level.

Before starting Nye Bevan, Karen spoke at length to a colleague who had already completed the programme about the challenges, although she admits, “Nothing can really prepare you for what it really entails. I cried after day two because it was so moving, emotional, real and raw.” 

She recognises that observing people closely and being part of his or her emotional journey taught her a great deal, “Not often in a work setting do you see below the first layer of someone’s persona.”

Learning to truly reflect on things is one of the countless valuable lessons Karen learned. And she has become a stronger, more resilient and courageous leader through acquiring the ability to give and receive very challenging and difficult, and honest and critical feedback. 

A favourite classroom session was role-play, which a professional company made real and rewarding. Being interviewed by a real journalist and meeting with a real MP were particularly memorable and valuable experiences. Outside the classroom, this kind of activity will support Karen to chair scrutiny meetings, work with MPs, and understand local government structures.

Some of Karen’s objectives for the programme were around being an authentic leader to her team, colleagues and peers, allowing others to see the real Karen, and not just the work Karen, ‘This is something I have focussed on consciously following the programme,” she confirms before continuing: “Given I was new to role, another objective was about learning how to be more integrated with the senior leadership team. Both required me to work through my own fears, overcome the feeling of Imposter Syndrome, and whether or not I am making a difference. Three years down the line I feel more settled and feedback demonstrates the changes I consciously pushed myself to make within the safe zone of Nye Bevan have reaped results.”  

Karen admits the programme was tough. Working in a learning set spanning Southampton to Lincoln, Newcastle to Essex, and London to Birmingham, it was challenging to communicate with everyone involved and to meet them face-to-face. “Some of us still keep in touch which speaks volumes,” she reveals and then goes on to say, “I wouldn’t change the fact we made the effort and expense to travel because it was much more rewarding than virtual communication.”

Although it was tough, Karen doesn’t hesitate to recommend the Nye Bevan programme to aspirant directors. “I have a grin on my face whenever anyone asks me about it,” she gushes. “I tell everyone it is the best development programme available in my opinion. It’s rewarding and like nothing I have done before.”

Learn more about the Nye Bevan programme.