What is the most rewarding thing about being a woman who has achieved a senior role in her career?
Having a really interesting job – ORR Chair – and other jobs before it – which really contribute to some nationally important issues which affect people’s lives – a flourishing railway and an effective NHS for example. The railway sector is a very exciting one at the moment: growth rates most sectors would die for, huge investment and currently the best rail safety record in Europe. The rail industry is growing very significantly and it is a very privileged time to be working within it. It is very exciting to be part of the sector at a time of growth and expansion.
Do you think men and women handle leadership roles differently?
I have never been aware of a major difference between men and women, only differences in personal style: some lead from the front, others from the back, some are more receptive emotionally but there is as big a range amongst men as there is amongst women on these issues, in my view!
As you moved up the career ladder, what would you say has been your biggest obstacle and how did you overcome it?
I wanted to work and be a mother at the same time so it has always been of the utmost importance to me to ensure I had the right balance between my family life and my children. When push came to shove, my children were my complete priority. As a result, there were periods of time, when my children were in their teenage years for instance, when the job I could do was more restricted. My employer was aware of this and fully accepted it. My children also understood they were my priority and when they needed me, they communicated this to me and I was there for them. Always.
What are the day-to-day challenges of being a senior female leader?
If you have children, balancing career and family life. There were periods of time when I needed to be strict about my timetable which meant leaving the office – or sometimes a meeting (even once a ministerial one!) – early to pick up the children from school. I had to adapt to their routine and make sure I was around when they needed it. I also had to ensure I was doing my job. It was not always easy but it can be done!
What has been best piece of career advice you’ve received to date?
Focus on the outcome of the job, what you are trying to achieve, rather than the “I”. Also different points of views can often help everyone take a step away from their personal views, see and agree the best way forward after discussion. This approach made me a better partnership worker. Someone once reminded me of the quote from Harry Truman: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I have also found the phrase “feedback is the food of champions” really helpful when I am smarting under criticism!
What has been your career high?
When I was at the Healthcare Commission, the healthcare regulatory body – a year into the job, the Labour Government announced the merger of Healthcare Commission with the social care inspectorate, although it took another 5 years for the merger to actually take place. I am proud of the work we accomplished during this time. As a top team, we were determined to continue doing our job but also prepare our staff for the change. It was important for us that they embraced it. I was very proud of the staff: everyone worked very hard and was committed. We continued to inspect healthcare producing our report on the problems at Mid Staffs just before the merger. Most of the staff were retained in the new organisation because they had embraced the change and were prepared for it. The transition was a team success
What has been your career low? And what did you learn from it?
My lowest time was when I went to DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) as Director-General. It was just after the foot and mouth problems. It was a new function and I took the view I had all the answers and behaved a little like a bull in a china shop! It was not my analysis that was an issue, it was the way I handled it. I got frustrated and lost sight of the overall outcome. I learnt a lot from that experience. It made me a better partnership worker.
Who is your role model and why?
I have a number of them. I have been lucky to work with outstanding people.
Sir Don Cruickshank at the Office of Telecommunications: he taught me how important team working is, to be ambitious in the outcomes you aim at – not to settle for second best – and to take risks.
Sir Ian Kennedy was the Healthcare Commission’s Chairman. He inspired me to be clear what the key issues were, focus on them and be prepared to stand up and be counted on them when necessary. Sir Ian carried out the public inquiry into the death of children undergoing heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary in the late 1990s. He became convinced that healthcare regulation must work with the medical profession and identify, analyse and act on key statistics. This was not initially a popular message but his approach made a real difference to the NHS.
Using your experience as an example, what piece of advice would you give to any woman who hopes to take the next step in her career?
Focus on what really matters to you, go for a job which enthuses you regardless of the title given to you. Also, build up your own self-belief. It is crucial. Look for help where it is available such as a mentoring scheme. Women in Rail provides this support. It gives women a quiet confidence which, if coupled with a job you are genuinely interested in, gives us all considerable force!
Interviewed February 2015