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Cancer leadership blog: Lessons from M&S

This is not just any blog, this is a Marks & Spencer blog. No, seriously. Liz Darlison travels to Manchester to learn how M&S do things for module 3 of the Cancer Leadership Programme.

Onto module three, which took us to Manchester for a three-day stay and focused on getting inside organisations, in and outside of the NHS.

On day one we enjoyed getting behind the scenes of Marks and Spencer. Deputy manager for Manchester City Centre Marks and Spencer Jamie Westhead provided great insight into leadership within M&S and the opportunities available.

Jamie explained how results are delivered in the retail industry and it was refreshing to see the impact of targets and the healthy competitiveness they create between M&S stores.

It was also enlightening to discover, despite the competiveness between management teams, that they are aware of each other's successes and downfalls and routinely share ideas on how to improve sales. It would seem loyalty to the overall M&S organisation, the bigger picture, takes priority.

Customer relations is a crucial component to success in retail and an extraordinary amount of attention is paid to this within Marks and Spencer. We were all interested to hear how mystery shoppers are used regularly to assess stores' performance.

Much discussion took place about the customer care shortfalls within our own work environments and how the NHS generally could learn from successful retail organisations.

A further key message was the clarity in lines of accountability and communication. Each store has a very clear and direct management structure and the flow of communication followed the lines of accountability.

Each store had regularly defined meetings and methods of passing information to and from the store and across all members of the team. It seemed time for communication is an established part of the daily routine for every employee, and everyone takes some degree of responsibility for ensuring it happens.

Our experience was completed by a fascinating after dinner talk by Kathryn Vernon, M&S head of region and HR business partner for Marks and Spencer Plc.

Kathryn displayed tremendous loyalty to M&S, she has spent many years working for them through good and challenging times, and was very open and honest about her journey in reaching her current senior leadership position.

Day two was particularly enjoyable for me. I work at the University Hospitals of Leicester, one of the largest and busiest teaching trusts in England, with 12,000 staff and a population of nearly two million.

Cancer and haematology is just one of several clinical directorates within the hospital and so having the opportunity to look behind the scenes of an organisation totally focused on cancer care felt slightly self-indulgent!

The Christie was founded in 1901 and became a foundation trust on 1st April 2007. It is a specialist NHS cancer hospital for the Greater Manchester and Cheshire Cancer Network, covering a population of 3.2 million. Clinics run at 14 other general hospitals and around 12,500 new patients are registered and about 40,000 patients are treated every year.

Patients are referred from district general hospitals and many will also have had their first treatment, usually surgical, before referral. Around 15% of patients are referred from outside Greater Manchester and Cheshire.

Jane Sykes welcomed us to the Christie and chief executive Caroline Shaw, discussed leadership challenges in the NHS. Caroline was very open and honest about her rise to the chief exec position at the Christie, and about the many challenges she has faced on the way.

We then split into pairs and got out and about behind the scenes of the Christie, meeting many of the department leaders, senior nurses, service managers, general managers, heads of departments and directors, all were interviewed.

Everyone recognised the radical changes that had taken place prior to the trust becoming a foundation in 2007. While some were honest and admitted the difficult times caused by those changes, everyone acknowledged the hospital as being a better organisation than it was a few years ago.

Every person interviewed was very proud of the hospital in which they worked. I admired the Christie tremendously and felt extremely envious although I have to confess I can’t help thinking how much easier it must be to tackle the many demands made on us within cancer care if cancer is all that you deal with.

Professor Alison Norman, Director of Nursing and Governance at The Christie, gave us a very personal walk through her career and work at the trust. It was fascinating to hear how fate and maybe a little bit of luck can influence ones career path and also that it is possible to weather the storms of radical change, remain positive and true to your profession and loyal to your organisation and patients. Alison’s talk was really inspiring.

It was a wonderful opportunity to be allowed to shake of the blinkers and look in depth at two very different organisations, one in retail the other in healthcare. Much could be learnt from one organisation to another and in particular much of the talk around breaks and over meals was about how in the NHS, Foundation trust or not, we could do so much to improve our approach to customer care. The Christie it would seem in the build up to becoming a foundation trust under the leadership of a new CEO has changed quite radically and it was an invaluable privilege to be able to explore the changes made through the leaders working in the hospital.

Before starting the leadership programme I felt I had reached high enough up the leadership ladder, now I am ‘all at sea’, I am feeling unsettled. Looking outside the NHS and deep within another NHS organisation has been so inspiring and thought provoking. There are so many things we could learn from each other, so many things we could improve upon within the NHS but crucial to changing things on that scale is the need to broaden your circle of influence, to lead on a bigger scale.

I think I need to get back to the day job, to ground myself in my patients and put an end to my delusions de grandeur!

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