Caroline Shaw never believed she’d be chief executive of anything – and certainly not a leading cancer research hospital.
In 2005 a working class girl from the Lake District was appointed CEO of the Christie in Manchester. Now she wants to inspire other nurses, who “don’t get excited enough” about the career progression on offer.
Caroline Shaw’s initial interest in the field is a familiar story: “My father had multiple sclerosis. Seeing how much chronic illness affected a patient and their family, and the impact of good support and nursing care, encouraged me to go into nursing,” she says.
After starting training in 1984 at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, she did staff nursing in A&E, then trained in midwifery. “I was always challenging the medical staff and got noticed by my chief executive, who wanted to involve me in a more corporate, re-engineering of services role,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. I had always delivered babies but I thought it was too good a chance to pass up.
“I hated the first six months. But then I began to think about things from a patient perspective. I did a part-time Master’s degree and that really helped me with the business side.”
Ms Shaw’s desire to influence healthcare led her into GP fund holding, which was “fascinating”. She then became a commissioning manager, before moving to Manchester in 1997. Three years later she got a job at South Manchester Hospital as executive director of operations and, shortly after the birth of her second child, the job at the Christie.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go for it. It had a big financial deficit, wasn’t a foundation trust and patients waited unacceptably for treatment. It was no good us being a fancy leading hospital in research if we weren’t getting the basics right.” So from day one, it was the standards of care and the things nursing had taught her that ensured Ms Shaw knew how to transform the Christie.
“On my first day, I rang the head of communication and told them to get everyone in the lecture theatre. I walked into an auditorium full of doctors in white coats and felt daunted. But I told them there were three things I wanted to do: get back in financial balance; treat people within suitable target times; and become a foundation trust.
“I said all of this in my very northern accent and a posh lymphoma doctor stood up and said: ‘What about research?’ My heart was pounding as he criticised my background and told me I was just a nurse who didn’t understand the organisation. I told him I was here to look after patients, then asked who he did that research on. The nurses all tittered and I had them on side.”
Her sterling work in sorting the financial gap of £4m and not making people with cancer wait for three months to be seen soon had the most maverick doctors, scientists and other staff on side too. The trust became a foundation trust in 2007.
But for Ms Shaw, all that success comes from getting patient care right. “We should all remember who we are at work for. Just today I popped a lady in a wheelchair and took her back to her ward myself.
“Sometimes, I sit in a meeting and no one has mentioned the patient. And I remind them of that. We originally told patients we could do their tests and investigations within 20 minutes. But we could never achieve that. So we thought, they may have to wait longer, but we’ll make the experience better by giving them improved facilities, better magazines, papers and coffee and tea.”
Ms Shaw believes nurses’ critical thinking is so powerful that more organisations must focus on nursing and the contribution it can make, especially with the Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention agenda. “But,” she says, “as a profession we need to lead that and make sure we are not being done to. Nurses need to feel able to engage with the agenda.
“I thought I would be at the Christie for two to three years and then move on. But I see myself staying longer and developing our brand to offer Christie care in other organisations.”